The great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.
It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.
John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.
The two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.
Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.
Gillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.
The remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.
Yay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.