It was just two years after the creative peak of Sweeney Todd that Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince had the biggest commercial flop of their collaborative partnership with Merrily We Roll Along, which ran for just 16 performances in its original 1981 Broadway production.
So it is appropriate that John Doyle, whose Newbury-originated production of Sweeney Todd went on to the West End and Broadway and launched him on an international career, should return to the Watermill for what he has declared is his last production there, with a bold attempt to retrieve and reimagine Merrily, too.
He does so, of course, by employing his now trademark, though far from exclusive, method of employing a cast of actor/musicians. Franklin Shepard, the composer around whose professional and personal loves, losses and compromises the show revolves, naturally plays the piano that sits at the forestage throughout. Can this be the first musical production to repeatedly offer a view of the back of its leading man? Mary, his critic, and critical, best friend, plays flute and sax, Joe - the theatrical producer whose wife Gussie he steals - the double bass and Beth, his first wife, the cello.
But if the technique is not looking as innovative or even resourceful as it once did, Doyle’s company apply themselves to the task with considerable gusto and occasional finesse. Sam Kenyon’s Frank juggles his multiple duties with more dexterity than the character manages in life. Elizabeth Marsh brilliantly balances Mary’s toughness and vulnerability. And Thomas Padden’s Charley Kringas, Frank’s lyricist partner who falls out so badly with him, is simultaneously abrasive and wounded.
This Rubik’s cube of a musical, travelling backwards from 1980 to 1957 so that the audience constantly have to work out what has happened to the relationships later with the hindsight of what they’ve seen earlier, still presents insoluble structural difficulties; and its not helped by the multiple cuts to the text made here. Doyle’s symbolic device of having actors constantly unspooling tapes on stage soon becomes irritating, too.
But with the frighteningly dark film version of Sweeney Todd newly in cinemas, it is also exciting to be reminded of a show that may begin in the gloom of life’s disappointments, but rewinds to a more positive beginning instead.