It is over 30 years now since the epic failure of the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along that ran for just 16 performances in 1981. But it has become an essential, even defining, part of its composer Stephen Sondheim’s remarkable output that provides the perfect bookend to Company, the masterpiece that a decade earlier had initiated his collaboration with director Harold Prince, and similarly also featured a book by George Furth.
Matt Cross (Charley), Darren Bennett (Joe), Simon Thomas (Frank), Verity Rushworth (Beth) and Rebecca Lock (Mary) in Merrily We Roll Along at the Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Theatr Clwyd, Mold Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Both shows coincidentally also centre around a disillusioned man reappraising his life’s choices. In Company, he’s running away from emotional commitment of any kind, while in Merrily he’s in flight from a professional partnership as it traces the price of success on a composer as his youthful idealism is curbed and curdled by adult compromises, financial responsibilities and romantic irresponsibility.
It’s a brittle, abrasive and stinging portrait of an unlikeable man: “How did you get to be you, Mr Shepard?” he is asked, aged 43, as the show begins, by the students whose graduation ceremony at the school he once attended he has come to speak at. And as the show rewinds through his life, we see how those defensive, offensive layers got added.
Nikolai Foster’s new production and his smart, handsome leading man Simon Thomas strip him back again like an onion being unpeeled - and just as happens when you do that in real life, you may find your eyes involuntarily stinging as you watch. It’s a haunting, desperate portrait of a man too easily led astray.
Even more remarkable are the portraits of his two best friends, with Rebecca Lock bringing the fragile vulnerability of an unrequited lover to Mary and the wonderful Matt Cross capturing the sense of anxiety and loss that propels Charley Kringas, Frank’s writing partner, with fierce conviction.
A terrific band under George Dyer, Morgan Large’s design that suggestively echoes the original Broadway poster design in offering the ironwork outline of a giant Broadway billboard frame, and Nick Winston’s spot-on period choreography (including a brilliant Liza Minnelli/Bob Fosse tribute) all contribute to a production that is a major achievement for Clwyd Theatr Cymru.