At last: after a long, long wait, Marianne Elliott’s production of George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s much-loved musical Company has opened in the West End, with its crack cast and hotly anticipated gender-swapped story line.
Rosalie Craig leads as Bobbie, previously Bobby, a thirty-five-year-old, single New Yorker, surrounded by couples. Alongside her are American Olivier and Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone, actor and presenter Mel Giedroyc, star of stage and screen Jonathan Bailey, plus a host of others.
Company set a record for Tony nominations when it first premiered in 1970, eventually snaring six. It’s scooped up several more awards since then in revival stagings, including three Oliviers on its last major London outing in 1996, when Sam Mendes directed Adrian Lester at the Donmar Warehouse.
But will this hugely hyped production earn similar acclaim? Do the critics make sense of Elliott’s gender-swapping shenanigans? Does Sondheim’s score still soar thirty-eight years after it debuted?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Sondheim, famously protective about his precious musicals, has signed off on this gender-flipped production. He’s even helped Elliott tweak the script to suit. And does it work? You bet it does.
“This is astonishing in so many ways it feels as if you’re hemmed in by reasons to cheer,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). “Marianne Elliott’s re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark experimental 1970 musical reboots a modern classic for the Tinder age. It’s sensational.”
“Director Marianne Elliott and her thrilling star Rosalie Craig have given a deeply familiar and now nearly half a century old show a seemingly radical make-over that thrusts it into the here and now,” lauds Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★★). “This version is both a departure into new territory and a stunning reaffirmation of its brilliance.”
Pretty much everyone agrees. The show is “glorious” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★★) and “a real Bbobbie-dazzler” for Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★), while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) calls it “a revelation all over again” and Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★★★) rejoices in “the renaissance of an American classic by one of Britain’s most visionary directors.”
The gender-swapping, the critics concur, is something of a masterstroke. “It immediately makes sense that Bobbie is female,” comments Swain. “The patriarchal social pressures on women to marry and have kids are far more prevalent, and the latter does have more biological urgency.”
“It brings a 50-year-old show – and its sexual politics – bang up to date,” agrees Matt Trueman (Variety). “As Elliott makes clear with a beautifully light touch, society still piles the pressure on women to wed.”
“The director’s touch in terms of the gender-swapping is incredibly light,” agrees Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★★). “Pronouns are changed, as are a few lyrics, but these are small shifts. They have profound results, though: the show has become fundamentally different. It feels like it could have been written yesterday, rather than 48 years ago, and is contemporary right down to the Starbucks keep-cups that characters drink from. Every modification makes sense, and finds a new resonance.”
“Elliott has found hidden depths in what was already a stone-cold classic,” confirms Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★★), while Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) is sent off in a reverie of remembrance: “Company was the first musical I saw on Broadway and has always had a special place in my affections,” he writes. “It is gratifying to see it not just being revived, but also intelligently reimagined.”
Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) goes even further. “Elliott has reimagined this musical for a new age and an application that is more universal than ever,” she concludes. “I wouldn’t be surprised, or at all disappointed, if it turns out to be difficult in future to revert to its old male-centred version.”
Elliott’s update is inspired then, but what about her direction? And Bunny Christie’s set? And Liam Steel’s choreography? How well does this production conjure up modern-day Manhattan?
“Beyond the inspired concept, Elliott directs each moment brilliantly on Bunny Christie’s colourful and luminescent set made of box apartments sliding in and out, up and down,” writes Bano. “Every song is a set piece, some married to magnificent routines and illusions, such as Side by Side by Side performed with frantic party games, others left bare – what else could you do with a song as good as Being Alive?”
There’s similar praise all round, particularly for how Elliott imagines the entire musical as a meander through Bobbie’s mind. Trueman admires it as “an expressionist trip” and Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) isn’t alone in spotting the hints that “this may be an Alice In Wonderland dream.”
“The whole staging is a dazzling dip into stylised fantasy, where Bobbie’s encounters with “these good and crazy people/my married friends” are not realistic meetings, but dazed adventures like Alice’s, as she staggers in a dreamlike state through the looking glass,” explains Crompton.
“It’s a kind of theatrical magic, as our flame-haired, red-dressed heroine steps from the confines of her box-like, lit-framed apartment (as much prison cell as sanctuary) into a succession of environments that have the floating quality of the silver helium party balloons that are the main visual motif,” adds Cavendish.
“Objects – and people – materialise and disappear as if they’re channelling the Cheshire Cat. Blink and you’ll miss a coup de theatre, but as well as being spellbinding in their own right, the illusions bring home the moral that while you’re busy, distracted, your chance of happiness might vanish into thin air.”
“Elliott’s production brilliantly underscores the existential nature of Sondheim’s lyrics and George Furth’s book,” chimes Lukowski. “On Bunny Christie’s striking set, Bobbie’s adventures unfold in a series of glowing frames drifting through the inky dark. There’s a definite Beckettian vibe as she relives her surprise birthday party in an increasingly nightmarish series of repetitions.”
“It’s important at this stage to point out that Company is entertaining as hell,” he swiftly adds.
It’s only Billington, in fact, that has a bad word to say about the staging: “The key idea behind Elliott’s production and Bunny Christie’s design is of Bobbie as a modern Alice in Wonderland exploring a set of sliding rooms that expose the foibles of married life,” he repeats. “It gives the show a dream-like quality but obscures the implied connection between Manhattan and marriage and cramps Liam Steel’s choreography of the swaggering vaudevillian number, Side by Side by Side.”
There are myriad reasons to catch Company – see above – but there are two particularly big ones: musical theatre legend Patti LuPone and Rosalie Craig who is rapidly on her way to securing that status herself.
Craig has praise heaped upon her. She’s “masterly” according to Shuttleworth, “delivers a tour de force that deserves to be the talk of the town” according to Cavendish, and supplies “a radiant performance” that “all but banishes memories of past interpretations” according to Hitchings.
“Craig also brings an absolutely ferocious attack but also gorgeous musicality to such songs as “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive” that respectively end each act,” observes Shenton, while Billington points out that “while a male Robert can sometimes seem a cold fish, Craig invests Bobbie with a palpable warmth, curiosity and hunger for life.”
For Taylor, that warmth is actually a problem. “Craig is, in many ways, glorious in the taxing central role,” he writes. “But there’s nothing hard or unlikeable about this funny, sensitive, apologetic figure. Though her accent is very good, she just doesn’t come across as American to me. I felt that this Bobbie already knew the wisdom about disconnection and commitment that the piece is designed to teach her.”
He’s the only one, though. Most critics agree with Lukowski: she’s “immaculate.”
If anything, though, she’s outshone in the review inches by her co-star Patti LuPone, as Bobbie’s jaded friend Joanne. LuPone “steals the show” for Maxwell and “delivers a lesson in pure class” according to Crompton
“Lupone plays Joanne with a bitumen-black resolve, every bit as embittered as she is empowered,” describes Trueman. “Cloaked in a fur coat and glinting like a one-woman diamond mine, she’s dazzling and awful at the same time – a martini mixed from measures of exuberance and scorn. She’s joyfully joyless.”
“As hilarious as she is imperious, drawling and bawling out the satirical number The Ladies Who Lunch while sitting disdainfully still in a fur wrap, knocking back the booze, she provides the spiky finishing touch to a sublime cocktail of an entertainment you’d be mad to miss,” concludes Cavendish.
Of course it is: it’s quite something when a four-star review sticks out for being a low outlier, rather than a high one. Five-star write-ups abound – The Stage, The Telegraph, WhatsOnStage, The Standard, TimeOut and plenty more give Marianne Elliott’s radical reimagining the full house.
The gender-swapped premise pays huge dividends, the staging is sensational, and in Craig and LuPone, the show boasts two bona-fide musical theatre superstars. It has just been announced that the show will be extending its run until March next year, but tickets are bound to go like hot cakes. Make sure you gobble some up.