Stephen Sondheim once characterised his 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music as being like “whipped cream with knives”.
Its rich palette of swirling romanticism laced with the pervading sadness of encroaching middle age and the realisation of missed romantic opportunities is caught with piercing truth and ravishing musicality in Paul Foster’s immaculate actor-musician revival in Newbury.
Sarah Travis won a Tony for her orchestrations of Sweeney Todd when the Watermill’s production transferred to Broadway; now she’s back weaving her magic on Sondheim’s most romantic score – and it sounds gorgeous.
One of the advantages of having actors playing the music is not just to relish in their virtuosity and versatility to be able to switch between multiple instruments, mostly performing the score from memory, but also to give serious heft to it – the cast and therefore orchestra is 13-strong, bigger than most West End pit bands.
But these actors are not just pitch-perfect musicians, they also each give perfectly pitched performances. As Desiree Armfeldt, a touring stage actor who seeks “some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle”, Josefina Gabrielle is perfection. Yet beneath her poised surface, she exposes the yearning of Send in the Clowns with a spellbinding stillness that is full of charged feeling.
Alastair Brookshaw, as her former lover Frederik, and Alex Hammond, as her current beau, are respectively wounded and vain versions of masculinity, while Dillie Keane brings a brittle power to the wisdom of old age in her portrait of Desiree’s mother. Christina Tedders, as the maid Petra, gives a startlingly fresh account of The Miller’s Son.
David Woodhead’s design manages to conjure multiple locations, from acting digs and a theatrical stage to a grand country house, with the deftest of touches.