Review: A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory

Monday 1 December 2008

8ebff51a6e8e3f904c2c4e6e4667b3e4_poster-alnmThis was the show the Whingers had been waiting for.

Not because the Whingers love Sondheim (they do). Not because they wanted to see if Trevor Nunn could atone for the terrible sins he committed with Gone With the Wind – The Musical! (he has). Or to see if, at 34, Hannah Waddingham would convince as the youngest ever Desirée Armfeldt (she did).

No, rising like a shining beacon of common sense and democracy above all of this was the news that A Little Night Music was to be the first production at the Menier Chocolate Factory where they dropped their absurd and unpopular unreserved seating policy*. Yeah! Good old Menier, the Whingers hoops had never been so cocked (or should that be the other way round?).

Now the Whingers have campaigned long and hard about this one. So the fact they could actually relax and enjoy lunch before the show without worrying about the half hour queue to get into the auditorium and subsequent scrum for decent seats may have put them in the frame of mind to actually enjoy themselves.

On top of this the Menier probably made more profit because they were able to order coffees and even more wine in their restaurant before the show (think on this Menier, if the reserved seating policy is a one off for ALNM).

And so it was that the Whingers and their hand-picked entourage of 8 others (a group booking enabled everyone to save £2.50 on each ticket!) practically floated into their seats moments before the show began feeling very relaxed (possibly because of that extra bottle) and in a mood to have a jolly good time.

And a jolly good time they had too.

Stephen Sondheim‘s musical (book by Hugh Wheeler and “suggested” by Ingmar Bergman‘s film Smiles of a Summer Night) is set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden. It concerns the interlocking liaisons and marriages of a group of people centred around a celebrated actress Desirée Armfeldt.

Andrew surprised Phil by revealing himself as A Little Night Music virgin which was more than a little music to Phil’s ears as he was able to big up the fact that this was the sixth time he had seen the show (if you count as three the times he saw the National’s sublime production with Dame Judi Dench). So for Phil it had an awful lot to live up to.

But live up it did. Nunn has done an enchanting job here, so good that memories of Gone With the Wind-The Musical! were almost expunged. And completely expunged from Sir Trev’s programme credits, for some reason. Possibly he just forgot to update it.

It’s difficult to single out performances in an almost (Phil and some others in the Whingers’ party had reservations about Maureen Lipman‘s Madame Armfeldt but it almost seems churlish to mention it and this was a preview) perfectly cast production. Andrew, for the record, thought that Miss Lipman’s performance was admirably restrained.

I’d do Anything‘s runner-up Nancy, Jessie Buckley, didn’t lose out after all. She seems perfectly cast as Anne Egerman, sings wonderfully and has a charm and confidence which belies her lack of experience. This is her professional theatre debut but it would be hard to tell.

The Whingers were also particularly taken with Kelly Price’s Countess Charlotte Malcolm. The chorus of Liebeslieder Singers sing beautifully and the orchestration (Jason Carr) of the mainly waltz time music is excellent, delightfully featuring harp and bassoon.

The casting of Hannah Waddingham surprised many (especially Phil) as the role is traditionally played by a much older actress but Waddingham makes the part her own.

She proved not only to be a most commanding presence but to have a particularly good line in comic expressions and delivery. “You Must Meet My Wife” was thrillingly funny.

So the Whingers were more than happy to acquiesce to her demand to be photographed with them after the show. The Whingers were muttering about Olivier Award nominations and a West End transfer seems inevitable.

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But there’s more: added to all this there’s a hint of on stage croquet and archery which makes it a very busy week for Phil’s now burgeoning on-stage-sports-and-games thesis.

Was there nothing to whinge about?

Phil wasn’t happy about the dinner party being played out as a picnic because the sight lines at the Menier aren’t good enough to have scenes played out on the stage floor.

And the Whingers are being very cautious about this one: despite loving the new seating policy they felt (literally) certain that more bodies have been crammed into a smaller space. ALNM is three hours and there was hardly room to breath. Such was the intimacy of the seating Phil and Andrew had to regulate their wheezing so that as one inhaled the other would exhale and vice versa.

Yes, they were so tightly packed in that although they were tempted to ovate, it was physically impossible.

Hartley T A Kemp‘s lighting is beautifully subtle to the point that at times it’s barely lit at all. Sitting in front of the Whingers’ party on the aisle was Sir Trevor, taking notes with a very bright green light-up pen which was sometimes the brightest light in the place.

Now the Whingers realise that this is a preview and Trev has to take notes, but can’t he sit in a corner in the back of the auditorium so he doesn’t distract the audience? And what on earth was he writing? He wrote reams of notes. Had we been the directors we’d have been very happy with it as it is and celebrated with the cast in the bar rather than giving notes. Perhaps he was writing ideas to pad the running time out to a more traditionally Nunnian duration.

Update: Some of our companions have blogged their opinions on it here and here. Expect another one here possibly at some point.

Footnote

* An update on the unreserved seating policy isn’t necessarily good news. Phil has just contacted the box office who state that this policy will be reconsidered on a show-by-show policy. As far as they are aware they haven’t crammed any more seats in the space than usual. So perhaps if it’s the Whingers’ slighty more than middle-aged spreads. Even though they can’t have been increased by the Menier restaurant’s Elena Roger sized portions.

The restaurant had run out of the wine (the cheapest) forcing them to dig deeper into their credit crunched pockets. The dish Phil wanted (wild boar sausages) had run out and the meal he eventually ordered was rather stingy in the portion department, seeming more like a generous starter than a hearty main.

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13 Responses to “Review: A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    What? Nothing about Sir Trev’s hair? Does Greg Doran have to pay royalties to Sir Trev for use of his copyrighted barnet & goatee combo? These are the important ishoos, shurely…

  2. JohnnyFox Says:

    Here’s a piece of trivia you might enjoy. In the 1974 US bus and truck tour of ALNM, Madame Armfeldt was played (aged 71 and in possibly her last stage performance) by Margaret Hamilton, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West …

    might explain/excuse some of Ms. Lipman’s characterisation. What a pity Fredrika doesn’t have a little dog, too.

  3. Sue Says:

    I saw the show tonight and agree wholeheartedly. Especially about Jessie Buckley, who was wonderful. As was Kaisa Hammarlund (if I am getting my characters straight).

    The gentleman to my right left at the interval. I hope it wasn’t because I was squashing him too much on the bench. I could tell, however, that he was getting very frustrated trying to peer around me (as I in turn peered around other people) to see some of the action taking place downstage right (where a lot of action seemed to be taking place for a while).

    A mobile phone in the front row went off TWICE near the end of the show, playing Yankee Doodle Dandy or something similar. But the cast managed to show no sign of irritation, which was very impressive as I was certainly distracted and irritated.

  4. webcowgirl Says:

    I did very much enjoy the show and can report that from the very front row, the picnic scene goes just fine, provided you can actually see the actors over your knees. (And I held off reading your review until today so that I could not have it pre-ruined if it was going to be bad.)

    And Sue, wasn’t that phone just TOO MUCH! And during “Send In the Clowns!” I thought my uncle was going to leap over the three of us and shove that phone down that woman’s throat – HIS concentration was utterly destroyed, that’s for sure!

  5. Julia Says:

    I’m glad that a younger Desiree seems to be working well in practice- it was one of those things that didn’t make much sense when trying to work the logistics out on paper.

  6. hannah Says:

    I’m really upset Jessie Buckley was good.

  7. Carrie Dunn Says:

    With you on the squashing – I left at the interval on Thursday because I was in agony from an old back injury that couldn’t be assuaged as there was no space to move.

  8. igb Says:

    I was impressed. We went for the New Year’s Eve matinee, and the cast appeared to be having a ball. I have a horror of the uninitiated essaying Sondheim, after a disastrous charidee concert compered by Mark Steyn during which the Warwick University Choral Society attempted a woefully under-rehearsed selection of Sondheim to the utter embarrassment of all in the room. But I thought Jessie Buckley acquitted herself rather well, even in the face of the astoundingly good Hannah Waddingham (and isn’t she tall!)

    My introduction to Sondheim was the Mermaid run of Side by Side when I was thirteen, so slightly anticipating awkward conversations I took my twelve year old daughter. After the Stewart Hamlet in Chichester, the Tennant Hamlet at the RSC and with the up-coming Stewart/McKellen Godot in the offing, she fancies herself quite the young theatriste. She was blown away by it, and as a cellist gives special plaudits to the quality of the onstage playing.

    We had extra space because late in the day we decided that it would be too much for our ten year old (both on the grounds of content and on the grounds of being theatred-out from the RSC Romeo and Juliet two days earlier), but the front row had the amusing problem of an, ahem, large lady at one end displacing all the seats. Finally someone arrived and loudly talked about “it’s great weighing seven and a half stone” and “good thing I didn’t put any weight on over Christmas” and slipped into the small remaining space. But it’s better than the rush for seats I recall from my only other visit to the Menier, for the Sunday in the Park a few years back.

    I gather the whole run is sold out. It deserves to be. I’m not sure it’s the bestest Sondheim I’ve ever seen (I think that goes to the Donmar Merrily We Roll Along, where the production transcended the problems of the piece, or possibly the Donmar Pacific Overtures, or John Barrowman in a New York `Putting it Together’ in the late nineties: what would we pay for his Bobby in Company?) but it’s very, very good.

  9. Patrick Ness Says:

    I saw this over the weekend and it seems (as far as I can gather from the reviews) to have lost about 20 minutes since opening night. For the better, I’d guess, as I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps all that furious notetaking by Trevor was where to cut, as the song order in the programme didn’t exactly match in the second half and we were out of there in a very brisk-feeling 2 hours 40 minutes.


  10. [...] seating: I know the Menier Chocolate Factory has recently started reserved seating (on a “show by show basis,” God knows why), but I actually got scrapes on my thighs from the seats I had for [...]

  11. sophie Says:

    this show is absolutley amazing

  12. Charlotte Says:

    How strange – I was desperately looking forward to seeing this show as I love the Menier and ALNM, and heard this production had had rave reviews and was transferring to the West End. Having seen it last night though, I was a bit disappointed. I loved the set and lighting, thought the band was impressive, and thought Hannah Waddingham, Kaisa Hammarlund and Alexander Hanson were fabulous. But Jessie Buckley was screechy and in places a bit flat, and Gabriel Vick played Henrik too much for laughs. And Kelly Price, while she acted and sang well, had a horrible wig that was a completely different colour from her real hair! Much of the acting felt too big for the size of the space – but that may work better when it transfers to a bigger West End theatre. The show was enjoyable and in places beautifully sung – Send in the Clowns was gorgeous – but I just expected to be more wowed by it. Maybe my expectations were too high.

  13. Martin Says:

    While I share the Whingers welcome for the changed seating policy at the Menier Chocolate Factory, theatre goers should be warned about the Meal Deal tickets. The box office has confirmed that seats under this offer are allocated side sets only. In the case of A Little Night Music, this involved crap sightlines and being blinded by the lighting, despite buying the tickets as booking opened.

    This is not mentioned on their website which says ‘and you will be allocated the best seats available when you book’. Under Meal Deal it says ‘These tickets include 2 courses … plus your ticket for the show, with a reserved seat in the theatre’. No mention of being banished to the edges.

    This is a shame. I enjoy productions at the Menier but will not be taking up the Meal Deal as long as this policy remains


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