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.
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.
* 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.