The Jermyn Street Theatre certainly knows how to suck up to the Whingers. Rolling them on their backs and tickling their tummies (sorry, that’s a rather unpleasant image – we do hope you’re not eating) could have produced no greater wagging of tails than took place on Sunday afternoon.
With practised insouciance, the Whingers waltzed (literally, since you ask) into the venue at one minute before the 3pm start time for Stephen Sondheim‘s early musical Saturday Night, yet the Whingers were able to take their second row seats without the hassle of a pre-show scrummage for a decent position.
For there they were: three empty seats (one each for the Whingers, one for Andrew’s “manbag”) at this tiny but perfectly formed fringe theatre. No detestable unreserved seating policy here. The Jermyn Street Theatre proves it can be done: it is possible for a fringe theatre to put numbers on the seats and on the tickets. Three cheers to them!
Of course, their moods were also helped by the fact that the seats were free-of-charge for the Whingers were there at the invitation of the producers and, boy, were they feeling grand. Hence all the insouciance and the waltzing.
Easily bought, they were in very relaxed and generous frames of mind and already on the side of the show before the lights went down.
But the problem was not the venue, it was the piece.
Sondheim was but a callow youth (well, 24) when he penned Saturday Night in 1954 and boy does it show. Well, that’s not quite fair. It’s better than anything the Whingers could put together if they had all their lifetimes over again and no theatrical or alcoholic distractions to keep them from the task of writing a musical.
Even so, the knowledge that Saturday Night didn’t receive a première until 1997 should have set the Whingers’ internal alarm bells ringing. The whole sorry story is here.
The plot is that of an unreconstructed 1920s musical comedy:
In 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, middle-class bachelor friends [NB: that’s not meant euphemistically] are restless on several Saturday nights because they have no dates. Gene, who works in a menial position in a Wall Street brokerage, has dreams of the exciting society life to be found in Manhattan, while his friends are content to stay in the neighborhood. Gene meets Helen, who is crashing a party (as is Gene). He schemes to “get rich quick”, but his plan backfires and he barely escapes jail.
Now, we have to confess that we spent the first half in an utter state of confusion as to where – and why – these men and women were sitting around until we read in the interval that the book was based on a play called Front Porch in Flatbush and the penny dropped that the entire cast wasn’t casually walking through someone’s bedroom which seemed very risqué for 1954 let alone for 1929 (ask Phil, he remembers).
Anyway, possibly because it would simply be impossible to house an orchestra and a cast and an audience in the Jermyn Street Theatre, this production from Primavera is performed in the John (Sweeney Todd, Mack and Mabel) Doyle style with actors doubling up as the orchestra (or possibly vice versa).
The young cast are clearly multi-talented and they attack their various roles with all the gusto they can muster so sometimes the instruments are too loud (especially if you are sitting by the piano) and drown out the singing. It was sometimes hard to catch the lyrics but some nascent Sondheim word-play was in evidence.
Let’s face it, Stevie boy had to start somewhere and he was only 24, an age long lost in the mists of wine for the Whingers. But to be honest it wasn’t like looking at an early Picasso and seeing signs of genius.
There’s a rather charming song “I Remember That” where a couple reminisce with different memories about their first meeting which pre-dates Lerner and Lowes‘ far superior “I Remember it Well” from Gigi by about four years. and “One Wonderful Day” was still buzzing through the Whingers’ “brains” the next day.
“Packed with dazzling choreography”, claims the blurb. On that stage? Not quite. It is arranged over two levels which works against the cast of 12 being able to quite achieve any kind of coherent choreography at all. Despite this, director Tom Littler and choreographer Tim Jackson make the best of things, particularly in the “That Kind of a Neighbourhood” number managing some pleasing formations.
Helena Blackman (runner-up in the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?) plays Helen/Helene (surely Sondheim could do some witty word play with that) and makes a delightful ingénue. Indeed, without wishing to lay a curse on her, she is someone the Whingers would like to see going on to bigger and better things.
Indeed, there were lots of enjoyable performances including David Ricardo-Pearce as romantic lead Gene but Phil was particularly taken with ensemble members Harry Waller and the percussionist/Artie’s (Lloyd Gorman) enthusiastic expressions as he interacts with other members of the cast in the background.
However, Saturday Night was probably best left on whatever dusty shelf it was discovered. This is strictly for the most anal of Sondheim completists.