A Little Night Music

Wed 14th – Sat 17th November 2012

reviews

Tim Bano

at 01:57 on 15th Nov 2012

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‘A Little Night Music’ is all about threes: the triple time of the waltzes that play throughout, the three smiles of the summer night, the three hour running time. This may seem long, but there was not a minute that dragged, nor was there any weakness in this sumptuous synthesis of sight and sound, this excellent and exquisite production.

The design had a very stylised feel to it, with hints of Tim Burtonesque imagery; grand, arched windows and crystal chandeliers hung with cobwebs, inevitable signs of decay, and immediately suggested the sort of melancholy undercurrent that tinged the whole musical – the inevitability of life’s progression. There was a coherence to the lush design, with faded pinks and rich cream covering the walls and furniture. It was clearly well thought through, and looked impressive. Similarly, the costumes were fantastic; Madame Armfeldt’s laced black dress, the Count’s tight, buttoned military uniform, Desirée’s luxurious gowns, as well as some rather natty hats, all worked well together and added to the visual decadence of the production.

The entire cast was superb both in its unity and its individual parts. The harmonies of the ensemble scenes were spot-on and interaction as a group very natural, but in their solo numbers and their individual moments each actor was convincing. Stephen Hyde as Henrik had the straight back and staid formality of an uptight, uncomfortable young man, but he also had good timing in the comic moments – notably in one scene when his father Fredrik walks in on him in a moment of lust with the maidservant Petra. However the most comic value came from Count Carl-Magnus (Aleksandr Cvetkovic) whose moustache, booming voice and stature lent him a military air, and his snide and sardonic interaction with long-suffering wife Charlotte (Claire Perry) was very funny.

The standout performances were from Madame Armfeldt (Natasha Heliotis) and her daughter Desirée (Georgina Hellier). Heliotis achieved what is so rare for a student actor to achieve: a convincing performance as an old person. Her face was expressive, ranging from discomfort to disapproval, through affection and nostalgia; she had the aphoristic wit of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, with a matriarchal voice and clear diction to match. And Hellier, playing an energetic actress just beyond her prime, imbued her character with actressy over-enunciation and superiority that thinly veiled a more reflective and melancholic attitude. It was this inner ponderousness that emerged when she sang the famous ‘Send In The Clowns’. There was in her singing all the depth and maturity and age-given emotional weight of someone far beyond her years.

It was clear that a tremendous effort had been expended on the direction, and director Griffith Rees seems to have had a clear vision and very good eye. There was a striking combination of scenes in which the actors stood in symmetrical formations on the one hand and those of carefully choreographed chaos on the other, with plenty of movement and action. All the actors, including the ‘chorus’ of Liebeslieder, moved and danced across the stage with purpose and poise, and the individual movements of each actor combining to form a unified whole reflected the complex, contrapuntal music. The cast’s fluidity of motion was visually beautiful, the result of meticulous choreography from Hannah Moore. The busier scenes nicely contrasted scenes of stillness and silence and throughout the production excellent use was made of the whole stage.

From the grander visual set-pieces, such as the six principal cast members sitting at one point with their backs to the audience, to the finer details, like Madame Armfeldt’s tuning fork, there was always something interesting or unusual or engaging happening on stage. And this was all accompanied by a tight orchestra and an energetic and vigorous conductor in Jonathan Soman.

As overt comedy subsided and the seriousness of life began to take over, the harsh spotlights of act one gave way to the crepuscular warmth of the setting sun. The waltzes played out, the summer night smiled three times, and three hours passed in no time at all as I watched and enjoyed 'A Little Night Music'. I even wish there had been a little more.

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Nick Barstow

at 02:25 on 15th Nov 2012

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‘A great deal seems to be going on in this house tonight’, Madame Armfeldt remarks drily towards the end of the show, and it seems that the directors took this phrase as the main inspiration for this re-imagining of Sondheim’s operetta as the production spins and dances in a flurry of perpetual motion. Thanks to the wonderfully lively, vibrant orchestra (directed by Jonathan Soman) and beautifully choreographed movement by Hannah Moore, the constant activity in this farcical musical is always a delight and never a strain for the audience, and is led by the strongest ensemble acting I’ve ever seen in Oxford.

Always when working with musical theatre, the direction team has to strike the balance between sung vocal quality and honest, convincing acting, and happily this is exceptionally well managed save in one or two cases. Aleksandar Cvetkovic’s lightly insane Carl Magnus is a great onstage force, his bristling tin-soldier movements perfectly matched with a rich and commanding vocal as he forces himself on the actress Desiree Armfeldt. His love-rival Fredrik is likewise brilliantly characterized by Richard Hill, who combines a witty prickliness with an underlying vulnerability, delivering the challenging patter-style ‘Now’ with acerbic wit and honesty. The main strength of the cast however lies in the three Armfeldt women, each of whom is immaculately acted with vocal quality to match. Georgina Hellier is fantastic as Desiree, effortlessly commanding the space from the moment she enters the stage. She manages to capture the easy grace and amiable charm of her character whilst also showing her steely side – her first scene with the nervous Fredrik is perfectly acted as she inspires his confidence whilst always retaining the upper hand in the exchange. The presence of this inner steel early on really enhances the emotional effect when the façade begins to slip, and she performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ with admirable subtlety and openness.

Equally impressive is Natasha Heliotis, giving an outstanding performance as Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt. In the hands of a less capable actress the part of the old grandmother would be at risk of becoming a caricature, but Heliotis gives Armfeldt a dry wit, a warm heart and an introspective melancholy that is utterly arresting. Thanks to inspired directional touches from Griffith Rees (such as her near-permanent presence as an observer and her absent minded conducting of the waltzes) she was able to draw the audience into her world, to take them into her confidence alongside her granddaughter Fredrika (Hannah Bristow). Infusing her character with restlessness and a certain precocious wisdom, Bristow’s Fredrika truly is a distillation of both her mother and grandmother’s characters, completing an onstage family that is totally captivating and believable. Special mention should also go to Becca Nichols for a bold interpretation of ‘The Miller’s Son’, a song Sondheim himself has admitted to being imperfectly written.

The only moments where the balance of singing and acting began to waver were those involving Anne and Henrik (portrayed by Ellen Timothy and Stephen Hyde), neither of whom seemed as confident acting through song as without. Although they are evidently capable technical singers Hyde’s rather soft voice at times struggled to match up with his slightly manic, stridently moral Henrik (especially when forced to drop the octave in the Act I closer) and Timothy occasionally seemed to distract herself from the emotional substance of her character when negotiating the admittedly fiendishly written vocal contours of ‘Soon’.

The world which the cast were given to inhabit by the design team is utterly incredible – the show’s production values would not seem out of place in the West End. Director Griffith Rees’s vision of a ballroom of memories is lavishly brought to life, with particular credit going to Phoebe Williams for the stunning costumes. With such a grand set design, I was initially worried about potential problems with scene changes, but the directorial decision to expand the role of the Liebeslieder singers (a sort of sung Greek chorus) into the mystical puppets of Madame Armfeldt’s imagination meant that set changes were turned into a delight in themselves, providing ample opportunity for the beautiful orchestral colour to shine through.

It is practically a given when marketing a Playhouse production in Oxford that the tagline ‘the must-see show of the term’ is added, to the extent that for any Oxford student it is simply water off a duck’s back. With A Little Night Music, however, I strongly urge you to believe the hype and buy a ticket. This show is superbly directed, the music is glorious, and above all the singing and acting is delivered with real heart and soul – it’s an experience you don’t want to miss.

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