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A little Night Music - Garrick Theatre (review)

Hannah Waddingham as Desiree Armfeldt

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

STEPHEN Sondheim’s masterpiece, the hauntingly beautiful A Little Night Music has slipped effortlessly into the intimate confines of the Garrick Theatre. And from the opening chords, I was captivated – first by its elegance and then by its wit and seductiveness.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is set in Sweden at the turn of the century and focuses on the lives of three couples.

A successful lawyer, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson) is married to a much younger woman, the 18 year-old Anne (Jessie Buckley) who sees her husband more as a father figure than a lover and who somewhat unkindly teases her stepson, the gauche and insecure Henrik (Gabriel Vick), little realizing that he’s in love with her.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Fredrik dreams of a former lover, the beautiful but capricious Desiree Armfeldt (Hannah Waddingham), an actress who neglects her duties as mother to Fredrika (no prizes for guessing who’s the father) and as daughter to the frail but acerbic-tongued Madame Armfeldt (Maureen Lipman).

Fredrik and Desiree are, however, destined to meet again although matters are further complicated by Desiree’s lover, the arrogant but foolish Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Alistair Robins) and his wife Charlotte (Kelly Price), an amazingly tolerant woman who loves him more than she cares to admit – even to herself.

And if that sounds complicated, don’t worry – the story and indeed the aspirations, fears, disappointments and frustrations of the principal protagonists are revealed in a lively dialogue; a dialogue that continues in Sondheim’s lyrics – as in You Must Meet My Wife, a sparkling duet between a seemingly besotted Fredrik and a tantalizingly provocative Desiree.

Waddingham is superb. Elegance personified, she has a commanding though far from over-powering presence and is a joy to watch. Her rendition of what is possibly Sondheim’s most popular composition, Send in the Clowns, masterfully captures the pain and confusion of a woman whose dream of sharing the future with the man she loves is shattered.

Hanson too, turns in a fine performance, imbuing Fredrik with panache, graciousness and vanity in equal measure. He has also mastered the art of conveying a thought with a facial expression, never more so than when Desiree presents him with a bowl containing his very wet clothes. But as to the whys and wherefores, my lips are sealed!

Lipman, as you would expect, shines as the aged, wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt. The proverbial pot calling the kettle black, she dispenses words of wisdom at the drop of a hat and somehow maintains her dignity and composure whatever the circumstances – and believe me, she is sorely tested. Moreover, her comic timing is rivalled only by Waddingham’s.

Vick, Robins and Price – and indeed the entire company – cannot in any way be faulted, which leaves Buckley (Jessie to viewers of BBC’s I’d Do Anything) who, after a shaky start (her delivery of Soon seemed somewhat strained) settled into the role of the naive and frivolous Anne with consummate ease. Nerves and inexperience were, I suspect, largely to blame for this earlier shortcoming.

With David Farley’s relatively modest but nonetheless effective sets – a combination of misty mirrored panels and silver birch trees – and his exquisite and delicately toned costumes (there’s nothing in the least bit garish to be seen), this is a stylish, funny and poignant production – British theatre at its very best.