The show starts at the graduation class of 1980 of an American School, the famous film producer Franklin Shepherd is addressing the students. As the speech progresses the students become more disillusioned with what he is saying and one student confront him and asks’ how did he get to where he was’ Franklin passes his jacket to this student who reminds him very much of his younger self, in fact this student is the ‘younger’ Franklin and we move back to a party that Franklin and his second wife Gussie are holding for his new film. The show then moves backwards , a few years at a time, and we see how the friendship of Mary, Charlie and Frank ended up before we see how they started. What is poignant is that you know that these three young people about to embark on life have a rocky road ahead and that two of them don’t make it to the end as friends. In a way you want to warn them about the future but you know they have to be left to find out themselves.
Frank and Charlie are a musical writing team, Frank the charming composer and Charlie the more recluse like lyricist. Mary is an author and critic, forever in love with Frank and of course he is the only one not to know it. We also meet, backwards of course, Franks second wife Gussie, her first husband Joe and Frank’s first wife Beth.
I could not fault this show at all, the music, staging, direction, book and performances were all superb.. There is not one weak performer in this show from the principals to the ensemble. Samantha Spiro, Daniel Evans and Julian Ovenden are the three friends. Samantha is wonderful as Mary from the overweight alcoholic bitter critic to the enthusiastic girl and author starting out with her friends, full of eagerness for life. Daniel is excellent as the slightly neurotic, recluse Charlie, shy of the limelight, writing is his life , being artistically successful as opposed to financially successful is his goal. The scene in the television studio was one of the highlights as Charlie nervousness in front of the camera creates a rift between him and Frank which will probably never be mended. Sam and Daniel may have won the awards but the third member of the trio and an integral part of the team, Julian Ovenden, must not be overlooked. He is excellent as the smooth, bravado, charming Frank forever riding the waves looking for financial success even if it means being selfish to his own needs to get there. All three created a realistic believable friendship which spans the years and as the three have their first meeting on top of the accommodation block at college you wish that their hopes and dreams will come true in the end even though you know they don’t.
Anna Francolini is wonderful as the diva Gussie, star of their first show and eventually Franks’ wife. She has that cutting edge to her voice, full of her own confidence in her importance, sweeping anyone insignificant in her eyes under the carpet. James Millward also provided strong support as Joe their lifelong producer and friend.
The ensemble are exceptionally strong creating the numerous characters who Mary, Charlie and Frank encounter throughout their life. The costume / characters / scene changes are swiftly and smoothly operated . The whole cast work as one huge team and were in fine (unmiked) voices. That is one thing I like about the Donmar, no mikes required.
This is a very likeable score from Sondheim including the classic ‘Not a day goes by’ sung by Beth (Frank’s first wife) on the court steps after their divorce and as it transpires later in the show they sang this at their wedding along with Mary as they express that not a day goes by when I don’t think of you, ‘Old friends’ - as Charlie, Frank and Mary fortify their old friendship when it is in danger of becoming unstable, ‘Good Thing Going’ as Frank and Charlie showcase their latest new song at one of Gussies' (pre wife 2) parties, ‘Our Time’ - as the young trio see the opportunities life holds for them, it is their time to shine and ‘Merrily we Roll Along’ which continually moves us back through time.
The book is witty, funny and poignant. Many people could look their friendships in this way. I loved the way that the story started at the end and you worked back to the beginning The show is well choreographed, directed and the versatile set meant the scenes moved smoothly along.
I cannot fault this show in any aspect, it is outstanding and also astounding to think that it was unsuccessful on Broadway all those years ago. It is now a gem of a musical in London.
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