Bobbie has just turned 35. Why isn’t she married? Why can’t she find the right man, and why can’t she settle down and have a family?
Marianne Elliott directs Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s legendary musical ‘Company’, a contemporary consideration of the prehistorical rituals we call life.
A model modern musical, and the heart leaps up to behold this golden revival, a revival for the 21st century.
Today, we find an increasing number of women for whom marriage and childbirth is very much on the backseat whilst they, firmly in the driver’s seat, hurtle towards occupational success. Yet none, it seems, are safe from the barrage of questions fired at them from all sides – namely, why they are not married, and why they do not have children. Though for many women, this is a personal choice, marriage and childbirth continue to be, as they have always been, societal expectations that are used to measure success, without which women are seen as incomplete.
In Elliott’s gender-swapped revival of this classic musical, which reimagines male character Bobby as the female Bobbie, we find quite possibly the most relatable female lead to grace the stage in recent years.
“Life is company, love is company”, and this production provides us with an honest portrayal of both life and love, following a colourful plethora of “good and crazy people”, all leading their very different lives, yet each united, bound, by the seemingly dead-cert life quota, ‘hatch, match, and dispatch’.
The production begins with a surprise birthday party. Bobbie has turned 35, and she is constantly reminded of the fact by way of the huge number balloons that float in her room. Flitting back and forth between party scenes, Bobbie interacts with her married friends, couples Sarah and Harry, Jenny and David, Susan and Peter, and Jamie and Paul, ‘Company’ presents a very honest look at marriage, fidelity and commitment, and the very real, although outdated fear, associated with the absence of these things, things that continue to be seen as necessary to success, fulfilment and completion.
Set in modern-day Manhattan, Bunny Christie’s pioneering design mirrors an interconnectedness and human attachment. Large set pieces, each one depicting a different room, are raised up onto the stage from below, or wheeled on. Although framed with a vibrant neon lighting, the rooms themselves are grey, blank canvases of motionless monotony onto which splashes of colour are projected, colour that distinguishes one person from another, their life different from that of another. Take that away, however, extinguish that colour, that vibrancy, that unique abstraction, and we find everybody similarly striving for the same things.
In the song ‘Sorry Grateful’, a lyric tells us that “Everything’s different. Nothing’s changed. Only, maybe, slightly rearranged”. Christie’s set is concrete proof of this – although different characters inhabit different rooms at different times, there is a constant constructional continuation that allows their lives to overlap, that allows one couple to emerge into a room as another couple takes their leave, an aligning of humanity as all similarly settle down, and settle to societal expectation. The vibrant colours framing the foundations of these characters’ lives, Neil Austin’s electrifying lighting design, that accompany the unique moments that make up the lives of these characters as individuals, is a dazzling distraction from the bland blanket of Bobbie’s isolation.
The staging frequently dips into the realm of Wonderland, sets enlarging and shrinking, while our Alice, Bobbie, often finds herself unable to fit in. With the abnormally large number balloons, or the minuscule table, birthday cake and bottle of bourbon, there is a disorientating surrealism, heightened with the lack of any clear time scale, where the only thing we can be sure of is that Bobbie’s biological clock is ticking. She is late, for a very important date. A date with a man. As Bobbie falls deeper and deeper into a rabbit-hole of relationships, ‘Company’ reads like a modern-day memoir of marriage, and a diary of divorce.
Bobbie claims she is ready for marriage and, far from avoiding it, believes it is avoiding her. Full of questions, it is the questions that her married friends put to her that are the most affecting, the most unanswerable and, often a third wheel, side by side by side to the pairings, the partnerships, of the other characters Bobbie, despite frequent company, often finds herself alone. While she has many reasons for not being with somebody, she cannot find one good reason for being alone. But does she need one?
Rosalie Craig is resplendent as Bobbie. Craig shares the thoughts, bares the soul, of this character, in a performance so passionate, so striking, so impressive, and so comically masterful.
In her heartfelt rendition of the iconic ‘Being Alive’, Craig cleverly sets a tone to contrast what has gone before, as Bobbie comes to the realisation that she wants SOME body, not just some BODY. She wants someone to hold her too close, to hurt her too deep. With realises that the faults and imperfections of marriage can be made perfect in their own right, when she cares for somebody that cares for her.
Acclaimed Broadway star Patti LuPone is spectacular as mature character Joanne, thrice-married, twice-divorced. Her tough and tenacious, fur-coat wearing exterior masking a subtle vulnerability of a character with a low self-esteem, unaware, or else unable to believe, just how much her current husband adores her, Joanne is often the one advising Bobbie against marriage. LuPone’s experienced performance and unwavering, hard-hitting rendition of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is magnificent.
Jonathan Bailey is outstanding as Jamie, best friend to Bobbie and fiancé to Paul. On the morning of his wedding, Jamie is struck with a serious case of cold-feet and has, not so much a wobble, as a complete breakdown. In his rendition of ‘Getting Married Today’, Bailey not only demonstrates the fear of his character, through his violent trembling and fervent expression, but also a comic hilarity, as he thanks us all for coming, but tells us that he is not getting married today. This scene has been excellent staged, and as his fears mount, an operatic vicar keeps bursting out from the most unconventional of hiding places – inside the fridge, underneath the wedding cake – to bless his forthcoming union, before the entire cast, adorned in white, join in, each of them revealing themselves in time to the beat.
Indeed, in an ensemble so collectively brilliant, each member so incredibly talented, notable performances come from all, and all are worthy of mention – Richard Fleeshman’s dreamy, but not-so-bright pilot Andy who, despite his lack of intelligence, manages to draw a parallel between Bobbie and a damaged butterfly; Matthew Seadon-Young’s reassuring Theo; life and soul of New York, George Blagden’s hippy PJ, his rendition of ‘Another Hundred People’ remarkable; Alex Gaumond’s charming Paul; Mel Giedroyc’s Sarah and Gavin Spokes’ Harry, ju-jitsu fighting and wonderfully awkward couple; Jennifer Saayeng’s Jenny and Richard Hender’s chilled, marijuana-smoking couple; Ben Lewis’ dashing Larry; and Daisy Maywood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter, a trendy young couple contemplating divorce.
Occasionally, as another actress doubles, Bobbie sees herself, as though having out-of-body experiences, which she watches with us. At one notable point in the production Bobbie stands, somewhat helplessly, towards the side of the stage, and watches and the other female characters in the production double as herself, depicting what her life may have been, had she married either Andy, Theo or PJ. She watches the interactions between herself and Andy during their daily morning routine, she sees a pregnant version of herself led into the bedroom by Theo, who lovingly sits her down, and she sees herself as wife to the laid-back PJ, pushing a pram as she rushes out of the house. Joanne tells the audience early on in the production that Bobbie is always watching, always staring, confronting her about it later on in a club, and here we see first-hand her watching from the sidelines, but despite how the other characters may see it, Bobbie does not give us the sense that this is voluntary, and seems confused, sometimes distressed, at the prospect.
There is no doubt that Marianne Elliott is one of the country’s best and brightest directors, with many successes to her name, and ‘Company’ is no different. Her modern reworking of this classic musical which places a female lead at its centre could not have benefited more from the Midas touch of her direction.
During the production, in the movements of everyday life – whether it’s the fleeting glances across the train carriage as travellers are jerked about, the bopping, dancers in the pulsing club, of the fun and games at Bobbie’s surprise party, the games, the drinking, and the inevitable vomiting – we are confronted with this collective bunch of characters who, though distinguishable, each doing their own thing and caught up in their own lives, are together going through the rigmarole, the motions, of a ritualistic life, in which marriage and children are as implicit laws in society, goals all are striving to attain, and will someday reach.
An outdated view by today’s ever-changing standards, however, this cleverly directed, choreographed and staged production presents us with a well-balanced argument and, when Bobbie blows out the remaining candle of her cake and makes a wish at the end of the musical, we have to wonder exactly what she wishes for.
A smart, stylish, sophisticated Vodka stinger of a show, ‘Company’ is an intoxicating cocktail of love, life and marriage.
Bless this musical, pinnacle of great theatre – that’s what it’s really about . And I’ll drink to that.
A valentine to Sondheim, with love.