Shortly, Melbourne Festival will host a theatre company from New York as part of a cultural exchange between the two cities. On first glance, it may seem an unlikely pairing. New York is often referred to as the cultural capital of the universe, and Melbourne is the cultural capital of what one former prime minister labelled ‘the arse end of the world’. What could Melbourne possibly have to offer New York in such an exchange?
The answer may be glimpsed in Watch This’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s quintessential New York musical, Company. Alarming audiences when it opened in 1970 on account of the absence of plot and the deeply ambivalent protagonist, the show revolves around birthday boy Robert (Nick Simpson-Deeks), single and surrounded by ‘those good and crazy people my married friends’. Despite its geographic specificity, the piece seems to fit Melbourne rather snugly.
Blowing the candles on his thirty-fifth birthday cake, Robert is encouraged to make a wish. That he should wish for coupledom seems to his smugly coupled friends a fait accompli. That he should question the idea of marriage itself doesn’t seem to occur to them. The entire play takes place in this moment, between the blowing and the candle’s extinguishment, between the freedom of a single life and the messy complexity of engagement.
Company is deceptively difficult to pull off in performance, despite its reputation as Sondheim’s most accessible show. It has a fiendishly complex score – one that requires utter precision within an impossibly intricate framework – and a host of often intolerable characters – not to mention a protagonist who is psychologically arrested and pathologically non-committal.
Much of the reason for its popularity can probably be clocked to its jaunty, toe-tapping score. Never mind that every lyric seems drenched in irony and bitterness: the overall effect of the music is of unbridled optimism. It is curious, therefore, that productions of this musical can seem poles apart. John Doyle’s 2006 Broadway revival was relentlessly gloomy, while the 2011 New York Philharmonic concert version was incessantly bright. Director Kat Henry has struck a fine balance here between those two polarities, and the result is a production that easily accommodates the show’s oppositional forces of longing and disgust.
‘Despite its geographic specificity, the piece seems to fit Melbourne rather snugly’
Simpson-Deeks is a formidable anchor as the reluctant Robert. His high tenor is comfortable and warm, even if it lacks the expansiveness the role can accommodate, but he manages to bring a fragility and emotional intensity to the part that proves galvanising. It is a pitch echoed in Sally Bourne’s Joanne, whose brittleness constantly threatens to topple into outright hostility. Sonya Suares overplays the jittery brinkmanship of Amy, but does manage to pull off the monumentally difficult ‘Getting Married Today’ with admirable precision.
In the more broadly comic roles, Carina Waye is a delight as the ditzy flight attendant April, and Johanna Allen is superb as Jenny. Her scene with Robert and husband David (Mark Dickinson), sharing a joint, is a comic highlight, even if it soon veers off into darker territory. Much of the show is like this; that murky undertow inherent in human relationship constantly threatens to swallow the characters’ attempts at genuine connection. As the men sing in the plaintive ‘Sorry, Grateful’, ‘you’re scared she’s starting to drift away and scared she’ll stay’.
Aesthetically, the production is very fine, aided enormously by the tastefulness of Eugyeene Teh’s set and Zoë Rouse’s costumes. Rob Sowinski’s lighting is warmly complimentary, and helps augment the musical’s more humanist tendencies. The colour palette of cobalts and teals is a world away from the steel and glass of the original, and adds a welcome layer of geniality to the sometimes icy exchanges.
Musically, the show gets off to a rocky start. The opening number is vital to the establishment of mood and theme, but the cast seem almost fatally hesitant with it. The pacing, particularly throughout the first act, is downright sluggish. Thankfully, things pick up considerably, and the ensemble’s Act Two opener, ‘Side by Side by Side’, is a riot. With more urgency in and around the musical numbers, the production should prove irresistible.
‘The show is hardly a rousing treatise on the sanctity of marriage, but it does reluctantly come down on the side of company’
Precisely what Company brings to the current marriage debate is hard to quantify. Of course, the elephant in the room of any contemporary production is gay marriage, something inconceivable in 1970. The show is hardly a rousing treatise on the sanctity of marriage, but it does reluctantly come down on the side of company. As Robert comes to realise, ‘alone is alone, not alive’. Perhaps this is why a contemporary Melbourne production manages to resonate so strongly. In a city that fancies itself as sophisticated and urbane, the ‘challenge of maintaining relationships in a society becoming increasingly depersonalised’ – as Sondheim himself put it – is harder than ever. Watch This have brought us uncomfortably close to some home truths.