Phone rings, door chimes, in comes…

A good production of Company, to me, is a really big deal. The first staging of it I saw, at the Oldham Coliseum in 1990, is probably as responsible as anything else for transforming a passing interest in musical theatre into the mile-wide, fathoms-deep geek streak that sometimes threatens to eat my life. Like any other musical theatre geek (I typed ‘Sondheim geek’, then changed it, because as much as I love Sondheim, those people scare me) I can pick holes in it here and there, but it’s a play that had a huge impact on me, and I’ll travel pretty much any distance to see a good production.

Today, I saw a really, really good production. I didn’t even have to travel all that far. In what can be viewed as either an admirably brave or a wilfully perverse piece of programming, the Sheffield Crucible is offering Company as their Christmas musical. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a selling point – I have a fairly limited tolerance for enforced Christmas festivity (apart from on the day itself), and I think I passed my limit about three weeks ago – but they’d more or less certainly be taking more money if they were offering a show that was a little more family-friendly. There was a healthy audience at today’s matinee – probably 75% of capacity, and the Crucible seats 980, which is large for a British regional rep – but it’s December, and with a kid-friendly show they could do even better. Company is anything but kid-friendly. An unmarried man – Robert – either experiences or recalls scenes with five married couples who are his friends, as well as three girlfriends, and questions whether he’s ready to commit himself to marriage. There are episodes but no plot, the songs mostly function as commentary on the dialogue scenes, and the show’s tone is sharply funny and forensically cold. It’s not exactly Guys and Dolls, and your average eight-year-old would be bored shitless.

While it might be an odd choice for the season, though, the Crucible has done a remarkable job of it: this is probably as good a production of Company as you’re ever likely to see. The performances – all of them – are spot-on, with admirably detailed character work from every single member of the cast. Christopher Oram’s set locates the show in a downtown Manhattan loft apartment with a sunken living room¬† and a glittering view of the Midtown skyline, including the Chrysler Building (in the bed scene with Robert and April in Act Two, Oram gives us a big laugh when Robert presses a button on the wall, and his bed immediately slides from the back to the centre of the stage). Lynne Page’s carefully artless choreography often positions Robert almost as his friends’ prey – they chase him around the four corners of the large thrust stage, pass him from couple to couple like a parcel, block him, and prevent him from leaving the stage. It’s a bold idea, it works beautifully, and her ‘Side by Side by Side’ packs more character information and subtext into seven minutes of musical staging than you would ever think possible.

The director is Jonathan Munby; this is his first musical, and it’s impeccable. He clearly gets that this is a musical that’s as much about a city as a group of people – aside from that glitzy skyline backdrop, the sounds of the city are present all the way through the show, and you’re always aware of New York City as both a fifteenth character and a distinct presence – but his biggest success is in balancing the (many) laughs in the book scenes and the songs with the crippling fear and loneliness that lurk just underneath. This Company is very funny, but also very unsettling: these people keep their insecurities very near the surface, and Munby’s production treads a very, very careful line between urbane¬† comedy and black despair. The laughs are there – all of them – but some of them are quite uncomfortable.

And then there’s Daniel Evans – the Crucible’s current artistic director – as Robert. Evans, of course, is a Sondheim veteran by now, and he’s giving a spectacular performance here. Robert, in this production, is onstage for pretty much the entire show; he’s centre-stage, and the production revolves around him. The key to Evans’ performance, in fact, lies in the moments between the scenes – there are no blackouts, he’s always visible, but he’s only ever alone in the breaks between scenes, and this allows him to show us a Robert who knows from the beginning that he’s in desperate trouble. Evans’ Robert isn’t a bland cipher. He’s a lonely, charming man who uses the companionship of his friends and girlfriends to distract himself from a mounting sense of depression that stems from his absolute terror of being alone. In the book scenes, he’s bright and cheerful; in the spaces between the scenes, though, the mask slips. It’s an approach that’s certainly supported by the script, although I’ve never seen anyone else play it quite this way before, and it’s an approach that works. More than that, Evans makes more dramatic sense of both the interpolated ‘Marry me a Little’ at the end of Act One and the rather blandly melodramatic ‘Being Alive’ at the end of Act Two than anyone else I’ve ever seen, largely because we’ve seen from almost the beginning of the show that this Robert, in private, is profoundly frightened by the direction his life is taking.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that he sings the hell out of the score. Pretty much everyone sings the hell out of the score. Francesca Annis, playing Joanne, went up on her lines in the middle of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ this afternoon, but that can happen to anyone, she covered it beautifully, and her subsequent scene with Evans was heart-stoppingly good. The highlight, Daniel Evans aside, is probably Damian Humbley’s quietly devastating ‘Sorry-Grateful’ – it’s a subtle, absolutely unshowy reading of the song that has enormous emotional resonance – but there is, as I said, fine work from every single member of this cast. Nobody puts a foot wrong.

I have, of course, a couple of minor quibbles, but then I always have at least one minor quibble. There’s a ten-piece band, and new orchestrations by Simon Hale. These are indeed new orchestrations, rather than the smaller-band Jonathan Tunick orchestration heard on the two 1995 revival cast recordings, and I’m not sure I liked them. I’m not sure I liked them largely because the sound system, from where I was sitting (row B, seat 8 ) was so muddy that I couldn’t hear them in that much detail. They seemed, in the title song, to be a little bit too self-consciously 1970; elsewhere, the sound system’s mix pushed piano, bass and drums so far into the foreground that they sometimes drowned out nearly everything else. And this production uses the revised text from the mid-1990s, which adds ‘Marry me a Little’ (an addition that works here, but usually falls flat) and cuts the Tick Tock ballet, which short-changes both the scene it interrupts and the actress playing Kathy, who is left with nothing at all to do in the second act.

Minor quibble aside, though, this Company is a major achievement. The show, as I said, is a sentimental favourite of mine; I’ve seen a lot of different productions, but none of them – including that first one – has made it seem as fresh as this one does.

Of course, now that he’s set the bar so high, I want to see Jonathan Munby direct Follies. With the original, unedited book. I can dream, can’t I?


Brainless in Seattle

Or rather, in Bellevue, WA, if we’re being picky.

Various media outlets are reporting, this week, that the not-yet-under-construction Tateuchi Center, a new performing arts complex in Bellevue, is planning to implement a policy which allows mobile phone use apart from for voice calls during performances. The complex’s executive director, a Mr. John Haynes, is quoted by the New York Times as saying that texting and tweeting via smartphones is “the wave of the future for the people we worry about attracting… simply forbidding it and embarrassing people is not the way to go. So we are wiring the building in anticipation of finding ways to make it work over time.”

One might wonder why Mr. John Haynes, who appears, based on these comments, to have little respect for either audience members or performers, has picked a career path that culminated in the executive directorship of a performing arts complex.

The thing is, there’s no way of using smartphones in a darkened theatre, even for things other than voice calls, that won’t somehow be disruptive for other patrons. Mr. Haynes talks, elsewhere in that New York Times piece, about perhaps offering patrons small screens to phone users to dim the light from their mobile devices, but the flaws in this plan are easy enough to spot – it’s hard to see how this would work with something like the iPhone, where the (very bright) LCD screen is also the user interface, and any masking device that blocked light coming from the screen completely would render the smartphone unusable anyway. I don’t even understand the mentality of wanting to use a smartphone during a theatrical performance. I’m no luddite; I have a BlackBerry, I text, I tweet, I’m on Facebook and all the rest of it, but when I’ve spent money on a ticket I want to give my attention to the performance, not to the screen of my mobile phone, and I certainly don’t want to engage in any kind of behaviour that might disrupt the performance in any way for the people sitting around me. When I go to the theatre (or the cinema, or a concert, or whatever), my phone is switched off when I enter the building. It’s just basic good manners.

At the last several shows I’ve attended, distracting light from someone’s phone screen, at some point, has been visible during the performance. And it is distracting, more than you’d expect. There’s a reason you sit in the dark, with the only bright lights coming from the stage: it focuses your attention. Glimpsing the light bleeding from some selfish idiot’s mobile phone screen, even from several rows back, pulls you out of the moment. And if people in the audience can see it, it’s more or less a certainty that the people on the stage can see it too. Using a phone during a performance is rude, selfish behaviour; it may be behaviour that’s becoming more and more common, but that doesn’t mean it should be legitimised.

I freely admit that my personal ideal solution to mobile phone use during a theatrical performance – a Monty Python-esque giant anvil being dropped from a great height onto the head of the offender – is not practical. Clearing up the blood spatters from the walls would put a strain on a theatre’s maintenance budget, the carpets and upholstery would probably be ruined, and manslaughter carries serious criminal consequences including jail time. Putting offenders in the stocks outside the theatre and letting the rest of us throw rotten fruit at them, however, also has a certain appeal, particularly if we let people film the fruit-throwing on their smartphones and post the footage to youtube as a warning. Since these kinds of direct punishment are not an option, however, I will vote with my wallet. If a theatre close to where I live made public that they’d adopted this kind of policy, as far as I’m concerned, it would have precisely one effect: I would stop buying tickets to their shows.