As a venue the Dukes Theatre (DT3) is, like any small auditorium, only really suited to productions where claustrophobia and intensity are at the forefront of the story, where the audience needs to be close enough to be grabbed by the balls. Would a Sondheim work there? It depends which. In 2004, Sweeney Todd was stripped down to its bare bones to fit in the Watermill theatre, where the cast played their own instruments and the chorus were removed entirely. It fitted the insularity of its characters like a coat and left audiences too stunned to applaud after each song. ‘A Little Night Music’, on the other hand, is effectively a Regency romance for the early 1900s and tonally at the polar opposite of Todd – here we have a sexually frustrated lawyer getting his end away with a failing actress and invoking the murderously psychotic wrath of a donkey-dicked dragoon, whilst his pure-as-an-angel wife is wooed by his comically crushed gimp of a son; overseen by a bitter old battleaxe, played in drag.
The production team made the mistake of approaching its venue as though it were fifty feet wide, and tried to cram a full scale musical into a space that didn’t offer much in the way of scale, or a suitable acoustic. As a result, we were left with bustled entrances, the occasional lapse into inaudibility from the singers, bland lighting and fumbled scene changes (a large bed was carried onto the stage on what felt like a hundred occasions, and was very rarely needed). However, this is down to a generally disagreeable theatre, and isn’t to say that the production didn’t present itself as a labour of love by the cast and crew.
Sondheim’s wit and sarcasm came in the form of lyrics, but crucially was peppered with the right amount of sly nods, savage digs, flailing arms and lowered voices throughout; the cast could easily have fooled one into thinking that they’d spent a month living in a Jane Austen novel (yes, different periods, but the same hallmarks) to prepare, for they each were bright colours on farcical palate, making up for a thin presence of scenery to create a pretty, if slightly smudged portrait of Sweden in the early 1900s. Andy Ainscough (as Madame Armfeldt), who was as wheezy and puffy as the finest drag queens, and Eleanor Kirby (Fredrika) gave the Armfeldts a strong dose of Addams Family weirdness to show us why the stiffer Egerman family are asking for trouble by joining them for dinner. Adam Atlasi (as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm) didn’t do much to help the perception of military types, and mastered his snarling, libido-laden tirades to give cause for gales of laughter.
The score for A Little Night Music is notoriously complicated, with confusing polyphony, ridiculous time changes and the requirement for all singers to have extensive ranges. Musicals merely accompanied by a piano tend to feel incomplete, although this would have been preferred over the chamber group used. The piece was written in a Romantic style, therefore requiring heavy use of lush strings, expressive chords, rubato, high dynamic contrast and a strong bass line. Very few of these aspects were delivered – a separate conductor was necessary, along with a real drum (as opposed to a seat).
Musically, the main characters saved the performance from falling into a despairing pit of mediocrity. Tim Mackworth-Praed, Emma Fredskild Green and James Varney’s trio of ‘Now’, ‘Later’ and ‘Soon’ was demonstrated with such power and dynamic control, that thankfully they managed to detract the attention from the band and onto themselves. Hats off to Lois Swinnerton, Charlotte Blatt and Adam Atlasi – being the only singers with exceptional diction, the correct ranges for their parts, the ability to switch seamlessly between speech and song and essentially having voices that were enjoyable to listen to. The Chorus was a different story all together. The majority were obviously skilled individual singers, but they simply did not work as a quintet, as some voices continuously monopolised the sound more than others. Some were clearly distracted by other voices, causing their intonation to become weaker. The only song that really worked for the whole of the cast and band was ‘A Weekend in the Country’, the only one to display any form of equality.
‘A Little Night Music’ wasn’t perfect, but it would be cruel to deny that it was a valiant effort by LUTG to stage so grand a piece in so modest a setting, with enough successes to occasionally scrub out its failures. It introduced a slew of capable actors to the University, and mark the words of this reviewer – we haven’t seen the last of them.