Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Brining
A Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production
Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse
This production of A Little Night Music returns to Leeds Playhouse after successfully opening here last summer. The main changes for 2022 are Sandra Piques Eddy as Desiree Armfeldt and Sam Marston as Henrik Egerman, the removal of social distancing measures and the poignant reality that musical theatre genius Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us. This is a confident partnership between Leeds Playhouse and Opera North which looks and sounds absolutely glorious. This really delivers as a special night out at the theatre which in our current rather grim society is a breathe of fresh air and a much needed tonic for the soul.
There is real drama and impact in the sheer simplicity of Madeleine Boyd’s set design. The opening act reveals the full orchestra warming up with Conductor Oliver Rundell while The Quintet start to unpack the set pulling away white sheets as they set up the staging. There’s something particularly exciting about seeing what will appear next and what it may reveal about the production…perhaps akin to post pandemic measures seeing the face behind a mask. For Act 2 at Madame Armfeldt’s chateau there is a vast functioning fountain complete with cherub! The elegant polished parquet floor that surrounds it adds to the sense of a bygone age. Tellingly the floor is peeling and damaged at the edges, poignantly suggestive that this golden age of champagne weekends in the country are coming to an end…aging and decaying alongside the elegant chatelaine of the chateau.
A Little Night Music merges a romantic musical with elements of French farce. Written in triple time to create variety, it also neatly links the multiple triangles of complex love relationships that play out around the three generations of Armfeldt women, and theThe musical opened on Broadway in 1973 and has seen many successful productions in the subsequent almost 50 years. Originally set in Sweden in 1900, director James Brining cleverly moves the action to the 1950s where the restless, career-oriented Desiree looks forward to more opportunities for her and her daughter Fredrika, whereas her elegant mother looks wistfully back to her heyday as a beautiful courtesan desired by Princes and Dukes. What remains unchanged and unchanging is the theme of love… Sondheim’s score makes the heart soar while his incisive, perceptive lyrics get to the core of all the highs and lows of love in its many and complex guises.
Opera North already have a great relationship with musical theatre and in 2016 worked with Leeds Playhouse on a highly successful production of Into The Woods. The full orchestra in place for this production is an added delight as on stage with the actors it both adds to the drama of life on tour for Desiree and life in the luxury of a chateau for Madame Armfeldt, while providing a perfect accompaniment to pitch perfect vocals from the cast.
Unsurprisingly the standout performance is Dame Josephine Bardtow as the grand dame Madame Armfeldt. Her crystal perfect diction, regal bearing and acerbic reflections make for the archetypal matriach. She effortlessly moves into tender and beguiling as she reflects on her early life in Liasons. Her facial expressions even when not centre stage are a study in storytelling and her every move is delicately and precisely nuanced.
New to this 2022 production is Sandra Piques Eddy who is a real joy as Desiree. She looks gorgeous enough to merit It Would Have Been Wonderful and exudes Desirees’ playful and impetuous nature. Her Send In The Clowns is spine pricking in the anguish and regret of a woman realising she may have missed her best chance at love. Quirijn de Lang returns as Fredrik and looks like a quintessential Hollywood leading man from the 1950s. He has a polished but slightly weary elegance and brings both vanity and vulnerability to a middle aged man caught in a love triangle. He also brings great physical humour and timing to his role as the hapless lawyer. He is simply wonderful in all his big numbers such as Now, It Would Have Been Wonderful and Send In The Clowns.
This production seems perfectly cast throughout with Corinne Cowling as Fredriks’ vacuous and naive young wife and Sam Marston as his brittle and intense only son. Christopher Nairne as Count Carl-Marcus and Amy J Payne as Petra are highly entertaining on stage while Lucy Sherman brings a stillness and serenity that perfectly counterbalances some of the other more dramatic performances. Helen Évora as Countess Charlotte is simply wonderful as the brittle, disillusioned wife who still loves her errant buffoon of a husband. Her rendition of Every Day A Little Death is pitch perfect on every level and utterly unforgettable.
This production really is a pleasure to sit back and just relax in the assured direction of James Brining. Everything about it works smoothly yet nothing feels slick or shallow. Complex and flawed as every character undoubtedly is, there is such care and attention to each performance that its impossible to not leave the theatre on a summer night and feel that just as Madame Armfeldt promised…the night really has smiled.