Now showing at 45 Downstairs, from its first opening in 1970 this musical shocked and delighted the Broadway audience, partly with the “non linear narrative”, but perhaps more because of its candour in showing aspects of modern relationships with all their flaws. Today it has lost none of its connection, because of the insightfulness behind George Furth’s writing, and the skillfulness in depicting our driving forces through behavior.
Stephen Sondheim, more than any other living composer has probably led the Broadway musical to address the issues of dramaturgy that form the usual objection to the whole genre of the musical. In so doing, he has created an oeuvre which can convert the non-believer. Company is no exception.
Company is described as a “concept musical’, a description which famously makes Sondheim cringe. Given that the action takes place as separate scenes, without a sense of chronological progression, rather building an impression through snapshots of a life. This is an effect described (though not invented) by Brecht.
It’s a portrait of the challenges of relationships, set in an environment of sophisticated alienation – New York, but it could be any large city. Anywhere that people go to develop their potential, leaving behind biological family and building community with like-minded people.
Robert (Bobby) fears the “C” word – commitment. At the point of his 35th birthday he is surrounded by couples, effectively his New York family, urging him to know the kinds of happiness that they do. The cracks in their relationships are however all too evident. It’s not hard to see why he’s reluctant to join the “We” people. (As the couples bickered through clenched smiles I found myself thinking several times “I would have walked out of that entanglement”.) The central conceit of the show is that in spite of all their problems – and they each have enough to keep their therapists busy for years – these couples believe that staying together is more important than anything else.
We see among the three women Bobby is dating no-one really suitable – there’s just surface attraction, and underlying fundamental misfits of ambition, goals, intellect and temperament. These three women have a marvelous trio – the Charleston-inspired “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – highlighting Bobby’s lack of meeting their expectations. This number is always one of the anticipated delights of this show, and in this production, both singing and staging brought even more fun to the piece.
In fact, this production is blessed with wonderfully imaginative direction and choreography throughout. The acting is truly polished, at times edgy. The singing of several performers is of the highest order in the genre. The band on opening night did not always quite match the level of preparation of the stage performers, but overall there was an effective use of remarkably small resources. The choruses here comment on the action as is traditional, but they also affect it while doing so, and the staging for this is most imaginative too.
Bobby faces the yawning chasm between casual sex and relationships. The bedroom scene with his flight attendant part time lover April (played with relish by Carina Waye) features the famous duet “Barcelona”. Again, the piece is so well known in music theatre circles that we can’t help but excitedly anticipate the number. “Barcelona” is both sung and acted in that remarkable way where acting and singing are so seamlessly integrated that it seems the most natural possible expression of the moment. Simpson-Deeks and Waye capture the playfulness and the wistfulness of the not-quite relationship.
I have always been in thrall of Joanne’s landmark piece “The Ladies who Lunch”. Sally Bourne’s reading of the role brings more nuance to the character. We see her outrage beneath the bitterness – her fury with the women of her acquaintance settling for compromise, and distracting themselves with shallow engagement in things that ought to be deep.
As Amy, Sonya Suares delivers a bravura performance of high neurosis. This peaks in the mother of all rapid patter songs – “I’m Not Getting Married Today”. Her delivery came close to stopping the show
As Marta, Bianca Baykara gives the conflicted wonderment of the hippy girl caught up in the thrall of New York’s business in the song of urban alienation “Another Hundred People”. It’s a memorable performance.
I found it impossible to take my eyes off Nick Simpson-Deeks (pictured), his performance was so consistently intense. In the song “Being Alive”, Bobby’s searching for and finally connecting with deep emotion is the climax of the show. Simpson-Deeks gives us the depth of pain, the catharsis of fear in Bobby’s growth moment with a performance that takes his excellent tenor right to the edge. Again, there just seems no compromise between the demands of singing and acting – the highest level of achievement in this art form.
In the final scene we’ve come full circle – back at the birthday party that opened the show, but this time with a different outcome, the “What if?” device used to effect in the much later film Sliding Doors, but in reverse. The final reflection is on Bobby’s personal growth – he’s moving forward. The ending is somewhat ambiguous. As powerful an anthem to desire as “Being Alive” is, and as much as this effect is amplified by Simpson-Deeks exceptionally strong performance of it, I think in the end I really just wanted to hear Bobby say “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the coupled society”. But I think we are to believe he now has the wherewithal to open up properly to a committed relationship with someone – he’s finally a mature man.
The intimate performance space at 45 Downstairs gives a wonderfully direct audience engagement not usually available to devotees of musicals. Though down several flights of narrow stairs, once seated it resembles both in size and ambience the kind of large windowed loft warehouse performance spaces where off-off-Broadway shows are usually experienced.
I found that the effect of being so close to the singers gave a quite thrilling effect, particularly in the chorus numbers where the writing has words coming from different people in rapid exchanges. The solos were no less thrilling with the intimate proximity too.
The other side of the intimate space – there was a great deal of smoking throughout the show, and in that space the smoke had nowhere to go. By the middle of the second act, my eyes were stinging. The next day I thought what a long time it had been since I walked out of a venue with my clothes smelling like that – the 70’s in fact!