Brunch on Old Compton Street, matching miniature dogs, or London Fashion Week are all, in their way, pretty gay. But nothing compares in magnitude of camp delightfulness to Old Friends, crafted by three grand dames of the theatre: Stephen Sondheim himself, Cameron Mackintosh, and Mathew Bourne, and star-studded like the Orion Nebula.
As the orchestra tunes up, the hum of a wide range of queers and their hags builds to frantic proportions. My boyfriend and I wish we brought our Italian Greyhound. As she is a massive Lea Salonga fan, most likely from having to listen to all the sad Mis Saigon songs when I am truly sauced. But here we are, without the fur-child, awaiting, already moistening of the eyes (mine) for a night like no other.
This concept is the 3rd and (presumably) final incarnation of musical revues. First headed up in the 1970s by Julia Mckenzie (yes much more than Miss Marple). Then again in the 1990s and now, conceived in the dreadful dark years of Rona between the legend himself and long-time champion and co-conspirator Mr Mackintosh. After Sondheim’s sad passing the concept took on a more memorial note. Raising money for the Sondheim Foundation’s nurturing new talent as Roger Hammerstein the II did to the composer as a teenager. Closing the loop as they say.
It is impossible in such a program not to get bogged down by the glittering names and colourful backstories, and assuming your love of musical theatre I will continue unapologetically. Previous stars have included Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Michael Ball, and Damian Lewis, to name a few with a Broadway run and a BBC album upcoming.
But enough of the past, what of tonight? Or last night? Or whatever night you’re reading this. 39 songs, from a selection of 11 musicals, providing a diverse showcase of his illustrious career. An evening of celebration, legacy, and relationships that have been forged across the world of musical theatre, God, I’m tearing up again just writing this. All the classics are here, from the 70’s horns of Company to the Victorian splatter of Sweeny Todd, the old faithful Westside Story gets a look in along with the less-known Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy and Into the Woods, then smaller musical such as Passion are balanced by the grander of Follies. It’s an evening both gargantuan in scope and theatrical pedigree.
Lea Salonga proves she is absolutely a voice to contend with. Perfect control, power, and a soaring range. Everything she touches is golden laced, from Children Will Listen (Into the Woods) to Loving You (Passion) and Somewhere (Westside Story). She plants herself centre stage, no frump, choreography, or artifice, her voice, and face is all that’s required. A talent so gleaming we even forgive her patchy but enthusiastic cockney accent as the demonic Mrs. Lovett from Sweeny Todd. Alongside her Jeremy Secomb, all dark eyed makeup, and brooding menace despite being rather lost (like many of the males) amongst the hoard of fiery women.
Janie Dee pops up, interestingly avoiding the Follies numbers she sang so hilariously in The National Theatre’s production. Instead opting for the comic number The Boy From…(The Mad Show) a hoot and a half. Although she’s not featured as much as a British audience would like.
Bonnies Langford is giving it 1000% every second she is on stage. A touch exhausting to watch yet when she breaks into I’m Still Here (Follies) it rings with personal relevancy and wry world wary resilience. Considering she debuted in a Sondheim musical aged eight in the West End and ten on Broadway (Gypsy) could there be anyone else better suited for the song?
Clare Burt’s Ladies Who Lunch is a difficult follow-on from Patti LuPone’s sublime version in this very theatre in the 2021 Company reprisal and does the worse for it unfortunately. On the other hand, Joanna Riding’s version of I’m Not Getting Married, from the same musical competes if not outshines Jonathan Bailey’s version. Manic, and flower-crunching she is a wide-eyed reluctant bride. Gavin Lee queer-bends (not sure you can say that) a couple of songs with snap and sass, although his version of Would I Leave You from Follies comes across as a touch too tart.
But amidst the splash hits, there are some submerged moments. Bernadette Peters very much deserves her place shared top billing (with Salonga) having been one of Stephen’s muses and receiving a Tony for her work on Sunday in the Park with George in 1984. A magnetic theatre presence her corkscrew curls and pouting mouth do well in comedic songs such as You Gotta Get A Gimmick (Follies), with purposefully lacklustre choreography and comically bad horn blowing. Yet the choice to have her playing Little Red Riding Hood alongside energetic Adonis Bradley Jaden in I Know Things Now (Into the Wood) ramps the already innuendo-laded song to the point of collapse. Send In The Clowns from A Little Night Music is shaky yet works. While the much more demanding Losing My Mind (Follies) although spiritly characterised falters at the big crescendos.
The evening itself is not without issue, but will you be able to see through the blinding razzle-dazzle? Jill Parker’s incrusted costumes, Warren Letton’s blazing lights, Bourne’s direction, and Stephen Mear’s choreography are seamless. Matt Kinley’s set is much more exciting than one would expect from a revue, even giving us unfolding buildings, and lots of vintage mirror bulbs. Yet the curation sometimes sidesteps. The pleasing throughline in the first act (like being guided hand in hand through Sondheim’s catalog) dives into a rather ballad-heavy second act. Leaping from overly musical hall-style comedy (Everybody Ought to Have A Maid, from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to group sad songs without much guiding objective.
Nevertheless, for an evening with Sondheim’s leading ladies (and some men thrown in for good measure) us West End Wendy’s will be more than placated. It shows the genius of the man, the careers he nurtured, the creatives he collaborated with, and the music he created, music that will last long after we are all gone. The lasting image is the female group rendition of Broadway Baby from Follies, each with their own flare, each grasping the spotlight from one another. But knowing that this itself is the ultimate act of theatrical corporation. After all aren’t we all just “Pounding Forty-Second Street (or Shaftesbury Avenue in our case), to be in a show.”?
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