By Peter May
Gender swapping in hit shows seems to be working at the moment especially after the BBC received rave ratings for its new female Dr Who. So with the blessing of Stephen Sondheim the same thing has happened here to the lead character of his classic musical Company. Sondheim initially wasn’t keen on the idea of switching but it took Award-winning director Marianne Elliott to convince him otherwise.
The show first performed in 1970, which centred on the life of 35-year-old single man Bobby, who can’t commit to a steady relationship or marriage, was ahead of its time. Lifestyles for women have evolved since its original conception and the working lives of women; especially in there 30s makes this role reversal today feel relevant and fresh. But if you’re a woman in your 30s and you’ve got a really good job and you’ve got a great apartment and you’ve possibly got lots of boyfriends … you are probably starting to think, hang on, the clock is ticking.
Bobbie (the name changed to reflect the female lead) is a New Yorker on the eve of her 35th birthday, and a woman who thinks that marriage is not just a word but also a sentence – a jail sentence. The story begins at her birthday party where all her friends are wondering why she isn’t married; why she can’t find the right man and why she hasn’t settled down to raise a family.
Despite boyfriends who are driven crazy by their lack of serious intentions, and a collection of smug married friends who extol the virtues of married life (even as they snipe at each other), Bobbie won’t commit to commitment. This is a woman whose idea of a relationship is a “tender distance”.
As middle age approaches, she begins to wonder if its time she changed her ways. Alongside Bobbie played by Rosalie Craig, a truly fantastic cast accompanies her. Broadway legend Patti LuPone has been drafted in to play a Karen Walker from Will & Grace type character as the acerbic Joanne who tries to make Bobbie see sense of it all. Her solo song Ladies Who Lunch is sung with the snarl of a lioness. It is a great coup for the production getting LuPone, who had previously sworn never to do another musical. Jonathan Bailey playing the role of Jamie is equally brilliant stealing many of the comedic moments on the eve of his wedding to his husband to be where he suffers a mental breakdown.
This revival revels in the wit and neurotic comedy of Sondheim, but it is also full of cracked silences, ghostly regrets, and rage; and the unbearable loneliness of urban life, where everyone talks incessantly and nobody really communicates. It feels a frighteningly modern production with enough star voltage in the cast to blow the roof off leaving every cast member to shine.
At Gielgud Theatre until 28 March, 2019