Side By Side By Sondheim continues at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 26 September
Star rating: * * * * * Five stars
Ned Sherrin’s 1976 revue of Sondheim’s early works may not have introduced UK audiences to the great man’s work – Company had already enjoyed a 344-show run at Her Majesty’s four years earlier and A Little Night Music had just come to a close at the Adelphi – but it certainly helped to popularise it. The song-packed two hours presented highlights from Sondheim’s first ten shows as lyricist or composer-lyricist, and gave London audiences their first taste of Follies, a show that wouldn’t reach the country for another decade. It was a hit, too, running for 806 performances in total, making it to date one of Sondheim’s longest-running shows.
Sitting through a revival of this early Sondheim Songbook, currently playing at the Brockley Jack pub theatre in south-east London, I was struck by how privileged those first audiences must have felt experiencing these incredible songs for the first time. Thanks to the enthusiasm and energy of this new cast, I could picture the original audiences’ delight at the novelty of these deliciously biting lyrics and knotty rhyming schemes. The only difference now was that half of the audience were mouthing along with the songs! Forty years old it may be, but Side By Side By Sondheim has all the energy and vibrancy of a brand-new show.
The two-act revue was originally conceived and performed by the actor David Kernan, with the help of Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin. Ned Sherrin wrote the linking narration and championed the piece, while budding impresario Cameron Mackintosh agreed to produce. Musically, the show was driven and shaped by MD Stuart Pedlar, who now returns 40 years on to provide not just the musical accompaniment - supported more than ably by fellow pianist Dan Glover - but also the narration, updated to include reference to current affairs (as Sherrin would do, in this instance the Chilcot enquiry and the paucity of Labour MPs in Scotland.)
An affable host, and consummate musician, Pedlar clearly relishes his job of spreading the love for Sondheim. He and Glover provide a lusciously rich two-piano accompaniment that elevates the show musically beyond a mere cabaret. And kudos to Glover for stepping up and delivering the British Admiral’s lines from Pacific Overtures so adeptly!
Taking the lead roles are a trio not particularly associated with Sondheim, but not that it matters a jot, as Marianne Benedict, Grant McConvey and Sarah Redmond do the material a great justice.
Benedict has an incredible voice that while much more powerful than her fellow cast members still blends perfectly and never dominates. She covers a lot of ground vocally, from the magnificently grandiose – as the soaring soprano in “Not Getting Married Today”, for example and the trumpet-thrusting Mazepa in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” – to the tender and delicate, such as in “I Have a Love” and “Losing My Mind”.
McConvey, a recent finalist in The Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year competition (and singer of the winning Stiles & Drewe Best New Song), covers even more bases than Benedict, forced as he is to take on a few women’s roles as well as all of the male ones. He has a warm, honeyed tone to his voice, although – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – I’m sure he’s pushed to his limits with this demanding role. A bit of a charmer, he’s one minute wringing the comedy out of his genderbending roles - his Andrews sister turn in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is hilarious - then the next playing the dashing leading man. Definitely one to watch.
Last and certainly not least is the captivating Redmond, who outperforms the other two in terms of her stagecraft and acting. But she’s also got the voice, and like McConvey swings from the sublime (her “Send in the Clowns” had an elegant beautiful) to the ridiculous (the funniest “The Boy From…” I’ve ever had the joy to watch). A last minute replacement for Su Pollard, who left the show only a week or so before previews, Redmond does an exemplary job, leaving me wondering why I’ve never seen her on stage before.
This basic, stripped down show with barely any props and no amplification puts the music and lyrics front and centre. The curation of the songs is a bit inconsistent and scatter-gun – there are vague “themes” of “marriage” and “collaborators” – but this does nothing to dampen the quality of the performances, and is preferable to shoehorning in a plotline. There’s little that Director Elliot Clay could do to go mess it up, and he certainly doesn’t put a foot wrong, delivering a rich gallimaufry to satisfy Sondheim newbies or diehards alike. Choreographer Anthony Whiteman and Lighting Director Ben Jacobs also deserve nods for both providing just the right degree of class and elegance to the affair.
So go. Don’t be put off by the Brockley Jack’s seemingly remote location – it’s only 20 minutes from London Bridge – but instead be amazed that for a mere £15 you can have a West End cast stand two foot away from you and present 30 or so of Sondheim’s finest songs over two hours. On saying that, if Cameron Mackintosh is looking for something from the ’burbs to open his soon-to-be-renamed Sondheim Theatre in the West End, he should get out here and take a look at this outstanding effort. It’s the perfect fit.