Review: A Little Night Music

Nunn’s long Swedish night

By John Nathan, December 11, 2008

Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

Maureen Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt in A little Night Music

Maureen Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt in A little Night Music

It could hardly be said that Trevor Nunn, whose illustrious career includes stints as artistic director of both the National Theatre and the RSC, needs a comeback. But make no mistake, after his previous musical — the awful Gone With the Wind (conspicuously absent from the list of Nunn productions in the programme biography for his latest offering) — Nunn needed this one.

And with this beautiful revival of Stephen Sondheim’s haunting homage to Ingmar Bergman’s film about lovers suspended in a twilight zone of Swedish nights and unfulfilling relationships, Nunn is back on form.

Unfortunately this also means a long evening that draws on audiences’ reserves of stamina. For this reason I doubt the success the Chocolate Factory reaped with its previous Sondheim revival, Sunday in the Park With George, will be repeated this time. At least not without the over-ponderous first half being injected with some pace.

Pare down Hugh Wheeler’s book however, and it could soar. David Farley’s hazy set of an interior furnished with distressed mirrors suggests the fast fading glory of Sweden’s upper classes. It is a quality beautifully embodied by Maureen Lipman’s wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt. With a taste for withering epigrams, Lipman’s grande dame is a tad Lady Bracknell as she laments the passing of etiquette and style, yet is haunted by the regret that her life as a courtesan had no love.

Via her dalliance with the King of Belgium she “Acquired some position/Plus a tiny Titian”, but yearns to revisit the lover she rejected — a yearning captured by Sondheim’s sweet but never saccharine melodies.

And that ache for absent love is caught, too, by Alexander Hanson’s charismatic Frederik who would be perfect for Hannah Waddingham’s statuesque, world-weary actress (and daughter to Lipman’s Armfeldt) if he wasn’t in thrall and married to an innocent wife (Jessie Buckley) who is not only young enough to be his daughter, but, frustratingly for him, still a virgin after 11 months of marriage.

Nunn reflects the oddness of these pairings with some unpredictable casting — Waddingham’s Desiree towers over Hanson’s Frederik — but this only adds to the sense that what matters to these people is something that lies far more than skin deep. Yet it is Sondheim’s ability to pin down the psychology of his characters with his lyrics that is the star of this show. “Isn’t it rich?/Isn’t it queer?”, sings the actress Desiree as she faces a life of loneliness, “Losing my timing this late/In my career”.

Amid all the longing, Kaisa Hammarlund’s maid Petra — whose yearning is not for love but uncomplicated sex — serves as a life affirming antidote to all the tortured self-regarding obsession.

It arrives after Waddingham’s heart-rending delivery of Send in the Clowns and comes as a stunning, show-stopping coup. Isn’t it rich? Yes it is.

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Last updated: 3:44pm, April 28 2009