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BWW Reviews: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, October 14 2015

What makes a hit musical? Great songs. Big stars. Engaging story. Lavish sets. Wonderful arrangements. Strong performances. Big dance routines. That "Event" feeling that's hard to quantify. Probably a few more criteria too: some that might matter more to you than to me.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I trekked out to Walthamstow to another London pub with a theatre upstairs that was putting on a version of big Broadway musical - in this case, Stephen Sondheim's 70s blockbuster, A Little Night Music.

Having seen a wildly successful Sweeney Todd performed in a Tooting Pie Shop (as did the maestro himself), I knew it was a trick that could be pulled off, but I also knew that unticking the boxes marked "Big stars" and "Lavish sets" means that the other boxes have to work all the harder if the night is to succeed. Fortunately - with a wobble here and there - they just about did.

Based on the 1950s Ingmar Bergman movie, Smiles of a Summer Night, which Hugh Wheeler's book follows closely, A Little Night Music is a sophisticated comedy of manners culminating in a party on the shortest night of the year (during which the Swedish sun barely sets).

Not without a misstep or two along the way, at some point between the sun's slow descent and its equally slow ascent, the couples re-arranged themselves and can look forward to high summer in high spirits. Yes - there's a plenty of A Midsummer Night's Dream in there too!

The costumes are fantastic, suggesting upper class, early 20th century Sweden perfectly, more than compensating for a sparse set. Dressed like that, the actors are very much our focus and, backed by Aaron Clingham's tight band of four musicians, they rise to the challenge.

Sarah Waddell is full of mature sex appeal as the rakish actress Desiree Armfeldt and she's nicely complemented by her lover, the buffoonish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Samuel Baker strutting about like a taller, more handsome, Kenneth Connor, as stupid as his actress is smart.

Jamie Birkett excels as a Cruella Deville-like Countess, acid dropping from her tongue, before her eyes widen at the prospect of stealing her man back. There's a strong performance too from Joshua Considine as poor, repressed Henrik, who was never going to make it to the seminary with those genes and is saved by his (younger) stepmother, Maria Coyne, irritating cleverly as Anne Egerman.

There's good work from the chorus too, but the standouts come in two supporting roles. Lindsey Murray's Madame Armfeldt is in a wheelchair most of the time, but she tells the story of her life with great wit and charm, her face balancing matriarchal inscrutability with a distinctly individual sense of morality that raises eyebrows at unexpected junctures.

Jodie Beth Mayer is coquettishly irresistible as Anne's maid Petra - her philosophy summed up in the splendid song "The Miller's Son", which is the vocal highlight of the evening.

London has another fringe hit on its hands, one that will attract an audience who know that compromises must be made to stage it at all. If not everyone sings as well as Ms Mayer - the actors are never more than ten yards away, so it's an unforgiving environment and some of these songs are very hard to sing! - it's a delight (and tremendous value to boot) to see a work like this performed at such close quarters.

It's not the West End - it's something better, and also something not quite as good, all at once. Go along and see for yourself.

Photo David Ovenden

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From This Author Gary Naylor