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Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Opera Holland Park

Sondheim's musical is performed in the open air, starring Janie Dee

Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Opera Holland Park

Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Opera Holland Park The show must go on: it's been the rallying cry of our beleaguered industry, the message emblazoned on Theatre Support Fund+'s T-shirts and mugs. On Saturday night, we saw that fighting spirit in person, as Janie Dee, co-producer and star of this concert version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music, marched into a pitiless downpour and cried to the heavens, "Don't you love farce?!". As far as spine-tinglingly theatrical moments go, that one will be hard to top.

We the audience also played an active role in this musical theatre-as-extreme sport experiment. There's no giant canopy this summer at Opera Holland Park, which was unable to stage its season as planned, and has instead - thanks to the swift and creative response of OHP's Director James Clutton - presented these very gratefully received concerts. Us 200 audience members sat on chairs, socially distanced (and open to the elements), while the performers moved between two mini marquees, perched in front of the semi-derelict Holland House like a pair of pert meringues.

As a setting for this Sondheim musical about fading glamour, and guests in various romantic entanglements circling one another throughout a long summer night during their "weekend in the country", it was pretty close to perfect. And if it came with a side order of British summertime deluge, well, so what? Everyone stoically flipped up the hood of their macs, waved away bad memories of being stuck in a soggy Welsh field on their Duke of Edinburgh's expedition, and gave themselves over to the performers - many of whom followed Dee's lead in shunning their shelters and embracing the operatic might of the storm.

If anything, the weather conditions tightened that bond between cast and audience, the kind of electricity you only get during a live performance, when anything might happen. Adding to that sense of spontaneity, a Holland Park pigeon made a brief cameo (naturally, while Dee's Desiree was comparing Frederik's new, very young wife to a bird), and later, a nearby flock of pigeons cooed and, well, enjoyed one another's company - just as the bedroom farce element of the show went into full swing.

But I would be selling this production short to say that it was merely impressive that it was there at all - even if I can't escape some of the emotion in attending my first live theatre since March. Dee and fellow producer Alex Parker assembled a crack company in record time, one that thoroughly deserves a full run if/when such things are possible. Alastair Knights' brisk staging, bringing the show in at around two hours - no interval - is also to be commended, adding a sense of urgency to this somewhat languorous piece.

Clad in a glamorous red gown, Dee reprised the role of chaotic actress Desiree with delightful flair, as well as with thoughtful consideration for how this seasoned thesp mixes drama and reality - only to be perturbed when the latter doesn't follow her script. "Send in the Clowns" (or "Send in the Drowned", as we had it) is her great moment of reckoning, when romantic slapstick turns to tragedy, and Dee delivered it with passionate conviction. It didn't hurt that the sky wept with her.

Wonderful, too, was Damian Humbley, playing not just Frederik's insouciance, but also all the sly comic beats of his sexual frustration, wavering conscience over his liaison with Desiree, and amusement about her new lover, the bombastic Count Carl-Magnus. Nadim Naaman superbly delivered the hypocrisy of that dragoon's bristling fury about Desiree's possible infidelity - never mind his callous treatment of his own wife - and ridiculous readiness to duel.

Daniele Fiamnaya gave a skilled reading of cagey newlywed Anne, whose determination to control her circumstances is fatally disrupted by Desiree's reappearance, and expressed that panic via gorgeous, soaring top notes. Her redeeming quality is genuine affection for Frederik's tormented teenage son, Henrik, played with mournful sincerity by Freddie King.

Hilary Harwood deliciously relished every one of Madame Armfeldt's life lessons, based on her skilfully extracting prizes from past lovers, while Ella Tronson showed Fredrika's confusion, caught between the competing lifestyles and belief systems of mother and grandmother. As saucy maid Petra, Laura Pitt-Pulford came close to stealing the show with her commanding rendition of "The Miller's Son", but the night's standout was probably Joanna Riding, giving a blazing portrayal of Carl-Magnus's embittered spouse Charlotte. Her searingly caustic quips - "Lemonade? I'd choke" - dolorous aside "Happy birthday to me", and attempted seduction of Frederik and his "ravishing cravat" were both hilarious and utterly heartbreaking.

The main cast was wonderfully supported by Sharif Afifi, Kayi Ushe, Hiba Elchike, Emma Harrold and Emma Kingston, plus an eight-piece band - with clever Jason Carr orchestrations that, rather than feeling limited, emphasised individual brilliance in Sondheim's plaintive score and seemed to match the emotional pitch of the actors more precisely. Bravo to Will Hillman, Polly Wiltshire, Dave Hornberger, Adam Higgs, Hannah Lawrence, Alice Lee, Alex Rider and Isaac McCullough, under Parker's baton, who played on, Titanic fashion, as the water pooled around them.

Every show will doubtless feel like it has some resonance with our current circumstances, but there are definite parallels here - not least the surprising realisation that there's actually a reference to quarantining during a plague! But beyond that, the socially distanced staging actually worked well for a piece in which everyone is slightly disconnected, like the family that sings a trio while worlds apart. That section, too, is all about longing, and not knowing when the wait will end - now, later, soon?

And although there's plenty of fun poked at theatrical types, this is also a fond portrait, sympathetic to this uncertain profession and the personal sacrifices it entails. Just as the musical ultimately declares that love, in all its strife, is worth it - coming down on the side of the younger generation's hope, rather than the pervasive cynicism - so too it seems to declare Desiree's artistic conviction worthwhile. That's a joyful message to receive as we fight on, together, because a collective effort is what will win out. An unforgettable night.

A Little Night Music was at Opera Holland Park on 15 August

Read our interview with Janie Dee

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

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