BWW Review: HEY, OLD FRIENDS, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, October 25 2015

So, Stephen Sondheim, eh? Old enough at his 85th birthday celebration concert to have plenty of old friends - led by Nicholas Parsons, who has seven years on the New Yorker - and talented enough to have plenty of young ones too. So, with producers Richard Morris and Doug Pinchin in the Bob Geldof role, calls were made, favours were returned and an all-star cast assembled in short order (not to mention the crew, the front of house staff, even the PR) to get a show up. If a desire to honour the Grand Old Man of musical theatre was one motivator, raising money for the two designated charities (The Silver Line and The Stephen Sondheim Society) was certainly another. And what a treat the sell-out house enjoyed!

Kit and McConnel got things underway with their affectionate piss-take, People Who Like Sondheim, giving a largely middle-aged and comfortable English audience a chance to indulge one of their favourite pleasures - a laugh at their own expense. After an overture that told us that Gareth Valentine's orchestra were well up to the job of playing those sometimes awkward melodies, the evening settled into a parade of stars performing selections from the compendious Sondheim songbook. There were a few familiar faces introducing the singers too.

Highlights of a show like this are very much a matter of individual taste - and, because there's only the briefest context given for each song, one can only react to each number as a song, rather than as a part of a wider narrative. I'd suggest that this format diminishes the rather strange "Send in the Clowns" (which needs its preceding 90 minutes of character development to shine as brightly as it does in "A Little Night Music") but enhances a self-contained slug of chutzpah like "I'm Still Here" that stands, indeed positively demands, a space all of its own, whether in "Follies" or not.

Millicent Martin, looking barely aged at all since her TW3 days, gave a splendidly knowing and naughty "I Never Do Anything Twice", singling out her husband in the audience for special attention and amusing the rest of us enormously. Charlotte Page delivered her passionate interpretation of "Losing My Mind", which succeeded in knocking Liza Minnelli's Grammy Living Legends performance out of my consciousness - no mean feat when I've seen that YouTube clip a dozen times or more! The biggest reception of the night was earned by Martin Milnes and Dominic Ferris, who mashed up 33 Sondheim classics with just Mr Ferris's piano and Mr Milnes's extraordinary falsetto voice to work with - look out for those two on the cabaret and festival circuits. There was good work too from an ageless Anita Harris, the most super of troupers Bonnie Langford, and, surprising me, Jason Manford - who can really sing!

The Man Himself could not be present but, via a message relayed over the theatre like the Voice of God, he thanked everyone involved and, with half a smile no doubt on his lips, said that he looked forward to visiting London for his next birthday. We hope you will, Sir.

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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