Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Sondheim's musical, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, gets an accomplished revival

By: Sep. 18, 2023
Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
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Review: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre “Work is what you do for others, art is what you do for yourself.”

Stephen Sondheim’s introspective work was inspired by the innovative artistic technique of pointillist painter Georges Seurat, but reflects more widely on artists, the creative process and the place of groundbreaking art in society.

In 1880s Paris, the eponymous painter attempts to weave art out of the lives surrounding him but fails to see what his art is costing him, and ultimately creates his masterpiece at the expense of love. A hundred years later his great-grandson George is also grappling with the purpose of his art, and it is only through connections with his antecedents that he is able to bring closure for himself and his great-grandparents.

Starting with a blank page, Georges, played with a charismatic intensity by Alastair Brookshaw, sketches in the landscape of the Island of La Grande Jatte. His mistress Dot (played here by Laura Sillett) is his long-suffering model, dragged at dawn to pose in increasingly uncomfortable heat ("Sunday In The Park With George").

As the scene grows, the people who Georges observes and sketches come to life, showing us snippets of their everyday existence as they pass through Georges’s orbit ("Gossip"). Even the dogs in the park are anthropomorphised in an entertaining soliloquy by the artist ("The Day Off"), which leads the audience to question how much of any of the other characters’ inner lives are real, and how much are they puppets created from Georges’s observations.

The exception is Dot, whose place as the emotional centre of the piece is emphasised by the connection Laura Sillet creates with the audience from the first scene. It is no doubt not an accident that Sondheim changed the name of the historical Seurat’s lover to a word which the artist uses repeatedly in creating his painting; his chorus of “dot dot dot” reflects that his art encompasses and surpasses everything else his life.

In the tussle for Georges’ attention, his lover finds that she will always come second, and so makes the practical decision to move on in order to support herself and her unborn child ("We Do Not Belong Together"). Georges, meanwhile, succeeds in pulling together all of the characters into his masterpiece, in an ensemble number "Sunday" which demonstrates the strength of the whole cast.

The second act opens still in the painting, but quickly moves on to the art world of 1980s America. Georges’s grandson, also named George, introduces his own newest installation piece alongside his grandmother Marie, the daughter of Dot and Georges.

The 20th Century George, also played, although with a contrasting characterisation, by Alastair Brookshaw, has inherited something of his great-grandfather’s ability as a puppet-master of the crowd, but the 1984 characters are less easy to control ("Putting It Together"). George is struggling with the direction in which his art should go, and suffers the comments and criticisms of the art world before turning to his grandmother Marie ("Children and Art"), through whom he also hears from his great-grandmother Dot, who advises him that he must not stay trapped doing what he’s done before, but say something new ("Move On"). With George returning to the island where his great-grandfather’s masterpiece was set, the piece ends with a moving reprise of the Act 1 finale, as the two timelines merge in a reflection of the enduring quality of great art.

Musically and visually, Sunday in the Park with George is a challenging work, but Quick Fantastic have used their talented cast and the vision of their design team to create an engrossing piece which draws viewers into the story through clever engagement: the audience are a confident of Dot’s, then of Georges’, then become the canvas itself.

The Mill Studio is an intimate, flexible space, so is well suited to facilitating this close confidence between actors and audience. Charlotte Conquest’s direction, along with the musical staging by Joanna Goodwin, firmly draws the audience into the lives of the characters, and the fast pace of the switches between scenes and viewpoints means the action never drags

Since Georges Seurat’s pointillistic artwork is so central to this musical, that must be the starting point for all aspects of the production design. Although using a minimum of set, the projections (designed by Beth Mann) onto a black scrim create a strong identity for each scene, and were able to move and change with the mood. Likewise the lighting (designed by Jack Weir) subtly directs the audience’s attention and accentuates the shifts between realistic and introspective scenes.

Sara Scott’s costumes are superb at creating the illusion of bringing A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to life, and likewise in the second act of bringing us suddenly into the second half of the 20th Century. The only aspect of the design that I found disappointing was George’s Chromolume #7 artwork in the 20th Century art gallery, which was perhaps deliberately underwhelming.

The orchestra is excellent; although they are partially hidden behind the scrim at the back of the stage, they are visible through an archway in the centre. This creates a connection between the musicians and the singers, but unfortunately it also disrupts the projections, which lost some of their vividness as a result of the backlight from the orchestra. It was a shame that two of the key features of the production, the orchestral music and the art being represented, are in competition.

Through this work, Sondheim explored the role of art and the artist, clearly drawing on his own experience of musical art. Forty years on from its original production, the “modern” half of the show is also now a period piece, but the messages, about the pain but likewise endurance of art, and the tension between the personal and artistic, have a timelessness which makes them as pertinent now as they were when first written. Quick Fantastic’s interpretation brings out the emotional depth of the leading characters, supported by a strong and unified ensemble, to present the piece as a compelling whole.

Sunday in the Park with George is at the Mill Studio at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford until 23 September

Photo credit: Danny Kaan


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