Stuart King

Review: STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S OLD FRIENDS at the Gielgud Theatre

Surely one of the most hotly anticipated theatrical events of the year is STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S OLD FRIENDS whose run at the Gielgud Theatre follows a previously sold-out gala performance which celebrated the great man by revisiting much of the extraordinary output he created during his lifetime.

Jeremy Secomb and the Company of Old Friends. Photo by Danny KaanJeremy Secomb and the Company of Old Friends. Photo by Danny Kaan

When the world lost Stephen Sondheim nearly two years ago there was a palpable outpouring of grief in the theatre world and beyond. Sondheim had been the accepted master with words and music whose innate understanding of sophisticated comedy and the profoundest of human emotions had resulted in works of such brilliance and breadth of diversity that his passing created a seemingly un-fillable hole. This production devised by Cameron Mackintosh attempts to revisit and celebrate many of the exceptional moments which the great man gave us through his genius, intellect, wit and heart.

The impressive pool of assembled talent — many of whom have headlined productions around the world (in some cases for decades), includes Bernadette Peters, Lea Salonga, Joanna Riding, Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee, Clare Burt, Jeremy Secomb, Gavin Lee and many younger talents who have been establishing themselves in more recent years, like Bradley Jaden, Jason Pennycooke, Jac Yarrow, Beatrice Penny-Touré and Christine Allado. Their combined stagecraft and energy together with the remaining members of the excellent cast have been honed by the established combined talents of Matthew Bourne, Stephen Mear and Julia McKenzie to create a dazzling amalgamation of some of the finest moments to ever grace a stage.

With such a back catalogue, the real issue is what to cull? Sondheim’s skill means that any curator of his body of work has sufficient material to mount such a spectacular three time over without ever having to scratch their head for inclusions or fillers. Here, sections recreating high points from A Little Night Music, West Side Story, Into the Woods, Company, Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, Follies and Sunday in the Park With George were each given their moment in the spotlight, much to the combined joy of those present to witness the sheer breadth of brilliance on show.

Performers naturally love to be given material which stretches them and showcases their interpretative skills and here on a simple staircase set, with an orchestra under the baton of Alfonso Casado Trigo, they repeatedly up the ante resulting in an unmissable deluge of delights which saw the evening pass in a flash and which provided a spectacular homage to the undisputed master of musical theatre.