First published in The Times, Tuesday July 7 2015
As a producing house in Scotland with the audacity to stage at least one musical each year, Pitlochry Festival Theatre continues to find itself in a minority of one. Having impressed audiences and awards panels alike with recent polished productions of crowd-pleasers such as My Fair Lady and White Christmas, artistic director John Durnin and his team have now set themselves the challenge of tackling something altogether more nuanced.
A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 musical based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, is still best known for the song Send in the Clowns, the only breakout hit of Sondheim’s long and varied career as a Broadway composer and lyricist. The ballad arrives late in the second act, with the middle-aged actress Desirée Armfeldt (played here by Basienka Blake) reflecting on her life and choices after having been spurned by her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Dougal Lee).
This set piece is beautifully realised in Durnin’s production, with Blake capturing just the right measure of world-weary humour and regret in an impressively restrained performance. The scene perfectly encapsulates Sondheim and Wheeler’s wry take on romantic coupling with all its messy compromises, sneaky triumphs, humiliations and defeats.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Other elements of the production don’t cohere quite so effectively. The second act sequence, in which characters stumble through the pine forest of a country estate one midsummer night in search of their hearts’ desires, is played too self-consciously for laughs rather than simply trusting the audience to draw their own conclusions about the absurdities of courtship.
Musically, too, the show is uneven. While the excellent five-strong chorus that wanders in and out of the action asking “Remember, darling?” compensates for some patchy solo singing, the familiar conceit of having members of the ensemble play instruments onstage isn’t always entirely in tune with the live band, conducted by Jon Beales, the musical director.
The production engages in spite of these flaws, thanks to some agile staging on Charles Cusick Smith’s elegant stage-within-a-stage, and a handful of exceptional performances. Blake and Lee display a touching chemistry as the old friends offered a second chance at love. Jacqueline Dutoit, as the ancient Madame Armfeldt, gives a passionate rendition of Liaisons, in which she looks back through the silvery midsummer glow at her scandalous past. And Isla Carter, as the earthy maid Petra, shows a remarkable facility for the complexities of Sondheim’s oeuvre in a sparkling rendition of The Miller’s Son, the composer’s unabashed celebration of the pleasures of the flesh.