“Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company!
No strings, good times, room hums, company!”
There is pretty much nowhere else I’d rather be right now than sitting back in the Gielgud Theatre and watching Company. It IS a good time. The room DOES hum. Because (I want to make clear from the start) this is a rare and special thing: a new West End show that feels fresh and totally original and impeccably thought through, performed by the kind of cast who’d top my list of fantasy dinner party guests: Patti LuPone! Mel Giedroyc! Rosalie Craig!
It manages something rare – it feels fresh, while being set in a world that’s very far from this one. These are thirty-somethings whose identity is defined by their social lives, not by their jobs: by the photos on their walls, not by the cash in their bank accounts. Raising kids in Manhattan in 2018 is, as far as I can make out, a Sisyphean struggle against debt, long hours culture and a nightmarish public transit system. Here, it’s just a background hum in a world of party games and marital bickering. But there’s something else desolate cutting through the joyous noise, something that feels a bit more of this era.
“Another hundred people just got off of the train…”
I wasn’t expecting Company, arguably one of Sondheim’s perkier musicals, to be staged as a haunting evocation of derealisation, even though the alienating vastness of city life is burned into songs like ‘Another Hundred People’. But Marianne Elliott’s staging is remarkable in ways that go deeper than the most obvious one: aka that Bobby is now Bobbie, a 35-year-old single woman who’s obsessively scrutinised for signs of uxoriousness by everyone who crosses her path. She’s forever being looked at, quietly envied or judged wanting. And these scenes are broken up by interludes where she looks at herself, as though she’s floating outside her own body, detached from the stresses of a world that’s increasingly nightmarish in its conformity.
In the most vivid scene, she sees her apartment fill up with versions of herself (played by the other female cast members, wearing wigs to match Rosalie Craig’s red hair). They stumble in drunk, or nurse bumps, or babies, all bustling from bed to wardrobe to bathroom, a whole life crammed into one sardine-tin apartment. Another recurring motif is the giant balloons that spell out Bobbie’s age, 35. Gradually, they become so huge they crush everything else in the room, and Bobbie bats them away in a succession of hilarious struggles with these gaudy symbols of her own mortality. Bunny Christie’s set design is a place of dreams and nightmares, a set of clinical neon boxes that become the apartments of her friends, train carriages, or a tiny balcony onto the city below: all ringing with a kind of anonymity that made me think of the long chain of rented white rooms that each city-dweller moves through.
Her friends are deliciously individual – there’s Jonathan Bailey’s frantic, brilliant rendition of ‘Not Getting Married’, which this production artfully gender-switches so that it’s a man’s fear of his forthcoming gay wedding. There’s Mel Giedroyc’s utterly hilarious martial arts moves, which fell her husband as part of their endless suppressed marital rivalry. But there’s also a sense that these individuals could be interchangeable, could be anyone. The scary thing about city life, one that’s heightened by dating apps like Tindr, isn’t really the cliche of “stranger danger” and the threat of the unknown. It’s also the knowledge that you’re not special: you’re one of teeming millions, with innocuous millions more of potential partners out there, a chance meeting or swipe away. Company might be all about being a debonair 20th century bachelor, but it also feels horribly relevant to the era of 21st century online dating, and the infinite possibilities it holds, linked with the superficiality of the connection each offers. It makes total sense that Bobbie would end up dating a buff but dopey air steward – he’s awful to talk to, but good looking shirtless enough that her triumphant right-swipe in the previous scene is justified.
“Side by side by side by side by…”
There’s another kind of derealisation involved in Company. And that’s the sense that (if you already know the show, through other productions or the film or the cast recording) that everything you’re watching is layered over, responding to the original. But not in a dry feels-like-an-exercise way. What’s special about this version is that (unlike most 20th century musical theatre composers) Sondheim is still around, so he’s been able to work with Marianne Elliott to subtly shift the skeleton that sits under this show – and their collaboration has a sensitivity that’s miles from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s weak recent Cats update (feat the cringiest rap imaginable). Originally, Bobby was a bit of a cipher: he slotted into people’s lives, part of the furniture. But the not-so-subtle differences between the ways that different genders are written (plus Rosalie Craig’s consistently wry, human performance) means that female Bobbie, feels entirely different, full of personality and spirit. The idea that she should have her pick of partners, all ready and waiting, is unrevolutionary when attributed to a man, but when attributed to a woman, it feels subversive and empowering. She’s not waiting to be asked. She’s doing the asking. And her deliberate singledom is a bold stand in a culture that says that every 35-year-old single woman must spend her time tricking men into matrimony or weeping over her deep frozen eggs.
‘Side by Side’ is the number where the rest of the cast reveal that they need Bobbie much more than she needs them. She’s an essential outside witness to their lives, someone to gloss over the awkwardnesses of enforced coupledom (‘Think what you can keep ignoring/side by side by side’). Bobby, however much he strung along his three female partners, is a character it’s easy to read as gay: the charming, unthreatening bachelor, the man about town whose freedom everyone envies, even as they goad them into joining them in matrimony. In a world of established homonormativity and limited pressure on men to settle down, he’s not a person who exists anymore. But his freedom, given to a woman, is exhilarating. It’s the freedom to be as sexy as ever at age 35, to be self-sufficient, to be happily single, to be debonair – to embody the kind of female role that just doesn’t exist anywhere in musical theatre (or even in ‘straight’ theatre or film or tv).
“Here’s to the ladies who lunch/ Everybody laugh”
Perhaps the most famous song in Company, ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ itemises the possibilities of female maturity. There’s playing smart with gallery trips. There’s playing wife, keeping house. There’s getting depressed at home. Or there’s lunching sumptuously in caftans, which, however laughable the song might suggest it could be, is still triumphant: a survival. In Marianne Elliott’s production, it wins a new poignancy. It’s an older woman’s version of ‘Rage, rage, against the dying of the light’, sung to a younger woman who’s already shown she’s got no intention of doing otherwise. Set in a soulless, slick cocktail bar, Patti LuPone’s performance of the song sparks with life and energy and defiance. Sondheim’s work is rightly celebrated for writing older female roles who are anything but pitiable, and here, his song creates an alternate future for Bobbie, just as this production creates an alternate future for Company. And it’s one that’s impossible to laugh at.
Company is on at Gielgud Theatre until 30th March 2019. More info and tickets here.