Opening this Summer’s season of Storyhouse home produced shows is this version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical comedy. The favourite musical of director Alex Clifton, the plot concerns the complicated interplay between three couples: Lawyer Frederik is married to a much younger woman but pines for his old love the actress Desiree, whilst his son Henrik is in love with his own step mother. Meanwhile the family servant Petra attempts to seduce Henrik. However Desiree is herself, having an affair with a married soldier. Desiree’s aging mother and her daughter make up the rest of the cast.
Slow to begin, the musical takes its time to introduce the characters. Daniel Flynn (brother of Jerome) as Frederick is a charismatic lead whether partnered with his young wife, the bubbly but naïve Anne (Eleanor Sutton) or his other love Desiree- played by the very experienced Serena Evans. Throughout the play the mix of comedy and sadness is strong, as all of the characters yearn for the happiness they lack, “waiting for the night to smile” as the dialogue puts it.
The witty songs and sweet harmonies make you sympathise with the characters, many of whom, at first glance are not particularly likeable given their philandering ways. There are also some darker tones , acknowledged by Clifton in his programme notes reflecting the sexual politics of its time, with Frederick contemplating whether to “ravish” his virgin wife, and the soldier Carl Magnus cynically dividing his hours of leave between his wife and his mistress. Never has infidelity sounded so sweet.
The staging is fantastic, with a sparkling backdrop and simple furniture, with the thrust stage extending out into the theatre. A chorus of 4 actors, including the returning Jonathan Dryden Taylor from the 2017 season, play named characters, but do no interact with the lead roles, instead acting as almost ghostly narrators of the unfolding drama and describing the inner feelings of leads. This is an interesting device, but those new to the play may find it confusing at first. A group of community ballroom dancers also add a touch of class to the ensemble scenes.
I was impressed by the frustrated Henrik (Richard Lounds) mournfully playing his cello his love for his father’s wife unnoticed and leading to near tragedy. The cynical and mistreated soldiers wife, Charlotte (Mary Doherty) also gets most of the best lines with her cutting sarcasm: “I frequently laugh myself to sleep contemplating my future” she says.
The final part of the musical brings us the classic song “Send in the clowns” which provides all the emotional impact of the night, bringing the themes of regret, lost love, found love and love’s redeeming power to the fore. I defy anyone to not be moved by the scene.
A Little Night Music, though not as accessible as other Storyhouse productions such as Beggar’s Opera, remains a seductive mix of comedy and sadness. Leisurely paced, I don’t think this is going to be for everyone, but will offer Chester audiences something new. Meeting both the home produced criteria and the “big show” demand, A Little Night Music is a contemplative sail on a sea of love, taking in all the highs and lows along the way. Grab a prosecco or non draught beer and enjoy!