Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends review – merrily they roll along

For those who know all the words to his shows – of which there are many – the death of Stephen Sondheim in November 2021 felt all the more poignant because it happened during a global pandemic. So a tribute revue in May last year, celebrating 50 years of his music and lyrics, was momentous: a celebration of Being Alive, performed by an all-star lineup, some of whom – Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie – were from the demographic that had been most at risk. Old Friends had just one performance before being sealed away in theatre anecdote (and a forthcoming cast recording).

Its revival now as a commercial run raises questions about the limits of the revue format more than four decades after Side by Side by Sondheim brought his music to London. There is no narrative, leaving Stephen Mear’s choreography and Matthew Bourne’s staging to provide the through-line, which they do with wit and fluency. But it is akin to peering, Cinderella-like, through the windows at a dazzling ball to which you are denied entry. Here are Mrs Lovett and Sweeney Todd (Lea Salonga and Jeremy Secomb) hilariously cooking up their murderous pies; there is a young Seurat (Bradley Jaden) trying to make a world out of paint dots on a Sunday in the park.

Several sleights of casting are winks to Sondheim connoisseurs, and it’s a credit to his understanding of common humanity they also work well on their own terms. Could I Leave You?, from Follies, becomes a crescendo of camp exasperation from Gavin Lee. The great Bernadette Peters, who created iconic Sondheim roles on Broadway including the witch in Into the Woods, appears as Red Riding Hood, bringing an audibly weathered vocal wisdom to I Know Things Now, about a lost little girl who wished she had listened to her mother. She gives the song a new resonance in the era of historic abuse cases, as a devilish wolf (Jaden again) brandishes a priapic tail at her.

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The running thread, insofar as there is one, is the passing of time, whether refracted through comedy – Bonnie Langford’s efforts to extract herself from the splits drawing attention to the fact that she has just executed them perfectly – or through the melancholy that permeates the best of Sondheim. Clare Burt’s boozily brittle The Ladies Who Lunch and Janie Dee’s tongue-twisting The Boy from … are reminders of how brilliantly he wrote for older women.

One could quibble with some of the selections: why so much from Gypsy and West Side Story when he only wrote the lyrics? The answer, of course, is to reel in very different generations of fans. That’s show business, a love of which animates the ensemble numbers, against a multi-dimensional design by Matt Kinley (set) and George Reeve (projection) and Warren Letton (lighting), which segues from New York skyline to Parisian waterside and miniature burlesque theatre. There are enough high points along the way to suggest that perhaps it is best enjoyed as a pointillist painting, “made of flecks of light and dark and parasols”.