The opening waltz of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with partners swapping frantically, gives us a hint of the antics to come, worthy of a Feydeau farce.
Madame Armfeldt, the doyenne of the family, lives with her granddaughter Fredrika and gets occasional visits from her daughter Desirée, Fredrika’s mum, who is a famous actress. Solicitor Fredrik Egerman lives with his wife Anne and son Henrik. So far so good, but Fredrik gets tickets for him and Anne to see a play starring Desirée which brings back memories for him (and Desirée) of the affair they had 14 years ago. Oh, by the way, Fredrika is about 13; the hint’s in the name. Fredrik is not getting what he needs at home; Anne is 18 and still a virgin although they’ve been married 11 months, so he sneaks off to see Desirée where his needs are met but there is a post-coital interruption from Count Carl-Magnus who is Desirée’s current (married) lover and not best pleased. With me so far?
Added to that, Henrik is trying to get off with the, ahem, very experienced maid Petra (who seems to come from Northern Ireland), and the Count’s wife Charlotte unburdens herself to Anne and tells her that Fredrik and Desirée are at it again. And that’s just Act One, which ends with a rousing rendering of A Weekend in the Country, setting the scene for Act Two in Madame’s house.
Although it’s a musical, verging on an operetta, you can see there’s quite a lot of plot to fit in, and the large cast of 13 actor/musicians do it with gusto. The two main characters are Fredrik (Alastair Brookshaw) and Desirée (Josefina Gabrielle) and they’re brilliant, with great chemistry between them (except when he’s telling her You Must Meet My Wife!). Their doubts emerge in Act Two, culminating in a touching version of Send in the Clowns.
Alex Hammond gives a fine comic portrayal of the dim but belligerent Count, and there are strong performances from Dillie Keane as Madame, with her reminiscences of a string of high-ranking lovers, Phoebe Fildes as the Countess, Benedict Salter as Henrik – a difficult part to play – and Christina Tedders as Petra. The black-clad characters coming on from time to time like a Greek chorus was a nice touch.
Director Paul Foster manages to make sense out of the potential chaos, and the complex lighting plot from Howard Hudson adds to the atmosphere.
It was great fun and highly entertaining, but for me there was one big problem: the music often drowned the singing; such a shame to miss Sondheim’s great lyrics. Maybe it was where I was sitting, maybe it was too many players on stage at the same time, maybe it was the way the actors were miked up, but I’ve never had this problem with musicals at the Watermill before.