Just out of Side By Side By Sondheim at The Brockley Jack in deepest South London which, though it proved a real pain to get to, is not only one of the most welcoming pub theatres it’s ever been my pleasure to visit, but also appears very well equipped and attached to a top notch boozer.
Back to the review. This is the show which you may know was originally to have counted Sue Pollard among its cast, though sadly the lovely Ms P withdrew some weeks ago clearing the way for Sarah Redmond to take her place.
The trio of singers on offer, Ms Redmond, Marianne Benedict, and 2015 Stephen Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year finalist, Grant McConvey, are under the musical direction of Stuart Pedlar, MD and part of the original creative team when the revue was first put together in 1974. Pedlar, when not at the piano, also takes up the Ned Sherrin role of narrator, ably assisted on a second piano by Dan Glover.
The show has passed through several incarnations over the years as Stephen Sondheim has added to his back catalogue, but what we get here is what might be considered an ‘urtext’, the show utilising only material written by Sondheim in some form or other prior to 1974, including those shows such as Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz?, and West Side Story, for which the venerable New Yorker, 85 this year, acted as lyricist to other composers’ music, in this case Styne, Rodgers, and Bernstein respectively.
The evening commences with ‘Comedy Tonight’, the out-of-town replacement for ‘Love Is In The Air’ (which follows), the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, and credited with giving that show its success.
In quick succession we get songs from A Little Night Music, Company, Evening Primrose, including a spirited, if rather difficult to hear, rendering of ‘Getting Married Today’ from Company, and the one-joke song ‘Can That Boy Foxtrot’, cut from Follies to be replaced by ‘I’m Still Here’.
More songs from Company and Follies finish off the first half.
Following the interval there is a definite increase in both pace and passion, with a very nice opening of ‘Everybody Says Don’t’ from one of Sondheim’s rare turkeys, Anyone Can Whistle, and after another couple of songs things really start to get going with a wonderfully head-voiced rendition of ‘A Boy Like That’ into ‘I Have a Love’ from West Side Story, where both Benedict and Redmond shine, finally showing us the real vocal power of which they’re capable.
Redmond follows this up with precise comic timing for the song ‘The Boy From…’, the Sondheim/Mary Rodgers parody of the Girl From Ipanema, though even in this, in spite of all the very funny face pulling – Sarah Redmond has the most expressively comedic eyes I’ve ever seen in a woman on stage – some of the complicated lyrics get lost.
From then on it’s a party to the end, and the piece really hits home with the energy I wish it had had from the beginning. There’s nice gender-swap casting of McConvey at the end singing ‘Could I Leave You?’ – his finest number – and a bit more Follies, a very clever mash-up of show-tunes, and Side By Side ends as it began.
The theatre is well set up, Anthony Whiteman’s choreography is first rate (though I’d get Marianne Benedict out of those heels and into flats as she’d move a lot better and it would do wonders for her posture), and Ben Jacobs lighting design is subtle and effective, and certainly the finest I’ve ever seen in a space so small.
Overall I’d suggest the cast try to relax into their roles, and in the words of Arthur Laurents in Gypsy ‘Sing out Louise!’. This is a venue which holds fifty so there shouldn’t really be any difficulty making yourself heard right up to the back row.
You’ve got a great show guys. Relax, project, smile, and enjoy it.