With the Whingers to a Sunday matinee of 'A Little Night Music' in its Trevor Nunn reincarnation at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, auditorium neatly reoriented from the womblike velvet tunnel structure for Cage aux Folles to something resembling a miniaturised hexagon, pre-theatre lunch nicely presented, seats now numbered and reserved, toilets clean, doors to automatic, all boxes ticked for an enjoyable afternoon ...
In this extraordinarily classy production, with money spent in ways to which the Menier is unaccustomed - set, costumes, cast, lighting (needs a few more shillings in the meter, Trevor) and backstage, this production looks destined for a West End transfer before it opens. Except I hope it doesn't, because the intimacy of the production generates an involvement in the family lives of the lawyer Fredrik and the actress Desiree that I just don't remember from the Judi Dench version in the Olivier in 1995.
In fact, all I can recall of the Olivier production was the cast, including an increasingly breathless Dench, running the huge distances on and off stage between every scene. It could have been directed by Sebastian Coe.
With compactness comes brevity. For Trevor Nunn to bring in a show at under three hours is something of a rarity, but this one keeps a good pace despite the languorous nature of the Swedish summer night, and its underlying themes of despair.
What drove it for me was the energetic and realistic performances of Alexander Hanson (every time I see him deliver another cracker of a male lead I wonder how he failed so badly as Captain von Trapp?) and even more cracking Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, making her a living, breathing, funny, fallible, sexually urgent and credible beauty in ways I can't recall other actresses achieving in the same role.
It's Waddingham's wholly believable central performance that reminds us this is a comedy. Too many directors have treated ALNM as if it were some Ibsenesque holy writ, overshadowed by the Guardian-reader movie and its self-styled auteur Ingmar Bergman. For once, Nunn accentuates the base comedy, and it could do with even more to reposition this as an ENJOYABLE piece of Sondheim, rather than a museum piece out of his 'stultifying' box like Sunday in the Park.
What this production could NOT do with is the unbalancing presence of that old Golders Green department store Maureen and Lipman whose contents have yet again been spilled on the London stage. Teetering between a dessicated Thatcher and Miss Havisham, Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt as a powdered corpse, picking up every vowel with sugar tongs and flicking them at the audience with her trademark sideways glance in stark contrast to the naturalism all around her.
Trevor Nunn sat on the aisle across from me and scribbled notes almost continuously through the show with a green-illuminated pen-light. After Lipman stretched her number 'Liaisons' into a caramel-jawed dirge, I swear I saw him write "phone Sheila Hancock".
Lipman aside, the singing in the show is excellent. Hanson's rich baritone pins Fredrik perfectly, and even the 'more actress than singer' members of the cast give excellent musical performances. Ingenue Jessie Buckley (apparently a runner-up Nancy in the TV search for a star programme) features strongly as Fredrik's young wife Anne and assails Sondheim's dressy tessitura with bravado.
The Liebeslieder or chorus of smaller characters deserve special mention. I always enjoy comparing the shapes and sizes of the bit-part players to the leads, and try to match the more obvious understudies. Here it also works where an older lady, a tall woman, a pert girl and two heroic male-leads-in-waiting are assembled, but this time they are surprisingly fine singers and actors, and if the curse of the Menier were to call any of them into a lead role, it would not diminish the production at all.
Destined for a three month run, I'm unsure how the economics work. Even though it will sell out, 13 weeks of full houses will only generate about £600k, and I can't see how that will pay this large cast of experienced actors, and Mr Nunn, what they deserve.