It was Guildhall School of Music & Drama who staged the UK premiere of Furth and Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in 1983, and this is a good year to see it produced again, following the ground-breaking productions of Follies at the NT and Company in the West End. This production fully deserves to be set alongside those two in its understanding of Sondheim and faithfulness to his style.
Once again, the experienced and expert Martin Connor is at the helm, and manages to get the very best performances possible from his young cast, aided immeasurably by MD Steven Edis and his accomplished 15-piece band. There is sensitive and stylish choreography from Ewan Jones, deftly marking the changing decades as do the extensive array of costumes worn by the large cast.
Thanks to those costumes, and the set and lighting designs of Adam Wiltshire and James Smith, the production looks top-notch and manages to cope with the very wide Silk St Theatre stage. Many Guildhall students are involved in technical aspects of the production and it is good to see them given the chance to work alongside professionals of this calibre. And the montage of photos created for the opening was a clever touch.
Performances, as expected, are all good and sometimes exceptional. Although this is a show that mainly features on a central trio of friends and the people around them, the cast in this production enables the use of a much larger ensemble than might usually be the case, and this works very well. Whether deftly reassembling the set, commenting on the action or watching from a distance, this ensemble is a character in itself, but also composed of carefully thought-out individuals.
As the decades roll back and the cast get nearer to their real ages, they get ever more convincing; an interesting contrast to most professional productions using actors who are considerably older. This has the effect of enhancing the poignancy of that final rooftop scene, very well staged here, when all three were so young, hopeful and unspoiled by success.
With 29 in the cast, it is impossible to mention more than a few, although kudos to Chloe Caemmerer and Declan Baxter for their playing of the oldest characters in the piece. Isabella Brownson is an entirely believable Gussie, properly unrecognisable in the later scenes as the diva she will become. Playing opposite her as Joe is Nick Apostolina whose portrayal succeeds through technique and commitment despite looking so young. And Erica Nicole Rothman makes much of the less showy part of Beth, and is a quietly believable and beautifully sung presence.
Oli Higginson is a conflicted and determined Frank, and creates a reverse character arc which convinces. As Mary, Julia Randall makes her mark early on, showing us the depths to which she has sunk (as a critic, no less…), before shedding the pounds and the angst to reveal the hope and expectation of youth. Joseph Potter gave, for me, the performance of the evening as Charley, growing ever younger most convincingly and showing the real heartache at the centre of this far from joyful piece.
As I have said before, anyone living within reach of one of our leading drama schools is missing a trick if they do not attend performances like this; full professional-standard productions at a fraction of the West End ticket price and a chance to see the stars of the future. The house was deservedly full.