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Theatre Review: Merrily We Roll Along - Harold Pinter Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Merrily We Roll Along
Harold Pinter Theatre

Review by Emma Curry

The Menier Chocolate Factory has produced another hit West-End transfer in Stephen Sondheims bittersweet musical Merrily We Roll Along, now showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until July.

The musical was something of a flop when it was first performed in 1981, savaged by most of the critics and running for only sixteen performances. Watching Maria Friedman’s new production last night, however, it was hard to understand why. This was an energetic, enthralling, and emotionally-nuanced show that pushed the audience to think about how their own lives have been shaped by crucial choices (or lack thereof).

The show opens in 1976 with a party at the house of Franklin Shepherd (Mark Umbers), a Michael Bay-style flashy film producer (and former composer), who is continually assuring his old friend Mary (Jenna Russell) that his next film will be something more than just a ‘formula picture’. As events at the party escalate, we hear of Franklin’s falling-out with his old lyricist Charley Kringas (Damian Humbley); observe the tensions between his current wife and his new fling; and learn of the difficulties of his earlier divorce and custody battle. How did things get this bad for Franklin? The production answers this question in intriguing style by continuing its story from here in reverse, gradually working back through the years to 1957, when Franklin, Mary, and Charley first met on a rooftop, watching the launch of Sputnik.

The narrative in reverse is a devastatingly effective technique for telling this story, showing the audience how youthful optimism and excitement have become deadened and warped by bad choices and commercial forces. The final scene on the rooftop is simultaneously beautiful and heart-breaking, as we witness the first flickers of friendship developing between the central trio, whilst knowing of the estrangement that is to come in subsequent years. The wonderful chemistry between Umbers, Russell, and Humbley perfectly emphasises the poignancy of this final/first scene, and makes the subsequent events even more striking.

The songs are of course a big part of any musical, and there are some excellent and memorable numbers throughout this show that help negotiate and accentuate the emotional nuances of the story. Highlights for me were ‘Franklin Shepherd, Inc’, Charley’s bitter yet jaunty rant on a TV talk show over Franklin’s inability to focus on any of their joint projects, performed with wonderful energy and humour by Humbley; and the emotional ‘Not a Day Goes By’, beautifully sung by Clare Foster as Beth, Franklin’s first wife, on both their wedding day and their subsequent meeting in the divorce court.

All in all, this is a striking and refreshingly unusual musical that asks interesting questions about friendship, love, and the nature of success. If you missed it first time round at the Chocolate Factory, I’d highly recommend catching it now!

Four stars ✭✭✭✭

Listings Information:

Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN
Dates: 23 April to 27 July 2013
Press Night: Wednesday 1 May 2013, 7pm
Performances: Monday- Saturday evenings at 7.45pm (Matinees Thursday and Saturday at 2.45pm)
Tickets: Previews: £10 - £39.50
Post Opening: £10 - £59.50
Day seats at £20 each, available in person only, at the box office on the day of the performance.
All prices include a £1.50 restoration levy.
Box Office: 0844 871 7622.
                                                   
Show Website: www.merrilywestend.com

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