There could be no more appropriate venue for the West End transfer of Maria Friedman’s acclaimed Sondheim revival. Merrily We Roll Along and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal are probably the two most renowned theatrical works to use reverse chronology. Where Pinter lays bare the emotional history (backwards) of an extramarital affair, Sondheim and his scriptwriter George Furth span two decades of the professional rise and personal fall of Franklin Shepard, who begins as a sanguine young composer of adventurous songs and ends – where we first see him – as a successful Hollywood producer, one and a half marriages and two intimate broken friendships down the line.
Reverse chronology is the heaviest possible form of dramatic irony: we know the agonising truth about what is going to happen because we’ve already seen it. It can make for almost unbearably poignant endings: all those hopes and dreams just lining up to be, inevitably, dashed. However, despite the relative simplicity of Sondheim and Furth’s vision of the truth of youth, I don’t think it’s true to say that they are peddling a cliché. Rather, having seen the characters’ future in the show’s immediate past, we cannot help but be aware of the naivety of their young values from the beginning. It becomes a story not of ideals crushed, but of illusions dissed.
Maria Friedman has consummate experience as a Sondheim performer, and she brings it to bear in her directorial debut. It transfers well from the Menier Chocolate Factory (where Sarah Hemming reviewed it last year) to the proscenium-arch space of the Harold Pinter, and Friedman keeps her company whizzing along in and out of each other. As Franklin, Mark Umbers almost conquers the character’s first-impression unlikeability with a gradually deepening vein of diffidence. Damian Humbley as his long-time collaborator Charley excels in a number eviscerating their partnership during a live TV interview; it made me imagine Wallace Shawn in a musical. Jenna Russell makes the most affecting backward journey, from drunken, frustrated has-been to the first glimmerings of unrequited love, as faint as the newly-launched Sputnik which the trio watch in the night sky.
The truisms about Sondheim are that he is both an acquired taste and the object of a fervent cult of devotees; Friedman’s production is likely to lead many through the first phase, and quite a few into the second.