Sunday In The Park With George.Stephen Sondheim.The Chocolate Factory.Southwark

LONDON. Winter 2005

Review by Polly Hope

This must be show of the year anywhere. If there is better I am on a plane right now and off to see it.

Stephen Sondheim is the great opera writer and composer of the late 20th and early 21st century. His problem is, despite winning countless prizes, he falls between a pile of stools; canary fanciers don't like him, few deaths and no coloratura singing. The goers to musicals say he isn't show bizz, and play goers dislike words set to music. But there is an ever growing core of admirers who will go and hear even a reading of a telephone directory put on stage by him.

SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is complicated and even difficult. It requires the attention of an educated audience. It is long and not very much happens. And you don't go home whistling the tunes. Yet I was spellbound by this production in an old factory, (yes, it did make chocolate,} in a small space sitting maybe two hundred.

The set, by David Farley is remarkable. The stage is very wide and very shallow. On the back wall, and spreading over the doors at the sides is projected Seurat's famous painting of Sunday on the Grande Jatte. Except the projected painting is minus any of the people in it. These slowly gather in the foreground. There are dogs in the painting and from time to time these are projected onto canvases leaning against the walls of Seurat's studio and are then animated. Very clever. Some of the very distant figures in the painting are also animated occasionally. Mostly I dislike the mixture of film and stage but here it totally works. Congratulations to all concerned, and there are a number of brilliant technicians and artists who helped realised this production.

The music, provided by a small off stage band is directed by Caroline Humphris, we don't see her either until she takes her bow at the end of the performance. She does exceedingly well with her five instrumentalists, it is though they are beside us in a room, even though we can't see them.

Then the singers or actors, or actor/singers, a rare breed indeed and all, without exception, excellent. Every word of Sondheim's touching text is audible and without the loss of a note. The George of Daniel Evans is wonderful, he is Seurat himself on stage, and he sings lovely. He is just as good in Act 2 playing Seurat's grandson. Dot, George's mistress, is acted and sung by Anna Jane Casey and she is as good as her partner. A delight. The rest of the large cast is equally good, they just don't have such big parts, and some of them double up characters from the painting. I really haven't a single complaint or criticism. I just hope that this production is seared in everyone's memory as a unique experience.

This is so exactly what opera should be and so rarely is. About people in real life situations that we can feel involved with. Music that touches our hearts and squeezes our emotions. A story line for grown ups that makes us think for days afterwards. If only, if only more contemporary opera could be thus. The theatre is sold out for the entire run I am glad to say, and I can only hope that it doesn't move up to the West End into a larger theatre. More chamber operas should be produced in this sized theatre. One is closer and more entwined in the action and not a million miles away separated from the singers by gold and velvet theatrical interiors. But goodness knows how they finance such a production, I just hope there are more angels around who will continue to produce such work.

Polly Hope London December 2005