Phone rings, bitch and drink, lose your friends: Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along, currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory near London Bridge is like a bitchier, nastier version of his show Company where Bobby is Frank and a total bastard. It has received great reviews, has a wonderful cast, looks good (well as good as aluminium windows on stage can be when they design feature - but the period is the sixties and seventies so it is appropriate) and sounds great. But for a show that tells the tale in reverse about how a man becomes wildly successful and loses his friends on the way, it is still a tough, bitter sell.

The characters are two-dimensional and shout at each other and even as they move from jaded to optimistic, it still feels unrelenting and repetitive. By the time the upbeat finale comes about (close to the third hour) you may find yourself close to exhaustion (or sleep) to care about it much. At intermission one Sondheimista fan said to me, "but all those lost opportunities and wrong turns... That's life!" That may be the case - particularly if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person - but who needs to fork out £40 to see that on stage?

It possibly is a piece of musical theatre medicine that is good to take to appreciate the evolution of the form and an attempt to update a story from the 1930s to a contemporary context. It is interesting to see dramatically and musical a story that focuses around key moments in a person's life and how choices that were consciously taken or not set them on a path for the rest of their life. But his subsequent works, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods feel like they cover this territory more successfully. There are stand out songs in this piece, but none feel like essential to the story and seem to slow down the proceedings. It possibly doesn't help that since the show was originally performed, many of the songs have become minor standards on the cabaret circuit and seem to stand up well without needing a story around them.

The strength of this production lies with the cast however. In the confined space of the Menier Chocolate Factory you can see how hard the ensemble is working and the singing is a particular highlight. Mark Umbers plays a suave and masculine Franklin. He has the looks and presence to make you really believe he could run off with your wife if he thought it was necessary to further his ambitions. Damian Humbley does a great turn as his neurotic partner Charley, particularly with the  lyric intensive song Franklin Shepherd Inc. Jenna Russell is always great but as Mary it did seem to be stretching credibility to be a fat bitter drunk in a dodgy costume. She seems much too nice for that...

So while people are raving about this show, despite the terrific performances it felt more like some bitter medicine to swallow. Perhaps best enjoyed with someone you have known for years and don't like that much. You will be inclined to let rip by the end. You have until February to do it...

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