Is COMPANY a glorious and brilliantly executed musical? Yes, absolutely. Is the gender swap idea a resounding success? Unequivocally. Is Bunny Christie’s design as inventive as the cast is talented? For sure. Is this also a blindingly white production that demonstrates the continued tokenism towards BAME actors and creatives? Yes, yes, yes.
I’ve no doubt this article will find itself swimming in a sea of five-star reviews, and I understand that. Each and every element in this Sondheim revival is creative, innovative and brilliant. But I wonder how many critics will have picked up how white this show is and how the approximately three black performers were reduced to supporting characters and the chorus line. And I genuinely couldn’t see any person that visibly had Asian, Arab, Indian or any other BAME heritage.
COMPANY is so, so white. This must be seen increasingly as something to highlight and discuss if we are going to make meaningful progress. And we need to talk about this because if I am one of the few that noticed this then we also have to acknowledge – finally – that we also have a problem with our critics’ pool.
But let’s start with the positive…
COMPANY is glorious. A joyous bubble of a meditation on the dilemma between the splendour and isolation of a single life, and the companionship and compromise that is love and marriage. Bobbie (the faultless and splendid Rosalie Craig) is a woman on her 35th birthday facing a dilemma – all her friends are married but she is not. Instead she lives a life of temporary relationships that fulfil her commitment-phobia but also allows her to fulfil her career potential.
But is that what she wants from here on in?
Originally, Sondheim and Furth had Bobby as a guy but watching Marianne Elliott’s vivacious revival, you wonder how on earth that worked because it seems SO OBVIOUS that Bobbie is a woman. Of course, being 35 means so much more to a woman, especially if she hasn’t decided whether or not she wants to have kids. And of course, Bobbie is a woman because the career sacrifice when it comes to raising a family is so much more explicitly hindering for a woman.
And so, it’s a ‘day in the life’ kind of set up as we follow Bobbie on her rollercoaster adventure through the lives of her friends, from the combative frustrations of Sarah and Harry to the pre-day wedding hysterics of her best friend, Jamie, and his partner Paul.
It’s chaotic and fun with some terrific choreographed numbers including You Could Drive a Person Crazy, where Bobbie’s three love interests bemoan the lack of commitment from the object of their affections, and the show-stopping Getting Married Today, which sees Jamie’s hysteria get increasingly frenetic as the moment of his nuptials gets ever closer.
But the energy is contrasted beautifully with some tender numbers, most notably Patti LuPone’s rendition of The Ladies Who Lunch which ends in a moment of real bittersweet tendresse.
So not only do you have all this excellence and energy already, but this is wrapped up in an Alice in Wonderland style production design from Bunny Christie that sees Bobbie (our Alice) experience ever curiouser arrangements amongst her friends, as if their bewildering and complicated relationships is the world topsy-turvy. It’s an inventive take as there is a far simpler option available, given that this musical comedy is set in New York where people already live on top of each other in crowded apartment blocks.
Marianne and Bunny could have had Bobby passing from one apartment to the next – a glimpse behind the front doors into lives we never see – but instead they challenged themselves and brought an inventive take and perspective on adults, relationships and the myriad complexity of our lives.
So, it is a real shame that I had ‘white, white, white,’ flashing through my mind through much of the show. The hyper-visibility of those few performers who were not white or white-passing was marked and uncomfortable. I could point out how perversely ironic this is given that this story is set in such a cosmopolitan city. But I think we are all beyond ‘realistic casting’ now, aren’t we?
This did not come across as an inclusive production in any way and the industry looks to its big stages to lead the way not be dragged into the future. I realise saying that makes me unpopular and perhaps a few with their casual racism will roll their eyes but, look, we either mean what we say about diversity and inclusion or we don’t. And, in this respect, COMPANY didn’t make me feel good.
Gielgud Theatre, London, to 30 March 2019.
Tickets from £19.50.
All production images by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg.