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MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG – Harold Pinter Theatre, London.

To paraphrase Julie Andrews, let’s start at the very end, a very good place to start. Composer Franklin Shepard is the toast of Hollywood, but the collateral damage of his meteoric rise is strewn around his gleaming Modernist apartment, in the physical form of his embittered, alcoholic friend and humiliated wife and in the whispers of estrangements from his writing partner and son and gradual exchange of artistic fulfilment for hollow commercial success. But how did we get here?

Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s tricksy reverse-chronological Musical, adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s play of the same name, has had a similarly rocky ride. Its 1981 Broadway debut was a notorious flop, closing after just 16 performances, and there are some unresolved problems here (notably repetition of overstated themes in several overlong scenes). However, Maria Friedman’s electrifying revival, which began at the Menier Chocolate Factory, makes the cerebral spikiness accessible and reclaims the soul of the work.

Merrily We Roll Along may be inside baseball – a show about creating shows, with numerous in-jokes about writing and music, producers and agents, off-Broadway and on-, New York and LA – but its core messages are universal, from the importance of friendship to the precarious balancing of ambition and idealism. Yes, it’s a joy for industry buffs, but it’s equally compelling for anyone who has ever pursued a dream, suffered a broken heart or just worried about making rent.

Unspooling backwards from 1976 to 1957, Merrily also has a slight feel of Mad Men: The Musical!, reflecting as it does the changing ethos of America alongside its protagonist’s transformation. As the hedonistic Sixties give way to the disillusioned Seventies, so Frank trades in boundless determination to change the world for the chance to own a piece of it. Friedman clarifies the chronology without resorting to period fetish, aided by Soutra Gilmour’s incisive design and Tim Jackson’s subtly meticulous choreography.

Where the musical suffers is in Furth’s occasionally preachy book, which hammers home points made more elegantly in the potent songs and mysteriously glosses over crucial plot points. How did the odd-couple writing partners meet in the first place? What motivated them to create work of such strong political conviction, and what, therefore, does Frank trade in for a wad of cash and a glamorous lifestyle?

Furth deprives us of key decision-making moments, which adds to the feeling of tragic inevitability, but does mean we lose the opportunity to examine Frank’s psyche when faced with those all-important dilemmas; the road not taken has more resonance when we’ve glimpsed the tantalising turn-off. Nor, unlike similarly structured Pinter’s Betrayal or Nolan’s Memento, is the show packed with reveals as we move backwards, so we’re mainly left to nod in recognition as the story unfolds, rather than gasp at its unexpected twists.

However, Friedman’s pitch-perfect production dispels most doubts, as a uniformly excellent cast savour the spirited satire and aching yearning of Sondheim’s skilfully crafted score. Where Pinter uses repeated words and phrases to weave a tapestry of dolorous dramatic irony, Sondheim employs reversed reprises and evocative melodic strains to amuse, enlighten and, in the case of “Not a Day Goes By”, quietly devastate.

merrily we roll alongAmong a superior company, Mark Umbers is a stylish lead, Damian Humbley a likeable neurotic, Josefina Gabrielle appropriately ghastly as the self-made diva and Clare Foster sweetly dignified, if playing fast and loose with a Texan accent, while Kirk Patterson and Joanna Woodward’s brilliantly mannered news anchors deserve their own spin-off. However, it is Jenna Russell who threatens to steal the show with a deliciously acerbic and shatteringly raw turn as Frank’s unrequited lover. The real tragedy is that she does not feature more.

Let us hope this heralds a new era of the intelligent musical, which packs a mightier punch than the jukebox behemoths by appealing to both the heart and the head. That would make me very merry indeed.

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Reviewed 09/06/13/

By Marianka Swain

23rd April – 27th July 2013
Harold Pinter Theatre, London, SW1.

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