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ROAD SHOW – Union Theatre, London.

Road ShowRoad Show is a fine addition to Stephen Sondheim’s musical repertoire even though it is not one of his strongest works, and this production at the Union Theatre directed by Phil Willmott does it justice. It follows the (almost) true story of Addison and Wilson Meisner with the great composer’s usual mix of wit, clever lyrics and rigorous pace.

After their father dies, his parting words instructing them to make something of themselves, the brothers leave their mother (Cathryn Sherman) behind and travel to Alaska join the search for riches in the gold rush. This starts them on two different paths in pursuit of success, to fulfil the promise they made.

Opposites in almost every way, Wilson (Andre Refig) is a chancer, fuelling his rise to the top with alcohol and cocaine, winning and losing his fortune through gambling, race fixing and backing prizefighters. Addison (Howard Jenkins) is the much more level headed of the two. After several failed investments around the globe, he eventually builds a successful business as an architect designing luxury homes in Florida for the super rich, backed by his business partner and lover Hollis (Joshua Leclair) who he meets during a chance encounter on a train. But no matter how much he tries to fight it, Addison gets pulled into his brother’s schemes again and again, and Wilson’s hedonistic, risk taking proves to be their downfall.

The set design by Jess Williams is minimalistic yet effective, never pulling your attention away from the work itself. Ever present at a large imposing desk in the corner of the stage is Steve Watts as both Papa Meisner and an older Addison. This lends the piece a gravitas and brings the plot nicely full circle, a sense of inevitability and foreboding hangs in the air. You just know events will take a turn for the worse.

Road Show explores the bonds and responsibilities of brotherhood and the ties that hold families together, whether you like it or not. It starts off slow, but a relentless pace drives the story onwards, not allowing time to really stop and question the brothers’ actions or decisions. The music is unmistakably Sondheim but lacks any stand-out numbers that set his more successful creations apart. But they all work in the context of the show and not a single song is superfluous to the narrative.

This is an interesting study, both of Sondheim’s style and the Meisner Brothers’ story. At 140 minutes straight through, Road Show keeps you invested in the brothers’ journey from beginning to end without interruption. The witty ending places the show in a modern context and sums up perfectly both the tongue in cheek nature in which the story is told and the serious aspects of the narrative. This is a solid production of a strong show by one of the most acclaimed musical theatre composers in history. Any chance to see Sondheim done well should be grabbed with both hands.

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Reviewed 10/02/16

By Catherine Duffy

3rd February Р5th March 2016
Union Theatre, London SE1 0LX

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