I have Sondheim in my blood.
I grew up listening to my dad’s recordings of Follies, A Little Night Music, Company, West Side Story, solos by Julia McKenzie, Elaine Paige, Barbra Streisand.
With members of my family I have seen Company and Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse, and last year the highly-acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory (Stephen Sondheim wrote music and lyrics for all three of these).
I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. And I love tea.
When I heard that Side by Side by Sondheim was coming to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, a stone’s throw from my own house and a much-loved theatre in my own postcode which I have not visited before, I almost spit out that tea with joy and excitement. Whilst simultaneously starting to worry (stupidly and as it turned out needlessly) that a Sondheim at an off-West End theatre/pub in South London would not live up to expectations.
The show opened last week and my preferred partner (my dear mum) and I drove 5 minutes up the road to Crofton Park, where the Brockley Jack pub was looking splendid and welcoming in a clear blue chilly sky.
The studio theatre holds 50 seats at its most, so there is nowhere to hide if you are performing there. I had nothing to worry about on that front. The performers gave me that feeling where, as each song began, I settled back with a lovely feeling of ‘Ooh I can’t wait for this song’ or ‘I am desperate to see what s/he does with this one’. I was totally happy in their arms, engaged, laughing out loud, crying, in fact you could feel the whole audience felt the same – and you could see the enjoyment by the expressions on faces all around me.
Side by Side is a show which began as a musical revue directed and narrated by Ned Sherrin, and which opened at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1976, with much input from Sondheim himself, before transferring to the West End and later Broadway. The musical director from its earliest conception was Stuart Pedlar, who all those years on in this 40th anniversary revival narrates and is M.D. again. It brings a special authenticity to the show as Pedlar has truly lived this show, and not only respects the work and the man Sondheim, but clearly knows him too.
Pedlar and Assistant MD Dan Glover play piano, and the supremely talented cast sing, act and dance. And that is it. No microphones, no band, nothing but the five people in the room, giving goose bumps and joy to the audience. All three actors impressed in their own way. Marianne Benedict has an amazing voice and you can’t take your eyes off her. She delivered a couple of my favourites brilliantly, Another Hundred People from Company and Losing my Mind from Follies, which made tears spring to eyes. Grant McConvey has a voice as warm as honey and as the one male voice he seemed to enjoy stepping in as a woman from time to time. Sarah Redmond was great in the more comedic songs, with the most expressive face and a hilarious rendition of The Boy From. She could also do serious, such as the popular tear-jerking Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. I couldn’t believe when I found out later from Twitter that she had stood into the role only a week prior to the opening, after Su Pollard had pulled out.
Credit: Scott Rylander
Unlike my usual self, I found myself wishing the show would last another hour. Along with other friends and locals who we bumped into there, we left the theatre not only wanting more, but also planning further visits to this show if we can get them. As the cliche goes, we hummed the tunes all the way home and all the way into the next week.
Side by Side plays until 26th September at the Jack Studio Theatre. I am clearly biased since I am a Sondheim fan who lives within walking distance of this particular production, however if you are either of those things, or a Sondheim newbie with half an inkling that you could turn into one, please do visit the website and try to get tickets before this show closes. At these very-off-West End prices it is almost criminal not to.
To book tickets, go to the Jack Studio Theatre website here.
Production photograph by Scott Rylander. Other photographs by me.
Disclosure: We were given free tickets to see Side by Side by Sondheim for the purpose of this review. All opinions are my own.