Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

cast of company

Surprise . . . 35 . . . and still single. Pictures: Christopher Comander


Sutton Arts Theatre


Let me put my cards on the table from the start. Stephen Sondheim’s Company is not my favourite musical. Which is not to say it is bad, just that it is not my bag, but then again, life would be ever so boring if we all loved the same things.

This production might not have made me a believer, but it did move Company up my list of favourite musicals a few notches. Top of that list, ironically, is West Side Story, which was the musical which put its young lyricist, Sondheim, firmly on the map.

His reputation as a songwriter is legendary, but much like Jason Robert Brown, his songs are clever, sometimes witty, often insightful and telling, they hit the spot when it comes to feelings and they are always taking the story forward, but, what they aren’t are hits.

Take out the host of standards from West Side Story and not much else of Sondheim’s quite brilliant work strays beyond the musical that contains them. We have perhaps Everything’s Coming up Roses from Gypsy, and Send in the Clowns, from A Lttle Night Music, his only UK top 40 hit incidentally, and, at a bit of a push, The Ladies Who Lunch from this show.

Sondheim doesn’t write hits, he writes songs that tell a story, that make a point.

Here it is about relationships. His view was that theatre audiences in general were white, middle class and wanting to escape white middle class problems . . . Company (1970) hit them right between the eyes with the life they had gone to the theatre to escape from.

It centres around Bobby, played with a certain troubled charm by Aarron Armstrong-Craddock.


Aarron Armstrong-Craddock as Bobby, all set for someone else's wedding

It’s a big part as everything revolves around him and he carries it well. Bobby is 35, it’s his birthday – and he is single, not so much by choice, more that marriage has avoided him.

His friends, who are all married or engaged, wait with a surprise party as we open and we meet each in turn in flashbacks as Bobby visits them.

First up we have Sarah and Harry. Louise Farmer’s Sarah is a foodaholic who is on a strict diet – apart from the brownie Bobby didn’t want - while husband Harry, a rather meek and mild chap in the hands of Mark Natrass, is a recovering alcoholic, firmly on the wagon, apart from the champagne at a recent wedding. The pair seem to spend their time pointing out each other’s failings . . . well that’s marriage for you.

Then there is karate, Sarah’s new passion, and on opening night, her downfall, leaving Louise with damaged knee ligaments which will see a less athletic Sarah for the rest of the run, but Louise is good enough to pull, or perhaps in this case, limp it off.

karate kid

A what happened next moment as Louise Farmer's Sarah lays into Mark Natrass's Harry

This is where we first encounter Joanne, a fabulous performance from Liz Berriman. Joanne is rich and changes husbands as others change socks, one of the reasons, one supposes, that she is rich, and cynical. She uses the karate couple to tell us how to make a marriage, or in her case, marriages, work with The Little Things You Do Together. She is to raise the roof later blasting out The Ladies Who Lunch.

We are to meet her husband, Larry, later, in the shape of Alan Lowe. Laid back Larry it seems is going nowhere, unlike past husbands she can’t get to him because he loves her, no matter what.

Next up we have Peter and Susan on their up market apartment terrace. They are a bright eyed and bushy tailed couple, he, played with a confident air by Richard Millward, annoyingly successful, she, played by Michelle Dawes with a comfortable, easy charm, a delightful Southern Belle. They are happy, lovey-dovey and together in everything they do, even getting divorced . . . oh, you didn’t know that did you, oops.

So, let’s quickly move on to Jenny and David, and Bobby’s arrival with, should we say, herbal cigarettes. Ah, the heady days of free love, Red Leb and Moroccan Gold, or is that just me showing my age.

Laura Hinton’s Jenny, is a little straight laced, pleasant but hardly a party girl, while Tom Cooper’s David, is more outgoing but, finds himself tied to a more quiet life, but they compromise and get on just fine. It is here we discover Bobby’s three girlfriends, who give us a sisters-style showtune with You could drive a person crazy

liz as Joanne

Fag on, drink in hand, barbed comments at the ready - Liz Berriman as Joanne

There is April, the air stewardess played with a lovely innocence by Georgina Kerr-Jones. She is beautiful, stunning even, everything you could ever desire . . . sadly, though, she never heard the call when brains were handed out.

Then we have Kathy, an attractive old friend played by a homely Sophie McCoy. She could have been the one but . . . well times are never right, at least not for Bobby, and we had Marta, a bundle of energy from Terri Ann Ashford. She is a 100mph proposition, way too fast for Bobby, and she gives us a rapid Another Hundred People, one of the show’s song highlights.

When it comes to highlights, though, enter Robbie Newton. He plays Jamie, who is about to marry Paul, played with a calm demeanour by Paul Atkins. Jamie is gay, and not just gay but gay on speed as he worries and frets about the wedding – even at one point doing a Johnson and hiding in the fridge.

His I’m Not Getting Married song is a cross between memory test, tongue twister and how many words can you get into a song before the music runs out. His performances seem to grow with each role he takes.

Incidentally, originally Jamie was Amy, and she was about to marry Paul, add a J and straight became gay. And that was not the only gender bender, Bobby become Bobbie in some versions, adding an old maid dimension to the unmarried 35-year-old scenario.

As a musical there is no linking narrative, no start, middle and end story, the meetings are random, stories in their own right – Bobby is an observer, finding marriage can mean many things and partners can have little in common, even with each other. Perhaps Bobby has lost his way looking for a sort of composite of all the woman he knows – perhaps not so much the cynical Joanne, although she does give us the most poignant moments in her heart to heart with Bobby at a soulless party.

robbie ad Jamie

Robbie Newton as Jamie, who is, or, isn't getting married with Louise Farmer taking on a second job in these cash strapped times, as a vicar.

Her comment the “we are too young for the old people and too old for the young people, the generation gap” also has a sort of ring to it.

The songs are about relationships, about people, about life, not a bad one among them, all carried along by an eight-piece orchestra under Russell Painter.

It is not the easiest of musicals, not the easiest of songs to sing, and although Americans might raise an eyebrow or two at the accents, they sounded American enough to Sutton ears and, more important, were consistent so were soon unnoticed, becoming just people speaking or singing.

A mention too for the set designed by Mark Natrass. Anyone who knows Sutton Arts knows it has a challenging stage with no wings and no flies and here, with rotating walls, a roll on terrace and a few props Bobby’s world is not only created but the changes are all fast, flow and hardly interrupt the action.

Sutton Arts' musicals set a standard with West Side Story back in 2015 and Company does nothing to damage that reputation. It is slick, funny, with some lovely lines, gives pause for thought here and there, and shows just why Sondheim was so revered as a songwriter. It is not the best known of musicals, has songs you probably have never heard but hey, it’s a good show, good music, well acted and it works – and you can’t ask for more than that.

Directed by Emily Armstrong and Dexter Whitehead, you will be in good Company to 04-06-22.

Roger Clarke


Sutton Arts

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