This is a stroke of genius. A 48-year-old show that was always brilliant, but brittle, whose sexual politics were so inescapably of its time that it could easily look outdated – and here it is, triumphantly reinvented and reframed, and ready to break your heart all over again. With the blessing of its great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who has done some judicious rewriting, Marianne Elliott has taken the 1970 musical about a discontented New York bachelor and turned it into a sharper, thoroughly 21st-century fable of female singledom.
It couldn’t feel fresher. Its new central character – her name changed from Robert, or Bobby, in George Furth’s original book, to Bobbie – negotiates an urban 30-something existence that is hectic yet achingly lonely. She meets men through dating apps, drinks too much, warily eyes the pitfalls of her friends’ flawed marriages. She wonders what – if anything – she’s missing, while her biological clock ticks implacably away. Seizing the role with both hands, flame-haired Rosalie Craig, the epitome of glamour in a chic red dress, burns through the score, full of yearning and frustration. Oh, and there’s a Broadway legend on board too – Patti Lupone as Joanne, Bobbie’s acid-tongued friend whose excoriating home truths are borne on breath that is acrid with vodka and cigarette smoke. What’s not to love?
Bunny Christie’s designs are coolly elegant – a neon box for Bobbie’s cramped apartment, which shrinks alarmingly when she feels most trapped. She’s a well-heeled, grown-up Alice Through the Looking-Glass trying to make sense of her life (especially when the booze kicks in). As she faces her 35th birthday, helium balloons spelling out her age bob over her head, growing so large by act two that they fill her little home and she can barely move. There’s an inspired moment when the apartment becomes haunted by multiple Bobbies, a disturbing, distorted image in which the spectral selves that surround our addled heroine seem to play out the various possible realities that await her. At other times, she’s simply alone on a stage flooded with indigo shadows, facing her fears and confusions in great, emotion-soaked numbers. "Marry Me a Little" and, climactically and shatteringly, "Being Alive" cry for connection, newly piercing in a world where everything is available at the touch of a button yet true intimacy has never been harder to find.
In between, we’re introduced to all those “good and crazy people”, Bobbie’s friends, in smart living rooms or on brownstone stoops, while she hooks up with lovers strap-hanging on the subway or on a bench in Central Park. Elliott makes each couple compellingly differentiated. "Sorry-Grateful," the bittersweet lament of the husbands to the compromises and salvation of marriage, is exquisite. "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" turns from an Andrews Sisters-inspired ditty of female exasperation to a trio soaked in wounded male ego as Bobbie’s various dalliances despair of her. And Jonathan Bailey is astonishing as Jamie, a gender-swapped version of Furth’s neurotic Amy, freaking out in virtuoso style in the tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today" on the morning of his nuptials to Alex Gaumond’s smooth Paul.
As for Lupone, her take on the legendary "Ladies Who Lunch" is a musical theatre masterclass – furious, viper-tongued and agonisingly desolate. When she reaches the verse about “the girls who just watch” and who take refuge from their depression in Scotch and glib jokes, it’s horribly apparent that it’s a scarcely veiled attack on Bobbie – and we wince along with Craig. It’s even more excruciating when she suggests Bobbie and her own husband have sex – a terrible test of friendship and love.
There’s not a beat or a note out of place – or a foot put wrong in Liam Steele’s spiky, expressive choreography. "Side by Side," to highlight just one brilliant instance, becomes a bleakly funny game of musical chairs. This is the real deal – and it’s sensational.