Given the hyper-awareness of gender balance in our #MeToo / #TimesUp age, a time where Auntie Beeb either broke new frontiers or committed Sci-Fi sacrilege depending on your perspective by presenting the first ever female Doctor, there could be an easy (see: lazy) argument to be made for a similar calibre of headline-snatching cynicism in Marianne Elliott’s decision to flip the sexes in her take on Sondheim’s Company.

It isn’t as though there hasn’t been precedent - Sondheim has, in the past, been plenty willing to chop and change the nearly-fifty year old show to keep with the times, even fleetingly entertaining the notion of repurposing it as an all-gay piece in the early noughties. 

It took - nay, needed - the vision and guiding hand of Marianne Elliott - who, we must never forget, lists the likes of War Horse and Angels in America on her resume - to get to the current Company incarnation now treading the London boards, and presenting as a show that could have been penned yesterday, so fluid and contemporary is the rejuvenation work that some prematurely called shenanigans on.

Replacing the original production’s existentially forlorn bachelor Robert ‘Bobby’ with a female counterpart (a breakout Rosalie Craig, now ‘Bobbie’) not only sheds some of the show’s dated awkwardness (and momentary tiptoes toward misogyny), it also makes for a far more compelling and timely study. A beautiful, independent yet conflicted woman who is surrounding by the ‘company’ of her friends yet still can’t quite figure out what society - or even herself - expects of her. 

There isn’t so much a narrative as a carousel of vignettes, exploring how each nugget of married life she sees about her is false, fractured or far from the idyll first presented, whilst in true Sondheim fashion throwing in plenty of internal contradictions and frustrations in the process; ‘Sorry-Grateful’, for instance, remaining one of the most perfect, juxtaposing takes on long-term relationships that theatredom has ever offered. 

And in slapping the gender and even sexuality flip on the central character’s friends, such as former hesitant bride ‘Amy’ now replaced by Jonathan Bailey’s gloriously jittery gay best friend (and groom-to-be) Jamie, this new Company gets to say some very relevant and human things about the likes of gay marriage, divorce, paranoia and competitiveness that the conventional lineup would struggle with on today’s audiences.

It rests, then, on the earnestness of those depicting Bobbie and her carnival of crackling plus-twos. Craig is a relevation; she not only carries the entire piece with the kind of wattage and stage presence that will likely see her clearing the shelf for some awards space come the new year, she also makes the very idea of a male lead now nigh-impossible to imagine, so seminal and definitive does her turn entrench itself as here. 

Much has been made of musical legend Patti Lupone’s return to the West End stage, and, somewhat limited stage time aside, she more than lives up to the hype. Her sardonic, dry Joanne is all decadence and dead-pan, paranoia and neuroses barely held at bay by a cigarette or martini glass, a masterclass take on “The Ladies Who Lunch” the stuff of musical theatre giddiness. The rapturous response says it all.

In truth, though, there isn’t a weak link in the entire company (pun acknowledged). Jonathan Bailey gets the most difficult sing (and one of the strongest receptions) of the night with Sondheim’s signature linguistic gymnastics dialled up to eleven for “Getting Married Today”, which Bailey rises to with a manic eruption of comedic genius, crafting arguably the best sequence of the show. Richard Fleeshman is adorably charming as dim, nervy flight attendant Andy, a character whose gender swap mines unprecedented humour and modernity from the original setup. And it would be remiss not to throw a mention to Mel Giedroyc, who many associate first and foremost with her TV work, yet here posits herself as a musical theatre and character actress of surprising clout, her insufferable Sarah hilarious throughout, and ably met by Gavin Spokes as competitive/argumentative hubby Harry.

If Elliott’s back catalogue proves anything, though, it’s that she knows how to stage a production, and Company does nothing to dissuade. In fact, her fluid direction, weaving the show in and out of designer Bunny Christie’s ever-moving, segmented marriage of glaring neon and grey-wash front rooms, all with a keen eye for injections of the ironic and farcical (witness a pair of ever-growing birthday balloons, or an Alice Through The Looking Glass-esque moment), works beautifully with the revamp going on with story and song to present, again, a show that looks and feels like a wholly contemporary outing. Some of the transitions alone bandy between being hilarious (a particular highlight being the various arrivals of an operatic priest) to downright cinematic.

It’s widely accepted that few can match Sondheim in craft, technique or prestige when it comes to penning musicals, and Marianne Elliott continues to prove she has increasingly fewer equals in translating from the page to the stage. Bringing the two together, and both being so willing and able to completely revitalise their piece for a modern theatregoing audience, has crafted one of the most exciting, vibrant and resonant theatre experiences of the year. Stunningly realised, faultlessly re-imagined and impeccably performed, with a message and perspective that offers a now often-overlooked slice of Sondheim a new lease of life, Company demands your attention from the off and throws in enough star wattage and theatrical invention to dazzle well into the new year (or at least until its run sadly closes at the end of March).

The must-see theatre event of Christmas and the New Year?

As LuPone dryly croons in a late second-act number, ‘I’ll drink to that!’.


COMPANY plays at the Gielgud Theatre, London, and is currently booking until 30 March 2019.

Booking Line: 0844 482 5130

More information / Book Online