Company at the Gielgud Theatre

Bobbie, a professionally successful, serially single New Yorker is turning 35. As her closest, married friends gather at her apartment for a party, she begins to question whether she really does have it all.

Company is back in the West End. Only this time, it’s back with a twist. Nearly 50 years after its Broadway debut, Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 introspective meditation on marriage returns to London with a highly-publicised revamp. Director Marianne Elliott’s twist on the original is to swap the genders of leading characters around. Thus, the male protagonist, Bobby, becomes the female Bobbie (Rosalie Craig). The friends, exes and couples with which she interacts also have their genders changed: most swap, whilst one becomes a gay couple. It’s a very 21st century, gender-fluid take on Company. The question is: is it just a gimmick?

For me, Bobby is one of the all-time iconic male theatrical parts. Not because he’s particularly memorable (he isn’t) or charismatic (ditto), but precisely because he’s neither. He is the everyman of lonely, single guys in their mid-thirties who start looking at their bachelor status with a kind of numbing despair as their friends pair up and disappear into various degrees of coupled-up bliss. In a world where men still find it difficult even to admit to feeling lonely, let alone talk about it, Bobby is a figure that many blokes can instinctively relate to. For this reason, he’s an important character, and – whatever else about him might annoy me (and, believe me, there’s plenty) – I’ve always admired his (eventual) willingness to confront his own, true feelings about where he has ended up in life.

So I wasn’t sure how I would deal with Bobby being female. Not that I object to gender swaps per se – I don’t. Jodie Whittaker’s recent show-stealing turn as the eponymous Timelord in the most recent series of Doctor Who is a prominent example of just how fabulously well casting a woman in a role hitherto associated exclusively with a man can work out. But given that, as a man, I had an instinctive understanding of how a male Bobby feels, I wondered whether it would be possible for me to feel the same kind of connection with this female Bobbie, and whether it would matter if I couldn’t.

As it turns out, I don’t instinctively “get” the new Bobbie. But it doesn’t matter a jot. This production is brilliant. Where we once had a bunch of alpha-males paired up with various submissive, troubled or just plain dim-witted (in one instance) women, we now have strong women paired up with far more sensitive, non-dominant beta-males (one of whom remains just as dim-witted as his original female incarnation). And so the connection men in the audience once had with Bobby alone they now can have with several men in key roles throughout the show. The women, meanwhile, get far stronger characters of much greater contemporary relevance to relate to. One couple (originally Paul and Amy) becomes a gay couple (Paul and Jamie), which presents Jamie as Bobbie’s closest gay friend and adds a totally new dimension. (In the original, Amy appears as Bobby’s “one that got away”; Jamie, by contrast, was never going to be romantically interested in Bobbie.) So to the question of whether the gender-swapping is simply a gimmick, the answer has to be a resounding “no”. It’s a far more thoughtful, sophisticated reworking than you might expect, which got the support of Sondheim himself (and for which he rewrote key lyrics).

What’s good about the production? Pretty much everything. It might just become the new normal way of doing Company, since I’d go so far as to say that this gender-reversed version is quite possibly better than the original. It’s certainly more relevant and is absolutely appropriate in the 21st century. It’s contemporary and poignant, as well as being funny, sassy and tremendously enjoyable. The staging is ridiculously inventive, with the action unfolding in a series of oppressive, claustrophobic boxes that make up rooms in the characters’ apartments, each of which glides around the stage during seamless scene changes as Bobbie meanders through one memory after another.

Musically, we’re in very safe hands. Sondheim is perhaps the greatest composer and lyricist in the history of musical theatre. He has a unique capacity for creating an oxymoronic coherent disorder; only with Sondheim can you have six different people singing six different sets of words to six different tunes all at the same time across one another and still be able to hear every single word sung by each of them. The cleverness underpinning his scoring is ferocious. But it’s possible to do Sondheim badly and it is to the great credit of Musical Director Joel Fram and Orchestrator David Cullen that the reworked songs fit seamlessly, and that the all-singing cast has been rehearsed within an inch of its life. It’s note perfect from start to finish, which is quite something when grappling with the vocal challenges presented by one of the trickier melodic scores in musical theatre. Under Fram’s direction, the consummately professional orchestra delivers the music with panache and swagger.

So to the cast. Rosalie Craig is superb as Bobbie. She has tremendous stage presence; you can’t take your eyes off her. She brings both expressiveness and subtlety to the role, becoming someone you can genuinely empathise with and root for. Director Marianne Elliott sounded her out for the role two years before it hit the stage, and you can see why. The three guys (Richard Fleeshman, George Blagden, Matthew Seadon-Young) who play Bobbie’s on-off companions Andy, PJ and Theo (switched from female roles in the original) are fantastic. Their close harmonies in the inventively re-arranged You Could Drive a Person Crazy are impressively tight and their caricatures of hopeless inadequacy, that, in the #MeToo age might feel uncomfortable if played by women (particularly in one second act bedroom scene) regain the comedic value originally intended.

Great credit for the idea of a gender-switched production of Company, and for its tremendous execution, must be handed to director Elliott (also known for being the brains behind runaway West End (and now Broadway) success, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). I don’t know what Elliott’s going to do next, but whatever it is, I want to see it.

Company is not a perfect musical. Bobbie’s friends get very little individual time on stage other than in the single scene in which each couple interacts with her. This is unavoidable, with the musical having derived from Furth’s series of eleven separate, single-act plays. The second act is less punchy than the first, and with the character of Joanne (Patti Lupone) not having switched genders, the ending of the penultimate scene (which I’ll not spoil) doesn’t quite work as well as most of the other changes. But it wouldn’t have been possible to switch Joanne’s part to a male one without ruining her song, Ladies Who Lunch, and so this, too, is simply unavoidable. And the iconic closing number, Being Alive, has always been oddly anti-climactic. (Indeed, it was not originally supposed to be the closing number, but became it after plot changes and cuts to the original back in 1970.)

So it isn’t perfect. But sometimes perfection can only be found through imperfection. This show is about life, love, marriage, divorce, togetherness, loneliness, hopes and desires. None of those things are perfect. To capture them perfectly – as Sondheim and Furth do – requires one to embrace imperfection. Company is the perfect imperfect night out. Don’t miss it.

Review by Daniel Bennet.

Company is on until the 30th March. Find out more or book tickets through their website.

If you like this review you might also like reviews for Matilda, Come From Away and Violet.

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