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It’s hard to believe that Stephen Sondheim’s heart-breaking and witty musical flopped on Broadway, folding after just 16 performances and a load of previews in 1981.

Since then, it’s been tweaked and polished and, with its clever lyrics and songs that linger in the memory, this wry look at how life turns out is an almost unqualified success.

Based on Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play, it zooms in, more or less backwards from 1976, on key moments in the fraught friendship between big shot Hollywood composer and producer Franklin Shepard, Charley (his one-time lyricist) and Mary (novelist turned waspish critic) , tracing the relationship all the way back to their first chance meeting in 1957.

Chasing the mega bucks has brought Franklin success and a glamorous entourage, but what he’s lost in the process is tellingly revealed as the threesome’s youthful optimism is replaced by mid-life cynicism, disillusionment and abandoned values.

Maria Friedman, making her directorial debut, is herself a long term interpreter of Sondheim’s work and ensures that her fine cast are alert to all the bittersweet sadness, the hope and the humour of the score.

Mark Umbers’ Franklin is persuasively attractive as he’s lured away from his wife and ideals by glamorous actress Gussie, whilst Damian Humbley’s uncompromising, angry Charley remains true to his principles and his sweetheart.

And Jenna Russell’s Mary, her long-lasting love for Franklin obvious to everyone but the man himself, drowns her lonely disappointment in bitterness and too much booze as the years go by.

Menier Chocolate Factory , 53 Southwark Street, SE1 1RU
Tube | London Bridge
Until 9 March
£29.50 – 37.50 (Meal Deals £37.50 - £43.00)
menierchocolatefactory.com 


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Theatre review: Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory
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