Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sunday In The Park With George - Wyndam's Theatre, 19/08/06

NOTE: I go into a lot of detail here, so if you're thinking of going to see this, maybe wait until after you've gone before you read on!


If ever the word 'delightful' can be attributed to a production, then this is surely it. I'm afraid I can't go against the grain of five star reviews for this, which started at the Mernier Chocolate Factory, but simply heap on praise, just like everyone else.

This Sondheim musical is one of two halves. The first shows us the story of how the eponymous Georges Seurat came to create his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat, played by Daniel Evans (one of those performers you feel instantly at ease with), is a young genius in love with the beautiful if eccentric and endearing Dot (the consistently brilliant Jenna Russell), who dreams of being immortalised in a painting. Their relationship, however, follows the age-old course of many between artist and muse, and his lack of attention towards Dot ultimately drives her away, and into the arms of Louis the baker. He's lovely, and everyone loves him, as the song goes. He'll clearly look after her - and clearly she'll never be entirely happy, but when a baby is on the way (Seurat's), Dot knows who'll make the better father. Seurat is left behind, forever 'Finishing The Hat'.

In this half, particularly, the emotion, wit and warmth comes from Sondheim's songs, which are let down somewhat by the slightly cliched script by James Lapine. But the songs are wonderful. Sondheim captures brilliantly the genius at work - he has some first-hand experience in this, of course. In 'Colour And Light', he matches every manic stroke of Seurat's paintbrush with a staccato stab of sound from orchestra, but he shows an understanding of how hard it can be to care about an artist too. The title song, sung by Dot, shows her happily standing for hours in an uncomfortable bustle so that Seurat can work his magic, but this is later heart-breakingly contrasted with 'We Do Not Belong Together'. In both of these, Jenna Russell shows why she is the leading lady of choice at the moment - a clown one moment, tugging at the audience's heart-strings the next.

In the second half we are taken to the present day. In front of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in a Chicago gallery, Seurat's great-grandson, (another George, and another celebrated artist, again played by Evans) is unveiling his laser and light installation, Chromolume #7, with his grand-mother Marie (Russell) as the guest of honour. Mark Lawson writes in the programme that critics and audiences alike have seen this George as a pale imitation of his name-sake, willing to sell himself to get a commission. But this seems a little simple. Just like his great-grandfather, George is obsessed with light - technology means he can literally use it for his art - and we even saw Seurat Snr. schmoozing with people he knew disliked his work. And if there's one opinion we can trust, it's that of Marie, who certainly has her mother's good soul, and she sings 'Mama you'd like him, mama you would/Mama he makes things, mama they're good'. At this stage though, George has certainly hit an artistic drought, and it takes a trip back to the Parisian park, and even a brief, century-spanning conversation with Dot to get him back to the exciting blank page with which the musical started. Dot was always trying get Seurat to 'connect' with the outside world, and the people around him, and while 21st century George may not be the genius his great-grandfather was, we see the wise and caring words of Marie overcome him, and know that it's this very connection that has given him the chance to make great work again.

The performances were, as you can probably guess, uniformly wonderful, but what was perhaps even more exciting to see was how brilliantly technology was used for the set and scenery. Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network designed and created the projections and animations for this production, which show on a grand scale what Seurat is doing on the canvas - when he rubs out what he doesn't like, so it disappears from the stage. It's wittily used too - an animated version of the dog in the painting is used to represent the real life inspiration, and one of the two soldiers which can be seen in the background of the painting is also a projection, which is nonetheless talked to and dragged around. In the second half, George gets to stand back and watch as several images of himself talk to as many possible investors as possible. Everything works perfectly, and you get the feeling that Sondheim and the two Georges would be very proud.

Ok, that's taken quite a long time - Rock 'n' Roll tomorrow, I think :)

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