The lobby at the Lyric Theatre is filled with Christmas decorations and gin-soaked guys and gals. While the majority appear to be making their way in to Marie Jones’ Christmas Eve Can Kill You, a splinter group makes its way into the smaller Naughton Studio space for an intimate version of Stephen Sondheim’s review Putting It Together. While Sondheim’s show was first staged in 1992, this edition by Blunt Fringe Productions marks the Irish premiere.
The seating racks are in horseshoe formation, with a few tables on the floor giving a cocktail show vibe. A larger table is set up for drinks. At the far end of the room is a large brown leather sofa, to one side a bank of three easels with empty square frames lit with an array of lightbulbs, like a dressing room mirror. Above this the 6 piece band plays.
At first glance it may seem odd how Sondheim has managed to pull songs from shows as diverse as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Dick Tracy, but there is a slim plot which everything hangs off. We’re presented with a dinner party in upmarket New York and two couples – one older, one younger. While the older couple (Nicholas Pound and Carol Starks) bemoan the death of affection and look towards a break-up, the young pretenders (Fra Fee and Christina Tedders) are just discovering each other and embarking on a rich affair. All the while, Brad Clapson plays the part of narrator and occasional manipulator of events.
With the new framing device, the songs take on a rich new identity, with fresh subtleties brought to the fore.
The whole thing is slightly under-stated, and self-aware. There’s a hint of smugness that may put off the masses. This belongs to the same world as Woody Allen comedies, full of loft-living, partner-swapping and copious amounts of alcohol. Seldom are the actors seen without a glass in hand, and as a gimmick it wears just a little.
If you’ve ever heard those arguments about the arts being for the elite, this piece unfortunately is exactly the sort of thing detractors are on about. The characters are superior, they brag about their wealth, their fame, the ease with which they can set off around the world on cruises, the never-ending acquisition of expensive objects. How can those of us from lower down the social strata identify? Fortunately, if you can suspend your inverse snobbery there’s a wonderful rich wit and cutting observations about the nature of relationships, the struggles of married life, the purpose of children and temptations-a-plenty.
The compact space allows the audience to engage more directly with the cast – you can practically reach out and touch them as they move around the entire room. You feel like a fly-on-the-wall, witness to moments tender and torrid. The second half is possibly a little weaker, and the numbers self-referencing the arts (‘Putting It Together’, ‘Back in Business’ etc.) jar – but such are the conventions of musicals. The cast hold the attention, strong voices and clear chemistry. Carol Starks stands out as an accomplished performer, with great range and acting ability; Brad Clapson is a scream with his over-the-top camp eccentricity. Pound is solid, but lacks a little variety. Tedders and Fee make a charming couple, Fee is one to watch out for in future; Tedders is confident with a great range, but looks a little disengaged throughout, not quite sharing the warm joy evident in some of the group numbers.
The simplicity of Stephen Whitson’s staging foregrounds the music and lyrics, reminding us that this is very much a celebration of Sondheim – a clever cabaret that will prompt you to explore the composer’s catalogue.
Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together is on at the Lyric Theatre Belfast from 9 – 19 December 2015.
For more information and to book tickets click here.