I love musicals. Unfortunately, A Little Night Music does not make my top five in terms of catchy numbers or plot, but this was an absolutely beautiful production. The musical itself is a turn-of-the-century society romp set in Sweden, dancing from extra-marital love affair to extra-marital love affair. As entertainment, it’s light: the main theme is definitely sex, but it’s always addressed through petticoats and innuendo.
The plot has a few kitsch flourishes (Magic wine? Magical waltz?) and the characters are not overly developed, but it never takes itself too seriously – you are always Being Entertained. I did find that the dirty jokes wore thin about halfway through, and the score was perhaps stronger than the script. The orchestra added atmosphere and a layer of seamlessness to proceedings, with no jarring between talking and singing. The Oxford Playhouse gives productions a lot more scope for lighting and scenery than we would usually expect from student drama: visually, A Little Night Music was absolutely stunning. The technical side of things accented already strong performances rather than threatening to overpower them – lighting designers Graham Cook and Jay Anslow deserve a special mention for their work.
Performances were stylish and meticulously directed. Georgina Hellier is assured and uncompromising as Desiree Armfeldt, and her voice never falters – ‘Send in the Clowns’ is the show’s the best-known song, and Hellier does it perfectly. Natasha Heliotis plays her ascerbic mother, whose flawless timing and dry asides had the audience on-side from the first scene. Claire Parry is Charlotte, a cynical housewife who has been disillusioned by her husband’s infidelity. Both Heliotis and Parry deliver their lines with effortless wit. The two main heroes, Fredrik (Richard Hill) and Count Carl-Magnus (Aleksandar Cvetkovic), ooze machismo. Cvetkovic’s voice is particularly strong as he gyrates around the stage like a Swedish Lord Flashheart.
The cast is clearly talented, but the occasional dud song or unremarkable exchange left the audience’s attention wandering. I was looking for satire but realised halfway through that the male characters really did think it was fine for them to sleep with whoever they wanted, as well as demanding fidelity from their mistresses. At one point Frederik draws attention to this double standard, but it’s forgotten by the end when Charlotte takes back her cheating ‘dragoon’. The show presents a range of female characters, but spends rather too long on the superficial ones. It’s not very flattering about women, but it’s down on men too: as Petra the promiscuous maid puts it, marriage is just ‘Five fat babies and lots of security’. But hey, which musical represents relationships realistically? The staging was a triumph, the cast’s chemistry was tangible and they were having a brilliant time. A very strong performance of a less strong show.