A Little Night Music, Improbable Fiction

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and IMPROBABLE  FICTION at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman 6.6.15.
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A Little Night Music   4 stars ****
Improbable Fiction   3 stars ***

THE PIPER has piped, the river runs deep and strong past the theatre; and by the time this weekend is over, Pitlochry Festival Theatre will have three of its six summer-season shows up and running, in an effort of large-scale theatrical production that no other Scottish theatre can match.  And of all the shows on view this summer, none will be more impressive in scale and production values than John Durnin’s good-looking, slow-burning, but finally eloquent opening production of Stephen Sondheim’s great 1973 hit A Little Night Music, famously based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles Of A Summer Night.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, A Little Night Music is a story of love and its misunderstandings set against a relentlessly pretty and comfortable upper-middle-class background; and sometimes, it seems like a small tale, a rather slender pretext, for the passionate complexity of Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

Yet whatever the context, the story captures a truth to which audiences instantly respond, about those rare, magical moments of love that shape our lives and form our most vivid memories.  As the 16-strong cast of singer-actor-musicians circle Charles Cusick Smith’s elegant set like an all-seeing chorus, we are gradually drawn into the narrative of middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman, his pretty but still-virginal 19-year-old second wife Anne, his passionate son Henrik, and his beautiful ex-lover, the actress Desiree Armfeldt.  Dougal Lee is suitably wry and self-knowing as Fredrik, Basienka Blake beautifully cast as Desiree; and when, half way through the second act, she finally gives us her wonderful, heartbroken performance of the show’s great hit song Send In The Clowns – exquisitely accompanied by music director Jon Beales and his four-piece orchestra – the whole show seems to soar to a gorgeous new level of intensity, musical, dramatic, and romantic.

If A Little Night Music is one of Sondheim’s acknowledged masterpieces, Alan Ayckbourn’s Improbable Fiction – first seen in 2005 – is definitely a work from the lower reaches of the great man’s back-catalogue.  The play is set in the Yorkshire living-room of a decent sort called Arnold, who hosts the local writers’ group despite the relentless responsibility of caring for his unseen elderly mother.  In the first half of the play, we see Arnold, part-time carer Ilsa, and five other local would-be authors ploughing their way through a none-too-successful pre-Christmas group meeting; but when the meeting ends, a dramatic clap of thunder ushers in a completely different reality, in which the group’s various half-baked fictions spring suddenly to life.

In Clare Prenton’s game but slightly plodding production, there’s a fair amount of fun to be had from this thoroughly bonkers second half, as it zigzags from Victorian melodrama to extreme science-fantasy; and the cast – led by Ronnie Simon as Arnold, with Claire-Marie Seddon as Ilsa – certainly give the story their best shot.  What it all amounts to, though, is hard to say.  And my guess is that if this play had not been written by the great Sir Alan Ayckbourn, it would have been allowed to die a quiet and decent death, very soon after its first performance.

A Little Night Music and Improbable Fiction both in repertoire at Pitlochry, until 17 October.

ENDS ENDS

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