A gorgeous production from Watch This with a cracking cast, beautiful costumes and a sublime performance of the score.
Actors Nick Simpson-Deeks & Vidya Makan. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson.
Stephen Sondheim fans adore the music theatre maverick’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George. It’s about an artist at the height of his powers, pushing the boundaries of painting – and written by an artist at the height of his powers, pushing the boundaries of what a musical could be. Many people, including the composer himself, also consider it to be his most personal show. Using the creation of French pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as a jumping-off point, the plot explores the somewhat lonely and misunderstood life of a creative person and the sacrifices that must be made to achieve artistic fulfilment and leave behind a legacy of importance. Sunday in the Park has won Tony and Olivier Awards as well as picking up the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985. There have been numerous productions mounted all over the world and the most recent Broadway revival featured movie star Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role.
The first act is set in 1884 and tells the story of Seurat’s (Nick Simpson-Deeks) struggle to ‘get through to something new’ with his painting while also charting his rocky relationship with his muse Dot (Vidya Makan). Act Two leaps forward a full century to show Seurat’s great-grandson grappling with a similar artistic crisis. The score features some of Sondheim’s most lush melodies alongside his quintessential complicated harmonies and tongue-twisting lyrics. James Lapine’s book is incredibly well written and perfectly matches the restless and romantic mood of the score. The two acts are quite different stylistically, but they are bookended beautifully by the stirring anthem Sunday. If there is such a thing as the perfect intellectual adult musical, then Sunday in the Park is arguably it.
Watch This has been presenting Sondheim shows for several years now and Sunday in the Park is their best yet. Mounting a production of such a beloved show is daunting for any theatre company, but they rise to the challenge bravely presenting a gorgeous Sunday with a cracking cast, beautiful costumes and a sublime performance of the score.
Simpson-Deeks is a regular performer with Watch This and his portrayal of George is wonderful. He sports an impressive full beard, expertly captures all of the characters’ complicated quirks and sings the material very well. He also performs the difficult dog section of The Day Off with brilliant ease. It took me a while to warm up to Makan’s interpretation of Dot. She has chosen a very clipped British sounding voice for the role, which initially made the character seem a tad cold, but she really comes alive when she sings. By the time we get to the breakup song We Do Not Belong Together, Makan lets loose with an explosive torrent of emotion that floors the audience. This section is performed brilliantly by both leading actors making it one of the highlights of the evening. In the second act, Makan has the audience in stitches playing the role of the elderly Marie with great comic timing and a cheeky twinkle in her eye.
The creative team have produced a very handsome production that fits the intimate Lawlor Studio like a glove. A stark white frame outlines the stage, creating not only the illusion of a traditional proscenium arch, but also the sense that everything on stage is happening inside the painting. Clever projections and animations (designed by Milked Studios) are used to define locations as well as to show the development of Seurat’s masterpiece. In an inspired creative touch, the colour and fabric of Dot’s dress in projected onto the actor’s white costume at the beginning of the show. All the costume designs by Rhiannon Irving are spot on. Not only are they period accurate and inspired by the original painting, but on closer inspection they are all splattered with dots in a direct interpretation of the artist’s unique artistic style. It is thoughtful details like this that demonstrate how much love and care has gone into this production.
Special mention must be made of the superb band led by Ned Wright-Smith. You can count the number of musicians on one hand, but the sound they produce is divine. Anyone familiar with the score will be in absolute heaven thanks in no small part to Dominic Woodhead’s thoughtful orchestrations and Marcello Lo Ricco’s crisp sound design.
Watch This still have a few Sondheim titles left to choose from for future seasons and if these are as lovingly nurtured to the stage as this Sunday in the Park With George, then we are all in for a treat.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
Sunday in the Park with George
Presented by Watch This
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares
21-24 August 2019
The Lawlor Studio, Southbank Theatre
Ticket prices vary