Merrily We Roll Along
  • By Pete Shaw
  • |
  • 7th Aug 2009
  • |
  • ★★★★★

Merrily We Roll Along is a curious musical. When it first appeared on Broadway in 1981, it was severely panned by the critics and had considerably more previews than actual ‘official’ performances. It closed after just 16 nights. If ever there was an example of turning a situation around in musical theatre, this then would be it. By the time Merrily had made it to the West End in 2000 at the Donmar, the show walked off with all the top Laurence Olivier Awards that year and received praise from all corners. But despite the rave reviews, it is a rare gem to see in the UK. Following the West End production, it didn’t return until last year at the Watermill in Newbury. Although many might be unfamiliar with the show itself, it has been heavily plundered by the Sondheim revue Putting It Together as well as any number of Hollywood divas, so you may have already come across some of these tunes before.The show itself follows the career of composer Franklin Shephard (Oliver Lynes) and his lyricist partner, Charley Kringas (Matthew Urwin). The action takes place in reverse, so opens when Frank is a successful, but jaded, film producer, and then goes back in time to find out “how did you get there from here, Mr Shephard”. Along the way we discover who Frank has trod on to achieve his success, with a clear message that the pursuit of fame and riches at all costs litters your past with broken friendships. Sure Frank is a big-time producer, but is he happy?This production in Edinburgh is being presented by Durham University, who visited last year with a production of Assassins at Bedlam that I remember as describing as a bit ‘lumpy’. No such worries here; this is much stronger delivery with some very interesting touches. Director Matthew Johnson (who also appears as failed producer Joe Josephson) has painted a monochrome landscape in which each character has their own bright accent of colour. A scarf, a handkerchief or a tie perhaps. It’s subtle, but a clue to the attention to detail that also appears in Madeleine Mutch’s beautifully crafted choreography. The movement is fluid and surprisingly clever at times – stuffing the small stage at C too with a visual feast of well-rehearsed motion through the big, ballsy production numbers. Add to that a cast who can hold a tune, play a cello, piano or a trumpet while still racing around the space (and yes, the pianist is still playing while other members of the cast are changing the set) – it’s quite an impressive sight. I found myself wearing a broad smile throughout, and the only disappointment was that it ended.

Reviews by Pete Shaw

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Performances

The Blurb

Stephen Sondheim's most captivating show. The musical, uniquely running from end to beginning, depicts how an idealistic young student became the man he is today. 'At least three times as intriguing as most musicals' (Times). www.dulog.org.uk

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