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The charismatic leads in Karen Louise Hebden's pitch-perfect production gauge the shifts in their characters' relationship with finely-judged subtlety. As Frank, Glyn Kerslake convincingly sheds his jaded materialism to reveal the idealistic young musician he once was. Glenn Carter's Charley, determinedly hanging on to his ideals and stung by Frank's too-easy acceptance of the alternative, gives a jaw-droppingly brilliant performance of one of Sondheim's most virtuoso numbers, 'Franklin Shepard, Inc' As Beth, Cheryl McAvoy's bitter reproach in the divorce scene, in 'Not a Day Goes By', contrasts powerfully with her eager enthusiasm at the start of her association with Frank. Eliza Lumley's Mary is the most poignant characterisation of all, trying to hold the three-way friendship together as it comes under increasing strain. She is particularly heart-rending as she watches Frank and Beth's wedding from a side table at the cabaret club, joining in the love song that 'Not a Day Goes By' has now become to voice her own frustrated feelings for Frank.

Among the other roles, Julie-Alanah Brighten's Gussie oozes predatory sexuality, Michael Breckley conveys the ambiguity of his admiration for Frank and Charley's talent while trying to steer them along a more commercial path, and his apparently philosophical acceptance of Gussie's infidelities as par for the course. Joanne Redman does a hilarious turn as the TV chat-show hostess, all superficial charm while the show is live, full of panicky hysteria once the red light goes off.

Above all, though, this is an outstanding ensemble production, with a uniformly strong cast, musicians, and design and technical teams ensuring that everything slots seamlessly into place.

The word is that this will be Derby Playhouse's last Sondheim production -- for the time being, at least. A pity, since the theatre clearly has developed a knack for staging his shows to maximum effect. But better to have a break now, I suppose, than run the risk of staleness and routine creeping in. All the same, I shall miss my annual immersions in Sondheim's world. No-one has written for the musical stage with a clearer understanding of the messy business of being human.

Copyright © 23 April 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK



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