Friday, 5 March 2021

REVIEW: Facing the Music: Imelda Staunton at the Chichester Festival Theatre (Online)

Chichester Festival Theatre this week launched a series of four online events under the banner "Facing the music" before rerunning a recording of last year's event "Celebrating Sondheim" to at least connect with their audience and to celebrate musical theatre. First up is the irrepressible wonderful Imelda Sondheim, now surely a National Treasure, in conversation (when he lets her speak) with Edward Seckerson, a specialist musical theatre journalist. It's a fascinating insight into her approach to her work and reminds us of how she has become one of the leading Stephen Sondheim actresses amongst a host of other excellent work. 

The ninety-minute interview focuses on her portrayals of Sondheim's extraordinary leading lady creations and draws out her approach to each and the similarities in them. It briefly touches on her role as Vera Drake in the Mike Leigh film made in 2003 which involved six months of improvised rehearsal and three and half months filming and of which Staunton said she had "never done anything else easier" and the rehearsal put the character into her "muscle memory". So successful was the process that she won a BAFTA and Oscar nomination. It also touched on her time at RADA and in repertory in Exeter and Nottingham that gave her a solid base of experience.

Yet it is her roles in Sondheim musicals that brought her to public attention and have kept her there for forty years. My first experience of her extraordinary talent was in the NT iconic production of Guys and Dolls in the 1980s when she understudied Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide, dreading the thought of having to go on, before taking over the part and not only making it hers but also marrying the actor playing the character Big Jule, Jim Carter. 

She went on to play four deeply troubled leading ladies; The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Mama Rose in Gypsy and Sally Durrant in the NT revival of Follies. She recalled when Sondheim saw her in Sweeney his first words to her was she must play Mama Rose. She described her as a delusional, dangerous, damaged women suffering from a desperate need for love that drives them to the edge of madness. The discussion is enhanced and indeed made more fascinating by playing audio recordings of songs by each character. It's a shame that there is no footage of these performances to share and indeed more photos of her would have added to the enjoyment. 

"Moments in the Wood" reflects the powerful counter positioning of love and dark goings in Act 2 of Into the woods. "A little Priest", is the music hall finale to Act 1 of Sweeney with its jaunty lyrics such as "Shepherd's pie with actual shepherd" mixing with the dark foreboding of revenge promised in Act 2. "Everything's coming up roses" is the powerful emotion packed finale to Act 1 with Mama's desperate desire for success driving her to edge of madness signally a dramatic change for Rose in Act 2. "Losing my mind" sees Sally reflecting on love but fuelled by anger, also on the edge of madness. It was a fascinating insight to hear her talk about these women and these songs and see the similarities between them in the context of Sondheim's writing. 

I wanted to hear more of her thoughts and her singing and was sadden to be reminded that her scheduled appearance as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly in 2020 has now been postponed by Covid and her role in the Crown until 2023. It may not be Sondheim, but having seen Carol Channing in the role in 1979 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, I can't wait to hear Staunton's "Before the parade passes by". In the meantime, at least this interview reminds us what a powerhouse she is and perhaps by then it will Dame Imelda we will be applauding as the famous matchmaker.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: £10 + donation
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