The show opens with a prologue, introducing the Liebeslieder Singers, who begin blending various songs that will be heard later in the play. The other characters of the play enter, engaged in a waltz but all are uncomfortable with their partners. The aging and severe Madame Armfeldt and her solemn granddaughter, Fredrika, enter. Mme Armfeldt tells the child that the summer night "smiles" three times: first on the young second on fools and third on the old. Fredrika vows to try and watch the smiles occur.
The middle aged Fredrik Egerman, is a successful lawyer who has recently married an 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne, The two have been married for eleven months, but Anne still refuses to sacrifice her virginity His son Henrik, who is a year old than Anne is feeling extremely frustrated with himself, having acquired a rather negative world view. Anne's maid Petra offers her rather crass advice on the situation.
Desiree Armfeldt, a once-prominent but now fading actress was Fredrik’s lover many years ago.. Fredrika misses her mother, but Desiree continually puts off going to see her.. She happens to be performing near Fredrik's estate, and the lawyer brings Anne to see the play. While there, Desiree remembers Fredrik. Anne is instantly suspicious of Desiree's amorous glances. Meanwhile, Petra has been trying to seduce Henrik. Frederik and Desiree reflect on their new lives, and Fredrik tries to explain how much he loves Anne Desiree happily boasts of her own adultery — she has been seeing a married dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. Upon learning that Fredrik has had to go for eleven months without sex, Desiree agrees to accommodate him — as an favour for a friend.
Back in Desiree's apartment, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm arrives unexpectedly. Fredrik and Desiree try and fool him into believing that nothing went on between the pair, but he is still suspicious. He goes back to his own wife, the Countess Charlotte, who is apparently aware of her husband's infidelity. Desiree requests that Madame Armfeldt host a party for Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik. The Egerman household is sent into a frenzy.The Count has plans of his own — as a birthday present to his wife, the pair will attend the party uninvited. Carl plans to defeat Fredrik in a duel during the event, while Charlotte hopes to seduce the lawyer into sex to make her husband insanely jealousEveryone arrives, each holding their own purposes and desires — except, perhaps, Petra, who catches the eye of Mme. Armfeldt's fetching manservant Frid. All of the women begin to act against each other. Charlotte begins to flirt with Fredrik, while Anne and Desiree trade insults. Henrik finally stands up for himself, and flees the scene.
At the lake on the estate, Anne finds Henrik, who is ready to commit suicide. The clumsy boy cannot complete the task, and Anne tells him that she has feelings for him, too. The pair begins to kiss, which leads to Anne's first sexual encounter. Meanwhile, not far away from the young couple, Frid sleeps in Petra's lap. Henrik and Anne to start a new life together. Fredrik finds out, but is surprisingly calm about the situation. Charlotte confesses her plan to the lawyer. Carl, preparing to romance Desiree, sees this out of her window and is flooded with jealousy. He challenges Fredrik to a game of Russian Roulette and the lawyer injures his ear. Feeling victorious, Carl begins to romance Charlotte, granting her wish at last.
Now free of the bonds that once held him, Fredrik is able to confess his love for the actress. Desiree reveals that Fredrika is Fredrik's daughter, and the two promise to start a new life together.
Henrik – Gabriel Vick
Fredrika – Holly Hallam
Madame Armfeldt – Maureen Lipman
Frid – Jeremy Finch
Anne – Jessie Buckley
Fredrik – Alexander Hanson
Petra – Kaisa Hammarland
Desiree – Hannah Waddingham
Count Carl-Magnus – Alaister Robins
Countess Charlotte – Kelly Price
Judi singing "Send in the Clowns" after being interviewed by that clown Alan Titchmarsh
Its impossible, I’m afraid, not to make comparisons with the last production I saw of this at the National Theatre, starring Judi Dench, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge. The NT production was huge, whereas this was very, very small by comparison; however, I’m not quite sure that a much smaller space didn’t suit this piece better. It is, after all, quite a claustrophobic piece, about a closely knit group of people – almost a “chamber piece” really (blimey, I’m staring to sound like Him Indoors). It got off to a good start because the Meniere, for once, have abandoned their policy of having all the seats unreserved, meaning that you could go out for something to eat first without having to keep several eyes on the clock, and then get trampled in the rush when you do turn up. Shame that the front row seats are still as low and uncomfortable as usual though – most of us seemed to be sitting with our knees directly in our line of vision. For some reason the rest of the seats aren’t nearly as low. I liked the semi-permanent set – a quarter-circle of mirrored doors which opened and closed to define different spaces. What I didn’t like, however, was the tempi – compared to the NT production, everything seemed very, very slow and speeds didn’t seem to pick up until after the interval. Yes, I know that Sondheim is phenomenally difficult to sing - but surely slowing it down just makes it harder?
Another thing I didn’t really warm to was the outdoor setting of Act II for instance, the grand dinner party (at the National, one of those fraught meals where every attempt at conversation results in a faux pas) became a picnic. The dialogue had obviously been slightly re-jigged to take account of this and I spotted a couple of mistakes. Lipman says during the picnic taking place as the curtain rises that she doesn’t want to be seen by her guests lolling around like a bohemian, yet then shows up a second picnic. And I don’t think a woman of her age or social standing would allow herself to he carried off like an old Aunt Sally if caught without her wheelchair.
Anyway, it was a bit of a shock coming face to face with Alexander Hanson again, having seen him as a lacklustre Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and a slightly bland Nazi (if there is such a thing) in Marguerite. Would he be able to bring off the role of Fredrik Egerman? Sporting a cute new goatee and some “distinguished” highlights, I think I would have forgiven him even if he hadn’t, purely on the aesthetics front, but he was spot on in this. Excellent singing, excellent acting and a very cute butt. It was even more of a shock coming face to face with Jessie Buckley – you remember her, she came second in I’d Do Anything (how awful for the poor girl to have to go through life with that hanging round her neck. Still, she seems to have actually got on stage faster than the winner). Having watched her belt out showstoppers week after week, it was very strange listening to her produce a high, clear soprano until you got used to it – but very well she did it, actually. There was still a toiny trace of an Oirish accent now and again, but she carried the role extremely well, held her own on stage against far more experienced performers and looked like a ravishing porcelain doll. Note for the wardrobe mistress though – do patch that hole in her stocking where her big toe is showing through, there’s a love.
My opinion is still very much divided on Hannah Waddingham’s Desiree. Easily the most imposing figure of stage physically, this was a very different portrayal of Desiree than I was expecting – Judi highlighted the “fading actress” more, and hence was more the kind of woman having to play Hedda in Helsingborg out of sheer financial necessity – or simply desperation. This Desiree, however, was far younger, far more in control of her life and considerably more feisty. All she needed was an armoured breastplate and she could easily have played Brunhilde. Where she did score big over Judi, however, was her vocal ability. There maybe nothing like a Dame, but this gal could sing. And yet she didn’t overdo it. She sang just enough to reassure the audience that she could belt it if necessary, but wisely hung back from doing so. Send in the Clowns was glorious – and all hail an actress who can sing this and cry as well. Unfortunately, someone else in the auditorium was crying at the same time – I couldn’t see who it was but it was probably some old queen reliving their glory days when they played the role for the Helsingborg Arts Council Amateur Theatre Group. . So what we got was: “Isn’t it rich?” (sniff from the back), “Are we a pair?” (sniff). Me here at last on the ground, you in (sniff) mid-air” (sniff). Chrissakes, blow your nose why don’t you?
Maureen Lipman played Madame Armfeldt as – well, Maureen Lipman, basically; a mixture of Joyce Grenfell and Baroness Thatcher, just like she always does, whatever the role. Sorry, but she was no match for Sian Phillips in the NT production – although was I was pleasantly surprised that she coped so well with Liaisons, which is a horrendously difficult number with about 80 key changes in it.
Both Alaister Robins as Count Carl-Magnus and Gabriel Vick as Henrik failed to come up to the mark. Count Carl-Magnus should be a gorgeous, arrogant, vain studmuffin, but was presented here as if he were the battalion accountant. He wasn’t helped by the most ghastly, cheap-looking costume which looked like it had been pulled out of a hamper full of dressing up togs. Gabriel Vick reminded me physically of Lee Evans and did little to dispel the image.
Having said all that, this is probably the first time ever I’ve left the theatre wondering what happens to the characters after the curtain comes down - Does Fredrik give his young wife a divorce and enough to live on with Henrik? Or does she realise the folly of her ways? As Madame Armfeldt disapproves of her daughter’s goings on, does she leave her anything in her will? Do the count and countess drift apart again? – and that, my friends, is the mark of a damned good show.