Occasionally in one’s theatregoing and theatre-reviewing life, one comes across a little gem of a show, of a theatre, of a cast, that one wants to see over and over again, in order to enjoy every nuance and every performance many more times. Sadly, sometimes one finds these gems too late and there is no opportunity to relive their magical charm. Such an event happened last Saturday night at the final performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Sheffield Crucible. The Crucible is part of Sheffield Theatres – the largest theatre complex in the UK outside of London, with the Lyceum next door and a studio theatre – ticket prices are extremely reasonable too. The city itself is a long journey up north (three hours plus for this reviewer), but the standard of theatre on offer there is simply top notch (the exquisite largest urban glasshouse in Europe, the Winter Gardens, are opposite the theatre across Tudor Square, with the adjacent Peace Gardens behind which are all well worth a look). A theatre in the round, you may have seen the Crucible on televised snooker contests, but for non-sports fans like myself the space was a revelation. Having navigated the large open area of the box office, cafe and bar, and received a lovely northern welcome on arrival, you enter the auditorium at the back, take your seat, and let the magic begin.

Sondheim’s show – billed as a musical comedy but actually much more thought-provoking than that implies – is set in 1970’s New York and its hero, the unmarried Bobby is celebrating his 35th birthday. He has a great group of friends, a lavish apartment (complete with New York skyline in this production), and a number of girlfriends on the go – but is he really content with life or is he truly looking for a long-lasting relationship and company of a more permanent nature? This ‘modern’ (for modern, read ‘superlative’ here) take on the challenges of maintaining relationships is based on a series of brief one-act plays by book writer George Furth – Sondheim himself got inspiration from his friend Mary Rodgers (daughter of the legendary Richard), who was on her second marriage at the time. There is a surreal feel to Company, as the evening could viably take place in Bobby’s mind or in the moment that Bobby enters his apartment on his birthday at the beginning of the piece. In Sheffield’s Company, Bobby is played by Daniel Evans – Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres and double Olivier Award winner for two previous Sondheim roles in Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. As an actor, Evans is always at the top of his game, but in Company he is simply outstanding. It is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role as his performance was so definitive: full of honesty, truth, openness and integrity. Here he is directed with aplomb by Jonathan Munby, who shows an unrivalled understanding of the material in the production he has put together.  Evans has a wide-eyed youthfulness about him at times and one could tangibly feel the gradual development in Bobby’s train of thought throughout the piece. His solo numbers Someone is Waiting and Marry Me A Littlestaged largely with Evans alone on stage – act as shifts in Bobby’s journey, prior to the revelation of a triumphant Being Alive (one of Sondheim’s more well-known numbers) at the end. This concluding number is the culmination of Bobby’s story with a remarkable shift in the centre where Bobby changes from dismissing the downside of the prospect of company to a longful yearning for it. It’s one of those moments in theatre when one is almost breathless and so caught up in the moment that the final applause was almost like waking up from a magical dream. I, for one, didn’t want it to end.

However, this is far from a one-man show and the rest of the 14 strong company are all extremely well cast and all exceed expectations, wringing every last drop of both comedy and pathos from Sondheim’s score and George Furth’s book. Two of Evans’ former leading ladies – Samantha Spiro and Anna-Jane Casey – particularly caught my eye. Spiro is a superbly watchable and witty actress, here playing an anxious Amy on her wedding day, about to marry Jeremy Finch’s patient and Jewish Paul, and decked out in the shortest and trendiest wedding dress this far north of Gypsy Weddings with kneel-length boots to match (universally inventive costume designs by Christopher Oram evoke character and period so effectively). Casey also has tremendous panache as Jenny and her spliff moment early on in the piece is a real comic highlight, opposite husband David, played by David Birrell. Francesca Annis makes a return to musicals after many years to take on the acerbic Joanne, who maybe gets the best lines in the piece, along with Sondheim’s anthem to Ladies who lunch. Ian Gelder is her long-suffering husband Larry, who always gets the check. That’s NY speak for ‘the bill’ by the way, and New York is brilliantly evoked in Company not only in the aforementioned set of Bobby’s flat with NY skyline (Oram again), but also in such numbers as Another hundred people  - here sung by Rosalie Craig’s Marta, one of Bobby’s three girlfriends. The other two are played by Lucy Montgomery as airline hostess April (whom Bobby calls June in a hilarious mistake while in the throws of passion – complete with remote-controlled bed – in Barcelona) and Kelly Price as Kathy, a girl whom Bobby admits he could have married but who is now engaged to someone else. The three girlfriends join together for another of the evening’s highlights You could drive a person crazy. And Samantha Seager and Steven Cree make an early and lasting impression as Susan and Peter – a couple who celebrate their impending divorce with Bobby – as do Damian Humbley and Claire Price as Harry and Sarah, a couple comicly bickering amidst brownies and bourbon.         

The orchestrations of Simon Hale for Company were particulary lush (I loved the urgency of the recurring refrain throughout and the sudden rushes of rich harmonies at times) – and the 10 piece band executing those harmonies so well were situated out of sight but in the safe hands of Nigel Lilley. Lynne Page’s choreography also added much to this stunning production – especially in the surreal but fabulously visual Side by Side where, incredibly, no-one collided with each other in a tightly spaced number. However, I’m not sure how many of the Sheffield audience were ready for Sondheim as a Christmas show – the guy next to me remarked ‘That was weird!’ at the conclusion. Maybe he was expecting something less challenging such as last year’s Me and My Girl, but that’s his loss. As one lady remarked to her partner in the foyer beforehand, ‘You’re either going to love this or hate it!’, but then the best theatre, and the most innovative programming, will always divide opinion. One thing’s for sure: this is a production of international standard which Sheffield should be extremely proud of and it well deserves a West End transfer. I’m ever so glad I made that journey – and if Sheffield’s Company does reappear elsewhere, I’ll try and make it to opening night next time.