Old Friends review and star rating: ★★★★★
What drew Bernadette Peters, living legend of Broadway, aged 75, after a half-century-long career in New York, to finally make her West End debut? Especially given she’ll make a considerably worse salary here compared to financially flush Broadway? A knees-up to celebrate musical impresario, Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim passed away aged 91 in 2021 after writing some of the most lauded musical scores of the modern age, including Sweeney Todd, Follies and Gypsy. To celebrate his life, Peters is joined by a who’s who of campy theatrical talent for this joyously nostalgic romp down memory lane.
Let’s face it, for these stars, standing and singing the songs that made them famous in front of a home crowd of die-hard Sondheim fans is hardly challenging work. The programme even notes that the cast spent only two weeks rehearsing – but the energy created by bringing together a group of the biggest musical theatre names onto one stage, and their gung-ho attitude towards the whole thing, makes for a thoroughly addictive, and incredibly special, evening at the theatre.
There’s the sense that this lot really wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to be. It’s like watching a piss up round a piano in Elton John’s living room with his closest celeb friends, only we happen to be in the Gielgud Theatre.
There’s no plot, just a collection of Sondheim’s greatest hits threaded together over two hours. The show was put together by longtime Sondheim collaborator Cameron Mackintosh, and Peters is joined by another Broadway legend, Lea Salonga, as well as big names including Bonnie Langford, Janie Dee and Jason Pennycooke.
Salonga and Peters open the show to whoops and cheers from one of the most dedicated audiences I’ve seen in the theatre. They say a few words before the non-sequitur songs begin. In the first act Joanna Riding’s frenetic Getting Married Today, from Putting it Together, is an absolute riot, Riding crawling away from her husband in a wedding dress while belting this stubborn ode to singledom. Ensemble number A Weekend in the Country, from A Little Night Music, is just sheer buffoonery, as Pennycooke, Gavin Lee and the rest get into the shape of a car and pretend to drive around the stage. It’s juxtaposed with the plaintive Send in the Clowns, delicately and immaculately sewn together by Peters, who first sang this song in 1976, reminding us that musical theatre will always be about the gear change.
There’s a decent chunk of time devoted to Sweeney Todd, in which Salonga has a riot of a time chopping up people to put them in pies and singing about it. (Salonga, who hasn’t played the West End since she debuted the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in 1989, is also brilliant in a rendition of Somewhere from West Side Story.)
Act two is similarly diverse and rarely dips in energy, from the ridiculous Everybody Ought To Have a Maid, with the male cast in little pinnies, to the heart-string-plucking Buddy’s Blues, from Follies, and a larger-than-life finale of Sondheim’s classic, Side by Side in which all of the cast have so much fun they look like a group of drunk freshers on the walk home after a night out.
59-year-old Bonnie Langford does the splits. Peters, who I’d assume is rarely excited by new projects, looks excited. It’s adorable seeing her and longtime collaborator Salonga having a riot together as they explore which jokes work with London audiences. By the end, some of the world’s finest musical stars are clapping at a projected image of the late Sondheim and half the audience are aggressively wiping away tears. It would be OTT for anybody else, but Sondheim’s legacy as the Shakespeare of musical theatre means he can get away with it.
Fans will have already bought their tickets. But if Stephen Sondheim was a vague name in the back of your head, the good news is you really don’t need to know all the songs to enjoy this show. Each is an education in itself, plus haven’t the plots of musicals always been arbitrary anyway? Having just the songs without the burden of the story line gives everyone what they want.
Throughout, Sondheim’s genius shines. There’s never been a better excuse to get properly acquainted with his work.
Old Friends plays at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January 2024