In a simple, uncluttered and elegant production with an economical use of space that put me in mind of a cross between the Menier Chocolate Factory and a concert performance, the RNCM presented their terrific end of year production: Sondheim’s timeless masterpiece, Company. The addition of musical theatre to the RNCM production canon is one I warmly welcome and heartily encourage. Musical theatre seems to present very different problems to those encountered with opera and, as such, provides a valuable learning experience.

Joseph Dexter (Robert) © Paul Cliff
Joseph Dexter (Robert)
© Paul Cliff

Despite being already so familiar with the high quality of productions given by the RNCM, I was initially anxious about just three things in particular: firstly that the students would attempt Sondheim’s extensive dialogue with faux American accents; secondly, that as classically trained singers they would ‘over-sing’ and end up making Sondheim sound like Strauss; and, finally, that in such an intimate space the – albeit small – band would be too loud and overpower the singers. Fortunately I am happy to report that not one of these problems occurred and the actors gave exceptional performances, adapting to and facing the challenges of the style of the music, limited space, and unusual amount of dialogue head on. The quality of singing, in fact, was so good that the performance provided a wonderful alternative to the usual musical theatre experience whose professionals are actors who have to sing, but instead allowed us a wonderful opportunity to hear Sondheim’s great songs performed by singers who have to act.

Consisting of five couples, three single girls and the central character Bobby, the production is remarkably well cast, with each well-matched pair providing complimentary characterisations and a comfortable sense of originality.

Joseph ‘Joey’ Dexter captured the central character of Bobby beautifully: Bobby the untouchable, the hedonist, the charming, the vulnerable, the gooseberry and the voyeur. Ultimately, Bobby the enigma. With a clean cut handsome face, smartly dressed and with a disarming smile, Dexter presented the ever emotionally unavailable, impenetrable and un-contactable Bobby in a confident, assured performance. Singing with a warm, lyrical voice that was well suited to Bobby’s songs, especially “Someone Is Waiting”, my only critical observation of Dexter’s performance is linked to his final big number “Being Alive” – until this point in the show Bobby might be conceived as a two-dimensional, responsibility shirking, word-spinner who can charm the birds from the trees. When, at the very end, he is forced to acknowledge that there is more to life than parties and hasty liaisons, his world is shattered and results in an emotionally draining acceptance of feelings and emotions that transform him into a three-dimensional human being. This song just needed more all-out abandon.

Rabyia Plush-Noad (Joanne) © Paul Cliff
Rabyia Plush-Noad (Joanne)
© Paul Cliff

In addition, Dexter is supported by a wonderful cast and in particular by Matt Mears, whose performance of “Sorry-Grateful” was sensitive and emotional, and Elizabeth Humphries whose flawless patter number “Getting Married Today” was delivered at astonishing speed with diction and without losing a word. Rabiya Plush-Noad’s Joanne, gave her big number “Ladies who Lunch” soaked in husky, bibulous emotion. Plush-Noad revelled in the ever intensifying, mildly acidic lounge number, presenting a calculated climax though a desperate, vodka saturated exhortation of what it is to be a woman.

Coming to a head in a production of wit, charm and depth, splendidly designed and excellently directed, both on stage and in the pit with a nurtured sense of commitment, the performance included entertaining, tasteful choreography that suited the production without detracting from the action.

To those that might feel they are ‘slumming it’ in the grimy back alleys of 1970s New York musical theatre in place of the RNCM’s usual opera productions, I encourage them to see this show at least once – it is as good as anything you will find on the professional stage.