Review: Sondheim Looms Large as Old Friend Bernadette Peters Makes Her West End Debut 

Peters, Lea Salonga, Gavin Lee, and more bring the spirit of Sondheim to the West End in this major production.

Bradley Jaden and Bernadette Peters, © Danny Kaan
Bradley Jaden and Bernadette Peters
(© Danny Kaan)

The West End response to Sondheim’s death has felt occasionally quite muted – compared to huge New York productions of Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along and now, new piece Here We Are, London has been somewhat more lethargic (outside of the capital’s centre, admittedly, we’ve been gifted limited runs of Into the Woods, Assassins, A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle and Gypsy).

Cameron Mackintosh is therefore the architect of one of the main drivers in Sondheim commemoration – first with his one-off concert production of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, seen last May with a cast of greats including Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Bernadette Peters and more, and now with a full production of the same piece, led by Peters alongside musical star Lea Salonga.

The duo feature in an ensemble tackling a carousel of Sondheim numbers, placed side-by-side in harmony. Grounded predominantly in the productions Mackintosh and Sondheim steered together (Follies, Sweeney Todd, as well as revues Side by Side by Sondheim and Putting It Together), audiences witness a whole cavalcade of quintessential Sondheim standards – from “Into the Woods” to “Ladies Who Lunch” or “Sunday in the Park with George”. 

Sondheim had spent some time working on Old Friends before his death, according to Mackintosh, and the assured shepherding of numbers into a cohesive whole is felt throughout the show. Some surprises include numbers like 1966 revue The Mad Show comedy classic “The Boy From…”, as well as Dick Tracy’s excellent “Live Alone and Like It”, almost a boisterous foil to Sondheim’s more melancholic Company. 

Most importantly here – veneration does not come at the expense of artistic interrogation. Huge amounts of time and thought have gone into making sure that each of Sondheim’s numbers stand up in one of two ways: either as part of a small collective, such as “The Steps of the Palace” into “Agony or “The Worst Pies in London” into “A Little Priest”, or as individually formed narratives in numbers like “Send in the Clowns”. Sondheim, more than almost any other composer or lyricist, was driven by character and emotion as much as he was by tune – so it’s only right that Mackintosh preserves that quality in this latest revue. 

Peters knows exactly how to bring that characterful sense of pensive emotion to the fore in each of her solos. At the age of 75, her voice lilts with wistful familiarity (“Losing My Mind”, “I Know Things Now” being stand-outs). Belting is exchanged for sentimental heft – every line delivered by a performer who had had a familiar shorthand with Sondheim for decades. It’s a gift West End audiences may never get again. 

Salonga gets the more lively numbers (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, “Worst Pies”), and tackles them with assurance. There are some stand-out moments from Janie Dee with “The Boy From…”, where a casual flick of the side-eye gets more of a reaction than the whole ensemble doing West Side Story, while Bonnie Langford goes full throttle with a rousing rendition of “I’m Still Here”.  While it’s the veterans that stand out, younger performers – like Les Mis alum Bradley Jaden or The Prince of Egypt’s Christine Allado – position themselves as note-perfect performers in their own right. 

I’d be fascinated to know what a non-Sondheim fan would make of the show – possibly enthralled, possibly bemused if not previously exposed to these tunes in context. But the smiling, enigmatic expression of Sondheim looms across the evening – the case for his recognition as one of the greatest creatives to ever live is made with bombast.