Romance, Romance was originally produced off Broadway in 1987, and after fine notices transferred to the Helen Hayes Theatre for an impressive 297 performances, where it garnered five Tony nominations. Unfortunately, that year it was up against Phantom of the Opera. In 1997 the United Kingdom the show enjoyed successive runs at the Bridewell and Gielgud Theatres. Book and lyrics are by Barry Harman, and the music is composed by Keith Herrmann. How does it look nearly twenty years after its last London outing?
The work is really two one-act musicals linked only by the theme of witting or unwitting romantic complications, and one song common to both – a significant one, ‘It’s not too late’, which reflects the show’s main theme – that it is never too late to initiate or draw back from romantic relationships that transgress boundaries. There are two different literary sources. The Little Comedy takes its bearings from an Arthur Schnitzler short story, and Summer Share derives from another fin de siècle story, this time Jules Renard’s Le pain de ménage. The former is left in a period setting ,while the latter is transposed to a weekend retreat in The Hamptons in the present day.
Each mini-musical has a dozen or so songs and is accompanied by a crisp and adept four-piece band, comprising piano, (MD Inga Davis-Rutter), a variety of reeds, though mainly flute, (Rosie Reed), bass and bass guitar (Jeremy Longley), and drums and percussion (Tristan Butler). The Artistic Director of the Landor, Robert McWhir, directs the whole.
In the first and longer half, Josefine (Emily Lynne) and Alfred (Lewis Asquith) pursue that typical Schnitzler theme of how to overcome urban ennui and boredom to find a moment of true love. Both are people of means, dissatisfied with their present options, who decide that their best option lies in dropping out of their current class bracket. So Alfred becomes a shabby poet and Josefine a poor seamstress. They meet and fall in love, partly with each other and partly with the novelty of the situation. They recount what happens in the form of letters to friends.
However, they find it hard to keep up the pretense on holiday as neither can in fact write or sew with any facility. Back in Vienna they meet to call it off, now restored to their finery, and find to their surprise that the chemistry is still there. We move towards what appears to be a happy ending, but with Schnitzler you can never be sure…. the round-dance continues in motion.
The scenario offers a lot of scope to the two players to develop nuance of character and different levels of emotional commitment from flirtation to passionate engagement, and both Lynne and Asquith are certainly up to the technical challenges of the roles. However, just as with Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, to which this show is clearly indebted, a sense of a particular style is crucial if we are to feel as well as to be entertained. I didn’t sense the weight of world-weary surfeiting at the start that is required to set the action in motion, and which we really need to see if the emotional pay-off of the ending is to work its intended effect as a moment of both resolution and escape. Both actor-singers deliver their solo songs with confidence and rich vocal tone, and their duets are funny and winning, but the undertow of regrets and remorse still needs to be there too.
The emotional high point of the story and the best song in the whole evening comes just before the final meeting – ‘The night it had to end.’ This ballad compresses into one song the continuing hope for lasting romantic love, the wistful recognition that it must most likely remain out of reach, and a determination to live in the moment come what may. The song was very well delivered by Lynne, but both players need to dig a bit deeper emotionally and vary the pace of their dialogue sections if its insights are to come over as fully earned.
I would add that the players are not helped by the fact that the musical writing does not fully embrace the potential sophistication of the material. Much of the instrumental palette is unvarying, and there is too much reflexive embrace of waltz time for period rather than emotional effect. There are some delightful melodic episodes but also some sections where tone and colour are unadventurous in comparison with the snappy lyrics and dialogue.
One could make the opposite commentary on the second work, which is very slight in theme and characterization, but highly varied in musical forms and instrumental colour. Here also the singers are more fully on top of the dimensions of their roles and personae and very much in their comfort zone. Accents are well sustained, and all the singing was assured and characterful.
There is very little plot here to speak of. The lead roles are taken by the same pair as in the first half. Sam (Asquith) and Monica (Lynne) are not married to each other but long-term platonic best friends. The songs and dialogue explore their relationship in detail and try to explain how and why they have stayed faithful to date to their respective spouses Barb (Sinead Wall), and Lenny (Tom Elliott-Reade). What makes a relationship work, and does that equation remain the same across time?
Sondheim, this time in the form of Company, again looms large in the layout of this work. Marriage and coupledom is again under the microscope, and his presence is reflected in the much greater variety of speed and structure in the songs. The couples weave in and out of each other’s material, both within and beyond real time. There is cute, sometimes witty, comic choric commentary from the excluded Barb and Lenny as they eavesdrop on the antics of Sam and Monica. Ultimately the question that matters is not so much whether or not the latter have an affair but rather whether any of the characters through their ‘romantic notions’ gains any greater sense of self-knowledge. Or do they all stay in the grip of romantic delusion? These questions are a unifying arch across both halves of the evening.
It is all prettily done in every sense of the term, with plausible costumes both period and modern, and two very useful sets – a chaise longue, a dressing table and other fin de siècle gestures for the first half and a flexible and stylish open-plan set design for the second, neither clearly accredited in the programme. The musicians accompany with taste, well-balanced textures, and, where needed, incisive attack.
This is an intriguing and valuable revival with some very solid performances at its heart. I am not fully persuaded that this double-bill has earned a lasting niche in the repertory, but the performers make a persuasive and consistently attractive case for it.
Photos: Sofi Berenger