Sunday in the Park with George – Sydney Fringe (Theatre Review)

Sunday In the park with George

Little Triangle Theatre Company at The Depot Theatre

6-16 September You can grab your tickets here. 

Stephen Sondheim wrote Sunday In The Park With George after the failure of Merrily We Roll Along when he was so wounded by negative reviews and an early closing that he’d become determined to give up writing altogether. This (of course) prompts the provocative claim that the negative response to the previous work called forth the majesty of the subsequent, rather than Sondheim’s assertion that genius belongs to the misunderstood loner. In this beautiful meditation on the importance of the artist connecting to people and community, Sondheim’s wounded child sits on the surface, but the natural transparency that art provokes removes the artist from his fantasy vacuum, forging the realization that, no matter how magnificent the work, it can never properly capture joie de vivre nor life’s melancholy twists. All these years later, Sunday in the park with George still laboring under that which dates it, enjoys the fresher perspective born of freedom from The Truth. In short, Sunday in the park with George is better when it is revealing rather than preaching, and is best seen as Sondheim speaking to himself, rather than introducing something to us.

This lovely production by Little Triangle Theatre Company currently showing at The Depot Theatre forgoes the safety of the backdrop in favour of drawing attention to the voices and performances of its considerable cast. It’s a decision that works well, as immediately obvious is the productions ability to draw the audience into the production, whereas in the past, use of the The Painting has moved the audience away in order to see the whole. This gives the audience the impression of being inside the painting with the characters, involved in the artist’s work. The removal of the backdrop frees the experience of time and modernizes the piece. Speculation about The Work, its precariousness and subjective ubiquity is replaced by The Event, or The Experience. George’s creation becomes something tied more to chance than genius as we see him involved with the work, but equally connected to the behaviours of those around him – even if it is a disinterested involvement. Outside of the painting (Little Triangle use a blank canvas as a backdrop) Dot’s desire for George’s love is an antagonist that contributes to The Work, rather than the irritating background noise to be shut out if The Work is to be ‘seen’ by the artist as he creates. This simple staging decision by Alexander Andrews therefore becomes an important commentary on the musical itself and draws it into a much-needed contemporary space.

Alexander Andrews’ direction is equally contemporary and impressive. He manages a large cast on a small(ish) stage including all the beautiful pauses and still moments Sondheim’s work is famous for. Conrad Hamill’s musical direction is spot on. The sound is one of the most important pleasures of this small yet vibrant production, and will excite any fan of the work.

Owen Elsley is a strong George, comfortable in his role and undaunted by its illustrious history. He is relaxed and charming and does great credit to the famous songs he relates for the audience. His Dot is performed by Georgina Walker, who strikes a deeper connection to her past, in a performance that is almost an homage to the delightful Bernadette Peters which makes for a joyful and happy connection to witness. The rest of the cast are funny, on point and in command of their vocals to the added delight of the overall experience.

There are some great and not so great performances at The Sydney Fringe this year. To be sure, Sunday in the park with George is one of the great ones.