Marianne Elliott's Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' at the Gielgud Theatre - a review

Marianne Elliott's staging of the 1970 musical comedy Company by Stephen Sondheim and the late George Furth is inherently revolutionary. For the first time in any major production, the protagonist Bobby is Bobbie (Rosalie Craig), a woman. This version was created with Sondheim's blessing and input, changing the gender of not only Bobbie but several other characters, and incorporating "attitude changes in both the dialogue and the lyrics", according to the programme notes. Elliott says, "I thought, this can only happen if it truly works ... I wanted to say something about a woman in this predicament, as if it had been written for a woman."

I had never seen Company. I had actually never seen any Sondheim musical, not even the movie ones. Not even West Side Story. Yup, sorry.

As a total Company novice, I can confirm that Elliott has achieved her aim. The gender swaps are so seamless as to be almost imperceptible to a newcomer. I've spent the day listening to various cast recordings (please, please let this London production be immortalised) so I can hear how it sounds with a male Bobby, but it feels strange to me. This just is a woman's story in 2018.

Bobbie's 'predicament' is her 35th birthday party, surrounded by her well-meaning married friends. This show doesn't really have a story so much as scenes, individual vignettes showing Bobbie interacting with the couples, and the various men she has dated, all linked together by their preoccupation with her relationship status: still single.

As Bobbie has to defend herself from their accusations - "It's not like I'm avoiding marriage. It's avoiding me, if anything" - and from their reassurances - like the wonderful ode to couple+single buddy triangular friendship 'Side By Side By Side' - it is achingly obvious that this is exactly the environment that many single women find themselves in. It's a constant tug-of-war between "why don't you want it?" and "you don't need it anyway!".

There is something undeniably different about Bobbie, rather than Bobby, grappling with being single at the age of 35. In the programme, Hadley Freeman expertly examines the idea that "feminist progress will always come up against the immovable rock of female fertility" - so it is apparent that this issue has been considered in the creative process for this show. That the stakes are higher for Bobbie hangs unspoken in the air, but at no point does she actually mention a desire to have children; wanting to have a secure long-term relationship does not necessarily have to be the same thing.

The luminous Rosalie Craig is utterly convincing and vocally outstanding as Bobbie, supported by a phenomenal star-studded ensemble cast. Patti LuPone (reprising the role of Joanne, who she has previously played in traditional stagings of the show) makes it abundantly clear that her status as a Broadway legend is wholly deserved: hearing her sing is breathtaking. Particular mention must also go to Jonathan Bailey as Jamie (formerly Amy), who performs the song 'Getting Married Today', the fastest song on Broadway outside of Hamilton, to absolutely riotous applause; Mel Giedroyc, who somehow totally disappears into the role of Sarah, despite still looking exactly like Mel Giedroyc; and Richard Fleeshman, who plays Andy (formerly April), Bobbie's slightly dim-witted lover, with a compelling combination of warmth and pitch perfect comedic timing.

Elliott's production shares a clear aesthetic with last year's Angels In America at the National Theatre, which she also directed - it's bathed in neon and it's got rooms popping up from the floor and the back and everywhere. It's a dreamy, surrealist caper through Bobbie's mind as she celebrates her birthday and takes stock of what she truly wants from life.

The show works entirely on its own merits: if this was the first ever staging of Company, it would still be a nuanced, sympathetic and realistic look at some of the pressures facing 21st century women. Feminism has given us a modicum of freedom - just as the sexual revolution of the 1960s gave Bobby his - but that freedom can be uniquely and painfully paralysing.

As it is, this gender-swapped revival of a much beloved classic musical deserves to be a smash hit. I was almost jealous of the enraptured audience I shared it with - the show is so very, very good, and for those who've known and loved it for nearly 50 years, seeing it so carefully and successfully adapted must have been pure joy.

As Harry (Gavin Spokes) sings in the beautiful 'Sorry/Grateful': "Everything's different, nothing's changed. Only maybe slightly rearranged."