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Theatre Review: Sondheim show lost in the woods

Andrew Keates' Steve isn't quite funny or sad or clever enough to command an audience's attention

Steve. Photo: The Other Richard

Steve
Seven Dials Playhouse, London, until March 19

A clever conceit of Andrew Keates’s production of Steve – a hymn of praise to a group of Broadway fanatics and the late Stephen Sondheim – is that when the punters walk into the small auditorium it feels just like Joe Allen’s restaurant in Manhattan, complete with black and white pictures of stars on the walls and audience members sat at tables and drinking (do they get Equity rates?)

It’s a story of relationships – in this case exclusively gay ones – and it is well-acted and well-directed. It starts off very promisingly, with the cast sitting at a table on a revolving set and gradually tensions in the relationships begin to emerge. The table going around in the way it does – top marks to the designer Lee Newby – means that the audience gets to see the reactions of all present very clearly.

The problem with the show is that Mark Gerrard’s script simply isn’t quite funny or sad or clever enough to command an audience’s attention for the hour and a half the show runs. Jenna Russell – on fine form as a cynical old gay woman named Carrie – announces that she is dying of cancer, which is a fair enough way of trying to engage an audience’s attention, but no attempt is made to show her suffering and the subject is just dropped until her rather arbitrary death scene off-stage that no one seems to care two hoots about. She plays her final scene in an urn on a beach at Fire Island, and that’s restricting for any actress.

Given that the protagonists are all big fans of musicals, a lot more could and should have been made of the music but Ben Bapworth – as the musical director – feels like a poor relation to the actors and he too seldom gets a note in edgeways.

David Ames, Giles Cooper, Joe Aaron Reid, Michael Walters and Nico Conde all play their parts with élan – and Keates is a good, intelligent director – but I just wondered after a while what it was the play was trying to say, beyond the fact life is a bitch.

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