The Great British Songbook

Maria Friedman

Shaw Theatre, London, 8 February 2009 4 stars

Maria Friedman

Though she's well known to British audiences as a veteran West End actress – the star of Lady in the Dark, The Woman in White, Chicago, Passion and Ragtime, amongst others – Maria Friedman's recent activities have focussed more on concerts and solo appearances. So it was no surprise to find that this evening at the Shaw Theatre devoted to the Great British Songbook was a thoroughly professional affair, notwithstanding a few memory lapses, and an enjoyable one at that.

Devised by Neil Marcus, together with her musical director, Jason Carr, the evening gave Friedman the chance to sing everything from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Henry Purcell, taking in the likes of Julian Slade, Benjamin Britten and Noel Coward on the way.

The evening began with a medley of three famous twentieth-century songs that provided an excellent showcase for Friedman's skills: 'Spread a Little Happiness' from Vivian Ellis' Mr Cinders, the classic standard 'Smile' by Charlie Chaplin, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, and 'If I Ruled the World' from Leslie Bricusse's Pickwick.

In general, the songs with the most emotional intensity were where Friedman was shown off at her best. The emotional connection with 'As if We Never Said Goodbye' from Sunset Boulevard was tangible, and in spite of some tension at the top of the register, it was a highlight of the evening. Two songs from Salad Days were a welcome reminder of the contribution made to musical theatre by Julian Slade, and Friedman also showed her versatility in a short medley of 'Where is Love?' from Oliver! And 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes' by Kate Bush – a fascinating coupling that truly worked.

Not everything was equally felicitous. Coward's 'Nina' started well but it inevitable lost its impetus when Friedman tripped over the words, while I found a war medley consisting of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' and 'Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers' a little tiresome, as well as incongruous within a generally sophisticated programme. 'Mad About the Boy' was much better, however, and a coupling of 'Georgy Girl' and 'Downtown' provided Friedman with ideally punchy material. The first half ended with a surprisingly effective rendition of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas: it's a piece requiring long phrases and demanding careful pitching of tricky chromatic intervals, but Friedman was totally impressive in it.

Thrilling, too, was the magnificently belted rendition of 'Diamonds are Forever' that opened the second half of the programme. Clearly Friedman could do a whole concert of Bond themes if she chose to, and 'Eleanor Rigby' was also given an expressive performance, but memory lapses once more cursed 'It's Bound to be Right on the Night'. Britten's arrangement of 'O, Waly Waly' was more successful, but for me there was a bit of a lull in the middle of this part of the concert, with a nursery rhyme penned by Friedman herself, Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Sir Rupert Murgatroyd' and Eric Idle's 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' taking Friedman into whimsical repertoire that does not suit her emotional intensity; it was difficult to judge Jason Carr's 'A Garden' because again, Friedman forgot some of the words.

The remainder of the show was excellent, however. 'Alone Again Naturally' showed off Friedman's impeccable ability as an interpreter of lyrics, while 'If Love Were all' from Bitter Sweet was sung with a lightness of touch and 'What Kind of Fool Am I' was a powerhouse ending to the evening.

It was something of a luxury to have all-new musical arrangements for a short engagement such as this, and in general the four-piece band accompanied sensitively. For me, Jason Carr's arrangements were a mixed experience occasionally. The medleys tended to be deftly put together, and overall the songs were set with a sense of Friedman's strengths. However, sometimes I found that the new versions were too fussy and did not always have enough fidelity to the original harmonies and contrapuntal material. For instance, the setting of 'The White Cliffs of Dover' – in which the four instrumentalists sang the harmonies instead of playing them – fell totally flat. However, there was a clever fluidity about the way the evening was put together and a skilful homogeneity about the musical palette.

What the concert gave us overall was a sense of how remarkable the level of musical invention in British popular song can be. Often the pieces are cooler in emotion than is the case with their American counterparts, and sometimes a wit and wordiness can take over to the detriment to the musical flow. But when in the hands of an excellent interpreter such as Friedman, this repertoire comes across as quite the equal to the likes of Gershwin, Berlin and Porter, and the event deserves to be recorded.

By Dominic McHugh


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