“Will someone kindly tell me what on Earth has happened?” Well, quite. That’s the that line Michael Ball’s George sings when surveying the absurdity before him, including the body of his passed-out partner Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford) who has just been shot by his jealous nephew Alec (Jamie Bogyo). Judging by the unexpected laughter that greeted it on opening night, others are framing his question more widely while witnessing this revival — that’s not the right term — of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1989 musical “Aspects of Love.”
For that scene and the whole queasy, quasi-romantic story to work, you need emotional truth. But despite the cast’s sincere efforts there is scarcely a speck of that for them to work with. In the sung-through score (no bookwriter is credited; the text is the work of lyricists Don Black and Charles Hart) they are left to sing rambling expository dialogue at one another and emote, giving audiences little to connect with. Lloyd Webber can and does lace lines from the show’s two big tunes, “Love Changes Everything” and “Seeing Is Believing,” through his score all night, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack of believable drama. And that’s before you get to the sexual politics.
It’s based on a novella by David Garnett. He was a minor figure of the Bloomsbury group of artists (including Virginia Woolf) about whom Dorothy Parker winningly wrote that they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.” That view was born out when Garnett notoriously wondered if he might ultimately marry the newborn daughter of his lover Duncan Grant. And, 24 years later, he did just that — a circumstance almost echoed in the plot.
In the first of snippet of a scene — there are 39 — we watch besotted 18-year-old Alec inveigling his way into the dressing room of actress Rose. Bored but flattered by his attention, she toys with him and then, for no apparent reason, suddenly agrees to run off to his uncle’s villa for a weekend in the country. Their idyll there is interrupted by the arrival of Uncle George, who is a widower. When Rose appears wearing a red dress belonging to his late wife, George is smitten.
Rose departs and when, a couple of years later, Alex discovers she is living with George, he finds her and shoots her and we’re still barely halfway through the first act. Then, in one of the show’s least edifying moments, he and George debate which of them should get to have Rose. (I know.) By the second half of the second act, everyone is together again but Alec is now attracted to George and Rose’s young adolescent daughter Jenny, technically his cousin. It’s presented as playful attraction but is painfully close to grooming by a much older family friend.
Even if you can swallow the plot — that’s a big “if” — there’s a serious problem in that for something all about sexual attraction, there is absolutely none on stage. There’s not a scintilla of heat between any of the couples. That is simultaneously a relief, since its presence would render some of the show impossible to watch, but also disastrous since without a sense of attraction, the couplings are entirely lackluster.
And we haven’t even got to the pointless inclusion of George’s sometime girlfriend Giulietta (portrayed with flashing-eyed clichés from Danielle de Niese) who’s there in order to have yet another wholly underwritten relationship with Rose – they sing one song together and have a kiss – and to have a tryst on a hay wagon with Alec so he can make up his mind about Jenny. Hay wagon trysts have been absent from world drama for quite a while. Has anyone noticed the lack?
As the focus of everyone’s obsession but with no dramatic life, a full-throated Pitt-Pulford sings beautifully and retains her dignity, a feat not fully achieved elsewhere. Ball, who became a star in 1989 creating the role of Alex, returns, this time as George, but has encouraged one of several rewrites from Lloyd Webber which means he again gets to sing “Love Changes Everything’ (“Hands and faces….” Pardon me, but hands?) Furthermore, it’s now presented halfway through the plot and unaccountably staged, divorced from the action on a nearly bare stage as if at the climax of a Michael Ball concert.
Director Jonathan Kent’s earnest, peculiarly cluttered production is initially characterized by John Macfarlane’s beautifully old-fashioned, painterly Manet-meets-Cézanne backdrops and wing-pieces that feel like something from a mid-century ballet. But against them come naturalistic set-pieces and lonesome doorframes that slide on via turntables. And for the umpteen transitions, tall, slim screens glide across the stage like screen-wipes displaying distractingly different, hyper-realist close-up images ranging from location-setting photos to a (worryingly out of focus) video of a guttering candle. The resultant collective stage picture is stylistically at war with itself, leaving first-rate lighting designer Jon Clark with the thankless task of trying to unite the conflicting styles to create something approaching a consistent mood. Matters aren’t helped by dated, jaunty, poorly written ensemble scenes.
Amid all this, the backdrop rises a couple of times for no reason mid-scene to reveal musical director Cat Beveridge’s excellent 13-piece band. Tom Kelly’s atmospheric new orchestrations for five strings, harp, delicious woodwind (including lovely bass clarinet and bassoon) and French horn are arguably the evening’s strongest element, but it’s simply distraction to have the audience’s concentration on the (in)action diverted to observe them.
The 1989 original production ran in London for three years. This, its first major revival, is unlikely even to approach that. The piece itself may well be en route to becoming justly neglected.