Clear clean simple and utterly engaging from the bare set with one chair we walk into see (echoed with outside chair at start of second half), the simple design ideas - black costumes, interiors in first half in town, white costumes and mostly outdoor scenes for second half in country. The show puts all its trust in its raw materials: the writing, the music (made by a tiny quintet), its songs and its actors. The sense of shadows and memory whispers through it with the quintet chorus of Missuses & Misters singing through the younger rememberances and providing a perpetual observation of the foolish love tangles of the protagonists (the programme notes point out the repeated use Sondheim has made of outside observation in his shows). So the words all arrive with an easy freshness and potency and - like the Jude Law Hamlet - gives us a world and its people who make complete sense - merely the slightest lift rather than any great leap of faith needed to enter here.
Maureen Lipman's grande old courtesan is a masterclass in less-is-more timing and energy: everything she says arrives in your lap for your enjoyment perfectly formed and still very much alive, and even the familiar lines sound newly spoken. Around her central imperious stillness, the rest of the company convince and pull us lightly through their stories, even though this is wholeheartedly theatrical: all the characters sing directly out to us (again in much the same form as the Hamlet soliloquies) and the period grandness and highly coloured romanticism of the story are all exquisitely shown so we are never being duped into thinking this is real life, but we are able to float easily inside it like we might through music - simultaneously conscious and unconscious of its artfulness.
It is funny and beautiful and poignant and wistful. And sweetly irrelevant except for two moments of great sadness in 'Every Day A Little Death' and 'Send In The Clowns' (which we understood literally for the first time: when there's been an accident at the circus like a fall from the trapeze, the clowns get sent on).
Lovely birthday treat.