Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre, 2023
Photo: Danny Kaan
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Recommended


Old Friends

3 out of 5 stars

This glittering Sondheim tribute revue packs in the classics but doesn’t really capture his genius


Time Out says

‘Old Friends’ started life last year as a starry, one-off tribute concert to late musical theatre titan Stephen Sondheim, but clearly producer Cameron Mackintosh was pleased enough with the results as he’s brought the Matthew Bourne-directed revue back for a full West End run.

‘Old Friends’ 2.0 inevitably dials down the celebrity cameos, but as well as a very respectable core British company of Sondheim vets - Janie Dee, Damian Humbley, Bonnie Langford etc – it boasts two major US stars in the shape of headliners Lea Salonga and Bernadette Peter, a Broadway legend and long term Sondheim muse who has never done a full West End run before.

There is a lot of talent and a lot of classic songs: 42 of them to be precise. It makes for an evening with high highs, but I’m not quite sure if ‘Old Friends’ really feels like a tribute so much as an overstuffed mixtape.

Part of the problem is context: Sondheim wrote superb songs, but he wrote astonishing musicals – the genius of his works lay in the complete shows and their audacious concepts, not simply their individual bits. Though there are themed sections in ‘Old Friends’ – an ‘Into the Woods’ bit, a ‘Sweeney Todd’ bit – they’re pale shadows of full productions. 

And as a tribute it feels like it could offer a greater sense of the man: there’s a photo montage of Sondheim’s life near the end, and a weird video of him and Andrew Lloyd Webber singing a song about Mackintosh… and that’s about it. Surely we could have scrapped a song or two in favour of a bit more reminisce, considering most of the people on stage knew him personally? 

However, let’s be clear that Sondheim wrote some of the greatest songs of all time, and most of those are featured here. You don’t need to watch all of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ to appreciate why ‘Sunday’ is a masterpiece. Tracks like ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ and ‘The Ladies who Lunch’ are so complete, so richly dramatic in and of themselves that they build their own worlds. And then there are the bangers: ‘Being Alive’, ‘Someday’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’ are so part of popular culture that they don’t need context beyond being incredible.

It’s also probably your only chance to see Peters live in their country –  if she doesn’t have the vocal firepower of her heyday, she is a tremendously charismatic presence; Salonga is more physically staid, but her singing is sublime. 

If you want to see a large number of Stephen Sondheim songs performed by talented people in an ultimately cosy and conservative revue, see ‘Old Friends’. If you want to understand why Sondheim was regarded as so brilliant that his nickname was literally God, see one of his musicals.


£20-£200. Runs 2hr 30min
You may also like
You may also like
London for less