Aspects of Love ★★☆☆☆

Have you ever gone to the stage door after seeing an awful show, chatted up the lead actress and then shtupped her? After which, the lead actress goes off and shtupps your uncle, and you go off and shtupp your uncle’s girlfriend? Then, for no apparent reason, you decide to join the army, shoot the actress with your special new army gun (it’s only a flesh wound), and then shtup the daughter she’s just had with your uncle? Meanwhile, the actress shtups your uncle’s girlfriend?

No, me neither. And if the plot sounds contrived and just a little bit (aka very) dull, welcome to Aspects of Love. The show which has just announced it is closing its six month run three months early. Not a good sign.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love is at once enticingly nostalgic and dreadfully cringe-inducing. Based on David Garnett’s 1955 novella, this confection of a musical promises a saucy spectacle of grandiose love affairs, dalliances, and jealousies with a healthy dash of old-world charm. But does it deliver? Nope.

The original show was unveiled to West End audiences in 1989, and despite performing a spectacular belly-flop on Broadway the following year, it has been resuscitated for the present day. Directed by Jonathan Kent, with an ensemble led by Michael Ball of the original cast, this theatrical revival attempts to rekindle the flame.

‘Love Changes Everything’, the show’s central motif and signature number performed by Michael Ball, will worm its way into your eardrums, like a persistent housefly at a summer picnic. Ball’s mellifluous baritone and easy charm manage to glaze over some of the show’s more glaringly saccharine lyrics, but even his gilt-edged talent can’t elevate the torpid narrative.

Indeed, where Aspects of Love’ most dishearteningly falls short is in its character development and plot. The tale takes us to post-war France, where we meet Rose Vibert, a struggling actress portrayed by Laura Pitt-Pulford. A chance encounter with teenage admirer, Alex (Jamie Bogyo), leads to a whirlwind escape to a villa in the Pyrenees, a wealth-drenched Uncle George (Michael Ball), and the requisite love triangle.

What follows is a dizzying tangle of romances, rivalries, and a disquieting dance between Alex, George, and George’s barely-adult daughter, Jenny (Anna Unwin). The character’s handling often veers dangerously close to blatant sexism, with women reduced to mere playthings in the hands of their male counterparts. One can’t help but wonder if the production could have done with a substantial dose of 21st-century sensibilities.

The narrative is as meandering as the Seine, with characters veering wildly in their affections and alliances. Unfortunately, this erratic movement often borders on the nonsensical. Rather than engrossing us in their romantic struggles, we’re left questioning their motivations, and at times, their sanity. It’s a little as if a Jilly Cooper novel was put in a blender with Phantom of the Opera, and Aspects of Love came out the other end.

Moreover, the show’s design feels curiously at odds with its thematic material. John Macfarlane’s picturesque backdrops, while visually appealing, read more like a beginner’s guide to Impressionist painting than a fully integrated part of the narrative. Douglas O’Connell’s sliding video screens with blurred, screensaver-like vistas add a pseudo-tech sheen that feels somewhat out of place in this old-world tale.

So, how could this production improve? A good start would be to strip away the unnecessary complexities of the narrative and delve deeper into the emotional arcs of the characters. Rather than thrusting the characters from one bed to another, perhaps take some time to explore their motivations, fears, and dreams. Make us care about these people; after all, isn’t that the essence of drama?

Secondly, give the female characters a voice and a sense of agency. In the era post #MeToo, staging a production in which women are reduced to mere prizes to be won feels outdated, if not outright offensive. A modern adaptation of Garnett’s novella should aim to explore the emotional landscapes of all its characters, not just the men.

But for all its faults, there are moments when the show shines. When Ball opens his mouth to sing, the theatre seems to hold its collective breath. Danielle de Niese, despite the caricature-like role of the sensual Italian mistress, demonstrates why she’s a force to be reckoned with in the opera world. Anna Unwin’s Jenny, despite her character’s dubious treatment, brings a raw intensity to her scenes that is genuinely compelling.

Moreover, let’s not dismiss Lloyd Webber’s music. While the lyrics may trip over themselves in their pursuit of sentimentality, the score is on occasion gorgeously melodic. It weaves a rich tapestry that, at its best moments, captures the turbulent emotional undercurrents of love.

This revival of Aspects of Love is akin to a grand old mansion in desperate need of renovation. There are parts of breathtaking beauty, rooms filled with the echo of laughter and tears, the spectre of past glories. Yet, without some significant work, the paint will continue to peel, the wood will rot, and those glorious aspects will fade into mere memories. Perhaps love does change everything, but it’s clear that this production needs more than love to truly shine. It requires a fundamental re-evaluation of its characters, a careful refinement of its narrative, and a sincere commitment to portraying the myriad aspects of love with honesty, respect, and emotional truth.

Aspects of Love is playing at the Lyric Theatre until 19 August 2023.