Pacific Overtures: it’s still hard to warm to Sondheim’s slippery history of Japan

Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Manuel Harlan

The valiant Menier Chocolate Factory’s bid to re-seize the initiative, post-pandemic, hasn’t been wildly successful this year. Two would-be ear-catching new musicals – The Third Man and Close-Up (about Twiggy) – met with more critical jeers than cheers. In returning to the work of Stephen Sondheim, the venue might seem to be heading back to creative terra cognita. But this staging of Pacific Overtures completes a triptych of its revivals of ambitious Sondheim shows regarded as problematic – Assassins and Road Show (each featuring a book by John Weidman).

Once described by the late composer himself as “the most bizarre and unusual musical ever to be seen in a commercial setting” – a species of “documentary vaudeville” –  his 1976 work has a simple, if bold notion: to chronicle Japanese history from the 1853 arrival of American warships under Commodore Perry, intent on ending the country’s 220-year isolation, up to c1868, glancing finally at modern “Westernised” Japan too.

Although the piece proceeds via a sequence of vignettes, it centres on the shifting attitudes of two men. There’s Kayama, a minor samurai initially (and hopelessly) delegated to see off the visitors; and Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman whose experience of life in the United States makes him useful to the Shogun and positions him as a champion of US progress. As time goes by, their contrasted affinities and allegiances start to alter.

Nowadays you might label the show a musical TED talk; allusions to Brecht are oft bandied about. The piece is too playful to be dismissed as numbingly didactic. What it is, though, is emotionally arid and it’s attended by anxiety around authenticity. Sondheim’s rationale – that it’s a “historical narrative as written by a Japanese who’s seen a lot of American musicals” – doesn’t ward off the charge of cultural tourism, for all the finesse of his haiku-like lyrics.

The trick up the kimono sleeve of Matthew White’s production is that it’s co-produced with Umeda Arts Theatre, Japan, and boasts a predominantly Japanese and British East Asian cast. Their sense of “ownership” is smartly relayed early on when the amiable narrator/”reciter” figure (Jon Chew) pauses a round of speech (in Japanese) and hits a remote control, with English then ensuing.

Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Pacific Overtures, at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Manuel Harlan

That validity lends a confidence to the staging, a 115-minute affair that moves at pace, the action presented on a traverse wooden-floored set of elegant burnished decorousness. Whether in ornate costume or exacting movement, there’s a fascinating sense of a highly restrained ceremonial culture intruded upon by something brasher, that collision rising to a peak in the darkly comic number Please Hello, which includes a superb Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche satirising the entitlement of British imperialism.

There’s much admirable detail here – the use of Japanese puppetry, integration of origami and video wizardry, and you can’t fault the cast in bearing, or vocal execution. The show, though, remains sui generis – slippery, even slight, hard to respond warmly to (perhaps knowingly so), and, despite a few achingly lovely songs, arguably falling short of a Sondheim masterpiece. One, all told, for his many aficionados, the Menier devoted, and the intellectually curious.

Until Feb 24. Tickets: 020 7378 1713;

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.