Nothing prepares you for your first time in London, not guide books, not research, not friends who’ve been there/are there/live there, not movies or TV. And although walking into a theatre, taking your seat and watching a play is more or less the same everywhere, there is also at times a profound difference in perspective that can color perception, as regards both the POV of the audience and the state of the art behind the scenes. (Among other things—and this is a subject for another time and another venue—there is virtually no musical theatre system, or a separate community of seasoned specialists, as we know it in NYC, and precious little support for training new musical dramatists and the creation of new, original work. There are ongoing efforts to change this, but, as the saying goes, it’s an uphill battle all the way.)
Little also prepares you for the overwhelming kindness of the people, both within and without the theatre community. Most of the shows I write about below I got to see thanks to the gracious indulgence of more than a few British press reps.
Which leads me to this final word of intro: if you’ve never been to the theatre in London, nothing prepares you to know what to see. People will tell you, “Oh you must go to the Old Vic/the Young Vic/the Royal Court/the National/the Donmar…” and you can’t pay attention to that, you’ll go nuts. Absent a touristy determination to see one institutional icon or another (and nothing wrong with that), you really can’t prioritize effectively—especially where newly or not-yet open plays are concerned. Fact is, all the theatres are architecturally and aesthetically interesting if not downright amazing; so you want to make your efforts about what’s onstage. Your first step is to visit www.londontheatre.co.uk. Canvas what’s on the boards—West End, off-West End and Fringe—check what will playing during your stay, weigh that against what catches your fancy, compile your first, best lists, do a little more research (lotta UK show & theatre company websites and UK theatre journalism out there)…and then you just dive into the deep end of the pool.
what I did and I mostly stuck to the mainstream; thus this is not
a comprehensive roundup; but it may be a representative sampling of the
End’s diversity. (Links to the official websites and ticket
information can be found in the headers above.) As a sidebar, I should
add: your lifeline to getting around the city is a map of the
Underground or "tube" (subway) system and the British Rail overground.
Unlike Manhattan, the city is not laid out like a grid (imagine the
most twisty sections of the Village downtown spread across an entire
city), and unlike midtown Manhattan,
the West End Theatre district (sometimes referred to as "Theatretown"
by the locals) is spread over a wide area, not a centralized,
concentrated neighborhood of theatres as we know it. (A map book called
London A to Z is oft-cited as the one essential for
newbies. That may well be true, and I always had it with me, but I
think I consulted a street map only once or twice in two weeks. Usually
I opened it to the Underground/Rail map and the Theatre map, which can
be obtained separately, and thus relieve you of having to carry the
book with you, should that be a concern. It's a modest-sized ring-bound
paperback, though, and not very heavy. How often, if and when you use
it will have much to do with your itinerary and on what activities you
concentrate your energies.)
There are a few shows I saw that you won't find reviewed here: the musical Betty Blue Eyes, for one, based on the film A Private Function (the link at the title is to the show's official website). It was previewing all through my London stay (at the Novello Theatre) and would not open until long after I returned to the States, so to offer official comment on a show I saw in progress—though it seemed pretty well shaped even then—would go against the rules of the reviewing game. (I also attended under my own auspices, because it was still previewing, and not through a press office.) But I can say the small, struggling community of new musical theatre writers in London has had a lot of hope riding on it. Betty Blue Eyes is the first genuine book musical (as opposed to through-sung pseudo-opera or panto-influenced jukebox show) to open on the West End in many years, and if it had failed, it would have set back new musicals in London horribly, and once more supported the thesis that only Americans can do this kind of thing anyway, so why invest in local talent? (And even then—only Betty's songwriters and director are British; the bookwriters are American—but at least they're adapting a beloved British screenplay co-written by a British icon, Alan Bennett.) However, there's was nothing about the show that wasn't at least very competent, the night I attended, and I'm pleased to report that, as I write these words, it has just opened to a mass of what can best be described as gentle raves…which strikes me as entirely appropriate. London's aspiring musical theatre writers are due a welcome sigh of relief.
I also can't really review—yet feel compelled to mention—Smash! at the Mernier Chocolate Factory, which a friend and I saw on our own (again, not via press seats) and on impulse, one Sunday afternoon. It's a revival of the late, great TV writer Jack Rosenthal's thinly veiled, fictionalized account of his experience writing the book for a musical—an adaptation of one of his teleplays that I won't name here, because it was also the title of the show. The real-life enterprize was a doomed proposition from the start, for reasons best not declared in print (several of the key players are still alive), and in the play, Rosenthal, who was too naive to know what most most informed musical theatre insiders could have told him at the top, mildly disguises his eventual cynicism about the musical theatre process in a comedy that tries very hard to sweeten his sour grapes and be light-hearted about it all. (Some decades before. Smash!, the American Richard Bissell wrote a similat Stranger in a Strange Land story about his experience transforming his novel Seven and a Half Cents into a musical—but of course that musical became The Pajama Game, and was realized by a far healthier creative-producing team. Who're you gonna believe?) But I can't fault Tamara Harvey's able direction, and whatever else may be true (or, in the case of Rosenthal's conclusions about musical theatre people, not true), it gives you a chance to see both Tom Conti and Richard Schiff live. Which compensates for a lot. It runs through May 8.
And now for the real reviews…
Incorrigible (albeit selective) TV fanboy that I am, I simply had to see the play version of Yes Prime Minister by series creators and writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (who of course also created and wrote the series that begat it, Yes Minister). Its first West End engagerment (following a debut at the Chichester Festival) had recently closed, so I hopped British Rail for the town of Nottingham, one of the whistle stops for the play's subsequent and current National Tour. What makes that engagement relevant in this London roundup is that the play will be returning to the West End in June, with its current (and entirely new) touring cast intact.
YPM is a satirical look at the workings of government (British government of course providing the particulars) and at its core is a triumvirate. On one end is Jim Hacker, tending toward plain-spokenness, trying to be a force for good, but ever-mindful of needing to remain in office in order to do so. On the other is Sir Humphrey Appleby, Cabinet Secretary, a ranking civil service veteran, who tries as fervently to preserve a conservative status quo: his special gift in this regard is obfuscatory language—in a single sentence running fully a half page of script, he can say absolutely nothing, but with such awesomely diversionary fluidity and dazzle that it not only (often) neutralizes opposition via sheer befuddlement, but elicits enthusiastic audience applause for the dexterity alone. In the middle is Bernard Woolley, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister—but as it’s a Civil Service job, he also answers to Sir Humphrey.
Neither the original West End cast (of whom I’ve seen some video clips) nor the tour cast are the equal of their iconic TV originals—Paul Eddington (Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (Humphrey) and Derek Fowlds (Bernard)—but then, nobody could be. However, the characters they played are also such bold and ingeniously drawn creations that their iconography, in the manner of popular literary characters, can exist independently of their TV portrayers. Indeed, the magic of YPM as a play is that it supports and even welcomes new interpretations…so long as they honor the fundamental character templates and guidelines. It’s a magic that the play’s audiences are happy—nay, deliriously happy—to abet.
Happily too, the play is worthy “sequel.” As the characters and their dynamic are “ageless,” authors Lynn and Jay have—without comment or rationalization—casually reloaded them into the present day, with its internet, cellphone and computer technology. The characters seem perfectly at home with the update. Today’s crisis? In order to push through an important diplomatic initiative, Hacker (blustery and exasperated Richard McCabe) finds himself faced with the prospect of having to provide the (offstage) visiting leader of an Arab nation with a sexual partner for the evening—teenage schoolgirl-type requested. How morally exposed even considering the request leaves him and his administration is hotly debated by him, Sir Humphrey (an impeccable, rarely-ruffleable Simon Williams) and Bernard (Chris Larkin, expertly balancing outrage with complicity).
There are two small factors that keep the play from being YPM perfection. First: Authors Lynn and Jay have somewhat amped up aspects of farce where the series itself was usually subtler in its comedy of ideas, language and manners—with the result that Hacker is now a touch more of a buffoon than an average public servant facing tests of his growing competency (and thus less sophisticated a statesman than when we knew him at the end of the last series). Second: the creation of a fourth core character, Claire Sutton, Special Policy Advisor to the Minister (a coolly efficient Charlotte Lucas). This is (I’ve read) in keeping with current trends in British government; and certainly in keeping with the modern notion of having a female voice in a Boys’ Game; and structurally, I think, in keeping with giving Jim Hacker someone to whom he can muse aloud. She’s a functional character, but I think the price of that function is a mild dilution of the tug-of-philosophy between Hacker and Appleby.
co-author Lynn has directed with a master’s comic touch and the rest of the
cast (including Kevork Malikyan as the
Arab leader’s savvy, cynical Ambassador) are likewise at champion game level.
(The Official Yes Prime Minister play site contains some video clips of the tour company, as well as the original West End cast—Henry Goodman [Appleby], David Haig [Hacker] and Jonathan Slinger [Woolley]—but if you journey over to YouTube, you'll also find three clips of special material written by Lynn and Jay as "companion pieces," of a sort, to the play. They feature Henry Goodman's Sir Humphrey approaching three potential memos to three potential ministers: Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat.)
Though respected in the US, the late playwright Terrence Rattigan is virtually an institution in England, and this year marks the centenary of his birth; subsequently, Rattigan revivals dot the landscape and two are currently on the West End boards.
The first is Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, about RAF bomber pilots during WWII. These pilots led a heroic, stressful existence, and quite often a temporary one—the mortality rate was high. The story is set during an autumn weekend of 1941 in the residents’ lounge of a hotel in which a trio of pilots are scheduled to spend the weekend with their wives. Each couple has a story thread and each story showcases a different aspect of the RAF pilot life and those who share it. Notably, the play was written by Rattigan as an homage, based on his own observations of being in the service.
In its time, Flare Path was considered bracingly candid. It seems a little less revealing today. In part, I think, because war dramas with a similar insider view (especially on film and TV) have become more increasingly part of the cultural landscape. But in part, as well, because the boundaries of “candor” loosen with each successive era—which also at times encourages historical revisionism as well as revelation. However, Flare Path still retains the authenticity of its debut immediacy as well as a fairly sound dramatic structure (albeit mildly melodramatic and featuring long-winded set-up exposition, which belies the play’s later efficiency).
After Trevor Nunn’s heavy handed approach to A Little Night Music, in which the actors were virtually encouraged to play their subtext (despite its relative success, the production’s New York “street name,” riffing on the beleaguered Spiderman subtitle, was even A Little Night Music: Turn off the Fun), I was apprehensive as to how he’d handle a play so dependent upon surface behavior hiding unspoken emotion. But in this non-musical environment he has clearly (if subconsciously) put more trust in the material and its ability to do the work without overt “indication” layered on top of it—so much so that I wanted to shout, “Where was that Trevor Nunn when Night Music was rehearsing?” But of course as a visitor one doesn’t do such things, so I was content to enjoy the splendid cast, toplined by Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and the West End’s former Legally Blonde, Sheridan Smith.
The second Rattigan play is the rarely performed Cause Célebre, which, until its denouement, keeps at bay what’s intended as the starkly revealing truth about the murder of a young, beautiful wife’s (Anne-Marie Duff) elderly husband (Timothy Carlton)—a young and flirtatious woman of some renown, being a famous songwriter…conspicuously in the thrall of the burly, working class, teenage lover she deflowered shortly after he came to work for her (Tommy McDonnell).
The sexual aspect of the scandal is of course framed within the society of its era, Rattigan dramatizing (though not necessarily endorsing) said society’s prudish moralism—and that’s fun, if somewhat quaint—but the murder-mystery “solution” doesn’t quite fulfill its promise, nor capitalize on a repeated “dialogue seed” that turns out to be not only a false lead, but one that is never resolved or acknowledged as misdirection. There is a typical Rattigan-esque irony at the end, but the intended impact is far milder in our more liberal age. Indeed, the point of the play itself seems a condemnation of public pre-judgment—a noble theme—but Cause Célebre isn’t equipped with the metaphorical equivalent of, say, the Salem witch trials in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (which stand in for the Communist witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s), that can resonate in any era.
Rattigan’s narrative does have one compelling contemporary feature, though—one that may even have been a pioneering stroke: he jumps back and forth in time, presenting pieces of the drama—including the drama of a juror who represents society’s view (Niamh Cusack)—out of linear sequence. However old-fashioned the play’s cultural perspective, the delivery system at least seems ahead of its time.
And the production certainly shows that off to best advantage: Director Thea Sharrock has directed a fine cast on a set with only enough scenery to allow for the split stage fluidity that abets Rattigan’s strategy. There’s no faulting the evening for atmosphere.
I suppose one could argue that, in being re-fashioned for the stage, the iconic film version of The Wizard of Oz has dramaturgical beats where new songs might go; and one might argue too that there are transitions and moments that have always begged explanation—no: scratch that, not begged, but rather challenged. Lots of jokes have been made about Dorothy saying to the Scarecrow upon her farewell, “I think I’ll miss you most of all,” as if leaving the Lion and the Tin Man in the dust; and then there’s the Wicked Witch’s soldiers after she’s dispatched, suddenly changing allegiance and hailing Dorothy as a hero. But the winky, labored explications devised by producer Andrew Lloyd Webber and his director Jeremy Sams in their adaptation only exacerbate what they’re trying to minimize by drawing attention to it. And as for the new songs…Webber, reunited with his once-constant lyricist Tim Rice, don’t easily fit into the style of lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg and composer Harold Arlen. Though the songs are perfectly respectable place-markers, Webber doesn’t capture Arlen’s whimsy and Rice hasn’t Harburg’s playfulness with language (though he tries to compensate by rhyming like crazy). Silly to complain, though, because none of this stuff hurts The Wizard of Oz all that much, and the transition from film to stage is otherwise rather creditable. Jeremy Sams’ production at the London Palladium is cleanly wrought and his special effects and design team have done nicely enough.
For an adult well-familiar with the film, the cast is a mixed blessing. The new actors have been encouraged to give their own spins to the characters, rather than imitating the indelible portrayals of their film forebears, which is entirely healthy. The flip side, though, is that none of the new players, not even the redoubtable Michael Crawford as the Wizard (and other roles in the Frank Morgan track), has anything near the same octane of innate persona, so the new interpretations seem both welcome and wanting at the same time. (Though I’ll admit there is something adorable about Danielle Hope as Dorothy, who landed her role by way of a televised competition.)
For children, though, this seems to be entirely moot. As with Annie, Peter Pan and any other such kid-friendly musical, the wonder of the tale and the magic of the stage supersede any such considerations. The kids remain transfixed and involved throughout. Since such events must (in part at least) be judged also by how vigorously they instill a love of theatre—and potentially even spark the dreams of a coming generation of theatre artists—The Wizard of Oz, despite reviews that might mislead you to believe otherwise, needs to be considered a win.
Speaking of wins…and Oz related matters…
It’s a bit too glib to call End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter on the Stage 1 space at Trafalgar Studios a theatrical “biopic” of Judy Garland; the play is too well-constructed for that. Actually, it’s a somewhat speculative dramatization of what the last year of her life might have been like, focusing on the time of her final London concert engagement. Alternating between her London hotel suite and the concert stage, End of the Rainbow is a rich rumination on an artistic and personal life out of control in a business that offers no sanctuary, reprieve or leniency. Her dependence on drugs increasing, Judy (an electrifying Tracie Bennett) is here torn between the sincere yet compromised (and compromising) love of two men: the opportunistic love of streetwise and much younger fiancé Micky Deans (a cocky, dese-dem-and-dose Stephen Hagen), who “manages” her with an iron will and no patience for her attempts to intimidate, baby talk or wheedle; and the platonic adoration of her gay, Scottish-born musical director Anthony (a delightfully arch and touchingly sad Hilton McRae), who believes her knows and can take care of the real Judy. (Historical note: While Mickey Deans was a real person, Anthony would seem at the very least to be a composite character, drawn from several sources and meant to personify and particularize Garland’s enormous homosexual following. Her actual musical director at the time, Tony Osborne, was a London-born, married family man.)
Bennett virtually channels the spirit, voice and physicality of the mature,
unraveling Garland, both on-and-offstage; while the portrayals of Deams and
Anthony are a textbook study of stark (if somewhat archetypal) contrast; and
the small but swingin’ onstage band is top notch. Fine direction is by Terry Johnson, who also helmed the current revival (now in NYC) of La Cage Aux Folles.
I was asked to report that I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at a preview, but as it was the night before opening, the show has to have been frozen. This production is director Emma Rice’s pass at a stage version of the French, through sung jazz-opera film with music by Michel Legrand, who, according to the program, hand-picked Ms. Rice for the assignment.
Where her recent stage adaptation of NoĎl Coward’s Brief Encounter was a first-time screen-to-stage transition for the work, Umbrellas has a previous stage history, having been adapted in 1979 for presentation at The Public Theatre in NYC. Never having seen that version, I can offer no comparisons, but credits indicate that this is a new pass at it—though the deceptively easy-sounding English libretto is still by Sheldon Harnick.
It would seem that, as with Brief Encounter, what Ms. Rice brings to the party are theatrical metaphors to stand in for film effects. There’s a newly created Chanteuse (the slinky, worldly Meow Meow—yes, that is the actress’s stage name) who is our guide into and out of the story and occasionally plays minor roles; and a complement of dancing (occasionally back-up singing) sailors who facilitate the passage of time and place by moving set pieces—and at times people—from place to place.
The story is a simple and in some ways unremarkable one (which is, I think, the point) about young lovers GeneviŹve (Carly Bawden) and Guy (Andrew Durand), who in the wake of a whirlwind courtship, are forced apart by his obligation to serve in the navy. When he leaves they are still unmarried and she (of course) is carrying his child. And paths change in ways that neither could predict or had intended.
Conceptually and narratively, I liked Umbrellas of Cherbourg far more than Brief Encounter, in part because there’s meatier narrative to sustain interest (at least there was for me); and having a lovely, romantic score by one of the best composers of the latter 20th century to buoy it all doesn’t hurt.
Alas, I don’t find playwright Neil LaBute in London to be much more on the money than in NYC (despite my surprising and hopeful fondness for his recent The Break of Noon). Usually his plays strike me as having a patina of thematic profundity that is then betrayed by supposedly “adult” characters acting like overgrown adolescents.
In a Forest Dark and Deep in its world premiere at the Vaudeville follows “in the tradition” (or it did for me, at least). Set in a remote, two-storey cabin, it dramatizes what happens when blue collar brother Bobby (Matthew Fox) answers the call of older sister and college professor Betty (Olivia Williams) to come and help her move out. As you can imagine, old rivalries and issues start to surface early on. This leads to the cat-and-mouse of what is described as “a psychological thriller”—and it is, kind of—but even here, Mr. LaBute’s Big Mystery Reveal is easy to call (at least it was for me) and thin on symbolic substance.
Exacerbating this are both actors tending toward shrillness in performances that seem built on three broad-strokes, soft-medium-loud emotional colors (his: flippant, confrontational and accusatory; hers: pathetic, defensive and hysterical). To be sure, this is somewhat a function of repetitive writing; but the playwright’s own unnuanced direction provides the proverbial hat on top of a hat.
That said, I am also honor-bound to report that I saw In a Forest Dark and Deep among an audience of mostly young adults who seemed to be there for the stargazing. And they had a fine old time.
All right, I’ll shamelessly admit, I did the touristy thing. I saw The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s stage thriller, which is the world’s longest running play at 59 years and counting. There were no press privileges for this one (that’s policy) and you will find no discounts even at the TKTS booth (yes, London has two—plus a website, inspired by, though not affiliated with, the American original).
In a curious way, I can absolutely see how The Mousetrap has taken hold: it is, with regard to its author, era, sub-genre, style and etc. somehow quintessentially British, and if that’s what a visitor to London is after, that’s what the visitor will get.
To describe the plot or even review the play, per se, seems pointless. If you know it, you know how it veers from the sublime to the silly with shameless, unabashed commitment. If you don’t know it, I won’t be the one to spoil the discovery for you.
But I’ll say this much: it has been a tradition for several decades now that the cast be entirely replaced every year (the understudies are, however, kept on retainer); and there’s an ever-evolving rotation of directors as well. So despite heading toward decade seven, The Mousetrap remains surprisingly fresh and lively.
The only thing I’ll “give away” is some consumer advice. It would seem that, as a self-sustaining institution of long standing, the show rarely sells out or needs to. You’re safe to assume that if you purchase the cheapest possible seats (located in what we Yanks would call the Second Balcony), you can move down to empty seats in the front of that balcony, the Dress Circle (First Balcony or Mezzanine, and by far the best seats in the house, as their elevation is not far above stage level) or the Stalls (Orchestra).
Penultimately: The only waste of time
in my first London theatregoing adventure was The Hurly Burly Show, at the Garrick, starring and conceived by the young but apparently
renowned strip artist Miss Polly Rae. Since it bills itself as “a contemporary burlesque revue,” I was
expecting a show with comedy sketches, specialty acts, song—and on top
of that (as it were) scantily clad girls. But The Hurly Burly
Show is only about the girls, and the intentionally tawdry
proceedings consist of one slender premise after another for them to disrobe to
prerecorded music. (Occasionally a guy named Spencer Day, an
expat American lounge-lizard type, offers one of several perfectly silly songs
he’s written in celebration of short term relationships and casual sex.) I
enjoy looking at beautiful, near-naked pulchritude as much as any straight guy
with a perky libido, but a little of this stuff goes a long way (no pun
desired), to say nothing of the strip-club hooting of the audience (which is