Top of Summer 2012

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Reviewed by David Spencer

Here’s a quick rundown of what I saw recently in London. Some was with the aid of generously granted press seats, some not. End-of-season is an odd time for a critic to visit London: some things are about to close or have been running a long while and don’t accommodate late critics—even if new, positive reviews wouldn’t hurt and the seats are available. (And of course, just as in NYC, there’s no getting into productions still working out their kinks in previews, though press previews are of course another matter.) There’s a somewhat different attitude in the UK about comping in general, not just press comps; as an expatriate Yank now living in London told me, “They simply don’t have the tradition of papering the house here"—by which he meant distributing free tickets to professionals and other theatre-related groups (schools, etc.) to fill the seats at an undersold performance. I’m not sure how true that is across the board, but comparing my recent visit to my last, it does seem that the best time to come on a critic’s junket is while the season is still active, and you can be officially included on the press rosters for or near press performances. However, the transition time a critic may find himself attending as a visitor on holiday. Which in some ways is not so bad: the hit to your wallet can be a healthy reminder of how ordinary citizens need to budget. Speaking of which…

Here’s what I paid for:

                        Matilda, the big, splashy hit musical based on the Roald Dahl novel and directed by Matthew Warchus. Despite all the hoo-hah surrounding this one, my reaction was mild—to put it mildly. But since this one’s coming into NY this season, and I wasn’t officially attending  as a critic—and since I think it will have to undergo some kind of sea change for American audiences (its style and locution are so aggressively panto that it may not fully translate in an unaltered form, even if though the alterations may prove “minor”)—I won’t detail my reaction. (In fact, I almost avoided going, because it’s coming into town. But I was also in London as a musical theatre teacher, and Matilda kept coming up in so many contexts that I finally thought, I need to know what the hell everyone’s talking about, so there’s a shared reference when it comes up.) All I will say is this: leave your expectations of revelation and US standards of high writing craft in your digs or hotel room. That Matilda is an event of sorts is undeniable. That it’ll be a match to your expectations from all the hype…well…be prepared for that to go either way.

                        Surprisingly, it was the stage adaptation of the film Top Hat, the Astaire-Rodgers vehicle with core by Irving Berlin, that proved one of my two best musical theatre experiences in London thus far. Adapted by Matthew White (who also smartly directed) and Howard Jacques, this is almost (if not quite) the equal of Nice Work if You Can Get It for bringing back the sensibility of a bygone era with contemporary savvy. My one caveat is the Tom Chambers in the Astaire role. He affects a kind of charmless cool that I think is supposed to be charming cool—in the manner of what I guess he imagines a cocky Broadway blade to be—and when dancing he even flashes this smile that is I think meant to convey cocky assurance, but just seems like a transparently official face-freeze. Chambers is an actor best known for the Brit TV soap Holby, and what got him the Top Hat gig was a stunning 2008 win on the BBC version of Strictly Come Dancing. I checked out clips from both and he is an extraordinary dancer, and if not a great actor, at least one with an easy and genuine charm he needs not work to “put across”; it walks in the room with him—and that indicates to me that he needs to be re-directed to dial it down and just trust who he is. The rest of the cast needs no such adjustment; from leading lady Summer Strallen down to the smallest cameo player, the casting is pitch-perfect, which for a British production of a musical about American musical archetypes is…well, kind of amazing. If you’d brought them over as a company (which someone should) and kept it a secret (somehow) that they were all Brits, I think there’d be so few “tells” that most everyone would be fooled. Special notice to Ricardo Alfonso as a comic Latin lover type. He reminded me a little bit of our own Lewis J. Stadlen; he’s precise, his timing is flawless, he has a wonderful voice and he can make anything funny.

                        The other musical “best” for me in London was director Jonathan Kent’s revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musicalization of the Christopher Bond version of Sweeney Todd. He’s re-set it in the 1930s, but otherwise hasn’t changed anything, not even tone or the general configuration of a traditional full staging. But by simply updating the accouterments, the costumes, the cultural indicia, he liberates the actors to explore different energies, simply because they must to match what they’re wearing and what’s around them; and—not to imply that the show has ever gotten tired—it gives the great classic a blood transfusion (fitting metaphor perhaps) which makes it seem fresher than it’s ever been since the original Harold Prince production made its debut in 1979. Especially striking are the leads, Michael Ball—whose Sweeney is a hulking, blue collar, working class vengeance machine—and Imelda Staunton, whose Mrs. Lovett seems a shade younger, because she makes the character’s sexuality (not just her dotty affection) more of a presence than ever before. Now here’s the paradox: though the rest of the cast are perfectly fine in terms of fulfilling the scheme and new discoveries of the production…none, individually, even though most have their moments, are close to being as good as the stars. Were I bringing the production to Broadway—and I think someone should—unless the director felt he’d be upsetting the morale of a group gestalt, I’d recast everyone but Ball and Staunton from the NY pool. Because as good as this production is, and it’s magnificent, it would simply soar if all were at the same level.

                        There’s also a restaging of the theatrical adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain. While not nearly so fine as Top Hat, it’s okay. Not a lot of nuance, but it has that dancing and those numbers, and the night I saw it, the too-young/too-callow standby was in for the Gene Kelly character. But then he did that dance in the rain, splashing the first rows (who loved it) and the audience forgave him everything. Everything. For me, the best thing in it was expatriate American actor Michael Brandon (most famous for being the first-named character in the cop show Depmsey and Makepeace) as the head of the studio. It’s a non-singing role, but still: Brandon brings to it the old-pro simplicity of just playing the truth without workin’ it hard. That he’s an actual Yank with an authentic streetwise accent doesn’t hurt verisimilitude either.

                        The Sunshine Boys, Neil Simon’s early 70s comedy about the uneasy reunion of a team of two aging former vaudevillians for a TV special, has been revived starring pint-sized Danny de Vito as the cantankerous Willie Clark and plus-size Richard Griffiths as the more laconic Al Lewis. I was a little concerned about watching these two implicitly New York Jewish characters being played by two gentiles (with another goy at the helm, director Thea Sharrock), simply because rhythm and sensibility can be such a fragile thing, especially with this kind of comedy, sturdy though it seems—but there’s Yiddishkeit enough to make this a very sweet, funny, accurate rendition of the play. Not great, but solid, and that’s all you need—if the pieces are firmly in place and the cast on the right trajectory, the piece almost “plays itself.” And the matinee I attended, the audience loved it.

                        I remember what a big deal the film Chariots of Fire was when it opened, and I remember thinking it was sort of okay but felt fairly slender. Per Wikipedia, “It tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Summer Olympics:  Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.” It seems a story very dear to the English sense of patriotism; as a sports story for an American…I must admit, come intermission, I thought: A Jew and a gentile running in circles. I can get that anywhere. There are indeed circles run in Edward Hall’s staging, which contains concentric turntables and full lap running tracks as lanes that run through the audience—which is of course seated in the round. At first it seems a very inventive solution, but the problem with any stage device that involves rotation or circular pathways is this: once you’ve spun around, or circumnavigated, you’ve taken the trick to the tippy pinnacle of which it is capable. And then what? Though lovingly adapted from the screenplay by Colin Welland, the stage adaptation by Mike (Cock) Barnett does a bit of running in circles too. The cast is fine, though, and the production, which is now in what I guess might be classified a kind of “regional” house in the very North of London, quite a ways away from Central London’s Theatre Town, booked a West End transfer even before it opened. An unusually nervy move, but I’m guessing it’s about capitalizing on the tourist trade that (they’re hoping) will accompany the Olympics. We’ll see…

                        Which brings us to:

                        The stuff I saw officially as a critic…

                       Yet another play that had been first popular as a film, but in this case, ironically the play had been written first. The King’s Speech by David Seidler held out the promise of being a richer experience, including a certain amount of political background that had been dropped from the screenplay and/or cut from the finished film…but instead proved merely how much more suited the story is for the screen. The relationship between stuttering Prince “Bertie” (Charles Edwards) and his elocution teacher Lionel Logue (Jonathan Hyde), despite its gestating tensions, didn’t have the needed heat onstage, because even if you hadn’t seen the film (and I hadn’t) the outcome of their having a victorious and even a harmonious finish was never in doubt, so any rift between them never registered as genuine threat. The production, as directed by Adrian Noble, was pleasant, even-handed and a bit lackluster. There was the nice surprise of seeing old pros like Ian McNeice (as Churchill, a role he’s played in other contexts, most recently twice on Doctor Who) and Joss Ackland. The play’s weekend closing notice was already up by the time I got to it.

                    The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Written on the Heart by David Edgar was a multi-generational drama about the controversies and intrigues behind the translation of the Bible into the King James English edition, from 1610 to 1985. This is another play that seemed to speak more to British nationalism than a universal fascination with history. For an American (and by coincidence my companion of the evening was an expatriate American young, but learned woman, who felt much the same as I) the play seemed fussy and scholarly, as if its primary task was not to engage but to educate in the manner of a play for schools. There was, however, one terrific scene between the spirit of a translator (Stephen Boxer) who had sought for literal and philosophical truth; and an old bishop (Oliver Ford Davies) who, as a younger man, had opposed him. It made the rest of the play seem even more wheezy because alone it virtually encapsulized all the important issues and themes—and, in being a lively debate/discussion between a ghost with unfinished business and a man in the service of finishing said business, made them theatrically dynamic. It might have been crafted into a perfect one act play. This one likewise closed shortly after I saw it (though not for lack of strong notices; it had been a much lauded transfer from a debut in Stratford-upon-Avon).

                Two close-to-perfect one act plays make up the still-running South Downs and The Browning Version. The first is a new play by David Hare, set in 1962, about boarding school students, in particular one (Alex Lawther) who finds that even modest individuality and free thinking is an uncomfortable challenge in a system that thrives on conformity; or more specifically (since few of Hare’s characters are so simply black and white) on an appearance of non-confrontational co-existence. But he also finds a few unexpected allies. The second one-act is a classic play by Terence Rattigan about a severe-yet-devoted boys’ school teacher (Nicholas Farrell) who is being insensitively edged out of his position by a new regime. Two directors, Jeremy Herrin for South Downs, Angus Jackson for The Browning Version, marshal a partially-overlapping cast through some lovely and even iconic performances. (Anna Chancellor in particular makes a tour de force out of being the compassionate actress mother of a classmate in the first play; and the retiring teacher’s duplicitous wife in the second.) The only minor complaint (and that’s far too strong a word) is that both One Acts are of substantial length, and either would satisfy as a single, shorter evening unto itself. So you must attend alert, rested enough to endure and prepared to concentrate.

                        Another evening of length—but length is the deal with this play—is the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days’ Journey Into Night. It can be a test of endurance to watch the Tyrone family’s famous disintegration…especially, from a critic’s perspective, for the seventh or eighth time; but as directed by Anthony Page, this rendition is lyrical, lively, balanced and engrossing. The British actors, David Suchet as matriarch, Trevor White and Kyle Soller as older and younger sons respectively, and Rosie Sansom as the mildly brash Irish maid, deliver flawless (and appropriate) American accents as well as finely wrought portrayals; and the one genuine American, the redoubtable Laurie Metcalf as Mary Tyrone—and this will sound like an odd compliment, and even contradictory, but compliment it is—is so convincing as she descends further into her drug-induced haze that you become aware of the places where O’Neill has overwritten or overplayed his hand (which he tended to do even at his most powerful). And that’s because Ms. Metcalf can convey so much that seems so natural and so right with so little.

                        Finally, at the Royal Court, I saw yet another play by Mike Bartlett, Love, Love, Love. It tracks a relationship through three scenes, and in a way, styles, though that may not be wholly intentional. Kenneth (Ben Miles) and Sandra (Victoria Hamilton) meet in the flat where Kenneth is the freeloading guest of his brother Henry (Sam Troughton). Sandra is Henry’s date, but Henry makes the mistake of leaving her alone with Kenneth. It all seems out of the angry youth school of playwriting triggered by Look Back in Anger, and its set in 1967. In 1990, Kenneth and Sandra are married with two troubled teenage kids, Jamie (George Rainsford) and Rose (Clara Foy) The marriage is slowly disintegrating to the playing style of social realism. In 2012, well-to-do father Kenneth coddles young adult son Jamie who’s ever on the verge of another psychotic break, while daughter Rose resents it because she’s struggling on her own to make ends meet. Meanwhile visiting mother Sarah has only gotten more dissatisfied as her second marriage has become staid and dull. And in this last scene it’s all kind of Neil LeBute—it gives the appearance of being profound, but in the end it’s just a bunch of shallow self-absorbed people who barely seem like a family, colliding. The play has received much critical favor, but neither I nor my London-based companion found it anything but a triptych of familiar tropes, warmed over. Under the direction of James Grieve, the cast delivers the play as well as such plays are ever delivered, but my ultimate feeling about Love, Love, Love was Can’t, Don’t, Won’t

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