Book by Alex Dinelaris
Based on the Screenplay by
Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Adelphi Theatre
Official Website

by Graham Linehan
Based on the Screenplay by
William Rose
Directed by Sean Foley
Vaudeville Theatre
Official Website

by Noël Coward
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Starring Toby Stephens
and Anna Chancellor
Gielgud Theatre
Official Website

by Tennesee Williams
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Starring Kim Cattrall
and Seth Numrich
Old Vic

by August Wilson
Directed by Paulette Randall
Starring Lenny Henry
Duchess Theatre

Book by Marsha Norman
Based on the Novel
by Alice Walker
Music and Lyrics by
Brenda Russell, Alice Willis
and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle
Mernier Chocolate Factory

Reviewed by David Spencer

A few weeks back from a London trip, I pause here to dash off some quick appraisals. Some of this was stuff I saw “officially” as a critic, some as a patron. All are still playing, though except for The Bodyguard and The Ladykillers, the runs can be measured in remaining weeks.

               Let’s start, then, with The Bodyguard and The Ladykillers, each a stage adaptation of an iconic movie. My POV on these may be of use because while both are films I of course know about, I have not yet seen either, so I experienced both stories “cold.”

               The Bodyguard, adapted from Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, is a package musical with a jukebox score, its catalog drawn not from a particular songwriter or songwriting team, but from a recording artist, Whitney Houston. So of course many writing voices are represented and one of the songs was ever truly designed to reflect a dramatic situation, at least not in a musical theatre context. To my surprise, this matters far less than it ought, because due to the nature of the tale—superstar singer is threatened by anonymous, psychotic stalker, her only hope of salvation a no-nonsense security man/bodyguard—it doesn’t really lend itself to song used to advance character or plot. Indeed, it works best when it’s essentially a story wrapped around a concert or scenes built to feature “source songs” (songs that are consciously acknowledged as songs and treated as mood-related interludes). And that’s most of the time. It does, though, have a few moments of private reflection in which one character or other dips into the Whitney ditty bag to “sing from the heart” and that’s when verisimilitude teeters on the brink. But those moments don’t last long, and the splashy direction of Thea Sharrock doesn’t give you too much time to dwell. Nor does the fast-paced book by Alexander Dinelaris, which has been given a brief update from 1992 to the present. There does seem to be a little lost in translation, as the denouement seems a little perfunctory and contained by the constraints of theatrical presentation; but by then it almost doesn’t matter. Ironically, for all that The Bodyguard is an American film about American characters, and has been adapted as such, something about this high-tech paraphrase seems British from stem to stern, and I wish I could articulate why. But it may have something to do with wrangling a natural American art form into juke box shape to accommodate a story that itself isn’t the natural stuff of musicals. In any event, while it’s certainly not a place-earner in the musical theatre repertoire, it’s far more entertaining than…I’ll say it…than it has any right to be.

               The Ladykillers began life as an Ealing film comedy of the 50s, one of the very few to be filmed in color, and whose mood was of a significantly darker hue. Written by the American-born screenwriter, it’s set in an old woman’s London house very near the train yards, where a ragtag gang of five bank robbers, posing as musicians, rent out her large upstairs room. But at some point the dotty old lady tweaks to what’s going on, which would seem to seal her doom…save for the criminals being their own worst enemies in trying to bring that doom about.

               Those who know the film cite it as damn near perfect (my brother considers it one of his top 10) and by that measure alone, the stage adaptation falls short. This adaptation by Graham Linehan (creator/writer of the Britcom Father Ted) uses the basic structure of the screenplay and retains versions of the same characters, but is otherwise a reimagining, played much more (and consciously so) for laughs, under the direction of Sean Foley, a dark comedy rendered somehow light. I found it a mild, if amusing, experience, but the audience around me loved it. I likened their enthusiasm for mine upon seeing the stage version of Yes Prime Minister a few seasons ago, an update of the classic Britcom about politics, written by its original creator/writers. It was flawed, but I forgave it much because I came to it as such a fanboy; and I believe that, in part, that’s what’s at work here: a mood buoying mix of nostalgia and pre-existing affection.

               The current West End engagement of The Ladykillers is its second, after a tour, and it features an all-new cast. To my mind, most of them were sufficient unto the task only, and I wondered if I’d have felt any different had I seen the originals, which included Peter Capaldi (just announced as the new Doctor Who) and Ben Miller (perhaps best known in the States for playing James Lester on the imported ITV science fiction TV series Primeval). But I will tell you this: the set, by Michael Taylor, is perfectly brilliant. It manages to compress the two storeys of the house, communicate its shifting foundation and shorthand the world outside in a manner that might be described as Salvador Dali meets Escher. That alone was worth the visit because it was, frankly, such a revelation. And how many straight play sets can make you say that?


Director Jonathan Kent’s take on Noël Coward’s Private Lives starts out sort of promisingly but then devolves into breathless banter with physical business delivered at a fairly constant, insistent pitch. Labored, no, not exactly, but hardly effortless either. Anna Chancellor (best known here for the imported TV drama The Hour) could conceivably be an iconic Amanda, but there’s too much near-to-full hysteria around her to let her find her proper pitch. And Toby Stephens plays Elyot as just a bit of a fop, which is an interesting variation, but wears thin, because it starts him at too high a decibel and gives him nowhere to go when he really is embroiled in commotion. 


And now we come to…well, the eternal question that never gets a satisfactory answer: Why do people insist on resurrecting Tennessee Williams’ misfires? He was largely past his prime when he wrote them, often under chemical enhancement and they’re the work of a voice that is flailing helplessly for some kind of coherency that life itself is not providing. I’m not saying there’s not some academic fascination, but the bottom line is, they just don’t work. Many are the misbegotten plays by many grand masters (O’Neill and Miller among the Americans) that go largely untouched for being beyond salvation, yet there’s something about a Williams dud that regularly makes one creative team or another think it can be solved, and its raw, misunderstood poetry brought into new, sharp relief.


               Sweet Bird of Youth has been given the royal treatment by director Marianne Elliott  at The Old Vic, and it just refuses to transform itself. It remains a silly play about a middle-aged Hollywood actress traveling incognito as a Greek princess, Alexandra del Lago (Kim Cattrall) on the run, escaping some perceived, who wakes up in an expensive hotel room in a Sounthern town, having acquired a beautiful young male drifter named Chance (Seth Numrich), for sex, service and company; who has attached himself to her for the financial gain and her influence in show business—who has also returned to this town that he left with scandal in his wake, and many enemies who would happily see him put down, to reclaim the girl he left behind, named Heavenly (Louise Dylan)…who just happens to be the daughter of the corrupt, rich town boss, named Boss (Owen Roe).

               This version of the script is the result of engaging hot, young British playwright James Graham to “dramaturg” the extant versions in an attempt to find the ideal draft, but he seems to have wanted to preserve as much “poetry” as he could, with the result that most of the first act, which is devoted to the drifter and the movie star squaring off and defining their territories, is an endless stretch of sexual-philosophical banter and baloney. Much of which is mumbly and hard to hear clearly except for the bits when they shout at one another. The melodrama that follows is…well just that.

               The actors all perform serviceably, but it’s all in the service of nothing much.


On the other hand, British revivals of American plays don’t get much better than director Paulette Randall’s production of August Wilson’s Fences, the 1987 play from Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, starring popular British comedian Lenny Henry  in the iconic role of Troy Maxson, giving a performance that is itself iconic. I’m going to take the liberty here of borrowing a synopsis written for the Observer by London critic Paul Taylor, who sums it all up with such beautiful concision that I’d only be trying to paraphrase him if I wrote my own.

               “…the piece is set in 1957 and the 53-year-old Troy Maxson seems to have got his life back on course after the unsteady start of struggles with a violent father and a stretch in a penitentiary. His peace-keeping peach of a wife (Tanya Moodie) stuck by him and it looks as if he is going to be promoted to the rank of truck-driver in his job as a garbage man. On Friday nights, he likes nothing better than to share a bottle on the porch and shoot the breeze with his old mucker and workmate, Jim Bono (Colin McFarlane)…But Troy, once a brilliant baseball-player, nurses a grievance that he was born too early as a black man to earn a living from the sport. His resentment brings him into bitter conflict with his talented 17-year-old son Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) who is being courted by college-recruiter. Burnt and disillusioned himself, Joe wants his boy to settle for a safe job with a weekly pay cheque. There's an Oedipal electricity in the pair's angry face-offs and a sense of the endless cycle whereby the oppressed of one generation become oppressors in their turn.“

               What’s genuinely astonishing about the production, aside from how good it is on its own terms, is how authentically American it feels. Despite a largely (though not entirely) British cast, the accents and rhythms and, where appropriate, coming timing of black African-American diction are dead on target and seemingly utterly natural. Lenny Henry in particular is hugely impressive in this regard; there are no tells of his national background nor his standup comedy roots (save for knowing where the funny is and being able to land it). His is a lively, passionate portrait of pride and rage, and if you’ve never seen Fences before, this production is a perfect introduction.


Coincidentally, a likewise authentically African American delivery is on view at the Mernier Chocolate Factory’s extended (and apparently sold out) production of The Color Purple. Director John Doyle has re-imagined, and with the authors, somewhat rethought and restructured the musical, to transform something that, on Broadway, struck me as decent enough (but not better than that), to something truly extraordinary. The epic story of a young girl’s coming of age and triumphing from a background of abuse and despair has bridged the gap between efficient to elegant, in a staging—surrounded by the audience on three sides of a small, intimate theatre—that newly particularizes the characters and strips away almost everything physical, save for costumes, which are explicit (if economical) and a number of bleached wood chairs that travel from the back wall, where they are hung, to the stage for use, and back again. The stage and back wall are bleached wood too. And with minor exception, props are pantomimed. Add an across-the-board exemplary cast, brisk new orchestrations for a small band and an energy generated in the audience that has Brits responding with the shameless abandon of…well, Yanks…and you have one of the Summer’s most unexpected treasures.

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