Anna Chancellor and Chuk Iwuji in The Observer
(© Nobby Clark)
Anna Chancellor and Chuk Iwuji in The Observer
(© Nobby Clark)
In London, successful musicals are as abundant as maypole ribbons, but this town is still hospitable to straight plays. Indeed, dramatic fanatics can find plenty of satisfyingly probing fare, both new and revived, to keep them happy -- or, in some cases, happy to be unhappy about the damaged human lives examined by compassionate but unflinching playwrights.

The indisputable current stand-out item is Matt Charman's The Observer at the National's small Cottesloe, under Richard Eyre's expert direction. The playwright sets his work in what he calls "a fictitious, Igbo-speaking, former colony in West Africa." But fictitious locale or not, Charman's spin on the last Zimbabwean election, when Robert Mugabe was surprised at the competition Morgan Tsvangirai gave him, is a combustible work. Fiona Russell (the tense Anna Chancellor) is leading a contingent watching the outcome of a supposedly democratic process but realizes that remaining neutral is harder than she'd planned. Observed herself by jaded foreign office civil servant Saunders (James Fleet) and aided by questioning interpreter Daniel Okeke (Chuk Iwuji), Fiona ends up at the center of a convincing exploration of the moral complexities of democracy-building.

At the Almeida, Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling is a creative threnody about how family secrets have a devastating effect on at least three generations in one unfortunate family. The focus is on Gabriel Law (sensitive, strong Tom Mison), who leaves his England home to search for his father, Henry Law (Jonathan Cullen), in Australia. Why the man abruptly expatriated and subsequently disappeared isn't something Gabriel's distant mom, Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls) cares to explain. While young and older versions of a few of these characters circulate, Bovell -- who wrote the effective Speaking in Tongues some years back -- demonstrates that Gabriel's eventually truncated relationship with a small-town Australian woman is anything but illuminated by the search. The audience learns enough, however, to take on Bovell's sad conclusions, made even sadder by Michael Attenborough's sensitive direction.

The cast of Calendar Girls
(© John Swannell)
The cast of Calendar Girls
(© John Swannell)
No one is going to claim greatness for Calendar Girls at the Noel Coward, Tim Firth's stage adaptation of the screenplay he co-wrote with Juliette Towhidi, which in turn was based on the true story of a group of Women's Institute ladies who decided to raise money for their charities by posing nude for a calendar. Since the intrepid ladies cleverly manage to remain sufficiently concealed, the only appropriate adjective for their commemorating endeavor is titillating, and the pun's intended. Yet what Firth, director Hamish McColl, and the cast of accomplished stage comediennes (Sian Phillips, Patricia Hodge, Lynda Bellingham, chief among them) have set forth is a safely naughty amusement. Indeed, attacking it as being insufficiently serious would be like regarding church bake-offs as insults to master pastry chefs.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Wallace Shawn's new, heavy-duty opus Grasses of a Thousand Colours at the Royal Court, in which Shawn appears with the cat-like Miranda Richardson, the tiger-like Jennifer Tilly, and the kittenish Emily McDonnell. The actor-writer plays Ben, also identified in the cast list as The Memoirist, a scientist whose contribution to society has had decidedly negative implications. Addressing the audience and telling about his life -- but too infrequently showing it -- Ben elaborates little on his public career; instead, he runs with some humor over his many sexual escapades, including a lengthy, self-aggrandizing discourse on his penis. Although the protagonists of Shawn's plays The Fever and The Designated Mourner are also egoistical, they're compelling. Sadly, Ben is merely tedious as he memorializes the women he's not-so-convincingly bedded.

Macbeth director Rupert Goold has notched on his belt a stylish revival of Time and the Conways, J. B. Priestley searing metaphor about England between the two great 20th-century wars, at the National's Lyttelton. The play presents in acts one and three the Conway family during a 1918 birthday party, when hopes for the post-conflict future are high. Act two unfolds 19 years later to the day, when expectations have been dashed and the next war is imminent. The elegantly sexy Francesca Annis heads the cast, who bring to life Priestley's gimmicky but nonetheless irresistible study of time's relentless ravages.

Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman
in Duet for One
(© John Haynes)
Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman
in Duet for One
(© John Haynes)
Another oldie, Duet for One at the Vaudeville, is Tom Kempinski's not very veiled fantasy on what might have happened if cellist Jacqueline du Pre's eventually fatal muscular dystrophy condition had sent her into reported psychotherapy. Here, du Pre is called Stephanie Abrahams (Juliet Stevenson) and is a violinist, and the therapist is Doctor Feldmann (Henry Goodman, using a slight Viennese accent). Nothing that transpires during the seven sessions depicted -- resistance, anger, acceptance, understanding -- is even remotely surprising. But Stephenson, expertly handling a wheelchair, assumes her part as if slipping into a second skin, and Goodman shines in the secondary role, particularly when finally allowing Feldmann's temper free rein.

In the 1920s, Ben Travers wrote a series of highly popular farces for the Aldwych, and they still have much wit and ingenuity about them, which is what's giddily on view at the Menier Chocolate Factory, where 1926's Rookery Nook has been polished to a glow by director Terry Johnson and designer Tim Shortall. In this ebullient trifle, just-married Gerald Popkiss (Neil Stuke) has taken a countryside cottage into which races nubile Rhoda Marley (Kellie Shirlie). Nothing untoward occurs -- but go explain that to the other amusing English stereotypes racing through the seven doors on the atmospheric set. It all evaporates in the time it takes to utter "I say, old bean," but while it's unfolding, it's great harmless fun.

Last but not least, there's the Globe production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole and starring Adetomiwa Edun as a fiery Romeo and Ellie Kendrick, who isn't 13 going on 14 as Juliet (as the Bard stipulates), but who looks as close to that age as is not frequently accomplished. While not yet a seasoned actor, Kendrick's awkwardness works well in these circumstances.