Richard Briers, Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale,and Mark Addy in London Assurance
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Richard Briers, Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale,
and Mark Addy in London Assurance
(© Catherine Ashmore)
If there's a kind of play that the British can do better than anyone else, it's anything drawn from the classic English theater annals. But they're no slouches when tackling new plays as well. Luckily, examples of both forms of excellence are currently on view on the city's stages.

Perhaps the most glittering example of all is Nicholas Hytner's production of Dion Boucicault comedy of manners, London Assurance, currently packing them in at the National Theatre's Olivier (and soon to be televised stateside as part of the NT Live series). The storyline, which is hardly groundbreaking, concerns a group of hoity-toity London types visiting the landed gentry for a round of romantic connections and misconnections. But the enterprise's cheerful triumph lies in its performances, especially by two actors who rarely miss any stage mark at which they're aiming: Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw.

As Sir Harcourt Courtley, a man with an eye for a younger woman who absolutely does not return the interest, Beale wraps the audience around his finger from his entrance. He's clearly taken the name Courtley as a cue for behaving with a courtliness so over the top that it amounts to comic genius. Shaw plays Lady Gay Spanker, a robust woman who may be married to a doddering older man (Richard Briers in an irresistible turn), but isn't above dallying with whomever returns her bold advances.

With Mrs. Warren's Profession, now being smartly revived at the Comedy, George Bernard Shaw established himself as an early advocate of the woman's movement. As demonstrated here, the issues the playwright raised over 100 years ago remain unresolved. The primary entanglement here is not romantic: it is the one between the title character (Felicity Kendall, who pulls no punches), a retired brothel madam, and her independent daughter Vivie (Lucy Briggs-Owen), who has prospered as a result of her mother's career without knowing the source of her bounty. As usual with Shaw, conventional morality is examined with wit and depth. In the end, Vivie becomes the embodiment of that morality and her inability to throw it over is one of the many instances where Shaw refuses to provide a happy ending. Still, helmer Michael Rudman provides a production that will leave audiences happy.

Dominic Rowan in Henry VIII
(© John Tramper)
Dominic Rowan in Henry VIII
(© John Tramper)
William Shakespeare was often cleverly subservient to his monarch, and perhaps never more obviously than with his late play Henry VIII, now getting a nice polish at the Globe from director Mark Rosenblatt. The play proceeds with pomp on the Globe stage, which for this outing has been given an extension into the area where the groundlings circulate for an extra dose of authenticity.

The work, which was taken in large part from actual court records, presents the sly, self-impressed Henry (Dominic Rowan) deciding to divorce Spanish spitfire Katherine of Aragon (Kate Duchene) in favor of reluctant Anne Boleyn (Miranda Raison). Eventually, the marriage takes place, but Queen Anne doesn't produce a son as heir to the throne -- instead siring future queen Elizabeth. The play actually leaves out Anne's beheading -- as well as keeping proud dad Henry sympathetic (more or less) -- but many unfortunate others are dispatched to various dooms before evening's end.

A more recent history lesson is being tendered in the National's Lyttelton, where Andrew Upton has done a new adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1926 novel, The White Guard , a rousing if disturbing look -- through the experiences of one family -- at the disintegration of the famed White Guards during the Bolshevik revolution. Under Howard Davies' direction and with a cast including the always commanding Conleth Hill, what's put forth is a panoramic portrait of political and military futility. The eventual message that the play sends underscores the ultimate pointlessness of these never-changing contests for superiority.

Fiston Barek and Jonathan Cullen in Love the Sinner
(© Keith Pattison)
Fiston Barek and Jonathan Cullen in Love the Sinner
(© Keith Pattison)
At the National's much more intimate Cottesloe is Drew Pautz's new play Love the Sinner, which wants to take a gander at religion as promulgated publicly and as lived privately. As it begins, a group of Catholic bishops are attempting unsuccessfully to agree on a statement about same-sex relationships. In the second scene, Michael (Jonathan Cullen), the all-but-silent fellow who'd been transcribing the minutes of the opening discussion, is caught in his hotel room being strong-armed by a bellhop called Joseph (Fiston Barek) into helping him get to England.

The troubled and scary exchange takes place after the married Michael and the conniving Joseph have had sexual relations -- an event that comes to further light when Joseph trails Michael to his England home and introduces himself to the lady of the house, Shelly (Charlotte Randle). As Michael confronts Shelly, who's been hoping to become pregnant, and as he fights to cover up his knotty problem, what emerges is a chilling comment on how religion (especially Catholicism) can be unhelpful for people living complicated lives.

Lastly, David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens have teamed up for a doomsday opus, A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky at the Lyric Hammersmith. The premise, explained quickly by the dramatists, is that some alignment of celestial disasters will result in the earth's destruction only weeks after the action begins. This epic event isn't realized as a big-screen-type race to reverse the inevitable but instead focuses on how one estranged family faces the end. Hard-as-nails Mom Margaret Benton (Ann Mitchell) hopes her four surviving sons (Nigel Cook, Harry McEntire, Pearce Quigley, Alan Williams) will gather with a few other loved ones for their final disintegration. Prior to that, though, an even more rewarding but tough-minded family reintegration takes place, for which the three authors deserve to take bows.