Sinéad Matthews and Paul Hilton in The Wild Duck(Photo © Johan Persson)
Sinéad Matthews and Paul Hilton in The Wild Duck
(Photo © Johan Persson)
In the fall and winter of 2004, the promise of three big new musicals -- The Woman in White (now also on Broadway), Mary Poppins (now Broadway-bound for an October opening) and The Producers (belatedly arriving from New York) -- galvanized London. This fall, by contrast, the West End has been almost musical-free except for a revival of the stage version of Cole Porter's High Society and a Christmas season production of Scrooge, the Leslie Bricusse musical version of A Christmas Carol.

Things have been a bit brighter on the fringe, where two Broadway musicals have been given superb makeovers. At the Menier Chocolate Factory -- which recently received the Most Promising Newcomer Evening Standard Theatre Award -- Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George is spectacularly rendered in a staging that uses amazing video technology. In the first act, we see a conceptual kind of interpretive art based on Georges Seurat's painting that mirrors precisely what the second act George -- the painter's great grandson -- specializes in with his so-called "chromolumes." Sam Buntrock's brilliant new production does something that has never been achieved in any of the previous versions of this show I have seen, uniting the two acts seamlessly into one complete whole; the stakes for the characters are driven higher until past and present collide with an aching beauty. The show is also enlivened by the stunning performance of Daniel Evans, playing both artists with a technical and emotional mastery that is overwhelming. And there is a true coup de théâtre in the second act of this production.

Fine productions of several classic plays have got the town talking. This is unquestionably the time of Ibsen in London: After a fine Hedda Gabler earlier this year, the fall has brought us his rarely seen Pillars of the Community (currently in rep at the National's Lyttelton), a moral tale about the consequences of living a lie, and The Wild Duck (now at the Donmar Warehouse), which conversely shows us the consequences of having the truth revealed. In revelatory productions by Marianne Elliot and Michael Grandage, respectively, these plays come alive as the stories of two men propelled on journeys of self-discovery. Pillars benefits from a tremendous performance from rising film actor Damian Lewis as an entrepreneur who's determined to hold onto his power and money at virtually any cost, while The Wild Duck offers an equally excellent turn by Paul Hilton as a father who finds his faith in his family crumbling.

The Donmar's biggest success, however, was a revival of Schiller's taut and still resonant political drama Mary Stuart. Janet McTeer (seen on Broadway in Ibsen's A Doll's House) in the title role and Harriet Walter as her opposing monarch starred in this bitterly powerful tale of asylum seeking and spin doctoring. Phyllida Lloyd, best known for Mamma Mia!, directed a searing production that subsequently transferred to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue -- across the street from which the year had begun with a sell-out run of another Schiller play, Don Carlos, at the Gielgud. This double whammy proved that the German dramatist, like the Norwegian Ibsen, could still be potent at the box office.

Jack Tarlton in Coram Boy(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
Jack Tarlton in Coram Boy
(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
Another hit at the National is Coram Boy, which puts Jamila Gavin's award-winning children's novel onstage with an epic flair. This complex weaving of stories concerning abandoned children and the trade in child labor in 18th-century Britain, has magisterial sweep in its characterizations and storytelling thanks to designer-turned-director Melly Still.

The National is also home to Two Thousand Years, filmmaker and playwright Mike Leigh's first stage work in a dozen years. Leigh's fabled working method -- the play was created during a four-month rehearsal process that allows the actors to really inhabit their parts -- pays dividends in giving us a show that truly makes the audience feel as if it is eavesdropping on a Jewish family living in North London. A superb ensemble of actors paints a vivid dramatic canvas in rich detail, putting the characters' lives on display with all the attendant doubts, disappointments, and dysfunction. (The show will resurface at the Lyttleton in late March after its January 31 closing at the Cottesloe.)

Sadly, the National's revival of Once in a Lifetime, Kaufman and Hart's classic 1930 satire of Hollywood values, falls flat. This show is a turkey, albeit one with all the trimmings; the profligate National has thrown a cast of 30 at the piece, not to mention a band of seven and sets so lavish that you might come out humming them. Indeed, the production is so like a musical at times -- with songs added and Broadway choreographer Rob Ashford on hand -- that one wonders why the National simply didn't present a musical. The actors, including the talented likes of Adrian Scarborough, Victoria Hamilton, Lloyd Hutchinson, and David Suchet, turn up the volume in every sense; unfortunately, the louder they get, the less funny they are. Director Edward Hall does nothing to help the comic rhythms of the play land. As a result, it becomes a comic strip.

By contrast, a comic strip has become a play via a new stage adaptation of Herge's Adventures of Tintin that brings the schoolboy adventurer (played by the appealing Russell Tovey) and his loyal companions Captain Haddock (Sam Cox) and Snowy the dog (Simon Trinder) to three-dimensional life in a Christmas show on the wide expanse of the Barbican stage. When our hero goes on a mission to rescue his friend Chang from the Himalayas after a plane crash, the show turns into a moral fable about friendship that is life-affirming but occasionally disturbing, as when Tintin crawls into the wreckage of the plane and the dead come to life to complain about how cold death is.

In Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, now being revived at the West End's Lyric Theatre, one sometime hell-raiser plays another. Woody Harrelson returns to the London stage as Shannon and he makes a dark, even dangerous impression as the defrocked priest turned hopeless tour guide who is undergoing an emotional breakdown but unexpectedly finds a kindred spirit in a destitute spinster artist, played by a stoically vulnerable Jenny Seagrove.

Sam Archer in Edward Scissorhands(Photo © Bill Cooper)
Sam Archer in Edward Scissorhands
(Photo © Bill Cooper)
Director-choreographer Matthew Bourne has put the cult 1990 Tim Burton film Edward Scissorhands on fast-forward at Sadler's Wells. Here, we get snapshots from the life of this strange outsider who, propelled into a pastiche of small-town America, finds himself initially embraced and then fatally rejected when his glistening, scissor-bladed hands injure someone. Bourne, who has done much to popularize dance with his modern versions of such classical ballets as Swan Lake (for which he won Tony Awards as both Best Director and Best Choreographer) and The Nutcracker, now uses movement to bring an iconic story from another medium to life on stage. And though Edward Scissorhands is better with large gestures than subtle emotional undercurrents, it's a big, colorful show.

Finally, some words about a noteworthy production that has closed. In the tiny confines of the 70-seat Gate Theatre, Hair -- originally billed as "the tribal love-rock musical" in 1967 -- was propelled urgently into the new millennium, a time when to be young is to be faced with an ever more bewildering world. The London-based, American-born director Daniel Kramer made sense of the show by creating a frequently hallucinogenic, drug-fuelled fantasia of wild sex, paranoia, and politics. As we followed Claude (the outstanding Charles Aitken) on his Prozac-popping, iPod-attached attempt to find meaning in his life by signing up for the army and subsequently being shipped to Iraq, the musical became a gritty, edgy fable that scandalized and thrilled in equal measure. The production was downright raunchy in its sex scenes, but even more shocking was the violence of images torn from the pages of newspapers, including the infamous torture scenes from Abu Ghraib prison.