It's only when the West End plays safe that it seems to come up with something of its own these days. Hence the inevitable clutch of Wilde and Coward revivals--average and familiar in the case of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (at the Savoy, featuring Patricia Routledge in a re-run of her 1998 West End performance as Lady Bracknell, joined by a new, largely Antipodean cast picked up during this production's subsequent tour down under) and a notch above average and unfamiliar in the case of Coward's Fallen Angels (at the Apollo, a huge Shaftesbury Avenue hit thanks to the hilarious presence of Frances de la Tour opposite a typically winsome--if not, in my eyes, winning--Felicity Kendal as two middle-aged ladies anticipating a reunion with a former lover.) Next up: An even more unfamiliar Coward, Semi-Monde, never before seen in London. It's coming to the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, this month with a cast of 29, including 75-year-old Farley Granger (star of Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train).
On the other hand, there have also lately been the more exciting, blistering returns of Pinter's The Caretaker starring Michael Gambon, Rupert Graves, and Douglas Hodge in a staging of tremendous, grimy wit, and of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night starring Jessica Lange, Charles Dance, and Paul Rudd in a production of heartbreaking intensity. But though they upped the dramatic stakes, both of these shows have already come and gone from the Comedy and Lyric, respectively. Then there's the downright foolish: An attempt to revive the now redundant sex farce genre by shamelessly plagiarizing an uncredited Feydeau is doomed in Under the Doctor (at the Comedy) despite the slick efforts of a cast that includes the fine Anton Rodgers as a servant trying to keep his master's mistress secret even as she's visibly (and audibly) being attended to in the next room.
Elsewhere, there are signs that, at least as a receiving house, the West End is taking more risks. Those risks don't always pay off: The reunion of actress Fiona Shaw and director Deborah Warner for a new, radically contemporary take on Medea (at the Queen's Theatre, first seen with an almost entirely different cast in Dublin last summer) is simultaneously overwrought and over-produced. Together, Shaw and Warner have previously pulled off some of the most daring and innovative theatrical experiences of the last decade--including a previous Greek tragedy, Electra, in a production of gathering terror and singular power at the intimate Riverside Studios. But here, in the oppressive confines of a stuffy West End house, actress and director are ultimately defeated. As Shaw's grief-stricken Medea stumbles around the stage, tottering about on high heels in her modish black dress, she hatches a terrible plan to avenge herself on her former husband as he is about to make a new marriage. But Shaw--full of sound and fury, method and mannerisms--fails to inhabit the character. She isn't helped by the unconvincing Jason of Jonathan Cake--bulky but bland beefcake--or, surprisingly, by Warner's direction, burdened with such intrusions as an insistently rumbling musical underscoring and annoying video effects. In the process, this Medea has sadly become an exercise in that menacing '90s phenomenon that Warner previously scrupulously avoided, Director's Theater.
More happily, Caryl Churchill's minimalist Far Away--originally seen close up at the Royal Court's tiny Theatre Upstairs, and now transferred to the West End's Albery Theatre--is scrupulously staged by Stephen Daldry in his first return to the theater since Billy Elliott. This cryptic, elliptical play--which condenses a vision of humanity, not to mention the collusion of other species, hurtling towards oblivion in 50 uneasy minutes--is nightmarish and chilling. Cats come in on the side of the French (and are accused of killing babies in China), deer start terrorizing shopping malls, mallards commit rape, and the weather is reported to be on the side of the Japanese; this is a strange, troubling, unique play that trades in theatrical images and metaphors. And It does something that theater does but rarely: It takes you to another world. (The shocking thing is, that world is very close to our own.) Far Away is superbly performed by a quartet of terrific actors: Annabelle Seymour-Julen, Linda Bassett, Kevin McKidd, and Katherine Tozer. They are joined by an army of extras for a scene that I don't want to give away.
Shockheaded Peter, a bizarre, brilliant theatrical adaptation of Dr. Heinrich Hoffman's brutal 19th-century cautionary children's tales, has also finally made the transition to the West End after two engagements at the Lyric Hammersmith and a world tour that included New York's Victory Theatre. "And so another young life is pointlessly snuffed out!" exclaims Julian Bleach's dementedly sinister narrator as the show graphically chronicles an accelerating head count of children who meet a nasty end when they suck their thumbs, don't eat their soup, or play with fire. The show, which takes place within a playful toy theatre set, provides chills and thrills by turns. Its ceaseless flirtation with death amuses and appalls in equal measure, and the expressionist staging, by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, casts dark and unsettling (but also frequently hilarious) shadows. Performed to a seductive soundtrack by the three-man Tiger Lillies, dominated by the screeching falsetto of Martyn Jacques, the show makes you feel uneasy and sometimes queasy in an entertaining way, as if Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has been re-written for kids.
We're in a safer, more conventional world of children's storytelling with the belated arrival here of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's musicalization of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, originally seen on Broadway a decade ago and now newly installed at the West End's Aldwych Theatre, former West End home to the RSC, in a production by the RSC that originated at Stratford-upon-Avon. The RSC is riding high with Shakespeare's entire cycle of history plays unfolding at its present London home, the Barbican; it is curious that the company's esteemed artistic director, Adrian Noble, chose not to direct any of those but to lend his talents to producing The Secret Garden instead. He does an undeniably good job of it, but is this really the way to lead the company from the front--a company whose whole raison d'etre, embodied in its very name, is the work of Britain's pre-eminent dramatist?
The Secret Garden is slight and simultaneously rather severe stuff indeed, though its story is efficiently, even movingly, rendered by way of a score that is fairly drenched in yearning melody. Is there a lovelier song to be heard on a London stage right now than 'How Could I Ever Know?' I doubt it. The show on the whole has a slow-burning appeal; while the first act sets the stage for an evening of grim Victorian, the second act charts the hero's progress towards something that is quite uplifting, even radiant. Noble's production is greatly enhanced by the simple, beautiful designs of moving screens by Anthony Ward, and somewhat undermined by the annoyingly folksy peasant dances that Gillian Lynne has supplied. But strong vocal performances from a cast that includes Philip Quast (Australia's answer to Mandy Patinkin), Linzi Hateley (who played the title role in the RSC's now notorious fiasco Carrie), and Meredith Braun.
Back on the legit stage, Japes marks a stunning return to form for veteran playwright Simon Gray, who has had a bad run of late in the West End. If audiences stay away from this one, it won't be because Gray hasn't done his job, but rather because this agonizing, well-drawn portrait of a family tragedy is far too uncomfortable and uncompromising for anyone to really enjoy watching it.
Charting nearly three decades in a triangular relationship between two brothers and the woman one of them marries but both of them love, Japes shows Michael (Jasper Britton) becoming a successful writer while his younger brother, Jason (Toby Stephens), desperately but unsuccessfuly seeks to follow in his footsteps. Gray's partly autobiographical play--his own younger brother was an academic who died of alcoholism--has an astonishing, nakedly emotional honesty. The scene that ends the first act, with an offensively drunk Jason drifting in and out of rage and reason while his helpless brother howls in despair, is one of the most personal and moving in the West End at the moment, powerfully acted by both Britton and Stephens. Peter Hall's fine production delicately catches the changing emotional colors of the piece.
At the Royal Court, a somewhat less prolific playwright, Kevin Elyot, turns up trumps with Mouth to Mouth, a moving exploration of a family reunion that turns to tragedy. This may only be his fourth play in nearly 20 years, but Elyot makes up in quality what he lacks in quantity. An altogether exceptional work, staged with great delicacy by Ian Rickson, Mouth to Mouth details the gathering emotional revelations that unfold amongst its characters. The play is full of intricate patterns and quiet suspense, fractured from the present day opening scene by a flashback that eventually loops forward to where the play began. All of this is superbly acted by an ensemble cast led by Lindsay Duncan and Michael Maloney.
From tragedy to outright comedy: Feelgood, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre but is surely bound for the West End, provides in its first act the funniest theatrical experience since the second act of Noises Off (a play due back in the West End in May in a revival first seen at the National Theatre). A frequently scathing and highly topical satire of the state of British politics, Feelgood generates wave upon wave of sustained laughter. In the play, men begin to develop breasts and their genitals begin to shrink after they consume genetically modified hops in beer; the Prime Minister's press secretary, Eddie, will stop at nothing to ensure that this doesn't make the news and cause a scandal. As played to pointed perfection by Henry Goodman, Eddie is a comic villain of the highest order. You emerge from Max Stafford-Clark's clever production healthily skeptical and scared about the political process.
Finally, at the Young Vic, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author has been re-titled Six Characters Looking for an Author, but the makeover goes beyond that change of title and a fine new translation by playwright David Harrower. With dazzling director Richard Jones at the helm, what could have been an aridly pretentious drama has been turned into a supremely agile, provocative one. Pirandello's play--in which six characters from an unfinished play invade and disrupt the rehearsals for another play and demand that the actors listen to, then complete, their stories--is a fantasia on the differences between illusion and reality, art, and artifice. Jones, abetted by his designer Giles Cadle, is an expert at creating a jarring theatrical landscape that is intensely of the theater, yet also transcends it.