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Legit Goes Lite in London

The West End's musicals outnumber straight plays 23 to 14 -- and most of those 14 aren't really plays.

By New York City
A scene from Our House(Photo: © Catherine Ashmore)
A scene from Our House
(Photo: © Catherine Ashmore)
Where Broadway leads, London now follows -- not just in the ever-spiralling cost of theater tickets but in content, too. Where plays once were one far more numerous than musicals in the commercial West End, those priorities have been entirely reversed. Even the non-musicals that are on have a mostly modest feeling, including three one-person shows (one featuring local comedienne Dawn French, the other two celebrating the lives of poet Philip Larkin and comic star Tommy Cooper), three two-person shows (including the long-runners Stones in His Pockets and Woman in Black), and two comedy revues. Apart from The Mousetrap, that leaves only five plays in town, all of them revivals -- three classics (King Lear, The Three Sisters and Dance of Death) and two old comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace from the '40s, Abigail's Party from the '70s).

All of this makes a grand total of 14 non-musicals against 23 musicals. True, these figures do not include subsidized houses like the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse or the London fringe, where plays, old as well as new, still thrive. But on the commercial boulevards, it's a different and depressing story, especially when so little there is actually worth seeing and much of it is actively worth avoiding.

But let's deal with the good news first. Broadway has also led in bequeathing to London two of the best commercially produced shows in town. Strindberg's Dance of Death (at Shaftesbury Avenue's Lyric Theatre) reunites director Sean Mathias and star Ian McKellen in the play they first did in New York in the fall of 2001, but this time -- with a new set by Robert Jones and a new female star in the glorious Frances de la Tour, replacing Broadway's Helen Mirren -- this brittle, brilliant play of marital distress emerges as both darker and funnier than it was before. So, too, I found Susan Stroman's triple dance bill Contact even more resonant at the Queen's Theatre than in New York. Played on a proscenium stage here, it feels more tightly focused and is extraordinarily well performed by a local company that includes Leigh Zimmerman -- a dazzling American performer now resident in London -- as the Girl in the Yellow Dress.

The London Ragtime(Photo: © Alastair Muir)
The London Ragtime
(Photo: © Alastair Muir)
Also from Broadway, Ragtime has at last arrived at the Piccadilly Theatre but in an entirely new production stripped of the massive sets seen in New York at the Ford Center. This leaner, starker version fully exposes the defining strengths -- as well as some of the inherent weaknesses -- of this incredibly rich show. It's exciting to see a musical that actually seeks to say something, even if it tries to say too much and some of the storytelling proves too earnest and self-important. It's also thrilling to hear Stephen Flaherty's often gorgeous melodies, drenched in the kind of emotion that is hardly ever heard anymore in this acerbic, post-Sondheim age, even if Flaherty has a tendency to wear his heart not merely on his sleeve but draped around his entire being. The score is sung to the rafters by an excellent ensemble cast, with Kevyn Morrow -- an American seen last year in the dismal, short-lived Harlem revue 125th Street at the Shaftesbury Theatre -- staying on in London to play Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and a lovely new local singer, Emma Jay Thomas, as Sarah.

On the native front: Our House (which won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in February) continues the trend begun by Mamma Mia! of folding an existing pop repertoire into the format of a musical and does so with great ambition and considerable style. This time, it's the songlist of the late '70s-early '80s London pop band Madness around which writer Tim Firth has constructed a fully plot-driven musical that does more than provide a pleasant trip down memory lane.

In a Sliding Doors-meets-Blood Brothers tale, Firth has his lead character Joe (the excellent newcomer Michael Jibson) follow two parallel plots and lives, demonstrating how one fateful decision could lead him in two totally different directions. On a 16th-birthday date with his girlfriend Sarah, Joe breaks into a building site; when the police arrive, Good Joe decides to face the music (and begins a life of punishments) while Bad Joe runs (and begins a life of crime). Though Our House sometimes threatens to sag under the weight of its own bleak portents, its songs (including "Baggy Trousers," "My Girl," and "It Must Be Love") provide the expected release, exploding with vitality thanks to Peter Darling's galvanizing choreography and the boisterous charm of Matthew Warchus's staging as the show slips from earthbound realism to fly -- literally, at one point -- into the realm of fantasy.

Also happily surprising is Pretending to Be Me, a one-man play about the life and work of the late British poet Philip Larkin, artfully constructed and performed by Tom Courtenay at the Comedy Theatre. Larkin's legacy includes such famous poetic pronouncements as "They f*** you up, your mum and dad" and, a little more eloquently, "What will survive of us is love." The play is an Alan Bennett-like monologue of reflection and insight, with Larkin's poems skillfully woven into it so they emerge organically from the life being told without any fanfare or announcement. Pretending to Be Me also precisely captures the sense of a wonderfully understated man carving out what he called "a uniquely dreary life."

Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old Lace
Unfortunately, "uniquely dreary" is a phrase that could easily be applied to any number of current West End offerings. When Arsenic and Old Lace first appeared in London at the Strand Theatre in 1942, with the world at war, its tale of sweetly homicidal old ladies must have provided comic relief from the very real prospect of death that was being faced. Now, with the world (or, at least, America and Britain and Iraq) again at war, this desperately clunky revival at the very same Strand of Joseph Kesselring's Broadway trifle about cheerful murder made me feel cheerlessly murderous.

No one seems to trust the play, dated though it is, to deliver its comic potential, and so its intricate comic rhythms have not been honored. Without them, it's a lot of exposition and no exhilaration, an unbelievable (and unbelievably long) evening spent with a gallery of eccentrics led by the two spinster aunts who kill out of pity. Their three variously disturbed nephews are a career criminal (the gifted Michael Richards, best known as Kramer from Seinfeld, whose agile physical comedy is about the only funny thing on display here), a nutty fantasist who thinks he's the President of the United States (!!!), and a New York drama critic. As the aunts fret over the latter's career choice, one of them says: "The theater can't last much longer and, in the meantime, it's a living." Watching this production, you realize that they may be right: it's the kind of thing that could be the death knell of commercial theater.

Unlike most of the tribute shows that have cluttered up the West End over the years -- celebrating everyone from Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to John Lennon, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Patsy Cline -- the subject of Cliff -- The Musical is actually alive, though the show itself is a dead duck. Continuing to indulge the West End's appetite for pop nostalgia, this tacky, tasteless toast to British pop idol Sir Cliff Richard manages to insult both the star himself and his legion of fans. The witless book finds the singer preparing to celebrate his 80th birthday in the year 2020, now a resident of the Keith Richards Health Farm for retired pop stars. "I wish I was in [this show] myself," Richard is quoted on the posters. That's hard to believe, even if Cliff -- The Musical does have a better score than either Time or Heathcliff, the 1986 and 1994 musicals in which he did appear.

Also feeble is Mum's the Word, a new show at the Albery that I wished would live up to its title and keep quiet. Originally assembled in 1993 at Saturday morning coffee gatherings by six Canadian professional actresses turned amateur mothers, the show became a hit from Vancouver to Montreal to Melbourne and now comes to London with only one of those ladies -- Barbara Pollard -- still in it, joined by five locals, among them film actress Cathy Tyson and stage star Imogen Stubbs. This interminable collection of anecdotes about the joys and pains of motherhood is being promoted here as a comedy for anyone who ever had a mom -- but it's strictly for the moms themselves, if it's for anyone. Since the closest I come to being a parent is that I own two lionhead rabbits, I felt seriously out of the picture.

Joseph Fiennes in Love’s Labour’s Lost(Photo: © John Haynes)
Joseph Fiennes in Love’s Labour’s Lost
(Photo: © John Haynes)
Fortunately, London doesn't have to depend entirely on the kindness (and poor taste) of money men, but also pays people to make choices for us. The curtain has just come down on Trevor Nunn's five-year run in charge of the National Theatre, and he bade farewell in style with a double bill of his own production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Love's Labour's Lost, performed in rep by overlapping casts. It struck me as an anomaly of Nunn's regime that, as a former artistic director of the RSC and an indisputably great classical director, he personally staged so many old Broadway musicals during his time at the helm. The current productions crystallized both his strengths and his priorities: While Anything Goes was scheduled for a run of 80 performances, the Shakespeare was programmed for a mere 26, despite the presence of box office draw Joseph Fiennes (brother of Ralph) in the cast. Nunn won't be idle now that he's left the National; next, he directs Natasha Richardson in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, the re-opening production at the refurbished Almeida (beginning May 8).

Also currently in the National repertoire, Honour -- an Australian play about the destruction of a 32-year marriage that faded fast on Broadway in 1998 -- has been revealed in a new production as a minutely-observed domestic drama of betrayal. In the National's intimate Cottesloe, with the audience arranged on two sides like eavesdroppers to scenes of emotional upheaval, Honour is acted with surgical precision and wrenching feeling by a cast that features Corin Redgrave as the husband, Eileen Atkins as the wife, and Catherine McCormack as the husband's mistress. Atkins is surely one of the five greatest actresses in the English-speaking theater -- my list also including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, and Allison Janney. Hers is, quite simply, the best-acted performance on any London stage right now.

But the funniest performance on any London stage right now is being given in a revival of the Italian political farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Donmar Warehouse. Rhys Ifans, a Welsh actor best known as the man who confronts Julia Roberts in his underwear in the film Notting Hill, this time removes his underwear entirely at one point, foams at the mouth at another and, in sum, does a turn that might best be described as a tour-de-farce.


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