Laura Michelle Kelly, Harry Stott, Charlotte Spencer,
and Gavin Lee in Mary Poppins
(Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench, © Disney/CML)
Laura Michelle Kelly, Harry Stott, Charlotte Spencer,
and Gavin Lee in Mary Poppins
(Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench, © Disney/CML)
Hollywood stars have been all over the London stage lately. Over the past few months, you could catch Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Mary Stuart Masterson, Christian Slater, Kim Cattrall, David Schwimmer, Brian Dennehy, Brooke Shields, Val Kilmer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jane Krakowski in various shows on the boards -- and that's not even counting the recent, one-night-only Theater of the New Ear program of "sound plays" that starred Meryl Streep, Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Buscemi, John Slattery, and Peter Dinklage.

But the biggest and brightest screen stars in the West End are a pair of fictional characters who have been brought to the stage in bold, spectacular new musical versions. Their names are Mary Poppins and Billy Elliot. Both shows have darkened their source material; as a result, they are not exactly suitable for younger children, what with the sometimes nightmarish imaginative reach of the former and the over-ripe language of the latter. Also, both are a bit overlong at nearly three hours. Still, they are bracingly intelligent works with deep emotional content.

Although Crowley's set for Mary Poppins puts the entire Banks' family home onstage like an elaborate Edwardian doll's house, this isn't a cozy domestic drama. Like Peter Pan, the very English stories of PL Travers upon which both the film version of Mary Poppins and this stage version are based are parables about dysfunctional families and faulty parenting. And, just as in Peter Pan, an airborne figure provides the catalyst for change and a transformation of parental priorities.

This is one of the darker layers that Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes uncovers in his stage script, alongside the merry mischief that the arrival of Mary Poppins at the Banks household at 17 Cherry Tree Lane precipitates. The Banks family has gone through six nannies in four months before Mary magically appears. Mrs. Banks (Linzi Hateley, who played the title role in the notorious Broadway flop Carrie) is desperately trying but failing to fulfill her household duties. Mr. Banks (David Haig), an investment banker, finds himself suspended without pay after he makes what looks like a bad business decision. Their young children, Jane and Michael, are about to be taught some important life lessons from their latest nanny, who modestly declares herself to be "practically perfect in every way." (She does so in one of several bright new songs cleverly interpolated into Richard and Robert Sherman's original film score by the British songwriting team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.)

As ravishingly played and delightfully sung by Laura Michelle Kelly (seen on Broadway last year as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof), the title character more than lives up to that self-made judgement. Kelly is ideally partnered by Gavin Lee as her sidekick, the chimney sweep Bert; in one thrilling production number, "Step in Time," Lee even gets to tap dance while hanging upside down from the top of the stage. This is just one of the showstoppers that have been galvanizingly choreographed by Matthew Bourne, who also co-directs with former National Theatre artistic director Richard Eyre, and Stephen Mear. Another is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," a song that is embedded in the DNA of everyone who grew up in the '60s but here takes on a new life.

Liam Mower and Tim Healy in Billy Elliot.
(Photo © David Scheinman)
Liam Mower and Tim Healy in Billy Elliot.
(Photo © David Scheinman)
It took 40 years to bring Mary Poppins from the screen to the stage, but Billy Elliot has followed the same path in just five. That speed has been facilitated by the fact that the principal creative team behind the movie -- including the director, script writer, and choreographer -- have been reunited to bring it to the stage. They are joined by Sir Elton John, who has written what is easily his best theater score to date.

The resulting show is even more emotionally engaging than the film. That's partly thanks to Peter Darling's exhilarating choreography, which now threads entirely through the action. The joy of dance that the story epitomizes has become one of the key narrative devices of its telling. As Lee Hall's script charts the growing dance aspirations of Billy, an 11-year-old English miner's son -- played out against the background of the 1984 Miners' Strike that marked an early battle ground of the then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's re-shaping of the industrial landscape of Britain -- he is magically transformed before our very eyes, with the tentative vulnerability of his damaged family life giving way to the liberating confidence he finds on stage.

Much has been made in the local press of the process of finding an actor capable of playing the lead, who is onstage virtually the entire three hours. Not since David O. Selznick's fabled search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind can there have been quite so demanding a task. Making this search even more complicated was the fact that there's a finite window of opportunity to find and train child actors before they too quickly grow up, not to mention the stringent British laws that limit the number of hours that children can work each week. As a result, three boys alternate in the role of Billy. I saw 12-year-old Liam Mower, currently a student at the Royal Ballet School, who captures the character's journey thrillingly; he acts with tender vulnerability, sings with sweet earnestness, and dances with equal measures of delight and abandon.

Not since Blood Brothers opened in 1983 has there been a new British musical that has combined gritty social commentary on working-class life in Thatcher's Britain with a searing, heartfelt story of the growing pains of youth as powerfully and melodically as Stephen Daldry's production -- and I'm sure it will run just as long as that other show already has over here. But any producers who are thinking of taking Billy to Broadway might want to remember the short run of Blood Brothers there. This is a very culturally specific show that's going to be a smash hit on home territory but is unlikely to travel well.

Similarly, Kevin Spacey is finding out that American plays don't always translate easily to London -- whether they're of the new(ish) variety like Donald McIntyre's National Anthems (Spacey first appeared in the play in New Haven some 16 years ago and revived it earlier this year at the Old Vic, which he now runs) or of the supposedly classic sort like The Philadelphia Story, Philip Barry's 1939 comedy of marital manners amongst America's moneyed aristocracy. While Spacey himself has the right comic insouciance for the role of CK Dexter-Haven, the play seems lethargic and dated when he's not onstage, despite the best efforts of Broadway's Jerry Zaks to busy it up. Jennifer Ehle, a Tony Award winner for the revival of The Real Thing, is curiously remote as heiress Tracy Lord. Uncharacteristically unattractive designs by Jon Lee Beatty and costumes by Tom Rand don't help matters.

There is better news elsewhere in London on the classical theatre front. Richard Eyre's brilliant Almeida revival of Hedda Gabler has deservedly transfered to the West End's Duke of York's Theatre, with the aptly named Eve Best giving a scorching account of the title role. There's also an intriguing double helping of Lorca: The National has revived The House of Bernarda Alba in fine style with Penelope Wilton as the domineering matriarch of a household of frustrated daughters, while the Almeida is staging a cryptic, internationally-cast Blood Wedding that features Mexican movie star Gael Garcia Bernal as the man who tempts his childhood sweetheart to elope with him on the day of her wedding to another.

Also at the National, artistic director Nicholas Hytner kicks off the third annual Travelex £10 season (in which the majority of tickets are just £10) by directing a double bill of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays that is by turns stark, hilariously funny, and deeply poignant. To see both parts -- and you will definitely want to do so -- will actually cost you £20, but that's a small price to pay. In the churning, epic narrative of plot and politics that unfold in this panoramic portrait of a nation riven by insurrection, there is majesty as well as mischief. The core of the show is a portrait of an estranged father and son -- who happen to be the King and his heir -- that is full of humanity.

Amidst the dense psychological and literal battlegrounds on which these plays operate, the veteran Shakespearean actor David Bradley movingly charts the title character's self-doubt. Matthew Macfadyen is superb as his son, who prefers the roistering company of the fat knight Falstaff amongst the taverns of Eastcheap rather than his father's court. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's most vivid comic creations, and Michael Gambon inhabits him totally -- heavily padded into an oval shape, poured into red velvet trousers, and wearing a feather-decorated fedora on his head. It's a rich comic turn, even if some of the actor's speech is lost in his voluminous beard.

Finally, theatrical history is being made in London twice over at the moment. The transfer of Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen from the National marks the first time that a contemporary British-born black writer has had a play produced in the West End. It has now been joined by The Big Life, the first indigenously created black musical set in Britain to open on Shaftesbury Avenue. It may seem incredible that it has taken so long for this to happen, but no special pleading needs to be made for either show: they both earn their right to be where they are.

In the challenging Elmina's Kitchen, its author dares to shine a critical light on his own community as he portrays three generations of black men. The plot revolves around Hackney café owner Deli and the deeply troubled relationships he has with his father and teenage son, but the play stretches beyond its domestic setting to wrestle with larger issues of parenting, identity, and the lure of criminality. And in the joyous new musical The Big Life, the arrival of a group of West Indians in England in the 1950s is depicted with the help of ska melodies by first-time theatrical composer Paul Joseph.