Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickmanin Private Lives
Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman
in Private Lives
"Times is hard," says Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and they are in London--not just in the pie shops of Fleet Street, but in theaters all around town.

The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, has belatedly launched the Greatest Show on Earth initiative, in which up to 60,000 West End tickets are being both subsidized (with seats being sold at ten to twenty pounds) and heavily promoted. While it is indeed encouraging to see Livingstone following the lead of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's lead in issuing a rallying cry to the local population to support local theater, it is worth questioning the method of subsidy. In New York--where the crisis cut far deeper and more immediately in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center--the industry itself made most of the cuts necessary to ensure its survival. But who precisely stands to gain here in London? Though the public may get a discounted ticket or two, ultimately the net effect is still to line the pockets of producers whose tickets they are buying. There are far better ways to support the theater that would involve longer-term strategic planning and would promote accessibility--such as the National Theatre, for instance, strives to do with performances specifically designed to attract people who haven't been to the National (or to the theater) before.

To instead prop up an antiquated, outrageously expensive theatrical infrastructure--maintaining the status quo rather than investing in the future--is a quick win that is no win at all. This is an industry about which it was once said that you can't make a living at it, but you can make a killing. It has always been thus; it is a high-risk business. Theatre producers are also greedy fellows, ready to squeeze as much from the punter's purses as the market will bear. It has always been thus; it is a low-rent profession. Just because the risks got bigger in the wake of recent world events doesn't mean that the theater world needs bailing out. Some hit shows have made untold millions for their producers. Now that the going has gotten a bit tougher, perhaps part of those profits could be used to buoy these shows until things pick up again. But the theater is also more about misses than hits, and that's as it should be: Unless there's a frequent turnover of shows, theaterland would stagnate and atrophy. The London Mayor's scheme, which subsidizes a bunch of poorly performing shows as indiscriminately as it does more successful ones, may keep help the former to limp on for a few weeks longer than they would otherwise, but fail they eventually must.

As indeed they recently have. David S Young's Antarctica, which came to the Savoy via Toronto (where it premiered under the title Inexpressible Island in November 1998), left critics and audiences alike cold with its wordy, worthy portrait of the survival of a group of failed South Pole explorers in 1912. And despite the presence of no less notable an actor than Sir Antony Sher in the title role of his cousin playwright Ronald Harwood's Mahler's Conversion, the play could not be converted into a hit at the Aldwych as easily as it shows Mahler adopting Christianity. Neither did Over the Moon--a re-titled version of Ken Ludwig's 1995 Broadway comedy Moon Over Buffalo--take the town at the Old Vic, with Joan Collins italicizing every line and then waiting for a reaction. In the process, she merely underlined her utter lack of stagecraft or technique. No wonder her co-star, Broadway's Frank Langella, fled town before the run ended.

Nothing succeeds like the already familiar. The biggest success of the London fall has been a smart, stylish West End revival of Noël Coward's Private Lives, staged with effortless élan by Howard Davies at the Albery. After a grinding, grating production of the play at the National two years ago, it's a joy now to enjoy the seemingly effortless but, in fact, finely tuned comedy playing of Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. The pair--reunited from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which they first ignited the West End and Broadway stages in the mid-'80s--are joined by the irresistibly funny Emma Fielding and Adam Godley. No wonder that, when I attended a second time, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie were in the house, as was novelist Salman Rushdie. It has become the show to see.

Those whose appetite for Coward is not entirely sated by this production will want to know that a real curiosity has turned up at the Apollo--namely, the professional world premiere of the master's last completed full-length play, Star Quality. Based on an earlier 1951 short story by Coward, this 1967 work has been refashioned by director and adaptor Christopher Luscombe. A valedictory to the world of the theater that Coward loved, it also includes the author's observations of the barely suppressed suspicions and contempt that theatrical people often have for each other. This production stars the popular local actress Penelope Keith.

Next door at the Lyric, Anthony Page directs a now Broadway-bound revival of Tennessee Williams's piercingly personal 1955 play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. While U.S. movie star hunk Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, George of the Jungle) broods meaningfully as he strives to achieve an alcoholic stupor in the role of Brick, his wife Maggie--the brilliant Australian film actress Frances O'Connor (recently seen in A.I.)--tries to coax him back into life and save their marriage. But it is Ned Beatty, stunning in a rousing second-act scene as Brick's dying father, who finally forces him to confront the truth amongst the mendacity that has killed his spirit. It makes for a riveting, powerful evening of theater.

Victoria Hamilton and Clive Owenin A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Victoria Hamilton and Clive Owen
in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, first seen in 1967 and now revived at the Comedy in a production that first featured rising young movie star Clive Owen but has seen him replaced by Eddie Izzard, has a different kind of power in its unsparing truthfulness. This unsentimental, deeply personal account of raising a severely brain-damaged child gives greater resonance to a painfully realistic story. Proving the play be a seriously funny work about a seriously unfunny subject, Izzard is joined by the wonderful young British actress Victoria Hamilton to play the parents. At the Donmar Warehouse is another Peter Nichols show, similarly audacious in both subject and form: Not quite a musical nor just a play, Privates on Parade goes backstage to observe the workings of a British army entertainment corps working in Singapore and Malaya in 1948. Nichols threads Denis King's jaunty little melodies through his narrative to counterpoint the darker points he has to make. The tone is both cynical and heartfelt, rueful and rude. Roger Allam, who played Javert in the RSC's original production of Les Misérables, is larger-than-life yet absolutely truthful as the grande dame of the corps.

Also back in town--from which it has only briefly been away--is JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls, in the stunning production that made Stephen Daldry's reputation when it first appeared at the National Theatre in 1992 and was subsequently seen on Broadway. Daldry superbly orchestrates the play's palpable air of menace and confrontation as a police inspector visits the Birling family and implicates them, one by one, in the horrible suicide of a young girl. Meanwhile, Priestley's radical call for us all to examine our own roles in society has even more resonance now in light of the current world situation. This is a timeless play rendered in a production for all time, now at the Playhouse.

At the Garrick, young director Laurie Sansom reworks another Priestley psychological thriller, Dangerous Corner. The play, originally premiered in 1932, has been given a crisp, contemporary edge that brings it to life--even if the opening moments appear to be a direct steal from Daldry's Inspector Calls. This is a fresh, modern, strikingly effective production featuring a young, attractive cast headed by Rupert Penry-Jones. However, at the Haymarket, the dead, clammy weight of a Broadway comedy hit of the 1920s hangs heavily upon another attempted reclamation: Director Peter Hall and an all-star cast led by none other than Judi Dench have brought Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family back to London for the first time in over 70 years (it last starred Laurence Olivier here), but the collective efforts fail to convince.

Better served is Kiss Me, Kate, its current Broadway revival having been brought to the Victoria Palace complete with two of its original American principals--Marin Mazzie (Lili) and Michael Berresse (Bill)--joined by two more compatriots, Brent Barrett (Fred) and Nancy Anderson (Lois). Cole Porter's blissful melodies and effervescent lyrics, allied to Sam and Bella Spewack's superbly constructed and literate script, make this one of the greatest musicals about musicals (and Shakespeare) of all time, and Michael Blakemore's loving production remains a treat.

Which is more than can be said for South Pacific as grindingly revived at the National's Olivier. While Trevor Nunn's previous R&H revival, Oklahoma!, is now lined up for a Broadway run, South Pacific is unlikely to travel any further than the South Bank. If the film version by which this show is perhaps best known these days was famously shot in oversaturated Technicolor, Nunn's dutiful production drains its drama to a dull, documentary-like monochrome. It's clear from the start that the intention was to toughen up the show; in the process, the formerly central romance between Emile de Becque (the ever-reliable Philip Quast) and Nellie Forbush (appealing American newcomer Lauren Kennedy) has been moved into the background. With Nunn seemingly more compelled by a military subplot that sees de Becque and Lt. Joe Cable dispatched behind enemy lines, many of the show's delights have been cast into the shade.

Finally, to celebrate the National's 25th anniversary of occupying its South Bank home, a Chain Play was commissioned from 27 up-and-coming and established playwrights and composers; each were asked to write a scene to make up the whole. The inevitably uneven result, seen under the perfunctory direction of John Caird for its first (and probably only) performance in late October, offered what may be the first dramatic response to the World Trade Center disaster, by none other than Stephen Sondheim. The great composer/lyricist offered a revised version of "Something Just Broke," a song he added to the 1992 London premiere of Assassins at the Donmar Warehouse. Its original subject matter was public response to the Kennedy assassination, but Sondheim reworded the song to address reactions to the towers coming down. It's a blistering piece, shocking in its immediacy and power.