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Fiennes and Dandy

Ralph Fiennes, Janet McTeer, Jeremy Irons, Lindsay Duncan, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Sharp, Tim Pigott-Smith, Helen McCrory, and Ruthie Henshall light up the London stage. logo
Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer in God of Carnage
(© Alastair Muir)
Although the ever-anxious locals may not think so, the theater scene in London remains as vibrant as ever, with new plays, revivals, and musicals causing chatter around the city. Much of the buzz concerns Yasmina Reza's best play to date in God of Carnage (at the Gielgud through June 15), which her usual translator Christopher Hampton has treated with care. It's not perfect; for example, why two of the characters remain on stage when so bitterly assailed is a pressing question, and there's no adequate ending. Nonetheless, it's hugely entertaining.

Reza screwily scrutinizes two marriages that have hit rough waters but don't quite founder on the rocks. Alain (Ralph Fiennes) and Annette (Tamsin Greig) have a son who poked out another boy's two front teeth -- which is why they're sitting at that boy's home (stunningly and simply designed by Mark Thompson) where his parents Veronique (Janet McTeer) and Michel (Ken Stott) are being ultra-civilized. Indeed, the four are so restrained that it's instantly apparent things will get way out of hand before fade-out. How that happens is surprising and amusing, if the least bit protracted. In the process, Reza, director Matthew Warchus, and the top-quality cast handily make their point about good manners being only the thinnest veneer.

Simon Stephens' Harper Regan, now debuting at the National, is also noteworthy in a dramatically jarring way. The title character (a scorching Lesley Sharp) is a distaff version of David Mamet's Edmond -- with the glaring difference that after a dizzying downward spiral, she believably pulls herself together. Harper's predicament is that she doesn't know how to deal with husband Seth (Nick Sidi), who's been charged with child molestation, and rebellious daughter Sarah (Jessica Raine); so she lams it for a few days, during which she assaults a masher in a bar and is also read the riot act by her bourgeois but not unwise mom (Susan Brown). The drama, which emphasizes everyone's need to talk to somebody, is beautifully directed by never-miss Marianne Elliot and streamline-designed by Hildegarde Bechtler.

Chris Polick and Nicholas Keith in Fucking Men
(© Marilyn Kingwill)
The world premiere of Joe Di Pietro's Fucking Men, now at the Finborough Theatre, is a gay-oriented rewrite of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, which sounds as if it promises 40 miles of bad road. But surprisingly, it doesn't because the author has imagined 10 interestingly diverse Manhattan men who make sometimes witty, sometimes revealing remarks -- and who are played by actors being as real as anyone sitting in the mostly male audience.

Less impressive by literary standards -- but certainly impressive by production standards -- is Never So Good, Howard Brenton's docubio about Harold MacMillan, also at the National. Spewing information on the man who became Britain's post-Suez Canal-debacle prime minister and was then undone by the John Profumo scandal, the play suffers from the sound-bite nature of these types of theater affairs. Luckily, it is distinguished by Jeremy Irons and Pip Carter as, respectively, the older and younger MacMillan, Anna Chancellor as adulterous Dorothy, and Robert Glenister as the randy Bob Boothby.

Ludicrous is the word for 19-year-old Polly Stenham's That Face, at the Duke of York's, a dysfunctional family drama to end all dysfunctional family dramas. Lindsay Duncan gives an extraordinary performance as the alcoholic mother to two adolescent brats (Matt Smith, Hannah Murray), whose dad (Julian Wadham) has fled to Hong Kong with a second wife. Still, the behavior by the crazed fictional quartet stretches credulity until it shatters noisily.

When it comes to taking new looks at the classics, the professionals in this town are almost always in top form. The Pygmalion that Peter Hall has polished at the Old Vic is as near perfect a realization of the George Bernard Shaw comedy as a seasoned theatergoer would hope to encounter. Tim Pigott-Smith, who usually assumes darker roles, is a glib and physically side-splitting Henry Higgins, opposite the stunning Michelle Dockery's vivacious Eliza Doolittle. James Laurenson as Colonel Pickering, Roy Haygarth as a particularly morality-cynical Alfred P. Doolittle, and Barbara Jefford as Mrs. Higgins couldn't be improved upon.

Simon Russell Beale and Hayley Atwell in Major Barbara
(© Catherine Ashmore)
The prolific Shaw is also served well by Nicholas Hytner's revival of Major Barbara at the National, in which Simon Russell Beale gives another of his impeccable and twinkling performances as munitions mogul Andrew Undershaft and Clare Higgins as the tolerant Lady Britomart Undershaft creates her usual three-dimensional portrayal. Unfortunately, Hayley Atwell as the eponymous Salvation Army officer is merely okay. One huge plus is designer Tom Pye's torpedo-filled version of Undershaft's busy factory.

At the Almeida, the astute Anthony Page offers a sleek, heartrending version of Henrik Ibsen's difficult Rosmersholm. The moral dilemma, which seems somehow inaccessible to the modern mind, involves Rebecca West (the extremely moving Helen McCrory), who's living in the same house as Johannes Rosmer (Paul Hilton) but not living with him. She's merely helping the man get over his wife's suicide. The set-up isn't convincing nowadays, which dilutes sympathy for the focal figures and for Rosmer's bold but dangerous allegiance-shifting in the staid community's political affairs. Nevertheless, the production remains rewardingly persuasive.

Another deserving revival is Simon Gray's The Common Pursuit at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This look at five Cambridge men over 20 or so years -- and their secrets, betrayals and disillusionments -- is well directed by Fiona Laird and played by an expert sextet. At the Vaudeville, Edward Hall turns Terence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea from a tense drama about Hester (Greta Scacchi) -- whose young lover Freddie (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) can't return that love in kind -- into a too-steamy melodrama. As a result, a good deal of the pathos is lost, though Simon Williams as Hester's stiff-necked but understanding spouse is exactly right.

Ellen O'Hara and Jill Paice in Gone With the Wind
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Not to be added to anyone's don't-walk-run list are two musicals that should make their perpetrators hang their heads in shame. Trevor Nunn may have decided to stage Margaret Martin's musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind (at the New London through June 14) thinking he could repeat what he did with Tom Stoppard's novelistic epic The Coast of Utopia. But the ambitious Nunn, who had a hand in shaping the script, forgot that directorial ideas aren't enough to achieve either artistic or commercial success. There's a little matter of a libretto that works and a score that sings, neither of which are available to him here. Jill Paice is a not-bad Scarlett O'Hara, but Darius Danesh shockingly turns Rhett Butler into a world-class blowhard.
Better in terms of craft, but perhaps worse for being moralistically reprehensible, is the Michel Legrand-Jonathan Kent-Alain Boublil-Claude-Michel Schonberg-Herbert Kretzmer Marguerite, at the Haymarket, which transfers Alexandre Dumas fils' sturdy 19th century novel La Dame aux Camelias to World-War-II Paris. Despite gallant singing and acting by Ruthie Henshall as the title character and Julian Ovenden as Armand, there's no reason to admire a show that begs indulgence for a Nazi-sympathizing heroine. The self-centered ex-singer is lucky her head isn't completed shaved when the occupiers retreat from the City of Light, although a few disgruntled citizens do clip locks from Henshall's wig. Even if Legrand had pulled melodies from his top drawer, which he hasn't, there's no excuse for this kind of theatrical insensitivity.

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