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.
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.
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.
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.