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London Calling

Reports on six worthwhile British productions, including Dominic West in Butley, Kristin Scott Thomas in Betrayal, and Alex Kingston in Luise Miller. logo
Dominic West in Butley
(© Tristram Kenton)
Variety may be the spice of life. Right now, it's definitely the spice of London theater as a cornucopia of hard-hitting dramas, comedies, and musicals are delighting audiences.

Dominic West is giving the kind of dynamic performance that gets people talking in the title role of Simon Gray's Butley, now being revived at the Duchess. In the two-act character study of a once-promising English professor imploding over the course of one sour day, he brings almost everything needed for galvanizing the stage while disorienting the characters trying to make Butley face himself.

Those characters include his flatmate Joey (Martin Hutson), estranged wife Anna (Amanda Drew), colleague Edna (Penny Downie), students Miss Heasman (Emma Hiddleston) and Mr. Gardner (Cal Brigden) and publishing executive Reg (Paul McGann), who is Butley's rival for Joey's affection. While all the actors shine, thanks to director Lindsay Posner, West lacks the flickering vulnerability that keeps audiences on Butley's side. Without it, Butley's overbearing nature palls, testing audience patience about such cruel carryings-on, no matter how devastatingly eloquent the harangues are.

When Harold Pinter decided to exorcise guilt over his dalliance with wife-of-best-friend Joan Blackwell, he wrote the moving-backward-in-time play Betrayal, which is currently receiving a model theatrical distillation at the Comedy under the direction of Ian Rickson. Kristin Scott Thomas and Douglas Henshall as the nervous extra-marital lovers and Ben Miles as the tense cuckold all scrupulously follow the author-dictated pauses and silences. Those ambiguous moments are Pinter's comment on how people communicate -- or don't -- and what elusive subtexts lurk. They must be acted precisely, as they are here, to replicate natural conversation, or a pretentious quality slips in.

Playwright Arnold Wesker was the flavor of several mid-20th-century months, largely because of Chicken Soup With Barley, which is getting a thoroughly satisfying revival at the Royal Court on two atmospheric lower-middle-class sets by Ultz and under the assured hand of artistic director Dominic Cooke. The unflinching drama, set over the course of over 20 years, follows unhappily married Sarah Kahn (Samantha Spiro in an astonishing performance) and Harry Kahn (Danny Webb, also highly effective), daughter Ada (the persuasive Jenna Augen) and son Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal, whose dramatic arc is the most demanding) and their associates as their Communist convictions erode as their family bonds loosen. Sarah's inability to get through to her weak, lying husband and how the consistent battling affects their children is the core of this powerful play.

Jemima Rooper and James Corden in One Man, Two Guv'nors
(© Johan Persson)
Sometimes low comedy is so well done that it rises to high comedy. Such is the case with Nicholas Hytner's rib-tickling production of One Man, Two Guvnors, adapted by Richard Bean from Carlo Goldoni's classic commedia dell'arte work, The Servant of Two Masters, at the National. Beyond understanding that Francis Henshall (James Corden, in a star-establishing role) hires himself out to twittish Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and that Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) is masquerading as her twin brother Roscoe, there's little to know about the plot, other than it's a peg on which to hang enough slapstick humor to get spectators roaring.

Characters meant to be living in the not-quite-Carnaby Street 1960s get knocked about, custard (or a convincing facsimile) gets squirted, a twisted senior citizen on his restaurant first day falls down stairs, audience members are recruited for menial tasks, and a quartet called The Craze entertains while covering changes of Mark Thompson's ingenious set.

Friedrich Schiller's 18th-century play, Luise Miller, is as classy as melodrama gets -- and it's getting a grade-A revival at the Donmar Warehouse. In it, innocence and love is trampled but truth prevails as the unsullied title heroine (exceedingly lovely and staunch Felicity Jones) and lover Ferdinand (Max Bennett, a model of youthful ardor) are undone by the machination of his haughtily corrupt father (menacing Ben Daniels) who insists his off-spring marry conniving Lady Milford (Alex Kingston, an arresting welter of conflicting emotions). While the young couple are assailed in a series of stunningly written, though overwrought, scenes, director Michael Grandage keeps the tension taut as a piano wire. He's aided by John Light as a vicious secretary with an eye for Luise and by Peter McIntosh's shadowy design.

If musicals were judged primarily by their score, then Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's The Roar of the Greasepaint -The Smell of the Crowd, now being revived at the small but enterprising Finborough Theatre under Ian Judge's direction, would have to be judged a top-rank work. Consider that so many of the songs, including "On a Wonderful Day Like Today," "Who Can I Turn To?" "The Joker," "This Dream," "Look at That Face," "Sweet Beginning" and the piece de resistance, "Feelin' Good," have become standards in the past four decades. So the fact that the story -- about the repression of the little, well-meaning people in the person of Cocky (the amusing Matthew Ashforde) by the big, hypocritical people in the person of Sir (Oliver Beamish) -- is pointless and repetitive means less than it ought to. It's those irresistible tunes that get you every time.

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