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London Spotlight: April 2005

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The cast of A Night at the Dogs
(Photo © Manuel Harlen)
The Soho Theatre + Writers' Center has only just begun celebrating its fifth anniversary and will continue to make merry through August. Perhaps the need for a six-month fete has to do with the company's having so much to get happy about. In the five short and -- staff will probably tell you -- fast years the Center has operated in a streamlined 21 Dean Street home, it's become a vital part of the forward-looking local scene. Smack dab in the center of the West End and yet as fringe as you can get, it's the venue where new and/or experimental writers from hither and yon can expect to get their raised voices heard.

Furthermore, not only are new plays encouraged and usually given beautifully simple productions, but the venue is practically a clearing house for one-person projects. Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais are two instantaneously recognizable fellows who've developed material on the hopping premises. Geraldine Hughes, whose Belfast Blues valentine-cum-poison-pen letter to her childhood is currently having a Manhattan success, settled early at the Centre. And she's hardly alone.

The point is that if you want a quick fill-in on what's promising from U.K. (and other) writers, a stop at the Soho Theatre is a necessity. And what better time than when the denizens are bending over backwards to show how active they have been, are, and expect to be? The big event of the month -- among any number of readings, seminars and workshops -- is Matt Charman's four-character A Night at the Dogs. It may not be an autobiographical play, but it certainly draws on the first-time playwright's history. Not that long ago, the 25-year-old dramatist was washing cars at a crash repair shop, and his play is about four workers at a Walthamstow garage who buy a racing greyhound. The synopsis sounds right up the Soho Theatre's dark alley. Therefore, the play must be worth a drop-in. At extremely reasonable ticket prices.

Soho Theatre artistic director Abigail Morris, currently directing the Charman work, told that "since moving into our Dean Street theater in 2000, the company has gone from strength to strength." She obviously believes that dramatist Charman, who won the Verity Bargate Award for his play, is one of the latest strengths, because, she says, "Matt has been commissioned to write his next play for us." That indicates how things regularly go at the Soho.

Another venue where life's niceties aren't of much interest is the Royal Court, where angry young men as well as angry young women write to incite. There was a strange Royal Court blip recently in the form of a performance piece during which a bloke engaged the audience's help to set up a date with another bloke on the Internet, and no one got angry. (Except perhaps some perplexed patrons.) But the house sounds as if it's back to its former self with two offerings this month: There's Debbie Tucker Green's Stoning Mary, the title itself provocative as all get-out. In it, Green considers child soldiers and stoning in the developing world. In the play at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, My Name is Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American -- presumably the actual and eponymous Rachel Corrie -- gets between a bulldozer and a Palestinian home. Also ripped from the headlines, no?

Speaking of activists: Vanessa Redgrave, who's made her own pro-Palestinian headlines, portrays another headline grabber. It's Hecuba at the Albery, who would have grabbed column space in the Troy Tribune and the Sparta Speaker, if she and such newspapers had actually existed. The play's by Euripides (in Tony Harrison's version) and should benefit from having someone in the title role who knows what it is to agitate the multitudes. This is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's London season, which earlier included Redgrave's remarkable brother, Corin, as an invigorated King Lear.

Yet more headlines: Another establishment devoutly dedicated to getting audiences riled and at the very least sending outraged letters to editors is the Tricycle, which this month preems Bloody Sunday: Scenes From the Saville Enquiry. Under examination is the January, 1972 assault on Londonderry marchers in a civil rights demonstration. Artistic director Nicholas Kent is keen on transcripts -- Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom being a recent example that's traveled far and wide -- and here's another to rouse patrons.

More on anger, which many English playwrights have been since 1956 when John Osborne unleashed the first angry young man on the world: Elmina's Kitchen opens at the Garrick at the end of the month. Kwame Kwei-Armah's drama, produced to much hoo-hah at the Royal National Theatre two years ago, will be seen in a Birmingham Repertory production. As the title implies, it takes place at a kitchen/restaurant where a number African-English acquaintances hang out and don't necessarily agree on how to get along in a troubled, troubling society. Playwright Kwei-Armah, who was acting before he was writing for public view, will also appear in the production. Unfortunately, it's too late to make it a Kwei-Armah double feature, since his terrific Fix Up has just closed at the National.

In the face of all the stage strife, musical comedy lovers can take heart. The adaption of Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and Elton John's music, is previewing at the Victoria Palace (more on this next month), and opening at the Shaftesbury is the (perhaps) long-awaited adaptation of M. M. Kaye's beloved historical novel, The Far Pavilions. So perhaps April won't be the angriest month, after all.

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