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London Spotlight: May 2005

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Liam Mower in Billy Elliot -- The Musical
(Photo © David Scheinmann)
Jingoistic Americans may want to think that the highest May highlights in this fabled theater burg are three imports from the States. One, bowing to the press the last night of the month, is Neil LaBute's This is How It Goes at the Donmar Warehouse. When I reviewed it in March at its Public Theater preem, I began by saying that the playwright's growing number of corrosive works are "the theatrical equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick" and went on to observe that the publicly affable scribe "is convinced that men and women are manipulative, intolerant, distrustful, and out to get each other with every fiber in their often buff bodies." That's how it goes with LaBute, who seems just as comfortable in England as he is in America, because he's just as likely to debut a play in the West End or environs as he is at home.

A second stars-and-stripes boast is Philip Barry's 1930's drawing-room comedy The Philadelphia Story, which Kevin Spacey is presenting as the third and last entry in his first year running the Old Vic. Spacey will also play C.K. Dexter Haven, ex-husband to icy socialite Tracy Lord (Jennifer Ehle). Three other Amurricans will be prominent in the production, only one of them on stage -- D.W. Moffett. Jerry Zaks will direct, and John Lee Beatty, perhaps the best living set designer when it comes to swanky abodes, will construct the Lord mansion on the revered Old Vic stage. By the way, artistic director Spacey's busy-busy schedule allows him to play only from May 3 to June 18. So if you want to see him, book accordingly.

The third but hardly least American spring bouquet is Robert Falls's production of Arthur Miller's venerated Death of a Salesman. When it played Manhattan with Brian Dennehy as weary Willy Loman, it snared four Tonys, including for Dennehy, Falls, and revival. This time around, Dennehy, repeating his role, will be joined by British first-raters like Clare Higgins as Linda Loman (who demands that attention must be paid) and Douglas Henshall. While viewing the strong-ticket entry, keep in mind that the English don't just fall over for every American playwright who heads their way but that sometimes they appreciate a visiting dramatist to a head-spinning degree. Miller is one such, and LaBute is another. The rule of thumb for local adulation is: the more sharply critical of America a playwright is, the more he or she is admired by the Brits.

The above three offerings, hot stuff as they might be, are only the beginning of the month's excitement. Home-grown matter is also jaw-dropping. To begin with, this is the moment when Michael Gambon -- one of the country's most celebrated actors and a man who may make movies but can't stay away from the stage for too long -- takes on one of dramatic literature's most beloved roles. He'll be Falstaff in the National Theatre's productions of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. It's possible that a Falstaff hasn't been so heatedly anticipated since the great Ralph Richardson played the robust, mischievous fellow whom the reckless Prince Hal adulates, imitates, and then discards when he decides it's time to grow up. By the way, John Wood, also no slouch, will appear as Shallow and may slouch. National Theatre artistic head Nicholas Hytner, who's been making astonishingly few missteps since assuming his current role, directs.

Billy Elliot -- The Musical, which Stephen Daldry has adapted from his box-office-click movie, jetés onto the Victoria Palace stage this month. This is the story of the adolescent kid from the North who gets it into his head and his feet that he wants to become a dancer and fearlessly goes about it. This version is also the one for which Elton John -- with tunes for The Lion King and Aida under his Versace belt -- has supplied the music. The book and lyrics are by Lee Hall. Because of British Equity rules, three boys -- James Lomas, George Maguire, Liam Mower -- will alternate as the terping Billy.

Other potential B.O. stampede starters include a second National Theatre item -- Theatre of Blood, which will be helmed by Phelim McDermott, co-founder of the Improbable Theatre. The jaunty outfit is best known for bringing Heinrich Hoffman's Shockheaded Peter to the stage so successfully it keeps opening and re-opening in venues around the globe. (A second New York City run is currently on.) Given McDermott's affinity for stage ghoulishness, his Theatre of Blood outing, based on the 1973 flick with Vincent Price and a battalion of top-notch English actors, ought to be worth checking out. The second enticement is another plasma reference, Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding, which stars Motorcycle Diaries heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal. Leave it to the Almeida to spot a new international name and sign him up. And one more tip on a U.S. citizen trouping London boards: It's Brooke Shields, currently playing Roxie Hart in Chicago after sending New York critics to the adjective files for her recent Wonderful Town performance.

In Camelot -- set, of course, in England -- Guenevere and gang sing Alan Jay Lerner's "Lusty Month of May" lyrics. They go in part: "Tra-la, it's May, the lusty month of May, that lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray." So if it's this kind of theatergoing May in London, behave accordingly.

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