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Playing Around in London

TheaterMania reports on eight worthy productions, including Absent Friends, Collaborators, The Comedy of Errors, and The Recruiting Officer. logo
Kara Tointon in Absent Friends
(© Simon Annand)
Plays are currently dominating the London theatrical landscape, primarily led by casts of stage actors at the top of their games. So, here's a look at seven familiar works -- and a new one that deserves to be familiar -- on that city's many stages.

When it comes to coaxing dark laughs from flailing marriages, Alan Ayckbourn has the knack, as proven by his 1974 comedy Absent Friends, currently being revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The three marriages with rocks in their shoes are between nervous-wreck Diana (Katherine Parkinson) and cold-fish Paul (Steffan Rhodri), sneering Evelyn (Kara Tointon) and fidgety John (David Armand), and numbingly conventional Marge (Elizabeth Berrington) and the unseen Gordon, at home under the weather. The supposed friends spend the time at loggerheads during a two-act tea party planned to welcome back determinedly cheerful Colin (Reece Shearsmith), whose fiancee Carol has drowned. Sometimes, director Jeremy Herrin allows the actors to wander into caricature, but Ayckbourn's comic-tinged pessimism never loses its punch.

As Josie Rourke's bow as the Donmar Warehouse's artistic director, she's presenting a polished revival of The Recruiting Officer, George Farquhar's 1704 comic drama in which men and women compulsively dissemble while nailing down the prestigious romantic attachment. Just as Farquhar knew about the skullduggery often employed trapping men into service, Rourke knows about commanding a top-notch cast, in which Mackenzie Crook, Nancy Carroll, Tobias Menzies, Rachel Stirling, and Mark Gatiss do the major laugh-getting.

Emily Mann's version of Federico Garcia Lorca's drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, now at the Almeida under Bijan Shelbani's skillful direction, transports the action to Iran, which suggests something will be made of current political repression there. Yet, little is added to the play's view of what occurs when women controlled by men convert their need to exercise power into intramural confrontations. In the title role, Iranian actress (and Oscar winner) Shohreh Aghdashloo uses a mesmerizingly soothing voice to assert the woman's total control.

Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke has few chances to work on a grand scale at his current home but compensates big time with a modern-day version of William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors on the National's continent-sized Olivier stage. Designer Bunny Christie has put up an erector-set of a commercial city -- where corrugated steel is among standard construction-site material -- as the backdrop for the tale of two affluent twins both named Antipholus and their servant/twins, both called Dromio, being reunited after having been separated in a shipwreck. The cast, which is gleefully led by popular comic Lenny Henry, is all happily on top of the giddily mistaken-identity material.

Despite a character in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III declaring that "style never immortalized anybody," style can go far within the proscenium -- as proven by director Christopher Luscombe's highly commendable revival at the Apollo Theatre. In this study of the 18th-century monarch's bout with porphyria -- which had everyone at court convinced the King was insane -- the inexhaustible David Haig suffers the torments of physical hell as the often judicious, often officious royal. Also toiling in high style are 20 other fine actors, including Christopher Keegan as the foppish Prince of Wales.

Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale
(© Johan Persson)
As John Hodge's new Collaborators gets underway at the National's Cottesloe, novelist/playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings, properly heavy-hearted but not heavy-handed) is having his standard nightmare in which Josef Stalin (Simon Russell Beale, having a grand time) is coming after him with destruction in mind. The sequence is cutely staged by director Nicholas Hytner as a silent-film fast-motion chase. The remainder of the work depicts what happens when the real-life Stalin contrives to have Bulgakov write an adulatory work -- and even collaborate on state policy. As Hodge unfolds the tale of government threats and betrayals, he accomplishes something unusual: What begins as truly amusing farce inexorably shifts to unsettling drama.

There's no mystery why the Abbey Theatre production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, at the National's Lyttelton, is superlative. As gallant, battered Juno (Sinead Cusack) attempts to keep battled-scarred son Johnny (Ronan Raftery) and hard-bitten daughter Mary (Clare Dunne) going -- with no help from her lying, cowardly husband, Captain John Doyle (Ciaran Hinds) and his lively, good-for-nothing buddy, Joxer Daly (Risteard Cooper) -- director Howard Davies and his cast miss no chance to ensure that the comedy and eventual complete tragedy registers. In addition, Bob Crowley's high-ceilinged version of a crumbling Georgian home, which is how and where the Dublin poor lived then, is a stunning metaphor for a disintegrating country.

Sutton Vane's 1923 surprise hit, Outward Bound, now at the Finborough Theatre, looks like a potboiler now with its tale of seven passengers in the bar of a ship, none of them quite able to recall where they're bound. However, director Louise Hill's version is so immaculate that every hokey moment connects, and the nine actors each play a recognizable English type with lovably consummate skill.

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