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Sex, Politics, & Rock 'n' Roll

British stages abound with such provocative offerings as Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray, Now or Later, and Female of the Species. logo
Richard Winsor in Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray
(© Bill Cooper)
If you're looking for sex, politics, and sexual politics in England, you can always scope them out in the tabloids. At the moment, however, you can also find them -- plus some heavy doses of comedy and rock 'n' roll -- sprawled all over local stages.

Raw and eventually destructive -- and self-destructive -- sex hits the audience like a bracing slap in the face throughout Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray (which has moved from London to Theatre Royal Newcastle for a one-week run, and is likely to reach American shores soon.) Because there's no dialogue in Bourne's modern-day dance-theater adaptation of Oscar Wilde's tale of poisoned beauty, the florid and frightening Wilde language is lost. But what's gained is a savage depiction of the kind of asphyxiating icon worship rampant in early 21st-century society. The work is boldly danced by Richard Winsor as the rapidly coming-undone eponymous figure, flowing-tressed Ashley Bain as the photographer luring Dorian to his downfall, and the statuesque and stunning Michela Meazza as a predatory Eileen Ford; the soaring, searing original music is by Terry Davies; and the noirish sets and costumes are by Bourne's usual collaborator Lez Brotherston. One moral of this cautionary tale: If you're ever asked to do a Calvin Klein underwear or cologne commercial, just say no.

The new musical Zorro, now at the Garrick, is a bit heavier on sex than politics as we encounter the masked title character (the athletic and amusing Matt Rawle), who single-swordedly avenges the oppressed citizens of an early 19th-century California community against evil governor Ramon (sexily lubricious Adam Levy). The story is shallow-going -- particularly for those familiar with the similarly-plotted The Scarlet Pimpernel -- wherein the courageous fellow plays the twit, thereby alienating his love, Luisa, (played here by the multi-talented and sleek Emma Williams) until his derring-do and dual identity is revealed at curtain. The lyrics by librettist Stephen Clark and the Gypsy Kings' music are hardly as sharp as Zorro's blade; but the frequent flamenco dancing, choreographed by genre specialist Rafael Amargo, is mesmerizing.

Also brimming with sex is the Donmar Warehouse's explosive revival of Piaf, reopening at the Vaudeville in October, Pam Gems' character study of the famous love-addicted and lovelorn French singer. This time around, the plangent addicted-to-alcohol-and-heroin heroine is played and sung by the petite Argentinian export Elena Roger, who seemingly has Piaf embedded in her voice. And while the now-90-minute script -- well-acted by the troupe and well-directed by Jamie Lloyd on a dark and empty Soutra Gilmour set -- often plays like a speeded-up A&E documentary, when Roger pours her guts into the lyrics, patrons will ne regrettent rien.

Eddie Redmayne and Domnhall Gleeson in Now or Later
(© Keith Pattison)
The most overtly political play available this minute is American dramatist Christopher Shinn's Now or Later, now at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre. This powerful statement about the difficulties of reconciling convictions and compromise unfolds on a fictionalized stateside election night. John (the slim and slick Eddie Redmayne) is the gay son of the candidate racking up the winning votes, but he has recently committed a strategic political error by attending a nude college party dressed as Mohammad and has compounded his gaffe by simulating an indecent (and videotaped) act. A smart and principled young man who wants to preserve his privacy, John is besieged by his circumspect mother (Nancy Crane), his manipulative father (Matthew Marsh), and two determined campaign operatives (Adam James and Pamela Nomvete) to issue a public apology. As director Dominic Cooke deploys these antagonists on Hildegard Bechtler's precisely-right set, Shinn allows too much of his script to wobble between exposition and debate, but ultimately the characters' fervent convictions carry the play.

Incidentally, Now or Later reads like a companion piece to James Graham's galvanizing and often hilariously funny Tory Boyz (closed at the Soho Centre but sure to be revived elsewhere soon) in which a closeted gay conservative wrestles with himself and, in flashbacks, with the late and supposedly homosexual Ted Heath about how repressed sexuality and political probity mingle -- or don't.

Eileen Atkins in Female of the Species
(© Manuel Harlan)
Gender politics are what's under fire in Joanna Murray-Smith's Female of the Species at the Vaudeville. The target is the ideologically fickle author Germaine Greer, represented here as the acerbic Margot Mason (Eileen Atkins), who is battling writer's block when agitated former student Molly (Anna Maxwell Martin) arrives to pull a gun on her teacher and one-time idol. Eventually, the gun gets turned on everyone else who comes through the door, including Martha's estranged daughter Tess (Sophie Thompson). However, since the audience quickly realizes that profligate firing arm is never a dire threat, the often-funny dialogue eventually adds up to little more than three compelling figures in the wrong play. Nonetheless, Atkins and the rest of the cast, directed for utmost amusement by Roger Michell, are pitch-perfect.

One entry that doesn't traffic in sex or politics, except obliquely, is Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, co-written by Rivers with Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, at the Leicester Square Theatre. The action, set in a television studio where our famous "can-we-talk" friend is preparing for one of her red-carpet appearances, continually halts screechingly so that Rivers can break the fourth wall and get the sell-out crowd howling with her down-and-dirty wisecracks. Yet, what she's really after -- our sympathy for sticking it out in show business so long -- comes increasingly into focus as she spills recollections about her fall-out with Johnny Carson and husband Edgar Rosenberg's suicide.

Also hailing from American shores is Des McAnuff's production of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys, at the Prince Edward, which is just as imaginatively right abroad as it is in New York. Particularly impressive, vocally and otherwise, is Ryan Molloy as the pencil-thin Frankie Valli, who turned a falsetto into a fortune. Of course, the show would be nothing without all those Four Seasons chart-toppers, so many of which were fabricated to ring cash registers by Bob Gaudio and the underrated Bob Crewe.

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