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London Roundup: December 2008

Reviews of The Family Reunion, Imagine This, Leaving, and The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes. logo
Gemma Jones and Samuel West in The Family Reunion
(© Johann Persson)
In the Donmar Warehouse's revival of T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, the characters look into their own pasts; yet, in the hands of director Jeremy Herrin, this truly haunting verse drama creates a narrative that feels brand new. In a dark-paneled sitting room, a family gathers to celebrate the birthday of Lady Monchensey (Gemma Jones), who is awaiting her son Harry (Samuel West), returning after eight years and now a widower after his wife's death at sea. Opening remarks about the passing of time do not prepare you for the ghost story/thriller that follows. When Harry appears, he claims that he pushed his wife: "All that I can hope to make you understand/is only events: not what has happened./And people to whom nothing has ever happened/Cannot understand the unimportance of events." Alone with misfit but luminous young cousin Mary (Hattie Morahan), Harry's dead wife and three ghostly small boys carrying butterfly nets emerge from the darkness. There are living "ghosts" too: Harry's aunt Agatha (Penelope Wilton), who loved his dead father, carries a costly wisdom. The music and sound design by Nick Powell build the atmosphere, along with Rick Fisher's stark lighting. And if Eliot's paralleling of Greek drama and his religious meditations don't really gel with the spooky narrative, the ride is still well worth taking.

It's a fine line between "never again" and capitalizing on the tragedy of the Holocaust, but there's no reason a musical about a Jewish theater troupe in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 should be inherently dumber than one about a cabaret performer in the Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, Imagine This, at the New London Theatre, lacks wit, going right for the schmaltz. Yet it's hard to completely dismiss this show, in which the tattered Warshowsky Theatre troupe conceals Adam (Simon Gleeson), a resistance fighter, by casting him in their play about Jewish martyrs at Masada. While Glenn Berenbeim's heavy-handed book is implausible -- ghetto troupes performed nonthreatening fare, not thinly veiled protests -- and David Goldsmith's lyrics include some unfortunate bits, Shuki Levy's melodies linger, particularly the opener, "The Last Day of Summer." While director Timothy Sheader relies on Eugene Lee's revolve to the point of motion sickness, and choreographer Liam Steel overuses the long-pole stamping (last seen on Broadway in the flop The Pirate Queen), some in the audience still wept at the end of this slickly sentimental show.

Geoffrey Beevers in Leaving
(© Robert Day)
Václav Havel's new play, Leaving, at the Orange Tree Theatre, turns an ironic, yet hopeful eye to the future, and brilliantly satirizes and poeticizes the current political stage. When soon-to-be-former Chancellor, Dr. Vilem Rieger (Geoffrey Beevers) gives an interview to tabloid reporters, he's surprised to learn he's expected to leave the villa too. The new Prime Minister plans to turn a government building into a casino, mall, and strip club. Meanwhile, Rieger's "long-time companion," the elegant Zuzana (Faye Castelow), overmanages the politician. Then Havel's own voice, as voiceover, speaks to the audience: cinnamon in beer, he explains, is authorial whimsy. As the audience begins fidgeting during a long pause without actors, Havel praises "the emptiness of the world concentrated into a few minutes." The device, both funny and profound, contextualizes Havel as playwright and playwright as theatrical presence. Yet, there are pure theatrical pleasures to be had, too, including a group happy-dance to "Ode to Joy." Thanks to Sam Walters' precise direction, the acting never becomes cartoonish, and Paul Wilson's translation is clear and smart.

Finally, American playwright Adriano Shaplin's The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes recently debuted at the RSC's restored Wilton's Music Hall. The theater's barrow shape and gallery around the "u" of the interior provides interesting playing options for director Elizabeth Freestone, and Soutra Gilmour's scaffolded set and an electric cello/violin combo add stripped-down grandeur to the production. Shaplin's play, set during the British civil wars, is nominally about the competition between the practical scientists at Gresham College (which later becomes the Royal Society), including pious Robert Boyle, who invents the air pump and discovers the vacuum (somberly played by Amanda Hadingue) and the theoretical science of Thomas Hobbes (Stephen Boxer). The RSC actors glide through the work's verse and period style; but Shaplin's play has too many characters and throughlines to build excitement. The rise and fall of the boy apprentice, hunchback, and genius Robert Hooke (Jack Laskey, showing great charm and intelligence) eventually seems to become the central plot, while another thread concerns two actors who work for the scientists after Cromwell closes the theaters. Ultimately, there's too much history at the expense of a good story.


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