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I Love London in the Springtime

Classics, imports, and TV stars take the stage as the season comes to a close. logo
Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady
There are never enough stars to go around, especially when it comes to live theater; Maggie Smith, Judi Dench or Michael Gambon can't be in every play, nor Elaine Paige and Michael Crawford in every musical, so what's a producer to do? London has lately seen producers going the Kathie Lee Gifford route, hoping that television celebrity will lure a new kind of audience to see the stars of the small screen on the big stage.

But not everyone has the talent, let alone the stamina or discipline, to make it in the more exposed environment of the theater. Martine McCutcheon, for instance--a big name here thanks to the thrice weekly British television soap EastEnders--has been missing more performances than she's been giving in the National's production of My Fair Lady, and at one point was even hospitalized due to the strain. When she was subsequently spotted out on the town, eating at restaurants with her boyfriend and shopping with showbiz pals while supposedly still on sick leave, compassion quickly turned to contempt in some quarters. But the casting gimmick was nevertheless irresistible, because for once here was an actress that would be following the same learning curve that Eliza Doolittle has to undergo in her transformation from cockney flower girl to society duchess. The production, meanwhile, instantly crosses the river after its South Bank run to take up residence at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in July--the show's original West End home, where it properly belongs rather than being cushioned by a heavily subsidized environment at the National. (Under Nunn, artistically adventurous choices at the National have become increasingly rare, as witness this month's transfer, too, of Michael Frayn's Noises Off from the National to the Piccadilly. Next up, Nunn directs Vanbrugh's frequently produced The Relapse before moving on to South Pacific and A Streetcar Named Desire!)

Simlarly, the waif-like Anna Friel--best known here for her television role in the Liverpool soap Brookside, but whose professional stage work was previously confined to a Broadway run in Patrick Marber's Closer--seemed ideal casting for the Almeida's staging of Frank Wedekind's drama Lulu, which follows a young woman's journey from childhood abuse to prostitution and death. Actually, the most exciting thing about the ponderous production turned out to be the Almeida's temporary reclamation of another stunning venue, a former bus station in the run-down area of King's Cross, while their own theater in Islington is being remodeled. Next up: Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, starring Rachel Weisz.

Of the telly invaders, only one has proven to be an unqualified success: Denise van Outen, who took over as Roxie Hart in Chicago (Adelphi). The choice of the former sex siren of the populist television station Channel Four's The Big Breakfast proved to be apt for a show about the cult of celebrity; indeed, there's a moment when her character is accused of being a "phony celebrity" and you wonder if the epithet could be attached to the actress as well. But van Outen proves to be much more than that. She looks the part gloriously; she acts the part delightfully; she dances the part terrifically; she even sings the part appealingly. And she's turning up nightly (twice on matinee days) to actually do it. Happily, Chicago remains much more than just Van Outen. The show, which contains what is easily Kander and Ebb's best Broadway score, remains its own biggest star. Stripped to a minimalist sheen, with barely covered bodies performing the sexiest choreography in the West End on a smartly functional set and with the best band in town thumping out the score from their onstage perch, this is a show that truly razzle-dazzles you. As Velma Kelly, the American Leigh Zimmerman impresses from a great height: resembling Rita Hayworth on stilts, this one-time takeover as Ziegfeld's Favorite in the Broadway Will Rogers Follies is destined for even bigger things, if not taller ones.

It has taken exactly three quarters of a century for Noel Coward's 1926 play Semi-Monde to reach the West End, as it now does in a fascinating and hugely welcome production at Shaftesbury Avenue's Lyric Theatre, featuring a cast of 28. That large wage bill is one of the reasons why the play has taken so long to be produced commercially. The other is the risqué content; its up front representations of gay trysts, lesbian amours, bi-sexual boytoys, and marital infidelities precluded its presentation until 1968, when the Lord Chamberlain's office finally lost its grip to arbitrate over matters of theatrical propriety on the London stage.

Set in a plush Paris hotel foyer and bar, Semi-Monde observes with sly wit and alluring detail the parade of personalities that pass through. These include the aforementioned boytoy Cyril Hardacre (Benedick Bates, son of actor Alan), who is currently being kept by older man Beverley Ford (Ian Price) but who falls for writer Jerome Kennedy's daughter Norma (Beth Cordingly). Meanwhile, Norma's dad (John Carlisle) is chasing the recently married Tanis Marshall (Sophie Ward). The denizens of this Grand Hotel also include a hilariously over-the-top lesbian (played by Frances Tomelty, first wife of rock star Sting) and the shifting objects of her attention. Staged and designed by Coward expert Philip Prowse, one of the artistic directors of the Citzens' Theatre in Glasgow (where Prowse originally staged the play's only previous production in 1977), this impressionistic piece has been given a beautifully textured performance. Bravo!

Robin Phillips, who brought a scalpel-like intensity to the recent London revival of Long Day's Journey into Night starring Jessica Lange, has now done the same for Ibsen's Ghosts (Comedy), another fierce, wounding family drama in which another proud but embittered matriarch desperately tries to protect her son from having his late father's sins visited upon him. As played with a fiery, fascinating intelligence by Francesca Annis, Mrs. Alving is ultimately rendered powerless by the forces of nature rather than nurture: Although she sent her son Oswald away as a child, he has now returned as a very sick adult, having been born infected with a venereal disease thanks to his father's dissolute lifestyle. This, and other detonating family secrets, is the stuff of this still remarkable drama. With relative newcomer Martin Hutson making quite an impression as the anguished son and Anthony Andrews on hand as the self-righteous, morally unyielding Pastor Manders, this is a tremendous classical addition to the West End.

In Covent Garden, the powerhouse Donmar Warehouse's gentle trawl through the theater of the 1980s is beginning to create feelings of deja vu, not just because we've seen them before, but also due to the overlapping concerns of the plays. After the Donmar's double exposure of marital infidelity in Stoppard's The Real Thing (a revival which subsequently transferred to Broadway) and Peter Nichols' Passion Play, they now follow CP Taylor's Good with Christopher Hampton's 1982 play Tales from Hollywood, both about men trying to come to terms with their possible collusion with the Nazi regime. In its bringing together of a number of intellectual giants, Hampton's work further recalls Terry Johnson's Insignificance, which was also revived here.

Tales From Hollywood
But Tales from Hollywood is definitely worth a second look on its own intelligent terms, beautifully illuminated in John Crowley's production. Hampton's fascinating characters are brought fully to life by the expert ensemble assembled to play them here. Not that Hampton's play is very true to life: Its lead character, the Hungarian born playwright and writer Odon von Horvath, died in a freak accident in Paris in 1938, but Hampton imaginatively keeps him alive and sends him to America. There he joins the Manns (Thomas and his older brother, Heinrich) and Bertolt Brecht, amongst others, as Hollywood studio hacks. Ben Daniels is superb as von Horvath, though the show is nearly stolen from him by a captivating cameo from Phil Davis as Brecht and solid support from Gawn Grainger and Richard Johnson as the Mann brothers.

Not quite as compelling is a fluffy revival of Neil Simon's 1985 female reworking of his classic comedy The Odd Couple. This isn't one for the crowd that normally goes to the Almeida or the National Theatre (though with things the way they are at the latter nowadays, maybe it is). But for a Shaftesbury Avenue audience content to spend a couple of hours away from the box with the stage equivalent of a telly sitcom, this could be just the ticket. It even has the benefit of a familiar plot, though Felix and Oscar have become compulsively tidy, neurotic Florence and the untidy Olive. Paula Wilcox is genuinely funny as Florence, but Jenny Seagrove has to tempt providence as Olive when, trying to recall an actress' name in response to a Trivial Pursuit question, she comes up with the following clues: "Blonde....lousy actress.... I think her husband owned the studio." (The blonde Seagrove's partner is Bill Kenwright, this show's producer).

At the fringe Bridewell, the British premiere of Craig Carnelia's 1982 Broadway musical Is There Life After High School? uncovers another wistful, magical gem. This is a confessional cabaret in which a group of adults reflects back on their school days at a reunion; it's as if Stephen Sondheim's Follies (premiered on Broadway a decade earlier, and a clear influence) were rewritten to concern a more universal type of reunion than a gathering of old showgirls. Though Jeffrey Kindley's book for this show concerns what is in many ways a specifically American experience--complete with senior proms, cheerleaders, and swearing allegiance to the flag--we've all been there in one way or another. Carnelia's sweet, melancholic, and reflective melodies reveal a delightful musical voice. His songs are rendered here by a terrific ensemble of nine good-looking actors and three fine musicians (led by Martin Lowe from the piano). Matthew Ryan's production, mistakenly staged on a traverse playing area with the audience seated on two facing sides, occasionally seems clumsy and cluttered as a result. But, that aside, this is a real treat.

Also from across the pond: The Vagina Monologues have returned to town, with author Eve Ensler reprising a performance she originally gave here at the scruffy fringe King's Head, but now to be found at a marginally more salubrious West End theater, the New Ambassadors. After The Puppetry of the Penis, a West End show that served only to make fun of the male members literally on display as their Australian owners contorted them to resemble objects as diverse as the Eiffel Tower and a portrait of Prince Philip, this is an altogether more cerebral evening of entertainment.

Indeed, there's nothing more revealing on display here than Ensler's naked feet. (A row of empty shoes are symbolically arranged at the front of the stage, a no-doubt-inadvertent reference to a previous tenant of this theatre, Stones in His Pockets). But in the collection of verbatim monologues culled from interviews with over 200 women, there's wit, affection, and discovery in abundance, not to mention fascinating facts such as the one, repeated like a mantra throughout the evening, that there are 8,000 nerve fibers in the clitoris. I loved Ensler's wonderful embrace of her subject and her no-less-warm embrace of her audience. This is one of the most educational, affirmative shows in the West End.

Finally, at the National's Cottesloe, Anthony Page (who staged West End runs of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women and a revival of A Delicate Balance) directs the UK premiere of a double bill of short Albee plays, Finding the Sun/Marriage Play, from 1983 and 1987 (respectively). While it is always tempting to reclaim some of a famous playwright's more neglected works, this kind of pandering does no favors for Albee or for us. These slight but polished plays--which the director has said he chanced upon in a New York bookshop--were not written as a pair and do not make for anything like a cohesive or compelling evening. In a year in which Hampstead Theatre has already offered Alastair Beaton's Feelgood, Jonathan Harvey's Out in the Open and Philip Osment's Buried Alive, the Royal Court has presented Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth, and the dear old West End has even managed a major entry with Simon Gray's Japes, it beggars belief that the National has to search the shelves of a theater bookshop to find something to produce.

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