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Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton
in The Taming of the Shrew
(Photo © Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale)
London's stage fare this winter has been as bracing as the winds have often been chilly. While the National Theatre continues to play an unrivaled role in warming up parts of the theatrical anatomy that the West End hardly ever reaches -- frequently invigorating and engaging our hearts, minds, and souls -- it's the return of Britain's other leading national troupe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, to London that has set two theaters side by side on Shaftesbury Avenue ablaze with thrilling talent and the spirit of rediscovery.

The RSC abandoned its permanent home at the Barbican Centre nearly two years ago and is yet to replace it, though new artistic director Michael Boyd has pledged that it soon will do so. In welcoming the company back to the capital, it's interesting to note that commercial producers, charging commercial-scale prices, are presenting this season. So, what's happened to the subsidy that has been contributed towards by every British taxpayer (and every visitor who pays sales tax on everything purchased here, including theater tickets)?

Be that as it may, producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt deserve the break, having lost more than a million pounds a year ago when they brought a previous RSC season of neglected "Jacobethan" plays to the Gielgud. This time, they're on safer ground with a crowd-pleasing, rip-roaring period rendition of The Taming of the Shrew presented in rep with a contemporaneous, rarely seen sequel, The Tamer Tamed, written by John Fletcher about 20 years after the premiere of the Shakespeare play. Fletcher's work picks up the story of Petruchio, now on his second marriage and having the tables of an abusive relationship turned on him. (Who said that Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings had the monopoly on sequels?)

Produced together in full productions for what the director Gregory Doran says is perhaps the first time, these battle-of-the-sexes comedies respectively examine tempestuous marital relationships from both sides of the sexual fence. In the process, the rancor of Shakespeare's original is mitigated by some of the lessons learned in the second play. Both works are superbly illuminated in barnstorming performances by Jasper Britton and Alexandra Gilbreath as the warring couples. These actors suggest that, for all their collisions, the characters are often colluding; they're in on each other's games and we're invited to watch them play.

Judi Dench gives a maternal, melancholic performance in her own return to the RSC in All's Well That Ends Well, transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Gielgud in a lovely, thoughtful staging -- also by Gregory Doran, who seems to be the company's current director-of-choice. Dench has become one of the world's most beloved actresses; experiencing her authority and total command of the Gielgud stage, it's not difficult to understand why. Though Dench doesn't get too much more stage time than the eight minutes of screen time that earned her an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, her performance as the Countess is enough to make you fall in love with this often neglected, problematic play. Looking on with infinite pain as her feckless, reckless son quickly abandons the wife he has been forced to marry, Dame Judi is mesmerizing.

Nigel Cooke in The Permanent Way
(Photo © John Haynes)
Equally gripping -- and stimulating and provocative and distressing -- is David Hare's latest, The Permanent Way. A piece of documentary theater about the privatization of the British railway network, the play was drawn from a series of interviews that Hare and a group of actors conducted with civil servants, members of the transport police, maintenance men, and those bereaved and injured as a result of four major train crashes in the last six years. One of its subjects says, "If there's a play in there, I'm amazed."

There's actually far more than that. This isn't just any play; rather, it's a major piece of social and political commentary that puts the National Theatre (where it's receiving its London premiere after a regional tour) at the cutting edge of British theater. As The Permanent Way tells of a world in which corporate profit is more important than public safety, the railway system becomes a symbol of malignant malaise in society.

Hare has superbly edited and juxtaposed the quietly devastating testimony of those most closely affected and it is played to aching, eloquent perfection by an excellent cast under the strong direction of Max Stafford-Clark. What could be viewed as a strictly local issue -- seemingly of no interest to visitors from abroad unless, of course, they happen to be travel by rail while here -- acquires a shattering universal resonance as Hare and company chronicle the needless loss of human life on the altar of corporate negligence.

The spectre of imminent death also casts a powerful shadow over the characters in RC Sherriff's powerful World War I drama Journey's End. When this play originally premiered in 1929, the brutal memories of the frontlines of trench warfare were still fresh. Today, with battles played out as they happen on the televisions in our living rooms, wars have a different kind of immediacy. But in David Grindley's gripping production at the Comedy Theatre, this still-powerful piece resonates anew with real humanity and an accumulating tension and terror as these men face their destiny. The genuinely moving production is anchored by terrific performances from an ensemble that includes Geoffrey Streatfeild as the regiment's captain and David Haig as his second-in-command. It elevates the West End.

So does the arrival in London of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Edward Albee's deliberately provocative but intensely reasoned play about the strain that a marriage is put under when the husband falls head over heels for a goat. This is a love that dares not bray its name, but Albee proclaims it with a searing intensity: "Is there anything anyone doesn't get off on, whether we admit it or not?" the husband asks in a play that treads a fine line between overpowering emotions and outrageous humor. The play is currently receiving its British premiere at the Almeida (to March 13) before transferring to the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue in April. Jonathan Pryce (looking somewhat older than the 50-year-old his character is referred to as being) and his real-life wife, Kate Fahy, play the central couple with insufficient tension or intimacy. That the piece still grips us as powerfully as it does is a testament to Albee.

Another import from Broadway, Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone (at the appropriately intimate Duchess Theatre), serves not to praise Gershwin but to bury him. It's part biographical cabaret tribute, part concert recital, and eventually a karaoke sing-a-long. Felder plays Gershwin as an earnest, self-important, unhappy man and the unduly heavy show is completely at odds with the effervescence of the music it celebrates.

Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry
in When Harry Met Sally
(Photo © Alastair Muir)
The wit, charm, and poignancy of the 1989 romantic film comedy When Harry Met Sally is largely absent in the stage version that has arrived at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The cast of Loveday Ingram's production is headed by minor movie stars Luke Perry and Alyson Hannigan in the title roles; the set frames the action in a "letterbox" that truncates everything into neat, narrow windows but also bizarrely cuts off the actors at the knees. The show doesn't cast any new light on the 12-year journey of the title characters from friendship to lovers; indeed, the only fresh thing about it is the musical interludes from Brit jazz sensation Jamie Cullum and his brother Ben.

If When Harry Met Sally typifies the dowside of West End commercialism, Michael Hastings' Calico arrives just in time to prove that all is not lost. This powerful original drama -- which has opened at the Duke of York's without the benefit of a prior run at the National Theatre, though it would have been perfectly at home there -- concerns the complex web of secrets that unravels within the Paris household of the great Irish novelist James Joyce. He's living there in 1928 with Nora -- the woman he'd left Ireland with 23 years earlier but never officially married -- and their two adult children, a son who's an aspiring opera singer and a disturbed daughter who falls in love with her father's new assistant, a young man named Samuel Beckett.

The play is billed as a fictional story inspired by fact. It offers fascinating portraits of Joyce and Beckett -- both of whom were famously inscrutable, whether on or off the page or the stage. It also disturbingly casts an eye on the fate of Joyce's daughter Lucia, who did in fact end her days in a British mental asylum. Amongst the superb cast of Edward Hall's production, up-and-coming film star Romola Garai stands out as a Lucia who is vulnerable and tenacious by turns; and Imelda Staunton is heartbreaking as her mother, determined to keep up appearances on behalf of her damaged family.

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