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London Stages: Change Is in the Air

Mark Shenton charts the shifting theatrical landscape across the pond. logo
Gagarin Way
Things are changing in London theater, offstage as well as on, and mostly for the good. Without such periodic renewals of the creative personnel that run our major producing theaters and constant reviews of the objectives they have in mind for them, stagnation could ensue. The theater's capacity to renew and reinvigorate itself is tested on a regular basis, never more so than in the wartime that will amost certainly be upon us due to the terrorist attacks on America last week. Please bear in mind that the following report was filed before those damnable events occurred.

The news that Trevor Nunn would not seek reappointment as the National Theatre's artistic director at the end of his initial five-year term next year followed constant sniping at his regime during his tenure. Critics targeted his reliance on overtly commercial projects like the now Broadway-bound Oklahoma!, the current West End transfers of My Fair Lady, and the imminent revival of South Pacific, as well as his failure to develop a coherent new plays policy or to introduce fresh talent (and fresh audiences) to the theater. Before he goes, however, he is at least addressing the last point with the announcement of a project entitled Transformation in which, for a five month period from next May, the National's Lyttelton Theatre--its most conventional, proscenium arch auditorium--will be converted into two smaller spaces that will be used to focus on creating new and experimental work.

Concerns about the lack of good, new plays at the theater have at least been temporarily addressed with the opening of two strong premieres in the Cottesloe. Patrick Marber's latest work is the powerfully personal Howard Katz, with Ron Cook in blazing form in the title role of a man watching his life spiraling out of control; it follows Marber's first two plays, Dealer's Choice and Closer, that were also first seen there before earning longer lives elsewhere. Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy, starring Diana Rigg and Simon Russell Beale as a mother and her adult son, is a beautifully textured and resonant family drama, superbly directed by John Caird. The National has also been buoyed by a healthy commercial transfer of last year's award-winning Blue/Orange from the Cottesloe to the West End's Duchess, and the assured if untidy Lyttelton arrival of a new play by Mark Ravenhill, Mother Clap's Molly House, which gleefully both celebrates and criticizes three centuries of the commercialization of gay sexuality.

Also seeking a transformation of his company is Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Adrian Noble, who, after seeing the commercial transfer of his Stratford premiere of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden meet a swift summer demise at the Aldwych Theatre, announced plans to withdraw the company from its annual residency at London's Barbican in favor of runs at other venues in the capital and to streamline activities at its Stratford headquarters, offering shorter contracts to actors and also (under the direction of Declan Donnellan) establishing an academy through which young actors might enter the company.

Mother Clap's Molly House
Speculation is rife as to who will succeed Nunn at the National. Nicholas Hytner is at the top of most people's lists; as well as Mother Clap's Molly House, he also recently directed Alex Jennings in a strong staging of The Winter's Tale in the Olivier Theatre. Now comes news that the artistic directorship of the Almeida is also unexpectedly up for grabs, with joint directors Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid having announced their resignation after running the theater for the last 11 years. "An inherent truth in any artistic pursuit of this nature is that it cannot last forever," they said. "To have created, along with many others, a theater of vision and commitment has been entirely rewarding, but we believe now is the time to go". They will, however, first preside over the return of the company to its Islington home, currently undergoing a massive refurbishment. And Kent is directing three more plays at the Almeida's temporary venue, a converted coach station at King's Cross: A new staging of Chekhov's Platanov (to November 10) will be followed by Ken Stott and McDiarmid starring in a revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer (Nov 22-Dec 22). Then Oliver Ford Davies plays the title role in King Lear (January 31-March 30).

Meanwhile, the West End is being shaken up, too, not least by the realization that Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals don't necessarily run forever. Indeed, his latest work (and, in this writer's opinion, his best since Evita) didn't even last a year: The Beautiful Game closed at the beginning of September at the Cambridge Theatre. And now Starlight Express has announced that it, too, is to close at the Apollo Victoria next January after a run of 17 years. The second-longest-running musical in West End history (behind the inevitable Cats), it will be replaced by Lloyd Webber's production of a new musical not written by himself: Bombay Dreams, created by Indian musician AR Rehman, with book by Meera Syal, lyrics by Don Black, and direction by filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (whose credits include Elizabeth).

Still, because of Lloyd Webber's activities as a producer and theater owner, he continues to be a dominant force in the West End, even as Cameron Mackintosh has formally announced his intention to do no more new musicals. Lloyd Webber broke new ground in backing Closer to Heaven, the debut musical theater effort of pop duo The Pet Shop Boys and playwright Jonathan Harvey that is currently running at the tiny Arts Theatre; this campy, likeable trash-fest revels in a contemporary clubs-drugs-bisexual sensibility. Mackintosh opted for the more conventional but crowd-pleasing option of transferring the National Theatre's revival of My Fair Lady to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He had to make space it for it there by moving his last original musical, The Witches of Eastwick, to the more intimate Prince of Wales, where it sits far more comfortably and is much improved by substantial re-casting of three of its four leads: The still glorious Joanna Riding is now joined by the brilliant Clarke Peters as Darryl van Horne (fresh from West End and Broadway stints as Billy Flynn in Chicago) and the terrific Josefina Gabrielle and Rebecca Thornhill.

Peggy Sue Got Married
Another film-to-stage adaptation, Peggy Sue Got Married, has arrived at the Shaftesbury to prove once again how interchangeable the theater and the cinema have lately become. Of course, Kathleen Turner took to the West End in Anne Bancroft's screen role in The Graduate. (That show now stars another American movie actress, Anne Archer, who in turn will be replaced in October by ex-Dallas star Linda Gray. At 60, Gray will be the oldest Mrs. Robinson, but she has something of a connection to the piece: In 1967, her legs stood in for Bancroft's on the film's poster!) Now, local girl Ruthie Henshall has returned from her Broadway sojourn to take over Turner's screen role of Peggy Sue! Though Henshall has both voice and spirit, the show is lackluster--bland rather than bad. Don't expect this one to head to Broadway anytime soon.

Traveling in reverse will be Michael Blakemore's Tony-winning Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate, opening at the Victoria Palace on October 30 with a cast that includes original principals Marin Mazzie and Michael Berresse, joined by fellow Americans Brent Barrett and Nancy Anderson. Meanwhile, the London transfer of another Broadway revival, The King and I, will wrap a 20-month run at the London Palladium in January.

On the plays front, a busy fall season includes the belated British premiere of Ken Ludwig's 1995 Broadway comedy Moon Over Buffalo (retitled Over the Moon, so as not to confuse the locals); Joan Collins and Frank Langella take over the roles originated by Carol Burnett and Philip Bosco when the show opens at the Old Vic on October 15 in a new production directed by British farceur Ray Cooney. The latter is currently riding high elsewhere with Caught in the Net, a hit sequel at the Vaudeville Theatre to his '80s comedy Run for Your Wife (itself named one of Top 100 Plays of the 20th century in the National Theatre's millennium poll); the sequel brings the form into the internet age as the bigamous London taxi driver John Smith, whom we met in the first play, is found still trying to keep his lives and wives apart after his teenage son and daughter from each marriage meet in an online chatroom. The frantic, sometimes ferociously funny proceedings, with the agile Russ Abbot and the agelessly treasurable Eric Sykes in attendance, provide an evening in which peals of laughter echo through the theater.

The London stage looks backwards, too, with the return of Stephen Daldry's hit National Theatre production of JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls (to the Playhouse, beginning September 20), which was seen on Broadway, and new productions of Peter Nichols' A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (starring Clive Owen and Prunella Scales, at the New Ambassadors from September 25); Privates on Parade (at the Donmar Warehouse from November 30); Noel Coward's Private Lives, with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman reunited from the original RSC, West End and Broadway staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (at the Albery Theatre from September 21); Rufus Sewell in a rare revival of John Osborne's Luther (at the National's Olivier from September 29); the wonderful Penelope Wilton in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (at the Donmar Warehouse from October 4); and Judi Dench in Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's The Royal Family (at the Haymarket from October 24). All this, plus new productions of Pinter's The Homecoming (with Ian Holm, at the Comedy from September 17) and Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with American movie actors Brendan Fraser and Ned Beatty (opening at the Lyric on September 18) promise a rich serving of revived drama for the fall.

But there are new plays in the offing, as well. Ronald Harwood, author of The Dresser and Taking Sides, has a new one: Mahler's Conversion, starring Antony Sher as the composer, at the Aldwych from September 19. David S. Young's Antarctica comes from Toronto to the Savoy, beginning September 25. Debutant playwright Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, a sensation at the Edinburgh Festival this year, transfers to the National's Cottesloe as of September 28. And August Wilson's Jitney comes to the National's Lyttelton in Marion McClinton's original New York staging, beginning October 12.

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