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Nights and Their Stars

Mark Shenton reviews a batch of shows now playing in London, and looks forward to what's on the horizon. logo

Lucie Arnaz, Ian McShane,
Maria Friedman, and Joanna Riding
in The Witches of Eastwick
(Photo: Sven Arnstein)
After a summer that never truly arrived in Britain, we are now being cheered--and, occasionally, dismayed--by a prolific theatrical fall that is making the thought of having to retreat indoors more pleasant. (Reviews of the shows mentioned here that opened before the end of September appear below).

There's something for everyone on the schedules. The London theater is positively ablaze with stars, from Jessica Lange in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (opening at the Lyric on November 21) to Daryl Hannah in a revival of George Axelrod's classic comedy The Seven-Year Itch (Queen's, October 9) to a not-so-little-anymore Macaulay Culkin opposite French movie actress Irene Jacob in a new play by U.S. playwright Richard Nelson, Madame Melville (Vaudeville, October 18).

The two leading lights of the British musical theater have both been busy: Cameron Mackintosh's midsummer opening of the almost all-American The Witches of Eastwick at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has been followed by the September 26 premiere of Lloyd Webber's latest, The Beautiful Game (Cambridge Theatre). In a world in which Contact won the Tony for Best Musical, Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures also qualifies for inclusion here, particularly since the group's latest show, The Car Man, owes nothing to existing ballet sources like its Tony-winning production of Swan Lake did, but is a new story built upon a new orchestration of Bizet's Carmen score. It opened on September 13 at the Old Vic, the venerable classical theater on the South Bank, which will become AMP's permanent base beginning in 2002. Meanwhile, the Savoy, in another age the permanent base to Gilbert and Sullivan, is base to them again with a revival there of possibly the most famous Savoy opera of them all: The Mikado (it opened on September 21). John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch made a jumpy journey from off-Broadway's Jane Street Playhouse to the West End (where it opened at the Playhouse on September 19). Napoleon, a musical biography of the legendary Frenchman, follows another ill-fated French bio-musical, Lautrec, into the Shaftesbury (October 17) in a version that was premiered in Toronto six years ago. And the moronic Fame--The Musical is due back, depressingly, for its fourth West End run (Victoria Palace, October 3).

Amongst a host of new plays, the season has begun with the world premiere at the Royal Court on September 14 of David Hare's My Zinc Bed--even as Hare's last play, The Blue Room, returns to town (sans Nicole Kidman or Iain Glen) in an entirely new production at the Haymarket that is transferring from this year's Chichester Festival season on Britain's south coast (October 2). Yasmina Reza (whose Art is still running in the West End, and whose The Unexpected Man opens October 24 at Off-Broadway's Promenade) also has two: Conversations After a Burial, which was her first-ever play, received its British premiere at the Almeida on September 12; while her latest, Life x 3, is due on December 7 at the National's Lyttelton with a cast led by Mark Rylance (usually to be found a little further down the river as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe) and Imelda Staunton. Meanwhile, Sam Mendes has returned to the Donmar Warehouse to direct Nick Whitby's To the Green Fields Beyond--his first return to the theater since his production of The Blue Room there and his subsequent Oscar-laden success with American Beauty. Kerry Fox, star of An Angel at My Table and Shallow Grave, leads the cast of In Flame, a play that was originally acclaimed at the fringe Bush Theatre last year and has now come back to town in a new production at the New Ambassadors.

Classic revivals are traveling in pairs. There are two Noël Coward plays appearing side-by-side on Shaftesbury Avenue: a penny-dreadful and utterly pointless stage version of the 1946 film classic Brief Encounter (which Coward scripted from his earlier one-act play Still Life) opened at the Lyric on September 11, while Felicity Kendal and Frances de la Tour are due at the Apollo next door, opening October 25 in Fallen Angels. There are also two productions of The Tempest (Barbican Pit, November 1, and Almeida, December 14); two other Shakespeares at the National, Hamlet (now playing at the Lyttelton), and Romeo and Juliet (at the Olivier); another (Julius Caesar) at the nearby Young Vic; and two Jacobean tragedies by John Webster, The White Devil (now at the Lyric Hammersmith) and The Duchess of Malfi (Barbican Theatre, coming October 31). The National also has an all-star--and already sold out--production of The Cherry Orchard featuring Vanessa and Corin Redgrave that opened at the Cottesloe on September 21, plus Michael Frayn's contemporary classic farce of backstage life, Noises Off, with Patricia Hodge (Lyttelton, October 5). In the West End, Greta Scaccchi stars with Michael Pennington in Molnar's theatrical comedy The Guardsman (Albery, October 11), while Michael Gambon and Rupert Graves are due in a new production of Pinter's The Caretaker (Comedy, November 15).

And that's all just for starters. I'll be covering these and many more in a new monthly column here in the coming months, so keep reading!


Michael Cerveris in
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Musical Notes

A brand-new collaborator, the locally popular personality, playwright, and novelist Ben Elton, has energized Andrew Lloyd Webber and propelled him to his most interesting new show since Evita. The Beautiful Game (Cambridge Theatre) is ALW's first musical with a fully functioning book that separates scenes from songs as distinct entities. And, like Evita, it attempts something dark and serious and related to real-life events--in this case, the never-ending Irish troubles. Of course the show is open to charges that it simplifies and and sentimentalizes a truly epic societal schism, just as Evita was criticized for simplifying and glorifying a dictatorship, but the fact that it even dares to enter such charged and troubled waters is fascinating. Whether the public will want to actually see a musical that includes such deeply disturbing scenes as an IRA knee-capping (wherein an alleged informer is crippled by a bullet fired at his knee) is another story. And it has to be said that Robert Carsen's production, designed by Michael Levine, doesn't really help to make it any more appealing: In what must be one of the bleakest and ugliest physical productions I've seen in a musical ever, it's the youthful and mostly unknown ensemble cast that catches the eye, whether singing with considerable passion (watch out for the star-making performance of Josie Walker) or executing the galvanizing choreography of Meryl Tankard. Lloyd Webber's score, inflected with Irish folk song and rock melody, is surprisingly understated, part of an honorable return to intimate storytelling that is a million miles away from the blockbuster spectacles of Cats or The Phantom of the Opera.

There's no denying the spectacle element of The Witches of Eastwick. And, this being a Cameron Mackintosh production, the "helicopter" or "chandelier" moment is there sure enough when the eponymous heroines literally take flight, soaring over the heads of the audience and reaching the balconies of the hallowed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The effect is appropriately astonishing, yet intriguingly old-fashioned; though the bravura way it's accomplished is indeed breathtaking, there's nothing new to onstage flying (think Mary Martin and Peter Pan). The show is a throwback in other ways, too, to the Broadway musical comedies of '50s and '60s, though John Dempsey's smart, wisecracking book adds a contemporary sensibility and Dana P Rowe's score is equally modern and memorable. But the fact that the show propels its story and distinguishes characters through song, while also permitting the comic respite of scenes between the songs, reminds us of the elemental force and unalloyed delights of musicals of the old school. Talking of which, there are also roles here that allow for traditional star quality to hold sway--e.g., Joanna Riding, a tremendous local musical actress who has distinguished herself in such National Theatre musicals as Carousel and Guys and Dolls, and has now entered a new league.

So has Adventures in Motion Pictures, the contemporary dance company with a real theatrical edge. This previously peripatetic touring company has finally hit the big time with the offer of a permanent London home, the Old Vic, where it is now displaying its latest work, The Car Man, in advance of taking up residence there. Not for nothing does Matthew Bourne call his productions "shows" rather than "ballets"; somewhat ironically for a company that tells complex stories through the means of non-verbal dance, it's not the choreography itself that particularly distinguishes the work. Rather, it's the imaginative ideas, the flashes of wit, the creation and sustaining of an air of sexual tension, the throbbing textures of the music, the delight of the design, and the youthful, sexy energy of the entire company that takes precedence over the actual steps they dance. The Car Man is the teasing, titillating tale of the effect of a stranger's arrival on a tiny American town. It's hardly the most original story in the book, but it's drenched in mood and melodrama.

Something has been lost in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in its journey from the scruffy Jane Street Theatre off the West Side highway in New York to the glamorous, three-level Playhouse Theatre in the West End. The show is basically a cross between a rock concert and a piece of performance art, and the attempt to label it purely as a musical removes its sting and urgency. Hedwig now feels like just another product; the spontaneous outpouring of venom and anger that its title character subjects his/her audience to seems to be simply an onslaught of noise. This isn't just the fault of the sound engineer, and it has nothing to do with Michael Cerveris' performance (which still manages to bring out an underlying pathos and feline grace), but is mainly a matter of mood--mine, partly, but also that of the London audience who were clearly baffled by it all.


Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet
Play by Play

Great things were being hoped for this fall, with new plays by Hare and Reza. There was also what sounded like a real discovery at the Donmar, with Sam Mendes changing his original plans to do Twelfth Night when a new play by a largely unknown writer landed on his desk and he felt he just had to do it instead. Also, the National had scheduled what sounded like intriguing productions of Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard. None of these quite live up to expectations--not that there are any disasters among them. All are well worth seeing, especially as a demonstration (as if one were needed) of the strengths of London's stage actors. But none offer the compelling urgency of real discovery, either.

David Hare's My Zinc Bed (Royal Court) finds the playwright in familiar territory: As in Skylight, a middle-aged entrepreneur (this time of a dotcommer, as opposed to a restaurateur) is caught sparring with his own demons while challenging those of the people around him. The young journalist who has come to interview him for a newspaper article is actually a poet whose career has run aground and is currently attending Alcoholics Anonymous; by one of Hare's convenient coincidences, the entrepreneur's wife has also been through the program. Not only does Hare deal with personal issues of addiction, he also relates these to the wider ones of society and the ever-changing landscape of life that molds our behavior, and to the perennial Hare theme of the nature, pursuit, and definitions of love. The three-member cast, which includes Julia Ormond returning to the London stage for the first time since her Hollywood success, is less than convincing; but, then, the characters they are playing do seem to exist purely to be a mouthpiece for Hare's views and quotable quotes he's gleaned from elsewhere. Many of these are fascinating as text, but they don't come to life as theater. Nor, in a production that Hare has misguidedly directed himself, is a convincing case made for the play to be presented on stage rather than on the radio.

On the other hand, Conversations After a Burial (Almeida) is a melancholic mood piece that could only exist in the theater; Chekhovian in spirit, but without the laughs, it wordily lives up to its title. Three adult siblings have come to bury their father at the family's French homestead, and the play chronicles the conversations that follow this event. As impeccably acted by a cast that includes the radiant but under-utilized Claire Bloom, it is a source of some theatrical pleasure, but the dazzling ability to juggle constantly shifting viewpoints that Reza exhibited in her later play Art is absent.

To the Green Fields Beyond, the World War I drama that Sam Mendes chose for his return to the Donmar Warehouse, is an intense, somber, slow-burning piece about an allied tank crew on the eve of going into battle; again, it is beautifully acted by a brilliant ensemble cast that features MI:2's Dougray Scott, but its low-key approach never ignites into the stuff of thrilling drama.

Also surprisingly muted is Trevor Nunn's production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Brought into sharp focus in the intimate environs of the National's smallest theatre, the Cottesloe, with the audience gathered in even closer via a three-sided seating arrangement, it is full of attendant detail in every one of the performances, including brother and sister Corin and Vanessa Redgrave as onstage siblings. Maria Bjornson's set designs, in which the cherry orchard itself is hauntingly brought into view, are superb. But Nunn indulges in a leisurely pace that brings the show in at over three hours.

More brisk than usual, on the other hand--due to textual cuts that entirely remove the Fortinbras subplot--is John Caird's production of Hamlet (also at the National, in the larger Lyttelton), which is solidly and traditionally played against an occasionally intrustive background of choral chants and religious imagery. But there's an overwhelming Dane here in the shape of Simon Russell Beale, who offers a Hamlet far more human than heroic.

Decidedly non-traditional is the production of Julius Caesar with which David Lan, best known as a writer and translator (including the new version of The Cherry Orchard that Nunn is using), has launched his regime as artistic director of the Young Vic. It is unusual not only in its surprisingly youthful cast, but also in its sometimes heavily homoerotic atmosphere, with much bare flesh on display--not least in the shower room at the back of the stage to which, within minutes of the play's beginning, some of the cast retreat and reveal their bare butts. The evening is ripe with directorial interventions of this and other kinds, only some of which make sense; likewise the performances, ranging from the solid Brutus of Lloyd Owen to the effete and ineffectual Cassius of Marcus d'Amico, who played Michael Tolliver in the first Tales of the City series and here returns to the stage after a long absence. Where has this once hugely promising actor been? Certainly not to the gym; far from having a lean and hungry look, he's sporting a well-padded belly.

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