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The London theater landscape has recently been marked by several short-running shows. logo
The obituary for Broadway has been written so often over the past hundred years that the industry is often called "the fabulous invalid," after a famous 1938 comedy about theater under duress. In contrast, London theater has traditionally been held up as a more healthy and vibrant scene marked by a strong public appetite for plays as well as musicals, lower costs, and fewer failures. (There are also fewer smash hits; even the routine sell-outs at the National Theatre aren't quite as impossible to get into as they seem, since an allocation of tickets is always held back for sale on the day of the performance itself.)

But, this spring and summer, there's been an alarming new trend for London shows to close less than a month after they open. These have ranged from productions of new plays like Michael Hastings's Calico (reviewed in my last roundup for TheaterMania) and Simon Gray's The Holy Terror (a revised version of an old Gray West End play, Melon) to revivals like that of the 1962 British sex comedy Rattle of a Simple Man and Neil LaBute's far younger play The Shape of Things, first seen here in a different staging at the Almeida Theatre in 2001 that subsequently transferred to Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre.

The fast failures have extended to new American imports, including Bruce Graham's Death Row drama Coyote on a Fence and David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers; the latter inauspiciously launched a new independent production company, Scamp Film and Theatre Limited, that's co-partnered by Sam Mendes (though he didn't direct this show). Amongst the disappointed actors in the shows noted above were the rising young film actress Romola Garai (Calico), the veteran Simon Callow (The Holy Terror), and Chariots of Fire star Ben Cross (Coyote on a Fence). Visiting Americans, including Alicia Witt (The Shape of Things), Scooby Doo star Matthew Lillard and Broadway baby Katie Finneran (both in Fuddy Meers), were also adversely affected.

The downturn of Fuddy Meers can be attributed to largely hostile reviews of an unsatisfying production, but this wasn't the case with all of the other short-running shows. According to producer Sonia Friedman, who was only directly involved in Calico, "If you look at each of those plays, they will each have their own story about why they failed. Some will be about audiences fearing the risk, some will be about the plays not being good enough, some will be the wrong play in the wrong environment." But, Friedman continues, "The West End is a very competitive environment and, in order to stand out here, you've got to have that unique selling point. It can be a hit transfer, it can be a star actor, it can be a new play from a great playwright. What it can't seem to be is just a good piece of theater without anything around it."

In other words, it needs to be an event: As on Broadway, the play itself is no longer the thing. Of course, there are exceptions, and Friedman points to Journey's End as one of them. That production, also reviewed in my last report for TheaterMania, has transferred from a limited run at the Comedy Theatre to an open-ended run at the Playhouse and is soon to embark on a simultaneous national tour. Even its producer, Phil Cameron, admits that its success has been a surprise: "It's an unlikely candidate to be a hit, but it's a very good play and a very good production -- and it's not reliant on star names to make it so."

Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles
in Oleanna
There have been other happy coincidences of good plays in London lately, many of them American. A revival of David Mamet's Oleanna with U.S. movie actors Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhart reaffirmed this incendiary 1992 play's power to provoke and outrage audiences. It also proved as topical as ever: On the same day that this production opened in the West End, the Evening Standard reported that the English National Opera -- located literally around the corner from the Garrick Theatre -- had issued new guidelines to its employees on the subject of sexual discrimination at work. One of the guidelines is that "the use of affectionate names such as 'darling' will...constitute sexual harassment."

A revival of Tennessee Williams' strange, smoldering Suddenly Last Summer that transferred from the regional Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield to the Albery Theatre boasted a pair of intensely inhabited performances by Dame Diana Rigg as the grieving matriarch whose son has been killed and Victoria Hamilton (Tony-nominated on Broadway for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) as the niece who was with him at the time, whom Rigg's Mrs. Venable now seeks to have lobotomized to erase the memory of how it happened.

The arrival of Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde at the Duke of York's, with Shear and her original New York co-stars Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman all on board, is a delight. In this fragmentary memory play about hero worship and loneliness, Shear skillfully weaves a portrait of Mae West through the eyes of two people who idolize her. Under the direction of James Lapine, West's spirit is brought to life in this deeply personal, wickedly funny, and ultimately poignant reverie.

The fringe has also seen American actors in abundance. At Hampstead's New End Theatre, Michael Hayden starred in a new play, The Private Room, that contrasted the ways of Wall Street with not entirely unrelated events taking place in Guantanamo Bay. At the Menier Chocolate Factory -- a superb new venue in Southwark that was formerly a chocolate factory -- Brian Parks' Americana Absurdum featured an ensemble of nine American actors in a frenetic, sometimes splenetic political and social satire on the joys of U.S. capitalism and corporate greed. It has now been replaced by the welcome U.K. premiere of Becky Mode's 1999 Off-Broadway hit Fully Committed, with Mark Setlock -- who himself helped to create some of the characters in the show -- recreating his dazzling tour-de-force performance here as a struggling actor working the phones in a Manhattan restaurant.

At the National Theatre, meanwhile, a stunningly realized contemporary version of the rarely seen Euripides tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, directed by Katie Mitchell, has been newly joined by a new production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the 1962 Broadway musical based on Plautus's ancient Roman sex comedies. This is precisely what the National Theatre is there for: to provide the serious-minded earnestness of the former side-by-side with the musical comedy exhilaration of the latter. As briskly staged by Edward Hall, with choreography by Broadway's Rob Ashford, Forum is once again a sunny, funny, and smart delight.

The cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
At the Old Vic, Trevor Nunn has reinvigorated Hamlet and projected the play into a world of hurtling modernity. In this youthfully cast production, Nunn has the spellbinding 23-year-old newcomer and star-in-the-making Ben Wishaw as a broodingly unstable Hamlet, first spied in a woolly hat and biting on his nails. Later, when he launches into "To be or not to be," he explicitly contemplates suicide as his fingers wrestle with a bottle of pills. Shot through with fresh insight and constant surprises, the production also features a terrific Laertes in Rory Kinnear, wrenched in rage and grief at the death of his father and sister, and Imogen Stubbs as an unusually young and glamorous Gertrude.

Would that Nunn and his real-life wife Stubbs could have brought some of the same sense of drama and urgency to the production he has staged of her first play, We Happy Few, at the Gielgud Theatre. Based on the real-life story of an all-female troupe of traveling players that sought to keep both the spirit of Shakespeare and the country itself alive during the dark days of the World War II, the play sometimes lurches toward the sentimental, especially in a series of second-act revelations. Nunn's production drowns the piece in animating detail but loses sight of the bigger picture of plot. The 14 cast members, including Juliet Stevenson as the leader of the troupe, try to invest the show with truth, dignity, and feeling but are defeated by the play.

Finally, another vanity project -- or maybe just an insanity one -- is Lorna Luft's autobiographical journey through her mother Judy Garland's back catalogue, Songs My Mother Taught Me, which she has brought to the Savoy Theatre for a summer run. As Luft recalls a peripatetic youth (she went to 17 schools in 17 countries before her mother died from "the disease of addiction"), she tries to live up to the legacy of her legendary but troubled mom and assert her own talent in the process. Unfortunately, the show only serves to demonstrate the huge gulf in talent between them. Whereas Garland was brassy and vulnerable, Luft seems merely indomitable. Instead of casting off the shadow of her mother, she has thrown herself even further into the shade by seeking to assume Judy's mantle.

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