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Take Me Out to the West End

Homegrown plays, American works, and one Bollywood extravaganza highlight the current London line-up. logo
The earlier part of the summer saw such stars as Gwyneth Paltrow (morose in Proof), Madonna (vacuous in Up for Grabs), and Matt Damon (as eager as a puppy in This Is Our Youth) dominating the West End and the newspaper headlines, and London has continued to attract star plays and players from America. The latest to arrive are Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan in On an Average Day, which is only an average play, at the Comedy Theatre. Off-Off Broadway writer John Kolvenbach, who has been prematurely propelled into the West End headlights, provides a duet for two actors to show their acting chops, and as these two do -- playing brothers reunited after a 23 year gap -- there's something to watch, even if the result emerges as an inferior, re-heated version of Sam Shepard's True West.

Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, staged by Joe Mantello at the Donmar Warehouse with an all-American cast that is now taking it onto New York's Public Theater, proved more meaty, and not just in the extensive periods of onstage male nudity. If anything, Greenberg bites off more than he can comfortably chew in this baseball drama, which is both a paean to the sport (a metaphor for hope in a democratic society) and about the pain of prejudice and friendships. But as rivetingly played by a stunning ensemble cast including Daniel Sunjata as a black baseball player who comes out as gay, Neal Huff and Frederick Weller as two members of the team who alternately offer support and hostility, and Denis O'Hare as a financial adviser, the production is pitch-perfect even if the play doesn't always score a home run.

British actor Henry Goodman suffered a setback when he was fired from his role as Nathan Lane's successor in The Producers on Broadway, but he's back on the musical stage here in a new production of Sondheim and Goldman's 1971 musical Follies that has a month-long residency at the Royal Festival Hall (through Aug 31). The first time this show reached London in 1987, some 16 years after its original Broadway outing, it was heavily diluted; songs were lost and new ones interpolated. It was duly re-dubbed "Hello, Follies!" in some quarters, in reference to its endless series of stars making grand entrances down staircases in the manner of Dolly Levi. It's always difficult to reconcile this show's remarkable, opposing worlds of camp celebration (the surface glitter of its nostalgic recreations) and intense despair (as we watch the brittle anguish of its leading characters confronting the mess of their lives). While British director Matthew Warchus brilliantly focused on the show's icy darkness in last year's brittle Broadway revival, here director Paul Kerryson adopts a less psychologically acute approach. His production does, however, afford London the opportunity to hear the original score restored, though the show is mostly poorly cast. Exeptions: the appropriately manic Goodman as Buddy, and Kathryn Evans as Sally.

Stephen Dillane and Douglas Henshall in
The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
At the National Theatre next door, the entire summer repertoire is currently devoted to new work. The biggest production of these, of course, is The Coast of Utopia, a mammoth trilogy of separate but sequential new plays by Tom Stoppard that has just premiered in the largest Olivier auditorium. On selected Saturdays, it is possible to watch the entire trilogy in a day that begins at 11am and doesn't end until nearly 12 hours later (there are a couple of 75 minute meal breaks, plus the usual 20 minute intervals). It is undeniably exhausting to experience this typically Stoppardian torrent of words and ideas, but also bracing and ambitious to watch a series of plays that focuses on something comparatively obscure -- the development of 19th-century Russian revolutionary thought -- in such an epic way. Thirty cast members animate 70 characters and, in Trevor Nunn's stunning production, designer William Dudley whisks us across continents and 30-something years in the blink of a cycloramic video screen.

Meanwhile, the National's smallest house, the Cottesloe, has been home to two of the best new plays in town. Vincent in Brixton (now deservedly transferred to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre) is a beautifully imagined play by Nicholas Wright based on the real-life fact that the young Vincent van Gogh spent a few years in London before he became an artist. Beautifully directed by former NT artistic director Richard Eyre, the play boasts a pair of stunning performances from young Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf -- the spit and image of van Gogh as we know him from his own self-portraits -- and the amazing Clare Higgins as the landlady of his boarding house, whom Vincent first woos, then wounds.

Also in the Cottesloe, Bryony Lavery's Frozen is a chilling, gripping story of a woman who's 10-year-old daughter disappears one day on a visit to her grandmother's; five years later, it's confirmed that the child was the victim of a serial murderer. In this harrowing play, Anita Dobson plays the mother with fierce emotional commitment and control, and there's no more extraordinary scene on the London stage than the one where she visits her daughter's killer (Tom Georgeson, also brilliant) in prison and, in forgiving him, sets herself free but also forces him to finally take responsibility for what he did.

Altogether less successful, however, has been the initiative to temporarily transform the Lyttelton Theatre into a more compact (and far more uncomfortable) experimental space and attach a small studio theater to it as well in the upstairs foyer. Both theaters have hosted extremely short runs of 13 new works, but not one has yet had an impact. Even the collaboration of director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw didn't make their adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's The Powerbook into the powerful event expected. One night, ironically, the electrical power went off and the show had to be cut short; but it was underpowered even on nights when the play was seen in full.
Marcello Magni and Matt Costain in The Birds
(Photo: Stephen Vaughan)
Though trapezes and trampolines are currently on hand at the Lyttelton in an attempt to make Aristophanes's ancient Greek political comedy The Birds take flight, the result remains stubbornly earthbound. The members of an adventurous and agile circus company called Mamaloucos played the aerial creatures entertainingly, though Pez and Eck -- the two lead characters who, in flight from political crisis in Athens, seek to establish a utopia instead among the bird kingdom -- proved to be inadequate narrators of their journey: I didn't know what the 'eck was going on. But the season isn't over yet. Still to come: Play Without Words, the latest from the award-winning director/choreographer Matthew Bourne (Swan Lake), which runs August 20-September 14.

Far more bracing than any of the work in the Lyttelton is The Lieutenant of Inishmore, originally rejected by both the Royal Court (which had discovered its playwright, Martin McDonagh) and the National before being picked up by the RSC. (That production has now transferred to the Garrick.) When INLA terrorist Padraic (Peter McDonald) and girlfriend Mairead (Elaine Cassidy, who starred opposite Nicole Kidman in The Others) find that their beloved cats, Wee Thomas and Sir Roger, have come to harm, the discovery unleashes torrents of mayhem and murder never before equalled on a West End stage. No one likes this brutal comedy more than McDonagh himself, who, asked by The Observer to name the best plays of last year, chose this one "because it's the only play that counted". (Asked to name a turkey, he proceeded to bite the hand that fed him by declaring that the low points of the year were "every other stupid empty f***ing play the RSC did in 2001, and I had to f***ing watch 'em!") The Lieutenant of Inishmore, like the man who wrote it, is scabrous and funny and joyfully ambivalent, somehow deadly serious without taking itself too seriously. A comedy about terrorism and a critique of violence that is itself remorselessly violent, it's packed with paradoxes.

Receiving a fringe run at the tiny Finborough Theatre (above a pub in Earl's Court) but deserving of far wider exposure is the belated London premiere of Larry Kramer's The Destiny of Me, the 1992 sequel to his groundbreaking The Normal Heart. In this heavily autobiographical play, Kramer's alter ego, Ned Weeks -- seen tending his dying lover Felix in the earlier play -- now himself has the virus; but the play confronts an even more painful, wounding legacy, that of his relationship to his parents. Cast as a classic memory play, with Kramer's younger self confronting his current self and enacting scenes from his teenage years, this big, brave play about a big, brave man is given full justice in this staging; the cast includes the West End and Broadway star Kevin Colson (Aspects of Love) as Ned's tyrannical father and also features a standout performance from Amanda Boxer as Ned's mother.

More lighthearted gay fare is offered at Soho Theatre, as New York's Kiki and Herb present a jolting late night cabaret that is the antidote to bad London pub drag. This is a startlingly original lounge act from hell. Kiki -- a disturbed and disturbing creature who looks like Joan Crawford after a bad night, sounds like Lou Reed on drugs, and has the personal charm of a venomous Lauren Bacall -- belts out a repertoire that includes Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and David Bowie. (None of your standard-issue show tunes here!) The sweetly eager Herb, who accompanies her on piano, is so camp that he makes Liberace seem butch. In between, Kiki makes some trenchant observations on all manner of subjects, including the current state of U.S. politics. ("How come we are fighting a war for freedom and democracy when we didn't even elect our own President?")

Bombay Dreams
Finally, the currently parlous state of the West End musical gets a refreshing and much needed blast of fresh Indian air at the Apollo Victoria from Bombay Dreams, which Andrew Lloyd Webber has produced but not written. Just when the modern musical seemed lost to pop compilations or endless adaptations of movies, here's a show that combines both of those strands but is in fact a completely original piece. It's a part-pastiche but all-panache stage version of the kind of corny, romantic movie musicals that regularly emanate from Bollywood, as the world's largest film industry based in the Indian sub-continent is called. The show lifts the lid off of the personalities and politics of some of its filmmakers and stars while simultaneously presenting lavishly staged, Bollywood-style numbers.

Many members of the creative team and cast have actively participated in Bollywood; not least among them is an extraordinarily fertile melodist, A.R. Rahman, whom producer Lloyd Webber has put into the composer's chair that he normally occupies himself. Though Rahman is largely unknown in the West, at home he has scored the soundtracks to some 50 Bollywood films, the CD recordings of which have notched up sales in excess of 100 million copies -- as much as Madonna and Britney Spears combined! Also from Bollywood, choreographer Farah Khan (working alongside British stalwart Anthony van Laast) has provided the exhilarating dances that accompany such showstopping songs as "Shakalaka Baby" and "Salaam Bombay". British comedy actress and writer Myra Syal has contributed the cornily apt story, Mark Thompson the evocative sets. Director Steven Pimlott marshals the massive (and massively attractive) ensemble cast. As Akaash, the Bombay slum dweller who becomes a movie star, leading man Raza Jaffrey is a major discovery who may himself achieve such stardom.

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