Take Me Out to the West End
Homegrown plays, American works, and one Bollywood extravaganza highlight the current London line-up.
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.
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.
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?")
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.