FEATURE: Look Left – London Dispatch
With ever-increasing crosspollination between New York and London stages, below is a roundup—in alphabetical order—of my recent visit across the pond, in what I hope to make a regular feature.
“42nd Street” (Revival Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane): Michael Riedel reported last fall that two productions of “42nd Street” are battling for the possibility of a Broadway revival: Drury Lane Theatre (outside Chicago)’s small-scale staging that broke the mold with a diverse cast, re-imagined set, and modern choreography, and London’s big, spectacular, and traditional production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Directed by co-book writer Mark Bramble and choreographed by Gower Champion’s assistant Randy Skinner—the same duo who helmed the 2001 Broadway revival—this “42nd Street” is a glitzy re-staging of the original 1980 musical and 2001 revival, with a cast of 58, lush sets and costumes, and a relentless parade of showstoppers that gave me goosebumps more than once. Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock doesn’t quite possess the diva gravitas the role requires, but Clare Halse and Stuart Neal give star turns as Peggy Sawyer and Billy Lawlor. “42nd Street” might still be stuck in a cycle too wedded to the iconic original, but as far as iconic originals go, this is one I’d see again, and again, and again . . .
“Amadeus” (Revival Play, National Theatre): Peter Shaffer’s landmark masterpiece play “Amadeus” premiered at Great Britain’s Royal National Theatre in 1979 (directed by the late Peter Hall), and went on to become one of the most celebrated and successful plays of the 1980s, transferring to the West End and Broadway for considerable commercial runs—the film adaption by Miloš Forman won the 1985 Oscar for Best Picture. In 2016, the National Theatre staged a revival that freshly re-imagined the work; following a sold-out engagement, the play is now back for an encore run through April, and it is easy to see why. Shaffer’s play remains a vibrant, glorious, and deeply engaging account of the much mythologized relationship between composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the unappreciated genius) and Antonio Salieri (the celebrated mediocrity) in late-18th century Vienna. Stripped of literal baroque trappings, this sharp and clean production is richly infused with Mozart’s music, performed by a 20-piece sinfonia that fills and haunts the stage, and an ensemble with great vocal skill. Lucian Msmati and Adam Gillen return to give wonderful performances as Salieri and Mozart respectively. “Amadeus” last received a revival in New York in 1999, 19 years after its premiere; perhaps another 19 years later, it may be time for this now-classic to return to the boards.
“Cinderella” (Revival Dance Concert, Sadler’s Wells): Over the past 30 years, English Choreographer and Director Matthew Bourne has created 12 accessible and highly cinematic works of narrative and theatrical dance, among them “Nutcracker!” (1992), “Swan Lake” (1995) and “Edward Scissorhands” (2005). “The Red Shoes” (2016) was a highlight of last season in New York (regretfully, and woefully, omitted from my top 10 list). His beloved “Cinderella” (1997) cleverly transposes the classic fairy tale to London during the blitz of 1940-41, the prince becoming a Royal Air Force pilot and the ball a defiant night out at the famous Café de Paris (bombed in 1941). Using Prokofiev’s wonderful ballet score—itself written during World War II—the revival production now at Sadler’s Wells (re-designed to tour) is classic Bourne: smartly and crisply conceptualized, richly evocative in design and movement, and energetically performed by the witty and strong corps de ballet of his company, New Adventures. And, as always, I so appreciate Mr. Bourne’s matter-of-fact interpolation of gay characters into stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if this delightful revival—primed to tour—showed up in New York soon.
“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” (New Musical, Apollo Theatre): I suspect everybody in New York will soon be talking about “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”, a sweet and joyful crowd-pleaser of a new musical that opened on the West End back in November following a regional production at Sheffield Theatres. Inspired by the 2011 BBC documentary “Jamie: Drag Queen At 16” about a teenager from County Durham who came out as gay at age 14 and plans a career as a drag performer but must first conquer the high school prom, “Jamie” the musical went from conception to production under the helm of Jonathan Butterell in just three years, remarkably fast for a new musical—and sometimes it shows. The bones are strong, though, with memorable tunes and a wickedly funny and sweet book. Despite the recently trodden ground of drag queens in musicals, “Jamie” offers a fresh take on the coming out story—the fact of our hero’s homosexuality is secondary to his desire to perform drag—and loads of the uplifting magic that musical comedies are made of. Spotted at intermission: producer Barry Weissler (“Chicago”, “Waitress”), perhaps on the hunt for his next project?
“The Ferryman” (New Play, Gielgud Theatre): I did not see playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth’s splashy “Jerusalem” on Broadway in 2011; that play, much-lauded for the performance of Mark Rylance, was followed by “The River” in 2014, a small effort that I found to be fatuously confusing and banal. His newest play shares a similarly aquatic title, but I am happy to report that the similarities end there. Directed by Sam Mendes, “The Ferryman” is the hottest play in London right now, enjoying a commercial run following a sold-out engagement at the Royal Court Theatre. Ambitiously big, sprawling, magical, and enthralling, “The Ferryman” follows the Carney family on one, eventful harvest day; set in the Irish countryside in 1981 amid the thick of “The Troubles”, the play is inspired by the true story of original cast member Laura Donnelly’s uncle, an IRA member who went missing and was later found dead—one of many such “vanishings” common to the era. Mr. Butterworth uses the story as a prompt to explore the intimate domestic effects of a large sectarian conflict on a large family—three generations under one roof. An Irish play written by an Englishman is sure to draw some controversy, and the absence of a denouement or coda provides an all-too abrupt end to such a massive piece (clocking in at three hours). But all the same, “The Ferryman” is simply ravishing. I hope plans for a New York run are in the works.
“Titus Andronicus” (Revival Play, Barbican Centre): The Royal Shakespeare Company completes its winter quadrilogy of Shakespeare’s “Roman” plays with his first tragedy, “Titus Andronicus” (circa 1588-1593) (the others in the series being “Julius Caesar”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, and “Coriolanus”—anyone else humming “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”?). This fictional bloody revenge cycle—best known for its violent incidents of rape and murder and famous use of cannibalism for the ultimate act of score-settling (body count: 14)—is given a modern production by the RSC that is very much set in 2018. The performers are, as is to be expected, top notch, but the bizarrely comical take on the material by director Blanche McIntyre robs the play of its power and grievous (and grisly) majesty. Hyper-realistic mutilations are performed beside silly sight-gags that wrought a constant stream of laughter throughout a bleak tragedy. “Titus Andronicus” is not Shakespeare’s finest (some even doubt he wrote it), and this production is not RSC’s finest, either.