FEATURE: Look Left – London Dispatch
On my recent trip to London, I caught six shows—a mix of musicals, plays, and dance, both new and in revival. Here’s a roundup “look left”:
“Caroline, or Change” (Revival Musical, Playhouse Theatre): Playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori’s 2004 musical masterpiece is Kushner’s most personal work to date—and his favorite. Rarely performed since its New York premiere and 2006 London debut, director Michael Longhurst revived the show in 2017 for the Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex in a vibrant production that is now playing a commercial run in the West End. “Caroline, or Change”, which is nearly entirely sung, is an intimate musical portrait of Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid working for thirty dollars a week for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963. The plot is simple, but its themes and ideas, in typical Kushner fashion, are endlessly grand, from racism and anti-Semitism to capitalist exploitation and theories of political change. Seeing “Caroline” was the purpose of my visit to London, and I left the theatre both thoroughly moved and theatrically satiated. It is, I submit, the greatest new musical written in the past 20 years, and Sharon D. Clarke, who stars as Caroline, is simply phenomenal. The magic of Kushner and Tesori’s writing is matched by the inventiveness of Longhurst’s production, and the story itself about the pain of progress has never felt more relevant. “Caroline” was underappreciated in 2004, closing on Broadway after only 136 performances; this production deserves a New York transfer.
“A Christmas Carol” (Revival Play, Old Vic): there is a reason Charles Dickens’ seminal Christmas ghost story has endured since it was first published in 1843. “A Christmas Carol” embodies the spirit of the season and is a timeless tale of redemption and self-transformation. Dickens’ novella was first adapted for the stage within a year of its publication, and remains a popular holiday offering. The Old Vic premiered a new adaptation by playwright Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) in 2017, and revives it this year for the 200th anniversary season of the theatre. Under the helm of Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, the action takes place on a t-shaped stage surrounded by the audience, in a production stripped to its bones, allowing for supremacy of story and character. A canopy of lanterns adorns the ceiling, and thrilling lighting and sound design transform the space, setting the proper, eerie atmosphere. Imbued with song and dance, immersive touches, and a finale of falling snow across the auditorium, this magical production manages to make a 175 year old story feel fresh. I was moved to tears several times.
“The Inheritance” (New Play, Nöel Coward Theatre): Matthew Lopez (“The Legend of Georgia McBride”) has written an epic and sweeping new play that has the instant feel of being a modern classic. Inspired by E. M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” (1910), “The Inheritance” borrows loosely the same character plot and story outline, transposing it from Edwardian society to a community of gay men in present day New York, adding a few twists along the way—and the result is nothing short of brilliant. Following a smash debut at The Young Vic last spring, “The Inheritance”—a two part, six act, six hour and 45 minute play—transferred to the West End this fall where it recently won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for best play. After attending a marathon performance of both parts, I can easily see why. Not just because of its length, but certainly owing to it, “The Inheritance” feels like the most important and socially consequential new play I have been privileged to see in my lifetime. Like binge-watching a season of television, I fell in love with every character and didn’t want their story to end. A superb ensemble company directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Jungle”, “The Crown”) made this one of my most unforgettable theatrical experiences. A transfer to New York is inevitable; keep your eyes out for this one as I suspect it will be an event.
“Swan Lake” (Revival Dance, Sadler’s Wells): in 1995, then-little known English Choreographer and Director Matthew Bourne shocked the dance world with his reimagined and revolutionary production of “Swan Lake” in which the iconic corps-de-ballet of swans are played entirely by men. It turns out, there are male swans—a point Bourne made at the time. That “Swan Lake” was an unqualified smash, playing the West End and Broadway, where it picked up three 1999 Tony Awards. Bourne’s gender switch and modern touch infuses an exhilarating new sexual politics into a hundred year old ballet, giving new context for The Prince’s reluctance to settle down with a bride. Some call it the gay “Swan Lake”, but I submit every production using gay composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score is, well, gay. Now in revival at Sadler’s Wells, where it first premiered, Bourne revisits his choreography in an updated production with revised designs by Lez Brotherson (sets and costumes) and Paul Constable (lighting). The ballet brims with Bourne’s signature theatricality and wit, and that famous male corps-de-ballet is simply fierce. With recent tours of his company New Adventures’ “The Red Shoes” and “Cinderella” hitting the U.S., I wouldn’t be surprised if “Swan Lake” does, too.
“TINA: The Tina Turner Musical” (New Musical, Aldwych Theatre): on the heels of Donna Summer and Cher, and not too far removed from Carole King, you may be tempted to groan about yet another pop diva bio-musical, but when it comes to this genre, Tina Turner’s got the last word. She also has the best story to tell—one perfectly primed for musical theatre adaptation. Born into an abusive household in Nutbush, Tennessee (pop. 259); abandoned by her parents; discovered, shaped, and physically abused by Ike Turner; later left penniless and stuck on the Vegas circuit, Tina Turner then staged the greatest comeback in pop music history with 1984’s “Private Dancer”, becoming a global phenomenon in her own right and a sex symbol at the age of 45. “TINA: The Tina Turner Musical”—explicitly presented as a legacy piece—tells this remarkable and improbable story straight, without a framing device, using all of Turner’s hit songs. Adrienne Warren (“Shuffle Along”) stars, but I saw alternate Jenny Fitzpatrick who was excellent, and in the finale concert eerily became Tina Turner. That ending was among the best I’ve ever experienced at a jukebox musical, and this jukebox musical, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”), is among the best of the form. It’s slated for Broadway next fall (likely at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).
“War Horse” (Revival Play, National Theatre): although it ran nearly a decade in London from 2007 to 2015, in honor of the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I—“the war to end all wars”—the Royal National Theatre is currently hosting a triumphant revival of Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris’s acclaimed production of “War Horse” by Michael Murpurgo. Having seen the play on Broadway, where it was a runaway hit winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 2011 and enjoying a lengthy run, I jumped at the chance to see it once again. The play depicts the horror of World War I through the eyes of a horse and his young owner, Albert. The production is known for its inventive use of puppetry and the epic scale of its staging—here faithfully recreated. Both sweet and sad, “War Horse” marks an extraordinary achievement in stagecraft and storytelling, and is a sobering reminder of history and its echoes in the present.