LONDON THEATRE DIARY Feb 2 – 9
Coincidentally, a glorious week of theatre - Saturday evening to the next Saturday evening - was bookended with two tales of women overcoming childhoods of impoverishment and loneliness, although the treatments couldn’t be more different. The first, at the splendid, new Bridge Theatre in Southwark near the southern foot of London Bridge, featured the magnificent Laura Linney reprising, from last summer, her astonishing one woman drama MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. The last theatre of the week was the amazing Adrienne Warren burning down the house at the Aldwych in the title role in TINA, the biomusical on rock diva Tina Turner.
Laura Linney in MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON Saturday Feb 2 Commanding an open, thrust stage in an acoustically-perfect, tiered auditorium for a mesmerizing 80 minutes, Laura plays both daughter of dirt-poor, unloving family from the Midwest and her cold, distant mother. Based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel and brilliantly adapted by Rona Munro, LUCY BARTON is perfect for Laura and Laura perfect as Lucy. Underneath the steely, determined exterior Laura can assume, there’s a sensitive, reflective interior. Laura’s pacing is remarkable: she takes us on an emotional roller coaster. LUCY BARTON bares warts and all, and in the end is a powerful testament to survival, and how the individual accommodates the cost. Laura’s LUCY brought me to tears, and few plays or performances do. I was puzzled why. The answer – mothers. We all got one.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Sunday Feb 3 As a rule, most West End theatres are dark on Sundays and I hadn’t planned on seeing the sold-out revival of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at the Meier Chocolate Factory on the South Bank. It’s not one of my favorite musicals but the Menier, a small, subterranean performance space in the bowels of an old candy factory (about 200 seats) is my favorite London venue for musicals, having seen marvelous productions of ASSASSINS and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG on past visits. By chance a pair of returns (cancellations) became available. Director Trevor Nunn has transformed the space, into a tiny shtetl, with a few rows of tiered seating on three sides. It’s a beautiful production. I had seen the original back in the early 70s, and the most recent Broadway revival with Danny Burstein, which left me cold, but the intimacy of Nunn’s production made me look at Joseph Stein’s book anew. Or perhaps it’s the heightened contemporary awareness of how international political and cultural change causes personal crisis and family dislocation…. whatever, this FIDDLER moved me. Nunn’s stage movement in the close quarters with a cast of twenty was breathtaking, particularly the recreation of Jerome Robin’s original choreography for “To Life” and “The Wedding Bottle Dance”. Otherwise the new choreography by Matt Cole fit in seamlessly. Tevye and most of the cast were either British or Irish and it bemused me to hear their Yiddish accented with a brogue here and there. American Judy Kuhn, as Tevye’s wife Golda, didn’t have the problem. This FIDDLER like many Menier productions is transferring to the West End’s Playhouse, which is being reconfigured to extend the action beyond the proscenium, , but I’m not sure the mis-en-scene will be the same, so I was lucky to catch it at the Menier.
COMPANY Monday Feb 4 COMPANY at the Gielgud was at the top of my London theatre list, as it is my sentimental Sondheim favorite: I’ve seen every production since the original in 1971, including its West End transfer and every revival since, and was most eager to see Bobby transformed to Bobbie. Unfortunately, Rosalie Craig, director Marion (WARHORSE, CURIOUS INCIDENT) Elliott’s one-and-only choice to play the female Bobbie was out sick. The understudy Jennifer Saayeng performed admirably but pretty much went through the motions, delivering the songs. The Tick Tock number was cut. (Returning to see Craig to and appreciate the full import of Elliott’s reconception was a challenge. I learned through the grapevine that on the Tuesday evening performance, Craig completed the first act but was replaced by the understudy in the second. At the Thursday evening performance, the understudy herself left the stage in the middle of Act 1 due to sickness. Patti Lupone, who plays the acerbic Joanne, came on stage, made the cancellation announcement, told some jokes and sang acapella, "A Hundred Years from Today” which she sang at her curtain call of the final performance of Sunset Boulevard. (The song is her “party piece”: when she's at a public event and people ask her to sing, this is the song she does so she doesn’t have to sing one of her signature pieces like "Don’t Cry For Me".) What a trooper!
ALL ABOUT EVE - Tuesday Feb 5 At the Noel Coward, I saw the third preview performance of ALL ABOUT EVE, the much-anticipated stage version by director Ivo van Hove. ALL ABOUT EVE is, hands down, my favorite film of all time: I can recite entire runs of dialogue by heart, and van Hove’s adaptation replicates exactly much of the dialogue in Joseph Mankiewicz’s script, arguably the best screenplay ever written. Sadly, under Ivo van Hove’s, auteur direction all the snap-crackle-pop of Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay gets turned it to a bowl of soggy Rice Crispies. Van Hove’s signature production techniques - live action video (used in THE DAMNED and NETWORK) and electronic hum underscore (integral to the drama in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE) here present as formulaic, heavy handed at best. Von Hove projects aging diva Margo Channing’s face looking into her dressing room mirror onto a wide screen above the plain backdrop of the scene. Later it’s Eve, then Phoebe. We get the idea of narcissism in celebrity, but the effect, as in NETWORK, is distracting: Where’s the drama? Shouldn’t it be character-based, not technically-driven?
Van Hove’s not reimagining ALL ABOUT EVE. He’s telling the same story, but his auteur style overwhelms it. Pity Gillian Anderson as Margo. She can’t imitate Bette Davis and ruled by van Hove’s hand what is she to do? She settles for laconic, a la her Blanch de Bois: The effect is soporific. Lily James is OK as Eve, better as bitch Eve than naïf Eve. The burly Stanley Townsend is totally miscast as critic Addison de Witt: He has all the urbanity of a Mafia goon lawyer. The only one who rises above it all is Monica Dolan, as Margo’s best friend Karen Richards, whose screw this, balls-up approach to the material has consistent vitality. Van Hove makes two novel contributions to the story. One is a long and unnecessary performance by Margo, alone at piano (in the fasten-your-seatbelts cocktail party scene) of a woeful ballad called “The Sandman and the Moth”. The other - and the single legitimate dramatic expansion of Mankiewicz’s script - is taking the video into the shower with Eve as Addison quizzes her from the dressing room about her background, so that we see that Eve knows he’s on to her.
But why ALL ABOUT EVE on stage to begin with? It seems like it’s more an exercise in what will van Hove do with it. (Get ready for his WEST SIDE STORY). In these social media driven times, I suppose Ivo’s take could be seen as a contemplation on celebrity, but at its core it’s about power, how it’s won and lost. Irony - and a sophisticated self-deprecation about the frailties of theatre personalities - underpins Mankiewicz’s tale, but there’s not a smidgeon of irony here except for an instant at the very end (no spoiler here… plus I learned that van Hove was changing the ending nightly during previews.) ALL ABOUT EVE was better left alone as movie classic. I, for one, prefer van Hove’s reinterpretation of stage classics, like his ingenious A VIEW FORM THE BRIDGE, his haunting THE CRUCIBLE and his startling HEDDA GABLER.
This production isn’t all about Eve. It’s all about Ivo. Yes, “that’s what I said, bub.” (With apologies to Joe Mankiewicz).
THE PRICE – Wednesday Feb 6 matinee Arthur Miller’s THE PRICE is in a splendid revival at the Wyndham, with a superb cast of e Brendan Coyle, David Sachet, Sara Stewart and Adrian Lukis. I’d seen the last Broadway revival with the miscast Danny DeVito playing Gregory Solomon, the aged antiquarian appraiser. Here he’s played by David Sachet, who came to US audiences as Poirot in the Agatha Christie ITV series decades ago. I’d last seen him on stage in London several summers back in a dreadful production of LONG DAY”S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT with Laurie Metcalf. He’s the consummate actor but I can’t help always being aware of his technical cogs turning when I watch him perform. Here, however, he’s perfectly balanced with impeccable performances by Brendan Coyle and Adrian Lukis, as two estranged brothers, a NYC cop nearing retirement on limited pension, the other a rich, successful surgeon. The price of the father’s chattel is metaphor for the costs of life choices, and Miller’s beautifully crafted script – 50 years old this year – seems more relevant than ever. Miller not only reveals the emotional and psychological prices the brothers have made but also, as die-hard liberal (socialist? Commie, too?) observes, with political acumen the perennial struggle between the intellectual (capitalism) and the emotional responsibility (socialism), through the brother’s psychological conflict. Coyle is wonderful, but kudos to Lukis who as doctor brother has to make credible complicated revelations in short order. Sara Stewart as the policeman’s frustrated wife is super, too. I remember very little of the DeVito version. Directed, sensitively but without sentiment, by Jonathan Church, this PRICE is staying with me.
EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE – Wednesday Feb 6 evening For some musical comedy relief, EVERYBODY”S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE, in its second casting, is at the Apolllo. Based on a true story about a mixed-race, high school drag queen in a working class city in northern England, it plows similar ground as the American-produced KINKY BOOTS, which I found more entertaining. Still, it’s a powerful coming of age tale wrapped in tolerance. The kids are lovable, the hip hop-oriented dance fun, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a Muslim fag hag (the character’s own term, NOT mine) on stage. The songs are OK, the best one “He’s My Boy” a beautiful ballad powerfully delivered by Rebecca McInnis as Jamie’s mum.
PINTER SEVEN – Thursday Feb 7 matinee No trip to London seems complete without “a matinee, a Pinter play”. (With apologies to Sondheim). Director Jamie Lloyd has produced at the Pinter Theatre, Pinter Seven, a series of seven programs of seldom-seen Pinter one acts. The pairing of two, two handers - Pinter’s early, 1957 dark comedy THE DUMB WAITER and a 1958 radio play called A SLIGHT ACHE - is as good as pure English theatre gets. WAITER posits two hit men stranded in a concrete, subterranean space visited occasionally by messages down to them via a dumb waiter as they await directions for their next kill. Danny Dyer (no w), a Pinter protégée, and Martin Freeman are the hapless pair. Their performances are so impeccably timed, one loses sense of time, so that the surprise ending comes as, well, a real surprise. A SLIGHT ACHE begins as a radio play of silly conversation between a middle age couple about the plantings around their country house and devolves into a harrowing contemplation of the disintegration of a marriage. Gamma Whelan and John Hefferman are superb but the real star is director Jamie Lloyd who, in taking the action from studio to “real life” on a fixed set, gives a master class in directing. A perfect afternoon of British theatre the way only the British can do it.
HAMILTON – Friday Feb 8 I hadn’t seemed HAMILTON since its first week of preview performances at The Public Theatre in January 2015 months before its Broadway opening and it becoming the international phenom it is. Cameron Mackintosh, producer extraordinaire and British producer here, refurbished the old, grand vaudeville hall, The Victoria Palace, to new splendor for HAMILTON. The production is perfectly rationalized to the final Broadway production: every prop, every note, every word as expertly crafted to the original - with a precise eye to casting. The star here is HAMILTON played by Jamaal Westman, a tall, thin, sexy drink of water, with white Irish mother and black Jamaican father, with a relatively little professional stage experience. (Rumor has it he declined to audition for the title role when recruited because he couldn’t sing. Well, he can.)
The show here in London was remarkable to this American for two reasons: one, the audience was decidedly, almost uniformly, white (in contrast to the Black, Latin or mixed audiences in NY) and two, expressionless. The English applauded numbers enthusiastically, but there was no physical reaction to the hip hop. (I couldn’t sit still). And, though they are hearing rap with an American accent, they didn’t seem to register a lot of the wordplay. Still, there was a scattering of audible assent to the line “immigrants get things done”. And credit the Brits who embraced their goofy George III with hearty humor. Jason Penacook, who’s been in loads of West End musical comedy, hams it up as Lafayette (Act 1) and Jefferson (Act 2) but nothing matches Daveed Diggs original take on the roles. HAMILTON is exhilarating, a legitimate placeholder among watershed American musicals like OKLAHOMA! and CHORUS LINE. Seeing HAMILTON at London’s Victoria Palace made me feel proud to be an American.
COMPANY – Saturday February 9 matinee I learned that star Rosalie Craig returned in fine fiddle Friday evening, so I nabbed a ticket to the Saturday matinee so I could see COMPANY right. Director Elliott’s adaptation of the Peter Pan bachelor to the careerist, times-running-out bachelorette is inspired. With all due respect to writer George Furth, Elliot’s COMPANY is more coherent than Furth’s original book. COMPANY evolved from a series of sketches about married couples. In Elliot’s version the character of Bobbie is fully integrated into book and song. Gone is that feeling of a series-of-sketches veneer that informs some under-skilled productions. Elliott has switched gender roles so that the trio of boyfriends in “You Can Drive a Person Crazy” is an English hipster, a dumb, corn-fed Midwestern flight attendant, and a nerdy, guy-next-door geek. The setting is now, not 1969. The answering machine is replaced with Iphone. Bobbie’s four coupled friends are now three hetero and one homo, with Jamie (played by Jonathan Bailey best known to US audiences as the cub reporter in Season 1 of “Broadchurch”), not Amy, delivering the hilariously neurotic “I’m Not Getting Married Today.” Sondheim changed song lyrics to reflect the changed gender roles and eliminate cultural anachronisms. Elliot’s version is completely re-orchestrated (no more busy signal motif) and numbers re-conceived. The homage to the chorus line in the original “Side by Side” is brilliantly replaced by Bobbie’s “crazy, married friends” carrying on at a kid’s birthday party - pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, musical chairs (guess who‘s chair-less, falling flat-ass to the floor?) and beer pong. The most innovative segment is “Barcelona”; Richard Fleeshman’s flight attendant physique makes this Andy (not April) the sex object indeed. It's immediately followed by “Tick Tock” in which Bobbie has a nightmare of several of her selves living a life of domestic dread. “Ladies Who Lunch”, the exemplar 11 o’clock number, in the hands of Patti Lupone, combined with dialogue that comes before and after the song itself, is a masterclass in singing and acting both. With notable American producers (Bob Boyett among them) behind this COMPANY, this is doubtlessly Broadway-bound. Patti is draw enough, but Craig’s’ the perfect Bobbie. If not she, I wonder who the American actor will be who can do it as well as Craig?
TINA – Saturday February 9 evening TINA at the Aldwych didn’t offer the urbane polish of Sondheim or the genius of Lin Manuel Miranda, but Adrienne Warren’s performance was jaw-dropping. The book by Katori Hall (assisted by Frank Ketelaar and Keeps Prints) is, by definition, commercially-driven compared to her headier fare like THE MOUNTAINTOP or OUR LADY OF KIBEHO, but its straightforward narrative structure is in blessed relief to the three-actor approaches of the hackneyed SUMMER and THE CHER SHOW. TINA is populated with almost two dozen songs, including all of Tina’s greatest hits. Hall incorporates them with some deftness. Phyllida Lloyd’s direction gets wobbly on the book parts, but adrenalized perfectly for the musical numbers. Adrienne Warren, last seen on Broadway in SHUFFLE LONG (for which she was nominated for a Tony) is Tina perfect, in shape and voice. It’s a wonder how she trained for the physically demanding part: Each performance is a workout. The last number, then finale topped by two more crowd pleasing finales amounts to the most energetic 17-minute rock concert I’ve ever seen on stage. Warren remains energized till the last exit stage right where she gives one final high kick (nearly to forehead.)
Warren’s performance reminded me of seeing (the real) Ike and Tina Turner as opening act for the Grateful Dead (what a pairing!) in the old gym at Georgetown my freshman year in September 1970. We're all getting old but Tina is forever young. The reason to see TINA is Adrienne Warren. I’m glad I saw her, but I don’t need to see TINA again when it comes to New York in the fall. COMPANY on the other hand…….