We’ve just returned from our semiannual theater trip to London. It’s not as if there weren't enough performing arts opportunities here in Manhattan, especially considering that we live only a few blocks from Broadway and Lincoln Center. Nonetheless, there’s something weirdly compelling about flying across the ocean, holing up in a hotel for eight days, and cramming in nine performances.
The good news about our recent trip is that five of the nine shows were must-sees and only two were outright disappointments. Here’s the play-by-play summary:
All My Sons: I had long considered Arthur (“Death of a Salesman”) Miller to be a one-hit playwright. I was wrong. Until this year I had never seen first-class productions of either “A View from the Bridge “ (produced earlier this year on Broadway) or “All My Sons” (now playing on the West End). The latter production, originally mounted in New York in 1947 by Elia Kazan, opened recently in London, with masterful performances by David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker in the lead roles.
The London critics could not contain their adulation, and in this case, they were right: “time to bring out the superlatives…tremendous acting” (the Guardian), “potent” (Evening Standard), “extraordinary… stunning… will never forget” (Telegraph), “gripping” (The Stage), “splendid” (Independent), “excellent” (Times). As the Michelin Guide might say, “All My Sons” is worth a special detour. Love, loyalty, guilt, greed – it’s got it all.
The Late Middle Classes: Simon Gray, British playwright (“Otherwise Engaged,” “Butley”), died two years ago without having seen his 1999 play reach the West End. Set in England just after the end of World War II, the play deals with (a lot of) relationships -- husband-and-wife, parents and son, son and music teacher, music teacher and his mother, adulteries, and with ambiguities informing all these relationships.
First-rate acting by all (especially Helen McCrory and Eleanor Bron). Another example of the seemingly never-ending stream of great productions coming out of the tiny (250-seat) not-for-profit Donmar Warehouse.
London Assurance: Farce as only the English can do it, especially when directed by the artistic director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. It was written by a prolific (over 200 works) 19th century Irish-born British playwright, Dion Boucicault, when he was just 20 years old. This rollicking production, first performed in 1841, is currently the hottest ticket in London.
A large part of the play’s success is due to Simon Russell Beale, one of the finest actors on the stage today. His performance in “London Assurance” is among the great comic turns ever. And Fiona Shaw, another bastion of the British Stage, stays right with him. One doesn’t stop smiling or laughing throughout. A treat.
After the Dance: Another National Theatre revival, this play takes place in England in the years just before World War II as the European political situation is deteriorating rapidly. Despite the imminence of war, within a stratum of society the dancing and drinking goes on unabated.
Terence Rattigan wrote the play. It holds its own with some of his better-known successes, including “The Browning Version,” “Separate Tables,” and “The Winslow Boy.”
Sweet Charity: In 1966, this musical comedy opened in New York starring Gwen Verdon, and with her husband, Bob Fosse, directing. It was a big hit then, but two subsequent Broadway revivals failed to make it. The current revival in London’s West End, which was incubated at The Menier Chocolate Factory, includes the key ingredient that prior revivals lacked -- a first-class singer/dancer/actress playing the title role of Charity Hope Valentine.
British actress Tamzin Outhwaite gives the kind of performance that has star written all over it. The songs by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) include two blockbuster numbers: “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Great dancing, terrific supporting cast and well directed – enough to overcome a rather weak Neil Simon book. And it’s one of the few musical comedies you’ll ever see that ends on a downer -- the gal actually doesn’t get the guy.
ONLY IF YOU HAVE THE TIME
Women Beware Women: Two of the major dramatists of the 17th century were Thomas Middleton and what’s-his-name from Stratford-on-Avon. “Women Beware Women” exemplifies why Middleton is less remembered than Shakespeare and why he is revived far less often. The plot is typical 17th-century -- seductions, infidelities, duels, and endless machinations. The entire cast performs at a very high level, typical of National Theatre productions, but one stands out -- the great British actress, Harriet Walter.
Some peeves: A 1621 production performed in modern dress -- why? A 1621 production accompanied by contemporary music -- why? And a 1621 production with an over-the-top and endless Fellini-esque ending -- why? Not a great evening, not a terrible evening–it’s just that there are more rewarding ways in the theatre to spend three hours.
Billy Budd: An opera by the quintessential British composer, Benjamin Britten, and based on the Herman Melville story of a doomed seafarer. The production at the Glyndebourne Festival was first class -- performances, sets, and direction (by the Donmar Warehouse artistic director, Michael Grandage, in his maiden opera engagement). But it wasn’t a great experience for us. Here’s why.
We’re spoiled by our proximity to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York -- 225 high-quality performances each season of 25 operas and located just three blocks from our apartment. To attend the Glyndebourne Festival Opera -- everyone tells us you must go to Glyndebourne -- is not easy. It means leaving your London hotel in the early afternoon for a two-hour car or train ride to make a late-afternoon curtain. It means dressing up in black tie. (You will be elegant!)
One of the purported rewards of this extended excursion is that on arriving at Glyndebourne, you can enjoy tea (or something stronger) on the elegant lawns and have a dinner picnic between acts. Except, when it’s chilly and rainy, as it was on our visit, you bundle up and seek shelter. And you eat a multiple-course dinner during the interval that's served in 60 minutes flat. Not so elegant after all. And you get back to the hotel at midnight, ten hours after you set forth. Long day, modest reward.
Should we ever get the hankering to go back to Glyndebourne, I’ll immediately get out the Victrola and play Stephen Sondheim’s cabaret song, “I Never Do Anything Twice.”
Incidentally, if you ever get the urge for a Benjamin Britten tragic opera about the sea, pass on Billy Budd and instead go see Peter Grimes – better opera, better score. And should you ever think about going to Glyndebourne, insist on a fair-weather guaranty.
WATCH A CRICKET MATCH INSTEAD
Macbeth: We used to love to go to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London when Mark Rylance was artistic director and often the lead performer. Since Rylance left the Globe a few years ago, it hasn’t been the same. The physical charm is still there in the theater’s resemblance to the original Globe, but judging by the production of Macbeth that we saw recently, I would much prefer seeing Shakespeare performed elsewhere.
One problem: The director of this production, Lucy Bailey, is not content to let Shakespeare’s words speak for themselves. Example: While these murderous lines are being spoken:
Lady Macbeth “I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me,
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
Macbeth “If we should fail…”
Lady Macbeth “We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.”
As these dramatic lines are being spoken, their impact is being completely emasculated by a dozen other members of the cast who are singing, humming, playing musical instruments, and otherwise dissipating entirely the power of the words.
Note to Lucy, the director: it’s not about you. It’s about Shakespeare.
Enron: We had tickets to see “Enron” in New York, but after receiving a lukewarm review from The New York Times, the show closed before we had a chance to see it. Luckily (we thought), we’ll see it in London where it originated and was still playing. The London production had received absolutely rave reviews from all the critics (“dazzling production… thumping good plot… highly theatrical… enormously enjoyable”). Guess what? The New York Times was right and the London critics were dead wrong. It was a stinker.
“Enron” the play is not dissimilar to Enron the company – a façade.
Coming soon -- “BP, The Musical”?