London (June 2017)

London (June 7-15)

  • Lettice and Lovage, 6/7/17 (Wed), Menier
  • Love in Idleness, 6/8/17 (Thurs), West End
  • Half a Sixpence, 6/8/17 (Thurs), West End
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child I & II, 6/11/17 (Sun)
  • Kiss Me, 6/12/17 (Mon), Trafalgar Studios
  • Life of Galileo, 6/13/17 (Tues), West End
  • Tristan and Yseult, 6/14/17 (Wed), Globe
  • The Philanthropist, 6/15/17 (Thurs), Trafalgar Studios
  • Incident at Vichy, 6/15/17 (Thurs), Kings Head Theatre

Lettice and Lovage: Paging Maggie Smith – come back! This is the first major revival of this show, about a hyper-creative tour guide who butts heads with a prim just-the-facts-please official, since the memorable West End production some three decades ago with Maggie and an equally fabulous Margaret Tyzack. Maggie played the role as to the manner born in one of the best stage performances I’ve ever seen; I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn later that the part was actually written for her. I reserved tickets from Tokyo as soon as I heard that the show was being brought back – a good thing, because the entire run quickly sold out.

The new production goes awry in the opening scene, where Lettice is showing the historic home to various groups with increasingly fantastical explanations, crossing the line from guide to entertainer. This interpretation seems to suggest that Lettice is eager to please the restless crowds, while Maggie (as I remember it) suggested that she was mainly pleasing her bored self. The development of the character and story was not as natural here, and it made the key unveiling moment at the end of the first act much less startling than it should have been. All the talk about modern architecture and such is fine, but the characters didn’t seem to click as they should.

That’s not to deny the quality of the acting: Felicity Kendal was a bundle of energy and very funny overall, and Maureen Lipman as the official, Lotte, was the ideal deadpan counterpart. The problem seemed to be the show itself, which was less sharp than I recalled (especially Lotte’s strange actions in Act 3), and the direction, which sagged. It’s still entertaining and a great piece for good actresses, which it certainly has here, but it may need the star power of a Maggie to reach its potential. Which doesn’t say much for the show itself.

Love in Idleness: Wartime drama by Terrance Rattigan directed by Trevor Nunn. When an idealistic left-leaning boy, now 18, comes home after four years of war-imposed exile in Canada, he is surprised to find his widowed mother living in great comfort – and horrified to learn that this is the result of an ongoing affair with the Minister of Tanks, who is conservative, not-yet divorced and, worse, a former businessman. He is further shocked that while the arrangement is being pursued discreetly to the outside world, it is with the full knowledge and evident approval of the soon-to-be-ex wife, who has her own eyes on other prey. He takes on a consciously Hamlet-like pose against the man who has displaced his true father. Proclaiming confidently that capitalism is old hat and that Britain will go full-on socialist after the war (the play debuted in 1944), he forces his mother to leave her posh life of high society and dinner parties and return to a meager, honest existence living with him as he scratches out a career. Trapped, she chooses her son over her lover, and transforms into a middle-aged mother whose main pursuits are cooking meals and doing laundry. Events turn around when the minister, determined to win his lover back, makes the son a business offer he can’t refuse.

This is the epitome of the well-made play structurally speaking, and very entertaining at that. Each of the characters is well drawn and attractive in his/her own way, and if the boy is not quite convincing in his over-the-top leftist twaddle, he is never boring. Still, the battle between the boy and minister, though good fun, seems to be pulling its punches compared to, say, the similar but much sharper comic confrontation in Major Barbara. The boy’s insistent refusal to see the minister and his right-wing principles as anything other than monstrous regardless of the circumstances did remind me of the media’s knee-jerk reaction to certain conservative views at present, but I’m sure that wasn’t what was intended in the production here. Also, I didn’t quite buy the willingness of the woman to sacrifice her lifestyle for a life of drudgery waiting hand and foot on her son.

Nevertheless, the play did convey credibly the affection that the lovers had for each other, and some scenes were priceless, as when the ex-wife, lured to the apartment by the boy, unexpectedly meets her husband and his lover. Rattigan stacks the cards against the boy, making the case too pat. But he does it with verve. The show benefited from excellent performances by Eve Best in both incarnations as upper-class lover and working-class mother, Anthony Head as the minister, and Helen George as the wife. Edward Bluemel was something of a caricature in his overly dramatic portrayal of the boy, though that is written into the part to some extent. The projections of period newsreel footage were effective in setting the background.

The show is apparently Nunn’s re-stitching of the original politically charged piece with a more sedate and commercial version rewritten by the author for the famed Lunt-Fontanne team. I’m curious to read the original dramas, but the result here seems to lean toward the latter, an easy-paced soap opera using politics mainly as a plot device. Still, it’s thoroughly enjoyable for what it is.

Half a Sixpence: The first major revival in more than 50 years of one of the few pure British musicals to score an international success prior to the Lloyd Webber invasion. The story is as usual class-based – a poor shop assistant unexpectedly inherits a fortune and must choose between the upper-class beauty who wants him as a groom and the lower-class sweetheart he’d pledged his heart to in the old days (cutting a sixpence in half and giving it to her as a token of his love). No prizes for guessing how that turns out, but it’s done with great charm. The show has apparently been given a sweeping rewrite by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. I’m not familiar with the original, which was written specifically for Tommy Steele, but the show as presented here feels British to the core in a way that the later mega-musicals never were. The show is silly in a good sense with no pretensions beyond having a rousing good time, and while it won’t win awards for depth, that’s not at all a criticism. It has just enough plot to string the songs along humorously, and just little enough to remain this side of camp.

One minor irritant was the tripe about being true to yourself and such, which reeks of the 21st century. That goes as well for several of the new songs by the George Stiles and Anthony Drewe team (who did the dreary added numbers for Mary Poppins), like the one urging the character to “Believe in Yourself”. Those sound more like modern American psycho-babble than traditional British pluck. That said, the team has come up with one genuine show-stopper, “Pick Out a Simple Tune”, that is in the very best music hall tradition and fits in wonderfully with the material. And all the songs are resolutely in period in musical terms. By the time the show gets to the rousing “Flash, Bang, Wallop” in the big finale, it’s hard not to be won over. The general good cheer triumphs over mediocre material.

The production also gets a major boost from a star-making performance by a young dynamo named Charlie Stemp in the lead role. He is a superb singer, dancer, comedian and even banjo player, but more than that he’s got the kind of effortless charisma that exudes confidence and joy. I hope someone is writing a show for him now; he’s bound for good things. The rest of the cast was fine but hardly mattered.

The show benefited as well from strong choreography by Andrew Wright, who had his cast literally swinging from chandeliers. The musical originally came out in the West End in 1963 or around the same time as Hello, Dolly! appeared on Broadway, and is a similar star vehicle harking back to a more innocent era with a weak book, lots of high-spirited singing and dancing (though the songs are not anywhere near the Dolly level), and no pointed social commentary other than what it takes to get to the next song. This is no classic, but it’s a lovely blast to the past.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II: He’s ba~ack. Just when we thought the Harry Potter story had said all it could possibly say, there’s now a blockbuster show about Harry and the gang as adults trying to manage their own wizard children. Tickets are completely sold out, but I managed to secure one by clicking periodically on the website for a couple of days until one emerged. I was impressed that the seat, presumably a cancellation, was returned to the queue at the normal price of £70 rather than a Broadway-style premium level of nearly ten times that amount.

The show is a densely plotted suspense tale, albeit centered on the squishy concept of (1) the Potter boy trying to establish himself as more than just the famous Harry’s son and (2) Harry learning to let go as a parent and not be so controlling. Yuck. Fortunately the show deals little with this aside from some hackneyed lines here and there, moving swiftly instead from one drama to another, including a real shocker at the end of Part I and good cliff-hangers at each intermission. As the story involves time travel, we get cameos by many of the major characters from the books. It helps to know something about the characters and their relations, but I’d only read the first two books of the seven-part series (along with summaries included in the program booklet) and was basically able to follow what was happening.

The seamless staging and adroit magical sequences do not disappoint, with generous use of evocative lighting, fire, levitation, quick changes and other tricks. The set is largely brought in and out by cast members in smooth sequences. This is very much a kid’s show from start to finish, but the production values are top-class. You have to be impressed by any show that can keep kids rapt for nearly two-and-three-quarter hours for two consecutive performances. I’m sure a 12-year-old will love this.

Kiss Me: A small show in the tiny Trafalgar Theatre by the always interesting Richard Bean. It is 1929, and a 32yo woman is left with few choices after WWI killed off a good part of the male population. She hires a stud from an agency to sire a child. Various rules – no kissing, no personal questions, etc. – lead ultimately to failure. But when he returns to pick up a forgotten tiepin, the relations change. There is lots of talking as the girl tries to hide her embarrassment and justify herself, trying to project toughness as a cigarette-smoking truck driver. The guy is self-conscious about having avoided conscription in the war through his family ties as a sugar producer in Barbados, somehow deemed necessary for the war effort. He reluctantly reveals that he’s fathered 202 children (and slept with over 700 women), characterizing his repopulation efforts as his contribution to the wartime campaign. The show is too short at 70 min to really explore these interesting characters, and the dialogue feels strained at times. But it raises interesting and relevant issues: is it simply selfish that the woman should want a child for herself even knowing the difficulties that lie ahead for a single mother in society? Is the mechanical creation of children legitimate without the loving relationship that typically goes with it? A lighter Bean.

Life of Galileo: A wild take on Brecht’s long-winded piece. People were seated not only all around the stage in this theater-in-the-round presentation but on it as well, lying on mattresses underneath a screen with projections of the solar system and other images, such as a blinking (winking?) eye. Actors in modern dress pop in and out from all around us, and scenes are played out in various spots in and around the circle. It is a dynamic and engaging approach.

Galileo is a restless, pudgy, T-shirted type, far from a matinee idol, who spends much time running around the perimeter rousing the audience. Other actors all play multiple roles. The presentation overwhelms the material in large part, including loud rock music that I could have done without. But the strong central performance by Australian actor Brendan Cowell helps immeasurably, along with solid support from his lab assistant and others. Many of the speeches could be cut since we get the idea long before they’re finished, which could reduce the three-hour show by half an hour. But it certainly isn’t boring. This is one way to enliven a Brecht drama. (There was also a recent Threepenny Opera at the National, and Arturo Ui is playing now at the Donmar. Is there a Brecht anniversary of some kind?)

I noticed that one review likened Galileo to a climate change advocate, but the show seems to me the opposite: it insists on constantly questioning the established view on science and highlights the costs to scientists and society of bowing to political pressure. Galileo wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s atmosphere. In this sense, it’s still a challenging theater piece.

Tristan and Yseult: I hadn’t intended to go back to the Globe during Emma Rice’s reign, since the lighting and sound effects she seems to prefer render that playing space irrelevant. But this was a cult hit from her days at Kneehigh, whose productions I’ve always liked. So here I was again. I was peeved at the start by the cutesy neon sign hanging on the wall proclaiming “The Club of the Unloved” and the electronics instruments in use, suggesting that again they’ve failed to adapt the production to the unique characteristics of the theater. But this show was not written in the first place for such a space (unlike, say, Shakespeare), so I was more forgiving.

The show is a whimsical retelling of the Tristan and Iseult/Isolde story. The king’s nephew Tristan has defeated the enemy and is ordered to bring back the enemy’s sister Yseult for the king. Unfortunately the youngsters drink a love potion that causes them to fall madly for each other. Tristan dutifully passes her to his uncle back in Cornwall, but events take their own course.

Naturally with Kneehigh, the story is less the point than the presentation: an onstage band playing from the third landing, sudden bursts of dancing, a male character miming to a soprano recording, random comic bits, balloons, acrobatics and, most memorably, a giddy aerial routine as the lovers get drunk on the love potion. The music is well chosen, from Wagner (naturally) to jazz standards to 50s American pops to Nick Cave. Some of the material is self-indulgent and unrelated to the story, basically included just for the laugh. But it’s presented so light-heartedly that it was hard to object. In the best moment of the night, the maid is asked to slip into the king’s bed on his wedding night and pretend in the dark to be the bride, who is off sleeping with Tristan. Since that maid is being performed in drag, I assumed the scene would be played farcically, but the excellent Niall Ashdown mines the situation for an unexpected pathos, raising the question of making love versus being loved.

Despite the love between the title characters and the king’s genuine feelings for Iseult (who eventually falls for him as well), the theme here curiously is the unloved, those who are unable to find their mates or experience the passion of the main trio. They are portrayed by a chorus all in head scarves and dorky glasses in a variety of roles, such as birdwatchers observing the lovers from the outside. The female narrator, who had seemed an outsider, springs a surprise late in the show revealing her to be part of that group as well. It seems a rather sour topic for such a playful show, though maybe the lightness is needed to deliver the message. I’m just not quite sure what it’s trying to say.

In any case, the play shows Kneehigh at its considerable strengths. The contemporary look, the lively choreography and the winking tone add to the fun. In addition to Ashdown, Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo were fine as the lovers, and Kyle Lima was a delight as the king’s assistant.

The Philanthropist: I had missed this some years earlier in a widely lauded revival with the peerless Simon Russell Beale. Reviews this time around haven’t been as uniformly positive, but I figured it was a good chance to catch it. I had bought a cheap seat online but was moved into a much better seat when I arrived in the sparsely attended theater.

The show takes the form of a drawing room comedy. After a dramatic opening involving an unfortunate reading by a young playwright, the clueless philologist Philip is having a dinner party at his apartment (a strikingly lavish place, by the way, for a young professor) with his fiancée. The soirée with its posing guests takes place in obliviousness to events in the outside world, where the prime minister and entire Cabinet have been assassinated. The main trouble here is Philip’s utter incapability of taking a stand for fear of offending others while unaware at the same time of how his innocent honest observations violate the normal social niceties. This conversely leads to mayhem: the budding playwright is convinced he’s being mocked (“I like your play, but I don’t know why”) and blows his brains out, his fiancée thinks he’s uninterested (“You don’t have to stay and clean up”) and leaves him, a famous novelist huffs at what he believes is criticism (“I notice you borrow others’ words”), the vamp has her confidence punctured when Philip explains his poor performance in bed (“It’s not you at all; I just don’t find you attractive”) and so forth. For all his desire to please, he pleases no one, his taste for analyzing individual words and making anagrams symbolic of his inability to see the forest for the trees. He comes to regret his “empty life”, and the play threatens to end as violently as it began when Philip removes a gun from the drawer. Then comes a twist.

Simon Bird, a sitcom star in Britain, was very good as the wormy Philip and benefited from getting most of the best lines – “My trouble is, I’m a man of no convictions – at least I think I am” “I haven’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions” and such. He was fine at showing a fear of life, a preference for individual words over deep thought as to what those words imply, though it’s a bit of a mystery what draws the two attractive women to him. He got ample support from Charlotte Ritchie and Lily Cole as his fiancée and seductress, both doing well by their respective frustrating scenes with him. Tom Rosenthal was also solid as Philip’s languid ivory tower colleague. The only one lacking was Matt Berry as the cynical novelist who has had to give up his left-wing views for tax reasons. Though physically right for the role, he seemed underpowered. One unusual feature of this show apparently was that the actors were around the age of their characters, something that is usually avoided with this show due to the skills needed for the complex characterizations. Not having seen other casts, I thought this one did rather well. It would be interesting to see it done with others.

[7/1/17 (Sat): Just a couple of weeks after seeing this show, I was reaching for something from my bookshelf when a theater program fell on my head – it was the program from Russell Beale’s The Philanthropist from 2005! So I guess I did see it after all. Wonder what I thought of it. I don’t whether the lapse in memory says more about me or the play (though I do remember that same night’s Guys and Dolls very well), but it makes me remember why I write these pieces now as soon as I’ve seen a show. What a bizarre coincidence.]

Incident at Vichy: A fascinating rarity from Arthur Miller. A number of men are seen sitting on a bench in a non-descript room in nervous quiet. When one frightened character breaks the uncomfortable silence, we learn that they are waiting for an interrogation, having been rounded up on the street by the Vichy police. No reason has been given for their arrests, though most in this Kafkaesque setup clearly have an inkling: the talkative character had his nose measured before being taken away, a bearded character in unmistakable Jewish dress is brought in, an officer reveals that they will have their penises checked, and rumors have been swelling of Jews being carted off to work camps. Still, there is also a respectable looking businessman and an aristocratic Austrian gentleman among them, allowing the characters to cling expectantly to the hope that this is just a routine document check.

The tension builds as each is called inside one by one, with only some emerging again before the next is summoned. As the group shrinks, one character, noting that there is only a single guard at the door, proposes forming a group to assault him and escape. Others resist. They argue against jumping to conclusions since this is just an interrogation, insisting that they will be released once it’s clear that they have done nothing wrong. The fey thespian dismisses entirely the rumor that Jews are being slaughtered, saying that the Germans would be crazy to kill a good source of cheap labor. He and others refuse to be swayed despite the ominous actions of the French and German authorities who occasionally enter the room. In the end, with only two persons remaining, the Austrian prince, released quickly after his check, takes an action of great personal sacrifice (based reportedly on a real-life incident).

The debate basically comes down to whether the victims should meekly accept their fate on the slim chance that they will be spared or resist in the slim chance that they will succeed. More broadly, it shows how we often prefer to cling to our illusions rather than dare to deal with reality. There were some striking moments, especially the unexpected scattering of the feathers when the police tear the bag from the hands of the mute Old Jew. And the characters themselves aren’t let entirely off the hook. They cast suspicion on a gypsy among them for his ethnicity, and the accusations of one man against the Austrian prince, equating him with the Nazis just for being who he is, seemed unfair though very up to date in the present political atmosphere. Miller unspools information slowly and devastatingly, giving us much to think about.

The set featured a single bench against a stark white wall with glaring lighting, while an unseen cell door could be heard loudly opening and slamming shut whenever a character was called in. The spare Beckett-like design contributed in an extremely effective way to the menacing atmosphere.

The cast was well chosen and precisely directed by Phil Willmott, who adeptly allows the tension to build throughout until the cathartic ending. The characters (speaking in various British accents) seemed taken from central casting – painter, actor, socialist, waiter, doctor, aristocrat, kid – but are all given their moments, which the cast makes the most of. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch, but the standouts were Lawrence Boothman as the high-strung painter, PK Taylor as the prim actor with his naïve conviction that German culture and humanity will save them, and Jeremy Gagan as the quiet but moving Old Jew. The relatively large size (13) of the all-male cast may limit the commercial possibilities of this short play, but this superior production makes a brilliant case for it.

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