A Closer Look at Recent London Shows

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INSIDE THE MUSIC
Donna McKechnie is the American dancer and singer who won a Broadway Tony for the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line, created for her by her then husband, the late Michael Bennett. She was also in the late Bob Fosse's last production of Sweet Charity, and before that she created roles in both Sondheim's Company and the Bacharach Promises, Promises in the West End and on Broadway.

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INSIDE THE MUSIC
Donna McKechnie is the American dancer and singer who won a Broadway Tony for the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line, created for her by her then husband, the late Michael Bennett. She was also in the late Bob Fosse's last production of Sweet Charity, and before that she created roles in both Sondheim's Company and the Bacharach Promises, Promises in the West End and on Broadway. In that sense, though still I would guess in well-preserved middle to late forties, McKechnie is almost the last Broadway star to carry within her the memory of its greatest postwar choreographers. Her life with Bennett was theatrically stupendous and privately so nightmarish that by the time of their divorce she was swearing affidavits to his homosexuality and cocaine abuse, and within all too few years after that he was indeed to die of AIDS.

It would, I suppose, have been ambitious to expect her to reveal any of this in the stunning autobiographical solo she calls Inside the Music after one of the Marvin Hamlisch numbers Bennett cut from Chorus Line, and indeed she does not. Tactfully, she ends her show with the curtain going up on the mirror that dominated Chorus Line, and we may have to wait another few years to hear the story of how that record-breaking masterpiece ended in blood and tears for almost all concerned.

But let's not be greedy: What we do now get from McKechnie is a brilliant account of her life before the Line, written for and with her by the American dramatist and cabaret star Christopher Durang, who has perfectly understood the problem of most cabarets‹all you ever get between the songs is "And then I sang."

Instead, he has created a script of considerable intelligence and wit in which McKechnie can tell the story of the first half of her life through all the songs that she heard or created along the way. Barry Mishon's production is minimal but hugely elegant, and whether McKechnie is recalling the night she finally got to dance with Fred Astaire or the day her parents hauled her into court to stop their young teen-ager already running away to the bright lights of 42nd Street, this is that splendid rarity, a scripted songbook. "Make me alive," McKechnie once sang for Sondheim, "vary my days": and the songwriter has been as good as his words-hers has, indeed, been a varied life and it ain't half over yet.

THE ENTERTAINER

At the Hampstead Theatre there is a stripped-down version of The Entertainer, which sharply challenges all our memories of Laurence Olivier as the original Archie Rice going dead behind the eyes. All Osborne texts could do with a 30-minute cut, and this one also benefits from a quintet of equally strong performances, so we are focused throughout not just on Michael Pennington's wonderfully seedy pier comedian, Ted Ray gone rancid, but also on his wife, father, son and daughter, all of whom were originally inclined to wilt under Olivier's animal magnetism.

This is also, of course, a play about death at Suez, the death of a son and an Empire as well as the vaudeville Empires around which Archie is still trying to carve out a meager living, just as his nation's government was trying in an equally seedy, dismal and defeated a manner to prop up its own imperial life and influence among countries which were no longer willing to applaud or stay in the game.

This is the close-up Entertainer: Where Olivier gave it to us through a magnifying glass, Pennington offers an intimate downsizing, no less moving or bitter for its refusal to climb Larry's mountain of maudlin self-pity. Stephen Rayne's production allows Julian Curry as Archie's dying father, the last twice-nightly nobleman, his place in the footlights as well as that of Jane Wood as the long-suffering wife and mother disappearing into drink and darkness. More than ever does this play now emerge as the provincial English answer to Long Day's Journey Into Night, no less powerful and moving for running now about half O'Neill's length.

FOOL FOR LOVE
At the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, a welcome revival of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love (1983) comes as a sharp reminder of his unique talent to abuse; if David Mamet's is now the voice of urban America in self-destruct mode, then Shepard's is its wild west counterpart, a scream of incestuous rage from the motel rooms of the Mojave desert.

Here we find the half-brother and half-sister (Barry Lynch and Lorraine Ashburn in fine, blazing form) whose affair with each other is watched over from the grave by a bigamous father (Gawn Grainger) as infidelity and raw terror tear them apart. These are people who can live neither together or apart, and at times it seems as though Shepard is intent on a vicious parody of the small-town American dreams that run from Thornton Wilder all the way to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Those dreams of improvement or escape are here turned into nightmares of closet intensity; Shepard is writing an elegy for the old West, which looks as though the movies of John Ford and John Wayne have been remade by an unholy combination of Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino.

There are no happy endings here, just a couple in meltdown tearing each other to pieces across Robin Don's perfectly seedy motel room and Ian Brown's brilliantly bleak production. These are the Misfits that the Arthur Miller/Elia Kazan movie never got quite right. It has taken another 30 years to bring them into their true dramatic perspective, and now at last we are ready and waiting for them in all their terrible, mythic majesty.

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