A LETTER FROM LONDON: A Fresh Look at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: A Fresh Look at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love
 
In this month's column spotlighting London theatre — and its people, venues, trends and productions — Ruth Leon writes about Menier Chocolate Factory's reconsideration of Aspects of Love.

Katherine Kingsley and Michael Arden
Katherine Kingsley and Michael Arden Photo by Catherine Ashmore

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Get ready, New York. The Menier Chocolate Factory, the little theatre that could, which has already transferred to Broadway Sunday in the Park With George, La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music, has a new hit worthy of export.

In 1988, after a very good lunch, Andrew Lloyd Webber played for my husband and me some music from the score on which he was currently working. I thought then, and think now, that it was very beautiful and perhaps his very best work. It was dramatic and elegant, infused with French influences and very intimate. "It's lovely, Andrew," we told him, "and we think what you're doing is writing a chamber opera, something very small and personal." "That's just what I think, " he said, and he meant it.

But these things can take on a life of their own and by the following year, when it opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London's West End, Aspects of Love, this enchanting little show, an adaptation of a French novella by David Garnett, had become inflated by director Trevor Nunn and his team into a gigantic international musical. Along the way it had lost all its charm and its raison d'etre. To be fair, it was very successful, running for three years at the Prince of Wales and it had a respectable run on Broadway. Fine for those who hadn't had the pleasure of hearing it played by the composer on his own piano but for us, disappointing because we imagined how it might be.

Now, Aspects of Love has had an extraordinary makeover into the show it was, I think, always meant to be. And, amazingly, it has been achieved by the same director — Trevor Nunn. Hats off to him for entirely rethinking his original concept and presenting us with a tight, defined, clarified, character-driven show in which the music and Don Black and Charles Hart's lyrics can be clearly heard and appreciated. Aspects is very French, a tangled multi-generational love story with a shallow, beautiful actress, Rose (Katherine Kingsley), at its center. Both teenage Alex (Michael Arden) and his sophisticated uncle George (Dave Willetts) are in love with her and things get even more complicated with the addition of George's fiery mistress Giulietta (Rosalie Craig) and, later, George and Rose's 15-year old daughter, Jenny (Rebecca Brewer). Sufficient to say that who does what to whom is made crystal clear this time around and there are some lovely performances. The principals are all blessed with singing voices rarely heard in musicals these days and the ensemble, although necessarily underpopulated on a stage this small, are all believable and fine.

It seems to me inconceivable that this enchanting small-scale gem will not be the next Menier show to cross the Atlantic. I just hope that David Babani, the Menier's producer, Andrew Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn will resist the pressure to turn it back into a big brash Broadway musical. With some upgrading of the sets, costumes and wigs, it'll be just fine as it is.

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Michael Arden and Rosalie Craig
photo by Catherine Ashmore

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, is a wonderful, crumbling, turn-of-the-last-century theatre deep in London's East End. Situated in the poorest borough of the city and a depressing 90-minute train journey away from civilization or, at least, other theatres, it has always had a reputation for encouraging the avant garde. Its dilapidation is, in itself, a statement that what matters is what's on stage rather than in the faded red plush auditorium and, until the ornately carved roof finally drops on our heads, I continue to make the pilgrimage to the East End to support work which, surprisingly often, transfers to the West End or to Broadway although how they do it on a budget smaller than what Paris Hilton spends on shoes I can't imagine.

My latest trip was to see the U.K. premiere of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, which closed July 17, an opera/operetta/play/musical by the great American composer John Adams (Nixon in China) and I report here that the music, while initially difficult, is ultimately sublime, replete with his trademark shapes and subtlety.

Set in Los Angeles at the time of the catastrophic 1994 Northridge earthquake it takes a group of disparate city residents — a petty criminal, a social worker, a preacher, a cop, etc. — and tells their stories through the poems of the late June Jordan.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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Check out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting.

Rebecca Brewer and Dave Willetts
Rebecca Brewer and Dave Willetts
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