Here I am again, back in London after a splendid American summer, sitting on the aisle at the Duchess Theatre staring at a play that, although completely contemporary, is part of the most beloved of theatrical styles for the British theatrical sensibility — the English farce. There's a long tradition of farce in the British theatre, which came to its apotheosis in the 1950s, although its antecedents are honorable — commedia dell'arte and Molière to name but two.
This particular specimen is called The Play That Goes Wrong, a straightforward and very funny account of an amateur community theatre's version of that most English of play plots, the murder mystery in the country house. Even for those who, like me, find farce a genre of which a little is better than a lot, this one has a laugh in every line and if perfect for those visitors to London who are tired out by a day at Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, and who are in the mood for something silly and fun.
Far less fun, and not silly at all, is the new production of Medea with Helen McCrory defiantly wonderful in the title role at the National Theatre. This modern dress version, directed by Carrie Cracknell, goes some way to explaining the seemingly inexplicable — the appalling conundrum at the heart of the play. How, we must ask ourselves every time we see Medea, is it possible, conceivable even, for a woman to kill her own children? Cracknell and McCrory nearly persuade us that, in some circumstances, it's inevitable.
There's an under-cast but enormous production of Evita at the equally enormous Dominion Theatre. I realized, on the bus, that I'd forgotten the way to the Dominion. That's because We Will Rock You, the Queen musical, has held sway there for so many years that I haven't actually been to this theatre since We Will Rock You opened, back in 2002. Another rock star, Marti Pellow of WetWetWet, is the star of this Evita as Che — not Maddelena Alberto who plays Eva Peron — though neither can really rise to the historic or musical demands of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's bio-musical. Befitting the Dominion, the set is huge, and sadly the performances are somewhat dwarfed by it.
At the opposite end of the scale, in a week when we've been cheered by news that the New York-originated pairing of opera star Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is due to cross the Atlantic. A tiny production of that great musical opened at London's newest theatre, above a pub in the London suburb of Twickenham and it's terrific. The pairing of David Bedella and Sarah Ingram — yes, I know you've never heard of them — is electric and compelling. They're both singers with power and artistry and, if this scruffy little production — directed with creepy verisimilitude by a first time director named Derek Anderson — doesn't transfer to a bigger venue, there ain't no justice.
Speaking of Sondheim, which I always seem to be, his revue, Marry Me a Little, has been such a success at St. James Theatre that they've brought it back with its original performers, Simon Bailey and Laura Pitt-Pulford, as they trace in song the progression of an ill-fated (of course, this is Sondheim) love affair. Some of these songs are familiar from a thousand cabaret performances, some are virtually unknown and all are a treat for the legions of Sondheim fanatics.
Take no notice of nay-sayers — there will always be a few — when booking fall London sojurns. Do book for Shakespeare in Love. Is it as good as the movie? No. But, it is better than almost everything in London at the moment. It's also — hold your breath — fun. It follows the movie fairly closely, and the Romeo and Ethel — sorry, Juliet — are beautiful and talented. Embodied by Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen, this is exactly the romp one might fancy after slogging their way through Ballyturn, the new Enda Walsh play on at the National (which some of my colleagues lauded to the sky, but I found incomprehensible despite its rough consciously Beckettian poetry) and Little Revelation, the equally diffuse verbatim account of a riot in Brixton, London.
Did you hear me say fun? Well, there has to be some, doesn't there?