At exactly the time of year when Broadway gets hysterical, with openings every five minutes to be sure to be up and running in time to compete for the Tony Awards, the West End goes quiet. After the holidays, when New York productions compete for theatre space and the advertising and promotion hits its height, London seems to go to sleep.
Apart from several shows previously seen in New York, for example, Bat Boy, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, of which more later, there's a somnambulist air about theatreland right now. It seems as though all the fun stuff is happening out of town although we've got lots to look forward to as shows which began at the Theatre Royal, Bath, the RSC in Stratford-Uppn-Avon, and the rejuvenated Chichester Festival Theatre, head for the big city.
Felicity Kendal had a hit as Judith Bliss in Noel Coward's great comedy Hay Fever when she played a summer season in Bath, followed by a tour to Australia. Now she's bringing it to the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End next month. Imelda Staunton, who, with Michael Ball, appeared to reinvent Sweeney Todd last season, did something of the same with Mama Rose in Chichester's smashing production of the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim masterpiece Gypsy. That's also heading for London, and not alone. The other big Chichester hit this summer was their homegrown version of Guys and Dolls, starring Jamie Parker, Peter Polycarpou and an irresistible Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide. That's coming too, just in case Gypsy feels lonely.
On the straight play front, Chichester seems to win all the accolades as two straight plays transfer to London along with the musicals, starring two of our most beloved (and talented) actors. Both are familiar to American audiences from television, Penny Wilton from "Downton Abbey," amongst others, and Zoe Wanamaker from "My Family." The plays are Stevie and Taken At Midnight. The RSC's successful repertory season of Henry IV, Parts One and Two at the Barbican, will be followed by the lesser known Henry VIII in yet another convulsion of the History plays. The big treat for me will be at the London Coliseum in the form of a very limited run of Sweeney Todd with the great opera singer Bryn Terfel in the title role and Sophie Thompson's big sister, Emma, as Mrs. Lovett. I'm already anticipating that glorious voice rolling through the murderous Sweeney's musical vocabulary and I'm betting that wonderful Emma Thompson's acting and comedic skills will carry them both.
Charles Hart, who has been fairly quiet since bursting onto the theatrical scene with the lyrics of The Phantom of the Opera, although he did collaborate with Don Black on Aspects of Love, is now working with British composer Howard Goodall (The Snowman) on the score for Bend It Like Beckham, another stage adaptation of a hit movie. At least that one will be British through and through, which of course can't be said for Beautiful, the Carole King Musical, which is on its way here from Broadway, and there's a new British production in the works of High Society — the Cole Porter musical version of George Cukor's film adaptation of Philip Barry's stage play The Philadelphia Story. Are you still with me? So, as you see, until all this happens later in the season, it's fairly quiet in the West End.
The two latest American imports are Bat Boy, a mildly entertaining fantasy about a boy, discovered in a cave in West Virginia, who is tamed by the kind family of a local veterinarian and civilized by language recordings into perfect Oxford vowels. Desperate for acceptance in the small town where they live, Bat Boy, complete with pointed ears and equally pointed teeth, and nattily dressed in preppy duds, demands to be taken out in public to a revival meeting. Bat Boy, a cult hit downtown in New York, appealed to the young people who filled the Southwark Playhouse, as a rebel with a cause. The enthusiastic and talented cast is led by Rob Compton in the title role, who manages despite the ears and the teeth, to be more believable than any other character in the musical. The others have clearly all been directed to acquire vastly exaggerated Deep Southern accents which render them almost incomprehensible, presumably to heighten the comedy. The score, although delivered by some fine pop voices, isn't strong enough to carry the show and often descends into generic and forgettable ditties. However, fantasy, as regular readers know, isn't my favourite genre and the kids who made up most of the audience, seemed to love it.
I remember a great deal of hype surrounding Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown when it opened in New York in 2010 at the Belasco Theatre. Patti LuPone starred in this adaptation of Pedro Almodovar's first hit film. The movie has a complicated and convoluted plot about a number of neurotic women and their relationship to the same man. The reviews were largely negative, and the show played a brief run on Broadway.
It has now opened in London with the same director, the very talented Bartlett Sher, and a largely British cast featuring a favourite comedy actor Tamsin Grieg in her first musical and Haydn Gwynne in the role originally played by LuPone. The reviews here have been good and they seem not to have noticed what savvy New Yorkers understood immediately — that although the score is very fine, with Hispanic melodies, strong lyrics, and soulful guitar accompaniment, the plot is that of a dark comedy movie which is too fragmented ever to be corralled into a cohesive stage show. In primary colours, with a large cast, good singing, and every production element lovingly executed and in place, what is missing in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a show.
(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.