A LETTER FROM LONDON: National's After the Dance, Donmar's Late Middle Classes, Tricycle's Women

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: National's After the Dance, Donmar's Late Middle Classes, Tricycle's Women In this month's column spotlighting London theatre — and its people, trends and productions — writer Ruth Leon writes about Terrence Rattigan, Simon Gray, modern British women playwrights and the closing of a cabaret.
The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon

*

I think the Royal Shakespeare Company must be getting tired of people like me complaining about the trains from London to Stratford-upon-Avon. So, like the mountain coming to Mohammed, they are coming to us. No sooner had they announced an ambitious plan to take over New York's Armory next summer and turn it into a replica of their Courtyard Theatre, but they tell us they are coming to London in November with six full-scale Shakespeares, two children's cut-down Shakespeares, a cast of 44 in 228 roles, performing in yet another replica of the Courtyard, this time at the Round House, a dearly loved London space which used to be a railway turnaround and is now an innovatively designed theatre. While the RSC's home in Stratford is being rebuilt, they're spreading their wings and flying away to distant parts, well, London and New York are fairly distant, and, if all goes according to plan, there will be three functioning Courtyards by the middle of next year.

***

Nancy Carroll and Benedict Cumberbatch in After the Dance
photo by Johan Persson

I really love what my husband used to called "carpets and curtains" plays — the ones that require lots of period costumes, great hats, and civilized people taking tea in the conservatory — so I never really cottoned to the kind of contemporary drama where two people are trapped in a non-existent set, wearing jeans and talking earnestly about Afghanistan. Just shallow, I guess. But when was the last time you saw a new "carpets and curtains" play? Exactly, me neither. So imagine my delight in the discovery of After the Dance (National Theatre, until Aug. 11), a Terence Rattigan play I had never seen before. Rattigan was of the Noel Coward generation, and although he lived until 1977, and his better-known plays, The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables, are revived constantly, After the Dance, a big hit when it opened in 1939, hasn't been seen in London or anywhere for more than 60 years. Set in the London flat of David and Joan, rich and apparently carefree, center of a circle of hedonistic friends, slightly past their sell-by date but still always up for another party, another new gimmick, another bit of salacious gossip, another cigarette and, inevitably, another drink. The balance is altered by the arrival of silly, superficial Helen, who heedlessly breaks up their marriage, forcing David to confront the unpleasant fact that if he continues to drink he will shortly die of cirrhosis of the liver. The brilliant and underrated Nancy Carroll turns in a smashing performance as Joan, the loving wife pretending not to care when a tramp displaces her, and Benedict Cumberbatch is urbane and tortured as the straying husband who thinks he'd rather be an historian than a wastrel. Sharing the honors for best performance in a conspicuously high-class cast is a brilliant Adrian Scarborough as the best friend who knows better.

Frocks are lovely, acting top-notch, and the sight of all these rich folks drinking themselves to death doesn't sicken so much as warn at a time when the philosophy of grabbing whatever you want, now, no matter at whose expense, is more prevalent even than it was in Rattigan's day.

***

The frocks were pretty lovely at the saddest event I attended recently — the last ever performance at London's premier, no, only cabaret room, the Pizza on the Park. This black-tie evening was as studded with tears and diamonds as it was with stars. It was so easy to pass the door unnoticed; it was located below an upmarket pizza joint and you could actually sit upstairs and eat your pizza without having any idea that downstairs there were the cream of American and British cabaret artists singing their hearts out. It was appropriate that the final artist to play at the Pizza before the developers pull it down and build (oh joy) yet another hotel, was the classy American singer-pianist, Steve Ross, who has played the room (and sold it out) every year of the 27 it has existed. Karen Akers was here this week, so was Andrea Marcovicci, and an audience crammed with lovers of the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Dietz and Schwartz, George and Ira Gershwin, and all the other greats of the songwriting world. Now their voices are, I hope temporarily, silenced in London and the audience of addicts, in which I include myself, are cabaret orphans.

Artisitic director Nicolas Kent

In 1970, newly married and newly arrived in the United States with my American husband, I went to work for the public television station in Washington, DC, and my first production was a radical series called "Women: Choices and Challenges." This was at the cutting edge of the women's movement; Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan were my heroines and I was the first woman in my family to keep my own name rather than taking my husband's (which was complicated and hard to spell). I went on every march and signed every petition. I organized, I made speeches, I allied myself with every feminist cause. I believed, along with every other woman of my age and background, that we were going to change the world and make a better life for all women. I also believed, quite wrongly as it turned out, that once these battles for equal rights were won we wouldn't have to worry about them ever again and could move on, in perfect equality with our husbands and brothers and fathers, on level ground where our only limitation would be our own abilities. The term "glass ceiling" had not yet been invented. I thought a lot about this during the long day when the Tricycle Theatre unveiled their new two-part multi-play cycle called Women: Power and Politics (ending July 17). Forty years on, much has improved for women and much has not. Some of our battles, long ago won, are being reopened and refought. Who would have thought it possible that reproductive rights would still be a political issue in 2010? Didn't we win that one? And who could then have believed that 40 years after our insistence on equal pay for equal work women would still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man? Many years ago, when offered two-thirds of what I knew was the going rate for the job for which I was applying, I queried the interviewer, "But, my dear," came the unabashed response, "you're a girl." The employer was the BBC. Few young career women today identify themselves as feminists, but they do, with increasing frequency, resort to lawsuits when they feel themselves discriminated against.

Grouped into two sets of plays, titled Then and Now, Nicolas Kent and his director, Indhu Rabasingham have commissioned virtually every British female playwright to write a short play on some aspect of women's lives.

The plays are inevitably uneven. Some, like Moira Buffini's Handbagged where two Margaret Thatchers (Stella Gonet and Heather Craney) and two Queen Elizabeths (Kika Markham and Claire Cox) battle it out for supremacy, and Joy Wilkinson's Acting Leader, where Margaret Beckett can't quite believe in herself or get her colleagues to believe in her enough to fight for the leadership of the Labour Party after John Smith's death, are touching and illuminate something in the female character which might explain both the steely determination and the self-doubt in every woman. Some, like Marie Jones' The Milliner and the Weaver and Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Lioness, about Elizabeth the First, are historical documents in their own right.

The plays are cross-cast with 15 phenomenal actors led by Stella Gonet, Kika Markham and Niamh Cusack, each of whom, seemingly inexhaustibly, pops up in every, or at least every other, play, taking the roles of women from all over the U.K. of every class and background, of every political strike and none. There's even one play with an all-male cast, Zinnie Harris' The Panel, where a board of men is deciding on female candidates for a job in their department.

Interspersed between the plays are edited interview snippets with real contemporary politicians of different stripes from Jacquie Smith to Shirley Williams to Ann Widdicombe. In each case, an actor you saw moments ago as an Irish firebrand or a Greenham Common mum, is transformed into women we know from our television news, telling us about the real life of a woman politician today. Fascinating. But it doesn't explain why, when we've come so far in 40 years, the ground we've covered is so limited. ***

The War is over. The British, so brave in combat, so indomitable when having the bejesus bombed out of them, so sure that what they were fighting for was right, are now expecting their rewards for a job well done. And, somehow, it doesn't come. Even for the better-off — a doctor's family for example — life is a struggle. Instead of the life of plenty they believed would follow Hitler's defeat there is food rationing and the austerity of a post-war economy. Their world is dark and mean, no eggs, no fruit, no nice clothes, just making-do. Wait a minute, didn't we win the war? For a child growing up in such a family this is normality and if, as in Holly's case, he has enough to eat, schoolwork he likes, a growing sexuality to explore, and a warm relationship with his music teacher, what could possibly be wrong?

Helen McCrory and Laurence Belcher in The Late Middle Classes
photo by Johan Persson

The late Simon Gray had an uncanny ear for what a child hears, unfiltered by the politeness of adults, unalloyed by hindsight, and perfect pitch for period. The Late Middle Classes (Donmar, ending July 17) is a memory play, both Simon Gray's memory and that of Mr. Brownlow, an Anglicized Viennese composer and Holly's piano teacher, who lives with his mother (a perfectly rendered performance from Eleanor Bron) on Hayling Island off the South Coast, trying to keep their heads down and not give themselves away as Eastern European Jews in a madly anti-Semitic time and place. Set in the early 1950s, we have two families, one as English as it is possible to be, the other still traumatized by terrible wartime experiences (the mother never leaves the house and is reduced to rampant hysteria by an unexpected, and innocent, knock on the door, lavishing her love on her smothered son and a succession of cats all called Catty-Kit). I have no doubts as to Eleanor Bron or Peter Sullivan as the hapless, permanently embarrassed doctor, and, above all, Helen McCrory's superb rendering of the bored housewife who treats her only child as she might a lover, demanding that he constantly tell her that he loves her, who plays silly and hurtful tricks on her son and husband, who drinks and smokes and plays tennis as a substitute for real life. During the war Celia had a real job — driving ambulances — and we feel her frustration at her current uselessness. She is an awful woman but she has a lot to be awful about.

The most English of playwrights, Simon Gray, with the gleeful connivance of Helen McCrory, manages to make embarrassment and boredom additional characters in his play. But he had a deeper purpose when he wrote The Late Middle Classes in 1999, in that this most domestic of post-war dramas exorcised his own childhood and his conflicted relationship with his own mother.

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

Today’s Most Popular News: