A LETTER FROM LONDON: Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, Plus Loyalty, Anne Boleyn and More

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, Plus Loyalty, Anne Boleyn and More The 17th-century play A Woman Killed With Kindness, John Doyle's staging of Road Show and the Iraq War current-events play Loyalty are among works now (or recently) on London's boards.

David Bedella and Michael Jibson in Road Show.
David Bedella and Michael Jibson in Road Show. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

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I don't know who wrote "Every time Stephen Sondheim writes a new show, Broadway gets reinvented." My late husband, Sheridan Morley, always swore it was him. Whoever wrote it, it's true. With every show, Sondheim kicks over the traces of what musical theatre has been and puts something in its place that has never been there before. But, equally, his signature is so strong that even the first few notes of the vamp that begins Road Show could have been written by nobody else. No matter what is to follow, a substantial portion of the audience — those of us who reckon we're as lucky to live in the time of Sondheim as Mozart's admirers were to share the same Viennese air with him — simultaneously relax and lean forward in anticipation of what is to come. For although Road Show in its latest incarnation through Sept. 17 at the Menier Chocolate Factory is, ultimately, disappointing, its score is unforgettably Sondheimesque, its book (by John Weidman) tight, its production (by John Doyle) innovative, and it engages you throughout.

The disappointment comes from its choice of subject — the failure of the American Dream — and the characters through whom the story is told: the Mizners, a pair of brothers who schematically embody flip sides of aspiration. Having gone through several lives and several titles, this is now probably the definitive version of this show, and you can't blame Sondheim for worrying away at it to get it right.

Well, it's as right now as it's ever going to be... and it still doesn't work, because it's difficult, no, impossible to care about either of the Mizners, their parents or any of the characters they run into during the course of the show. They're intriguing, certainly, but unattractive, even in the fine performances of Michael Jibson and David Bedella. Pity, but even for us Sondheim freaks, it's time for the great man to move on to yet another groundbreaking musical.

Paul Ready and Liz White in A Woman Killed with Kindness.
photo by Nigel Norrington

The work of avant-garde director Katie Mitchell, a particular favorite of National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, is, in its way, as recognizable as that of Stephen Sondheim. Within seconds of the opening scene of her production of Thomas Heywood's 1607 domestic drama A Woman Killed With Kindness it becomes obvious that this is a Katie Mitchell concept. There are a number of telltale signs, including the ubiquitous use of ballroom dancing, that tip us the wink that her quirky imagination has been at work. Here she has transposed an early-17th-century play to the 1930s, shoehorning its specific period qualities into an entirely different timeframe. What works wonderfully is the double set by Vicki Mortimer and Lizzie Clachan, two different households perfectly aligned, and a remarkable scenic coup de théâtre that I won't spoil for you. It's become a cliché to describe a contemporary play as "torn from the headlines," but when the wife of the prime minister's chief of staff writes an account of their domestic life against the background of national and international events occurring in real time, that's as close as it gets to a peephole into the centre of decision-making. The playwright here is Sarah Helms, married to Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair's principal advisor throughout the period when Britain was deciding whether to enter the Iraq War, and the play is Loyalty (seen at Hampstead Theatre, prior to a West End run). Here are the secret meetings, the "dossier" that caused the death of one of the government's top advisors and the resignation of a top BBC journalist, here is George Bush shamelessly patronizing the prime minister and the American "allies" shamelessly lying to their British counterparts to force them into the war. Here is British politics in all its shocking inadequacy and peacock strutting, and it's all true, recounted by a trained observer (Sarah Helms was an award-winning political journalist before her marriage) and often howlingly funny, both deliberately and inadvertently. If anything ever made you want to take a torch to 10 Downing Street and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Loyalty is it.

Johnny Ward and Rosaleen Linehan in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
photo by Jane Hobson

One of the great joys of the London theatre is that, unlike New York, we bring back plays and productions when the audience and press has admired them, often within months. Two beautiful revivals therefore returned within one week recently. An unlikely hit was the R.C. Sheriff World War I drama Journey's End, a play that at first sight appears to applaud the commitment of men who go to war but slowly emerges as a terrible indictment of it. The "war to end all wars" did nothing but waste an entire generation of young men between 1914 and 1918, and it changed British society from a forward-looking country to one that looked forever backward to a better time. Journey's End, whose last tableau is the entire cast, in uniform, standing before an endless war memorial displaying the names and ranks of the recently dead, is an unforgettable reminder of the inhumanity and uselessness of war.

The other revival of note is Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which, following its worldwide success, is back in London at the Young Vic. Such an unlikely candidate for popularity, this play, set as it is in a horrible kitchen somewhere in Galway, with an evil elderly woman who lives to terrorize her slovenly, lonely, middle-aged daughter. It should repulse us, but McDonagh's dialogue, while anchoring it firmly in its time and place, lifts it to the level of stage poetry.

In fact, I suppose that the Globe's production of Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn qualifies as a revival since it made its debut with the same cast last season. It has returned by popular acclaim, starring the enchanting Miranda Raison in the title role. This Anne is no siren but a practical, sensible politician who knows that the way to run the king, and therefore England, is to refuse to sleep with him until the queenship is in the bag. Brenton's play is funny, touching and even makes historical sense.

The Globe's printed programs are always one of the glories of their productions, and this particular one has a number of illuminating articles — notably about Anne herself and about James the Sixth of Scotland and the First of England, the king who followed Anne's daughter, Elizabeth the First, into the job. He makes much more than a cameo appearance in Anne Boleyn, carefully illustrating what happened to England as a result of Anne's brief tenure as queen to Henry the Eighth.

And finally, Ghost The Musical. What can I tell you? (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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