A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Sheridan Morley Theatre Book Prize, The Children's Hour, Company

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Sheridan Morley Theatre Book Prize, The Children's Hour, Company
 
In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, we slip into the Garrick Club for a special award, and attend Company, Spelling Bee, The Heretic, The Children's Hour and more.

Richard Eyre
Richard Eyre Photo by Aubrey Reuben

*

The place is the Garrick Club in Covent Garden. Wood-paneled, it's crammed with such theatrical memorabilia as David Garrick's chair from Drury Lane Theatre, the ring worn by Henry Irving as Charles I, a Lalique lotus flower worn by Sarah Bernhardt, Noël Coward's perfume atomizer and the dog collar worn by Charles Kean's Saint Bernard. Every inch of wall space in the four-story grand mansion is covered with a magnificent art collection, paintings of great actors in their most famous roles dating back to the days of David Garrick himself and coming right up to the present with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and my own father-in-law, Robert Morley.

The occasion is the fourth annual presentation of the Sheridan Morley Theatre Book Prize, held in the Milne Room right under the larger-than-lifesize portrait of Sheridan's grandmother, the actress–manager Gladys Cooper. The prize — for the best theatre biography, autobiography or theatre diary of the year — is awarded in memory of the writer who was, for many years, my predecessor as Playbill's London correspondent. His legacy of more than 30 books encompassed the biographies of Noël Coward, John Gielgud, David Niven and Katharine Hepburn and several volumes of autobiography and criticism.

This year, the jury consisted of Sir Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre; Geordie Greig, the editor of London's Evening Standard; and the beloved actress Siân Phillips, CBE, FRSA. They had to choose from an outstanding shortlist that included Stephen Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat"; Christopher Stevens' biography of Kenneth Williams, "Born Brilliant"; "Putting It On," a biography/autobiography of the life of West End producer Michael Codron, co-written with Alan Strachan; "The Reluctant Escapologist," a highly entertaining account of life on the theatrical fringe by Mike Bradwell; and the eventual winner, "My Life in Pieces," by the actor, director and writer Simon Callow. The books were all marvelous, and although I chaired the jury, I still don't know how they arrived at their eventual decision, so Solomonic was the choice. They did a brilliant job — even though we had to have our meeting at 8 AM — and emerged with a worthy winner. I wanted to run a puff of white smoke up the Garrick's august chimney to signify that a choice had been made, but didn't dare.

The party was sparkling and glamourous. All theatrical London came to drink the Garrick's champagne and find out who had won what has emerged as the top theatre book prize in the English-speaking world — Sheridan would have been so proud — and Sir Peter Hall, Timothy West and a host of other stars, writers and publishers either celebrated or drowned their sorrows. The Garrick — founded in 1831 by a group of actors, musicians, writers and peers of the realm — hasn't changed all that much in the intervening years...especially in its membership. It has recently fallen afoul of New York's Century Club for its continued refusal to admit women as members. Fortunately, though, the more elderly of its members are dying off and the admittance of women can't be far off. When that happens, I plan to be the first woman to join, to participate in this part of London's theatrical history and enter this glorious house to gawp at its treasures whenever I like.

Keira Keira Knightley in The Children's Hour
photo by Johan Persson

All this excitement has made my month exceptionally busy, added to which is the current award season. But I did manage to see the two climate-change plays: Greenland at the National and The Heretic at the Royal Court, each of which tackles this most contemporary of problems in a different way. Beware of any play that has four playwrights, as Greenland has. It will invariably be scattered and the arc of the story diffused. In The Heretic, though, playwright Richard Bean hits the issue straight on, in a highly entertaining manner, while asking the necessary questions. A charming As You Like It at the Rose allows Shakespeare's characters to think and speak for themselves. The director, Stephen Unwin, has carefully not imposed on them any directorial concept that would invert their purpose. This makes Shakespeare's comedy slightly darker than we are used to seeing it and, deep in the Forest of Arden, somewhat deeper.

With the exception of a terrific production of Accolade, a little-known 1950 play by Emlyn Williams at the tiny Finborough Theatre, it's been a very American month here in London. Bruce Norris' disquisition on race set in 1959 and 2009, Clybourne Park, has decamped from the Royal Court to the West End and received a second set of glowing reviews. It won both the Evening Standard and the Critics' Circle Best Play Award this year, and the first half, at least, is, as advertised, both hilarious and harrowing.

The American actor Elisabeth Moss (Peggy from "Mad Men"), long one of my favorites, is teamed with the British movie star Keira Knightley in the classic Lillian Hellman melodrama The Children's Hour in by far the strongest production of this somewhat dated play that I have ever seen. This story of a successful professional partnership destroyed by the lies of a schoolgirl (brilliantly played by young Bryony Hannah, who's a lot older than she looks) usefully points out that there is no sell-by date on malice. These three fine actors have the support of Carol Kane as the ditzy schoolteacher who starts all the trouble and Ellen Burstyn, who's a lot younger than she looks, as the grandmother who believes the lies.

There's a spunky adaptation of DBC Pierre's prize-winning novel "Vernon God Little" at the Young Vic and the Donmar has the Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a most American down-home cornpone musical. With an all-British cast in London's most sophisticated theatre, Spelling Bee has settled in nicely, and although the audience has warmed to the eccentricity of the characters, they are somewhat bewildered by the whole idea of a spelling bee in rural America.

To go from a high-school gym somewhere in the Midwest to the high-concept jolt of Manhattan marriage in the shape of Sondheim's Company takes a lot of imagination, but Southwark Playhouse's version of this elegant but cutthroat musical sweeps away all doubt, if ever you had any, that this is one of the most important and landscape-changing shows of all time. *

When the dear old Pizza on the Park, London's premier cabaret venue on Knightsbridge, closed last year, every cabaret lover in London went into mourning. For years, hidden beneath an up-market pizza express there had been an elegant basement room decorated in black with mirrors, a single spotlit red rose on every table, and a very sophisticated line-up of the best of American and British singers and musicians to entertain us. Despite there being no publicity, the place was always jammed, but time marches and money talks and the owners sold to a developer who pulled it down to build yet another luxury hotel, Knightsbridge being counted as real estate too valuable to be used for song. Where were we going to go next?

One answer, discovered by Sam Joseph, a young impresario who loves songs and singers, is, rather surprisingly, the Royal Albert Hall. No, not the 5,000-seat arena concert hall, but the Elgar Room, situated on the second floor, which has recently acquired cocktail tables and stunning blow-up photographs of the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. It's not quite the Pizza on the Park, but on one evening this month it hosted A Couple of Swells, an evening of songs by Irving Berlin. International cabaret favorites Claire Martin, who's British, and the great American jazz pianist Richard Rodney Bennett were trying out A Couple of Swells preparatory to their season at the Oak Room of New York's Algonquin Hotel and points West. Don't miss them.

(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.

The cast of <i>Spelling Bee</i>
The cast of Spelling Bee Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Today’s Most Popular News: