OnStage In London--11/95

OnStage In London--11/95 Sheridan Morley reports on what''s hot on London stages this month.

Sheridan Morley reports on what''s hot on London stages this month.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

"Whipped cream with knives" was what Hal Prince called "A Little Night Music," and the new production by Sean Mathias at the Olivier gives carefully equal emphasis to the cholesterol and the cutting edge.

We''re unlikely ever to get a better cast, at least on the female side: Judi Dench sending in the clowns, Sian Phillips recalling her liaisons and Patricia Hodge as the increasingly unbalanced Countess are all definitive, leaving their menfolk (Laurence Guittard and Lambert Wilson) struggling to keep up. But this is always the show stolen at the final curtain by the maid who sings of marrying the miller''s son, and here, too, Issy van Randwyck fulfills all hopes. Mathias has come up with an ungimmicky revival, which mercifully does not seek to impose any point of view, other than that of Ingmar Bergman''s original house party of ill-assorted romantic losers from the film, which gave this characteristically subversive Sondheim score its inspiration.

THE VISIT The problem with Lauren Bacall is that she was trained to be a star though not necessarily an actress. The moment when, as the millionairess with murder on her mind, she arrives onstage for "The Visit" (Chichester) is as dazzling as any in the current British theatre, but there is nowhere much to go after that. With Bacall what you see is what you get, which is precisely why she was so strong in such otherwise naïf musicals as "Applause" and "Woman of the Year." While lesser mortals act around her, Bacall just stands there and stars.

Around her on this occasion Terry Hands has assembled a team of the best character actors in the business, led quite superbly by Joss Ackland as the unfortunate shopkeeper who once left the millionairess with child, and whose death she now demands in ransom for pouring her money back into a derelict German town. But Dürrenmatt''s 1956 satire has begun to fray a bit around the edges, which is why it never mattered much when the Theatre de Complicite began to deconstruct it last year; the original script defeated the Lunts and also Ingrid Bergman/Anthony Quinn on film simply because it can never quite decide whether it is a poetic fable or a revenge melodrama.

From the moment the first bankrupt citizen starts to buy a pair of new shoes, we know what is to happen, though Dürrenmatt never knows what he wants in place of suspense; but thanks to Bacall this remains a star-powered evening of regret and recrimination, and it brings to a close Duncan Weldon''s first triumphant Chichester season, one which seems already to have given London more transfers than the rest of the nation put together.

MACBETH

As if to prove that we, like Broadway, now also have a theatrical season starting in October, an amazingly rich time for stargazing from the stalls: Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Judi Dench, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge all in new productions, though the men have had a rougher time, notably Mark Rylance out at Greenwich whose "Macbeth" drew the worst reviews if not since Pearl Harbor, than at least since the Peter O''Toole fiasco of 15 years ago.

The trouble this time is not a lack of ideas, but all too many of them: Rylance starts the show, of which he is star and director, by arriving onstage with Banquo in a beaten-up jalopy, confronting the witches in heavy American accents, like backwoodsmen suddenly faced with a flying saucer. It gets worse: Duncan is a guru running some kind of suspect cult; his followers seem to be largely Indian‹though Jane Horrocks as Lady Macbeth has a kind of Home Counties uneasiness vaguely reminiscent of Sarah Miles going to meet the Maharishi at some point in the Swinging Sixties.

None of this would much matter were Rylance not about to open Shakespeare''s Globe in Southwark, an appointment which explains why such heavy guns have been fired on what would otherwise just be written off as a ³concept² gone horribly wrong. It is not, after all, as though Greenwich is exactly famous for giving great Bard. But Rylance has already promised he won''t direct at the Globe, and as an actor, he has already proved himself, so let''s just put this one down to experience, even though it''s not one I''d care to repeat.

THREE TALL WOMEN

Better news at Wyndhams, where Maggie Smith is back in Edward Albee''s chillingly brilliant "Three Tall Women," now with a much stronger cast (Samantha Bond, Sara Kestelman). As Albee himself acknowledges, you''ll never see it better nor Dame Maggie either.

-- By Sheridan Morley