Onstage in London -- April

Onstage in London -- April CHAPTER TWO:
At the Gielgud with a cast led by Tom Conti and Sharon Gless (of "Cagney and Lacey" fame), we have the first West End production of Neil Simon's Chapter Two, a Broadway hit from 1976. This was in some ways the turning point for Simon, the moment when he started to use his own life as something more than an excuse for a gag-fest. It was written as a tribute to Marsha Mason, his second wife, and her tolerance with his long lasting grief over the death of his first wife.

CHAPTER TWO:
At the Gielgud with a cast led by Tom Conti and Sharon Gless (of "Cagney and Lacey" fame), we have the first West End production of Neil Simon's Chapter Two, a Broadway hit from 1976. This was in some ways the turning point for Simon, the moment when he started to use his own life as something more than an excuse for a gag-fest. It was written as a tribute to Marsha Mason, his second wife, and her tolerance with his long lasting grief over the death of his first wife.

There is something very painful here, in among the gags, about a man trying to come to terms with death rather than a new life, and in David Gilmore's admirably unsentimental production Tom Conti (in a curious kind of wig but a very strong performance) catches the grief as well as the mirth. When we first meet him, he is newly returned from the European vacation he has taken to get over the funeral. It was not a success: "London was bankrupt, Italy on strike, France hated me and Spain was still mourning Franco," he notes in a kind of Michelin Guide to woe, which is a fair indication of the shape of dialogue to come.

This is a comedy about death and despair and rebirth, and its desire to make us laugh through the tears ought not to blind us to Simon's very real achievement in starting down the path that led to his later autobiographical trilogy. Conti is especially good on this borderline of emotion, and in her first stage comedy Sharon Gless is long-suffering and often very touching as the next Mrs. Simon.


SKYLIGHT:
When David Hare's Skylight first opened at the National last April, I wrote that it was far and away the best play in town, and I see no reason to alter that verdict now that it has transferred to Wyndham's with the original cast.

For this, in Richard Eyre's subtly splendid production, is indeed one of the plays not just of the year but of the decade. In theory it is one of Hare's "private" plays, as opposed to one of his state-of-the-nation chronicles. But it is very often in the private plays (Secret Rapture, Knuckle) that we get his best guides to the true state of the nation as the century ends. Skylight is a soaring romantic tragedy that manages, at least in part, to nail what has gone wrong with Britain in the nineties and then to make us love at least one of the guilty parties. The plot is skeletal: To a seedy flat comes a wealthy restaurateur (Michael Gambon, gloriously large and vulnerable) in deep depression after the long and painful death from cancer of his wife. The reason he has come is that the girl who lives in the flat once had a long affair with him; he wants some kind of sexual or social reunion and forgiveness for his sins. For the girl (equally wonderfully played by Lia Williams) the agenda is somewhat different, and what ensues is a moral debate over whether it is better to love people as she does, in buses and classrooms and principle, or just one person, as he does, while letting the rest of the world go to hell in a hand basket. Hare's genius is to leave us wondering which of them is right.


THE CHANGING ROOM:
The Royal Court's classic series brought a new production of David Storey's The Changing Room into the Duke of York's for a nostalgic 25th anniversary look at male bonding on, or rather off, the field of sporting endeavor, circa 1971.

Set in the eponymous changing room of a Northern rugby club before, during and after a game on a gelid Saturday in winter, in the days when all rugby was amateur and those who played it were hard men, it exhales the blood and dirt and general discomfort rather than making a convincing argument for the nobility of sport.

Seventeen men take off all their clothes and with them their individual identities as they suit up and turn into a team. What strikes me 25 years later is that in admiring Storey's economical prose and poetic simplicity in 1971, I had failed to notice that nothing at all happens in this play, give or take a broken nose and a series of character sketches including a lad whose idea of a joke is to pee in the communal bath water.

The cast seems to be having an awfully good time; the problem is they don't seem to want to include us. In 1971 there must have been more to The Changing Room than "boys will be boys" high jinks, but I'm damned if I can remember what.


VALLEY SONG:
Valley Song, the elegiac, elegant, new play at the Royal Court by Athol Fugard, is set in a village too small for maps. It is poised, like South Africa itself, in a world struggling from Apartheid to Mandela. Fugard, who directs and plays two of the three characters, demonstrates definitively that his playwright's voice is still clear and true as the chronicler of his country, in the good times as well as the bad. He was a prominent white voice against Apartheid, but now that that battle has been won, he still ruminates how the adjustment will affect those least able to argue for themselves.

His protagonists this time are colored, neither black nor white, a septuagenarian grandfather and his talented granddaughter. All the other members of their family are dead, and they love each other with a fierce protectiveness. Buks (Fugard) ekes out a meager living growing pumpkins on a few acres he doesn't own but is connected to by generations of farming them. But now, in this post-Mandela world, a white writer buys those acres, and Buks's world is threatened. His best defense, he reckons, is to appease this frightening new entity. But Veronica, full of songs and energy, refuses to wash the white man's floors as her grandmother did; she wants to escape to Johannesburg and become a singer.

The new South Africa gives Veronica choices. Buks wants her to choose for the past but knows he must let her go, while she is looking towards a future that will leave his world behind forever. Veronica (a luminous Esmeralda Bihl, a young South African in an irresistible performance) craves his blessing. Their confrontation is deeply moving as Buks struggles to understand what Veronica strains to explain.

Valley Song is an illustrated short story, told by the third character, the white writer (also played by Fugard on his welcome return to the London stage), in language of rare simplicity and compassion, the unresolved conflicts of both the people and the country bound together in mutual love.

-- By Sheridan Morley