Onstage in London

Onstage in London A closer look at "Jolson," "The Way of the World," "The Son of Man" and "Dead Funny"

A closer look at "Jolson," "The Way of the World," "The Son of Man" and "Dead Funny"

"JOLSON"

It might appear somewhat backhanded to compliment a West End musical simply on the grounds that someone has bothered to write it instead of just cobbling it together on the backs of old record sleeves, but after a deluge of songbook or tribute shows compiled on precisely that basis, the great news about "Jolson" (Victoria Palace) is that it actually has a script.

Moreover, it''s a courageous one. Old Joly is shown to have been a thoroughly nasty egocentric neurotic who really came to any kind of life only when the footlights were switched on. The sort of man who would sing in the spotlight even if anyone opened a refrigerator door, Jolson so traumatized his second wife Ruby Keeler that for years after their divorce she refused to admit she had ever even met him. True, the show chickens out at this point and gives us the brave little lady actually fixing up his comeback concert in 1949, but if you think that''s an unforgivable liberty, then you can''t have seen either of the films Hollywood made about his so-called life.

At the Victoria Palace we are spared none of the songs, from "Sonny Boy" all the way to "Mammy" dearest, but Brian Conley is (in the title role) enough of a star to dare to be deeply unlovable, while intelligently suggesting that anyone born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania who came to fame pretending to be a black minstrel while his father remained a cantor probably had enough of an ongoing identity crisis to explain just about everything. One of his less endearing habits was to stop a full-scale show in the middle, asking the audience to choose between him and it before dismissing the rest of the cast for the night. The triumph of Conley''s Jolson is to keep the cast around him, but suggest that he could still manage it all alone. "THE WAY OF THE WORLD"

At the National Phyllida Lloyd''s "The Way of the World" (which I saw at its last preview) is a considerable joy despite the fact that it seems to require a fashion consultant rather than a theaôre critic. Characters are gorgeously costumed in an eccentric mix of ancient and modern, each entrance getting more confidently grotesque until Geraldine McEwan (in the performance of the night and her career) comes on looking like an ostrich, which has mysteriously been crammed into a tambourine lined with fresh flowers.

She also seems to be running a remarkably myopic household, since her entire staff comes on wearing spectacles: Little house jokes like these make one for a while suspect that the director has lost confidence in her author, but thanks to the highly intelligent, thoughtful Millamant and Mirabell of Fiona Shaw and Roger Allam, Congreve eventually wins through. A play once perceived and played as a kind of restoration romp now emerges as something at once funnier and darker; against the increasingly frantic farce of Wishfort, we get the other two principals trying to set out a whole new (and for its time dangerously revolutionary) pattern of marriage and peaceful sexual co-existence.

The perennial modernity of "Way of the World" may not need all the help that Lloyd and her designer Anthony Ward have given it, with the background of London''s trendiest art galleries and the notion of Wishfort ending up as a bag lady locked out of her own front door. But in here somewhere is an intelligent reappraisal of the play that raised the curtain as well as the alarm on a whole new artillery charge in the battle of the sexes; what Lloyd has done is show us the way forward from Congreve to Coward.

"SON OF MAN"

Death, as Gore Vidal once observed of Tennessee Williams, can often be a wise career move for a playwright: and sure enough this year the Royal Shakespeare Company, having never paid them too much attention in their lifetimes, has decided we should have another look at John Osborne and Dennis Potter. Thus, we get Osborne''s "A Patriot for Me" (on the main Barbican stage at an epic four-and-a-quarter hours) and, downstairs in the Pit, an unusually brilliant marriage of director and script.

Dennis Potter originally wrote his "Son of Man" for television in 1969, when it caused a considerable if now largely incomprehensible furor for daring to portray Christ as a more or less ordinary bloke caught up in an unfathomable mystery, though writers like Dorothy L. Sayers had, in fact, been suggesting as much for decades, albeit not in front of millions of viewers.

Now the RSC gives the script to Bill Bryden, a charismatic stage manager far too long away from us in Scots television, but who made his name soon after this play was written with a series of epic Mystery cycles in the Cottesloe. True to his own pop-theatre traditions and to Potter, Bryden duly imports songs and has the audience join in the crowd scenes. Sure, there''s imminent danger of "Godspell" here, but a strong cast led by Joseph Fiennes as Christ and John Standing as a weary, elegantly confused Pontius Pilate consistently avoids it.

With his sure grasp of group playing and character acting, Bryden reminds us of what our subsidized stages have for too long been neglecting: the power of sheer, unashamed theatricality as, in this case, a way of expressing Potter''s eternally simple belief in the strength of love over law.

"DEAD FUNNY"

Suitably enough it was the producers of "The Rocky Horror Show," creators of the notorious Time-Warp, who have pioneered what is now an increasingly popular West End fashion. That Show never officially opens or closes: It just hovers like a spaceship above Shaftesbury Avenue, alighting whenever it spies an empty theatre and staying there until something better comes along. In an increasingly shaky West End economy, other producers now seem to have seen the merits of instant revivals. The two biggest hits of 1994, "Three Tall Women" and "Dead Funny," are back this month with revised casts--it having been perceived that there are still more people wishing to see them than risk anything that might have happened since.

"Dead Funny," now at the Savoy, is still directed by its author Terry Johnson, the man who brought Dali and Freud together for "Hysteria" and who engineered the meeting of Marilyn, Einstein and Senator McCarthy for "Insignificance." That he is the most agile comic manipulator of his generation is beyond doubt. Johnson is Ray Cooney with a triple first in history, psychology and politics. Here his concern is the weekend of 1992 when both Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd were found dead in their flats. To the Dead Comics Society of which most of his cast are members, this is a rare opportunity for mourning and mimicry.

One is a doctor specializing in hysterectomies but unable to touch his own wife; another is a mother-obsessed gay man, and two others are sexually challenged neighbors with one of whom the doctor has had an unwise affair. All the making of French farce and English domestic tragedy are here, as Belinda Lang and Kevin McNally lead a new team in the bitterly brilliant analysis of people who will die for a laugh but cannot live for a relationship.
-- By Sheridan Morley