Playbill On-Line's London correspondent, Sheridan Morley, reviews major recent openings.
All too briefly -- a triumph at the Barbican for a cancer charity -- Hugh Wooldridge put together one of the most intelligent Stephen Sondheim concerts I have ever seen (and there have been dozens on both sides of the Atlantic). This one focused on his early non-lyrical work, but also gave us the glories of Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Michael Ball, Cleo Laine and the original Side by Side quartet (Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, Ned Sherrin and David Kernan) in a joyous celebration of the greatest musical man of them all, the man responsible for such scores as Company, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, . . .
In a time when dubious arms deals are back in the headlines, the everlasting topicality of George Bernard Shaw's masterly Major Barbara (Piccadilly Theatre) once again reinforces my belief that Peter Hall's financially embattled resident company is still far and away the best classical repertoire in London this decade.
True, Peter Bowles as the massively sinister Undershaft, a megalomaniac arms dealer based none too loosely on Alfred Nobel, was a little shaky on the longer speeches at the first night, and Jemma Redgrave seemed an oddly uncharismatic Barbara; but both these performances, like so many others in the Hall seasons, will soon settle down, and when they do, we may well have the best production in living memory of a play written in 1906 and still quite literally firing on all its targets.
As so often, Shaw has at least three separate plots going on here; there's the opening, a conventional Edwardian drawing-room comedy about unsuitable marriage, with Anna Carteret doing a memorable parody of Lady Bracknell; then we have the Salvation Army scenes, effectively Guys and Dolls without the score; and finally, the great explosive shed at Undershaft's munitions factory where his conversion of his own children to the benefits of dynamite is infinitely more triumphant than anything achieved by the Salvationists.
It is here, in Undershaft's lyrical defense of the power of arms, that we find Shaw in his anti-Shotover mood, predicting that the world can only ever be run by men who are prepared to kill and be killed for their beliefs. Only when Hall gives us, at curtain fall, the sounds of the guns at Flanders in a World War already less than a decade away, do we realize the terrible price about to be paid for Undershaft's seductive philosophy. In a strong cast David Yelland is an unusually pugnacious Cusins, and Michael Pennington is splendid as an Alfred Dolittle in embryo. With the National about to settle into a summer of Oklahoma! and the RSC already out of the Barbican, it is Hall's company at the Piccadilly who continue to give London the right to consider itself the capital of major classical revivals.
THREE BY PINTER
If one play by Harold Pinter is good, then two must be better and three best. That certainly is the thinking behind a new staging at the Donmar Warehouse of A Kind of Alaska, The Collection and The Lover, and at almost three-and-a-half hours at least nobody can complain this time about too brief a Pinteresque outing.
A Kind of Alaska dates from 1982 and is the one derived from Oliver Sacks's discoveries about patients brought back from years of catatonic lethargy by a then-new drug called L-Dopa. Pinter's patient (originally Judi Dench, now Penelope Wilton in a no less touching or memorable arousal) is Deborah, who fell into a coma when she was 16 and we now meet some 29 years later, awakening to find her doctor and sister (Bill Nighy and Brid Brennan) trying to explain how she has come to lose three whole decades in sleep. A Kind of Alaska is about the unfreezing of the body while the mind remains desperately unable to thaw out quite so fast, and it remains one of the most touching and, of course, timeless of all his plays.
The other two plays here are television scripts from the early 1960's. The Collection is a betrayal thriller with the same events played and replayed through the eyes of each of four characters (Lia Williams, Colin McFarlane, Douglas Hodge and a massively sinister, silk-dressing-gown turn from Pinter himself) caught up in what may or may well not be a series of gay and straight affairs. What matters here is the mystery, not the solution, and Joe Harmston manages to keep the tension going well enough. But The Lover, the last in this trio, has always seemed to me a curious series of variations on a theme by Molnar, who in The Guardsman first set up the idea of a married couple only ever happy in their own bed when masquerading as illicit lovers. All the same, a Pinter treble of unresolved menace is a remarkable tribute to his unique stagecraft over the last 30 or 40 years.