A LETTER FROM LONDON: Matilda, Pippin, Eddie Redmayne as Richard II, One Man, Two Guvnors and More

By Ruth Leon
09 Jan 2012

Claudie Blakley and Lenny Henry in The Comedy Of Errors.
photo by Tristram Kenton
And after all that, you want a Shakespearean farce too? Happy to oblige. At the National, there's another comedian, the very talented Lenny Henry. Part of the television/stand-up set that also produced Jennifer Saunders (of "Absolutely Fabulous"), Hugh Laurie (of "House") and Dawn French ("The Vicar of Dibley" herself), he has, for the past few years, been stretching his boundaries in Shakespeare. After a very promising start as Othello in Northern Broadside's production, he is now one of the Antipholuses in The Comedy of Errors. He plays one of two sets of twins who have the same names and were brought up separately. They arrive in the same town and...either you already know the plot or it won't matter to you. It is enough to know that, in this high-tech and very modern production by Dominic Cooke, Lenny Henry is very funny, which you might expect, but also very poignant in his inability to grasp the various misunderstandings engendered by two Antipholuses and two Dromios.

Leaving farce but staying with Shakespeare, there's a fascinating and wonderfully reexamined Richard II to mark Michael Grandage's final production as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. For the first time in my experience, Richard's callowness and selfishness make perfect sense because Grandage has cast the young (and even younger-looking) Eddie Redmayne as the King. A very young man wouldn't know perhaps how much chaos he was causing in his realm, and his belief in the divine right of kings here blinds him to the politics which allow Henry Bolingbroke (an excellent Andrew Buchan) to take the throne away from him. Vain and vainglorious, half-mad and ranting as King, this Richard II in defeat has a dignity he never had. David Plater's glorious lighting makes the tiny space of the Donmar look like a Rembrandt painting. But I wish somebody had warned me of the fog of incense that envelops the auditorium of the Donmar before the play and well into the first act. By intermission I had the migraine of the century, my eyes were streaming and my lungs straining. Very atmospheric, to be sure, but for this viewer it distracted. Badly.

Kerry Ingram in Matilda.
photo by Alastair Muir

I'm sure that New Yorkers have heard the rumors from this side of the Atlantic about a Broadway transfer the new musical Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company musical based on Roald Dahl's children's story. Reviews for Matilda have been raves. There was hardly a dissenting voice, and I can see exactly why. The cast can't be bettered. The children are terrific; there are four little girls alternating in the title role and — checking with colleagues who saw the show on different nights — every one of them is reportedly a gem). The physical production by Matthew Warchus is superb and every technical element from lighting to costumes to choreography and all the other departments are all candidates for Best-whatever in all the theatre prizes for this and any other year. Here's the problem from my point of view: I have always found Dahl to be a cruel writer and his cruelty is not in any way ameliorated in this musical. Matilda is still the victim of her horrible parents, who treat her monstrously. But, as we know, children love cruelty, especially when it is inflicted on other children. It is we grown-ups who are upset by it. Or I am, anyway. The children in the audience were on their feet, cheering.

A footnote on this musicals section: Pippin has hit town again. It appears in a new production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that petite hotbed of American musical revivals which gave rise to the international productions of Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music, La Cage aux Folles, etc. Menier is no neophyte when it comes to rediscovering the essence of great shows. Pippin's designs place the show inside a video game, a conceit which will be recognizable to any boy who loves computers. What strikes me is the extent to which Pippin is, in a way, the other half of Wicked, not coincidentally also by Stephen Schwartz. If Wicked is the perfect show for pre-pubescent girls, so this version of Pippin is perfect for boys of the same age. The love interest is peripheral and stuffed into the last third of the show so as not to upset boys who aren't yet interested in girls, and the choreography — a hybrid of new work and pick-ups from Bob Fosse at his genius best — is well integrated into the fast-moving modernistic images. This production, unusually for the Menier, is undercast but a zippy American cast could solve that problem. Perhaps this one will cross the Atlantic, allowing Broadway to see yet again what a fine show-maker Schwartz (Godspell) is. He knows just what to do to make musicals work, and his craft is a joy to see. He is one of the most successful, and most underrated, professionals in the theatre.

It's been a bit thin on the new plays scene recently if you don't count Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty (which was at least new to London in a spiffy production by Michael Attenborough, who has become something of a LaBute specialist at the Almeida) and, at Trafalgar Studios, a haunting meditation by Tim Price on life, suicide, depression and sisterly love called Salt, Root and Roe, which is stunningly well acted but so sad as to be almost unbearable to watch.

There's a revival of Marie Jones' Stones in his Pockets at the Tricycle which focuses not on the humor which was the core of the play in its first productions here and in New York but on the darkness. Jones describes it as "a drama about the disintegration of a rural community and the tragedy that brings to its people." Ah, well, I enjoyed it more the first time around when it was funnier, but I see her point. And while we're on Ireland and the Irish, the National's co-production with the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, of Sean O'Casey's masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock boasts a massively accomplished all-Irish cast headed by Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds.

And now I'm off to watch "Grey's Anatomy" with some Kung Pao Chicken for company. You can see why.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)


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