A LETTER FROM LONDON: Ragtime, The Sunshine Boys, New Venues and More

By Ruth Leon
23 Jul 2012

Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths
Photo by Johan Persson
And now: the roundup of what's opened and playing in London since last we talked. Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys has reappeared in the West End and is selling out, which has, I suspect, more to do with the marquee names than the slightly creaky jokes. The two old boys reuniting for a one-time-only television comedy show after many years of mutual loathing are played here by the American comic actor Danny de Vito and the British dramatic actor Richard Griffiths. Either one can form a queue at the box office, and together they're a "don't miss" combination.

The Royal Court has a new take on the hospital drama. In Birthday, Stephen Mangan is the househusband in labor with his second child. The wife, a chilly Lisa Dillon, bore the first, and now it's his turn. This is as much a comedy about the National Health Service as about childbirth, a wry exploration by Joe Penhall of the hormonal chaos wrought by bearing children and the marital fault lines it exposes. The audience is appreciatively sympathetic as the husband becomes increasingly deranged as labor progresses — all except the young (or at least those who haven't experienced childbirth yet), who are mystified.

Ragtime is, in my opinion, the greatest musical of the last quarter of the 20th century not written by Stephen Sondheim. It was, in fact, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, with a book adapted by Terrence McNally from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. There are thousands of bad adaptations of good books, and hundreds of good adaptations of bad books, but this is that rare animal (I can only think of one other) where the show is actually as good as the original material and the original material is just splendid. (The other is My Fair Lady.) In all truth, this production in Regent's Park by Tim Sheader is not the best I've seen. In a misguided and thoroughly unnecessary attempt to make the show "relevant," he has it begin and end on a modern junk heap with the cast dressed in rags. There's some pretty ragged singing, too, and Javier de Frutas's choreography, while exemplary in other shows, misses on several levels. But it's still Ragtime, and once they get the directorial conceit out of the way, the show returns to the beginning of the 20th century and to being about nothing but the teething pains of America.

The score is, song by song, still as moving and fresh as the first time I saw Ragtime (in an enormous theatre on 42nd Street in New York) and the last time I saw it (in the tiny Landor Theatre, in a London suburb). Like all the great musicals, no matter what you do to it, it will always, always be great.

Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki in Ragtime.
photo by Johan Persson

A sidebar to Ragtime is that the theatre where it is being performed, The Open Air in Regent's Park, is celebrating its 80th birthday. When it opened, tickets were five shillings each. As a birthday gift to its patrons, the theatre sold all its seats on its anniversary date, July 13, for the equivalent price: 25 pence (about 40 cents). A charming idea — but, sadly, one that lived for just a day.

I mentioned that there's a new cabaret space at Brasserie Zédel. It will be known as The Crazy Coqs. The burgeoning cabaret scene in London has now opened two more spaces to take up the slack where the late, lamented Pizza on the Park used to be. In Wandsworth, way off the beaten theatrical path, is a charming, 180-seat auditorium called Lost Theatre (LOST turns out to be an acronym, not a description, of the London Oratory School Theatre). It is a perfect space for the more theatrical cabarets, such as the one presented by singer-actor Peter Straker. His collection of the songs of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel are sensitively performed against the background of his life. As all Brel enthusiasts know, the songwriter died of alcohol and cigarettes in 1978 at the age of 49, but Straker does a wonderful job of illustrating why he is still remembered and performed.

Also noteworthy on the cabaret front is the opening of an impressive new space, The Matcham Room in the London Hippodrome gambling casino. This is the same building where the old Talk of the Town used to be, in a huge former theatre designed by the great architect Frank Matcham at the turn of the last century. My parents took me there as a child to see Marlene Dietrich because, they said, she was a phenomenon and everybody ought to see her at least once. Janie Dee, a much loved and awarded English singer, actress and double Olivier Award winner, opened the space with her quirky and charming signature set of carefully chosen songs. Accompanied by Alexander Bermanche, she is an elegant and accomplished guide to the cabaret form. From Gershwin to Alan Ayckbourn, via many side trips to other songwriters and other languages, her versatility and pin-accurate voice allow her to tackle a range far broader than most cabaret acts, and her enchanting personality persuades everyone in her audience to fall in love with her. Cabaret, to misquote Jacques Brel, is alive and well in London.

Check out Playbill.com's London listings.

 (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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