A LETTER FROM LONDON: London Wonderground, Miriam Margolyes, The Last of the Haussmans and More

By Ruth Leon
September 17, 2012

This month's missive offers a reflection on World Stages London, a peek at the freaky London Wonderground, a reunion with Dickens' Women, plus The Last of the Haussmans, The Physicists and Democracy.



*

I do love being proven wrong, especially when something really good comes out of it. After complaining loudly about the futility of the various special theatrical events surrounding the Olympics, I was astonished to find that some had strong enough legs to carry them into next year and beyond.

World Stages London was, I thought, far too ambitious to have a chance of success. Nine London producing operations, from the Young Vic to Stratford East, working with nine international companies from Estonia, Belgium, Germany, Israel, Palestine, France and the U.S. to make individual theatre works was, I thought, a recipe for disaster.

Wrong. It has been a triumph. This theatrical celebration of London's diversity has included actors and directors from five continents (odd that they couldn't find a co-producer from Antarctica — there surely must be an inquisitive penguin with a yen to see Shakespeare's Globe) and audiences of more than 630,000. This is a small island. That's a lot of people.

Even the co-directors of World Stages London, David Lan and Nicola Thorold, were surprised by their own success. "We've been so encouraged by the response to the season and our ability to create work we can't make individually, we will continue with World Stages London in 2013 and beyond," they said. I promise not to be so dismissive next year.

In the meantime, there's little time left to experience the Priceless London Wonderground at Southbank Centre. Running until Sept. 30, this playground for the people features aerialists, sideshows, fairground rides, a bandstand and a museum of weird and wonderful creatures, along with the magnificent 1920s Spiegeltent. The producers are bringing a little taste of 20th-century Coney Island to the heart of 21st-century London. Expect oddities, curiosities and eccentricities around every corner.

There's a mutant barnyard with the largest collection of preserved freak animals in the southern hemisphere, including a two-headed turkey with three legs, an albino kangaroo, a double-faced piglet with three eyes, and oh so many more extraordinary freaks of nature. There are strong men and sword swallowers, the man with the stretchiest skin, performers who feel no pain — all up close and personal for your delicious delectation. In the center of Wonderground is a bandstand that plays host to all manner of free performances in the early evening during the week and throughout the day on weekends. Prepare to be thrilled and delighted on Thursdays and Fridays (between 6 and 8 PM) when some of the world's finest aerial artists take to the skies above you... without the safety of a net. And I dare you to try the Starflyer, one of the most truly terrifying rides in the world. Take your seat and view London like you never have before: with your eyes firmly shut. After a whirl on the Starflyer, "relax" on the Cyclone roller coaster, a stunning replica of the legendary Coney Island ride.

But don't worry: The Wonderground may astound, but there is still theatrical excitement to be found indoors, as well.

*

Miriam Margolyes in Dickens' Women.

I first saw Miriam Margolyes perform her one-woman Dickens' Women some 15 years ago in New York, long before we had met and become friends. I was so knocked out by the extraordinary sweep of her survey of the work of Charles Dickens, by the intelligence of the choices that she (and her co-writer and director Sonia Fraser) had made, and by the unremittingly high quality of her embodiment of the characters, that I broke the habit of a lifetime and went backstage to meet this paragon. Unfortunately, I had wasted too much time in the lobby cogitating on how kosher it was for a critic to meet an actress she was reviewing, and by the time I got to the stage door, Ms. Margolyes had left the theatre. As luck would have it — and believe me, the luck was all mine — some time later a mutual friend invited us both to dinner, and we have been mates ever since.

She moved on to other work, from Restoration comedy to Harry Potter, and I did too, so I never had the opportunity to see Dickens' Women again until a couple of weeks ago. I am glad to be able to report that it's even better now. Margolyes is a true Dickens scholar, having lit her passion as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and continued it throughout her life. She understands the novels from the inside and, when she talks onstage of Dickens's complicated psychology and the complexities of his life as demonstrated in his books, she knows whereof she speaks. This interior confidence shines through her show. She seems less to be performing than to be bringing Dickens himself and his stories into the light. She breaks your heart and she makes you scream with laughter. She doesn't need me to be proud of my clever friend, but I am.

Dickens' Women will be playing Boston in October and New York in November.

Helen McCrory, Julie Walters and Rory Kinnear in he Last of the Haussmans.
Photo by Alastair Muir
The Last of the Haussmans, a first play by actor-director Stephen Beresford at the National Theatre, is a soap opera narrowly retrieved from domestic comedy by outstanding performances from every actor on the stage. There is no plot, except a minor one about a family house being left, or not being left, to two grown-up children, or perhaps being sold to a local doctor — but, truly, it doesn't signify. It is a set of character studies of the fallout from the hippie culture of the '60s and '70s. Julie Walters, in a finely detailed turn as a drugged-out Joan Baez freak who has never grown out of her wild-child past, is the mother of exactly the children you'd expect her to have: Nicky, an irresponsible alcoholic and former heroin addict (another wonderfully judged performance from Rory Kinnear), and Libby, an uptight, sexually profligate control freak (Helen McCrory at her imploding best). Not surprising that Libby's 15-year-old daughter wants to live with the father neither of them has seen since she was born. Anything's better than living in this dilapidated house!

Vicki Mortimer's stunning revolving set is a star of the show; those of us who lived through the whole hippie experience were scouring the house for reminders of an almost forgotten past. Beresford is undoubtedly right that free-loving, let-it-all-hang-out, flower-power-era parents bear a terrible responsibility for what their children become — but come on, it's hardly a surprise that the sins of the father are visited on the son (or daughter). Still, there are some very good jokes and the play is at its best when it exploits them, as they are often very funny. Go see The Last of the Haussmans, by all means, but go for the performances and the fun, not the philosophy. Its run ends Oct. 11.

Patrick Drury and Aidan McArdle in Democracy.
photo by Tristram Kenton/Jo Allan PR

Michael Frayn's Democracy was one of those plays where the sensibility of the British audience was massively at odds with its American counterpart. You will remember that Michael Blakemore's production of this Cold War play (about the struggle for power inside the West German government of Willy Brandt and the East German spy who brought him down) transferred to Broadway with the full expectation that it would be as big a hit in New York as it had been in London's West End. And, to put it bluntly, it bombed on Broadway. My own American friends, regular theatregoers all, couldn't understand why I had recommended it. Universally, they found it "boring," "a bunch of Germans arguing," "incomprehensible, and who cares about these men in suits anyway?" My insistence that it was a great play in a brilliant production was attacked on all sides.

It resurfaced at the Old Vic this summer and, while it is not, perhaps, the great play I thought it then, it is certainly a very good play. It worked here, I realize, because each of the members of Brandt's cabinet of advisors had a British equivalent, a man clearly identifiable by his clothes and his accent. Those differentiations are not possible in America, where accents are regional, not class-based, and where everybody wears the same clothes no matter his class or station in life. No wonder they all seemed to be faceless to an American audience.

Friedrich Durrenmatt wasn't famous for his sense of humor, which makes his plays somewhat heavy going, but The Physicists, in its new version by Jack Thorne and directed by the Donmar Warehouse's new artistic director, Josie Rourke, is at least clear and at best riveting. (The run ended July 21.) We are in a lunatic asylum, presided over by a mad hunchback doctor (Sophie Thompson at her least restrained) and her nubile nurses, all of whom are murdered by the inmates. Well, I told you the jokes were heavy-handed. Each of the inmates is a physicist, and each thinks he's someone else — Einstein, Isaac Newton — thus avoiding the responsibility of being a physicist in the time of the atomic bomb. The play, first produced in 1962, highlighted the strains of its time and the conviction that scientists had made possible the destruction of the world. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this didn't seem like such a far-fetched worry. Rourke's production, on an all-white set by Robert Jones, is a clever reading of a difficult play made easier by fine performances, particularly from John Heffernan, the sanest of the inmates and the one most determined to appear mad.

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

Check out Playbill.com's London listings.

*

Check out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.