A LETTER FROM LONDON: Merrily We Roll Along, Privates on Parade, Constellations, Kiss Me, Kate and More
By Ruth Leon
Maria Friedman, John Lithgow, Simon Russell Beale, Alex Bourne, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Harriet Walter, Phyllida Lloyd, Hannah Waddingham punctuate this month's look at London theatre.
What an extraordinary job theatre is. You go along for weeks seeing play after play, musical after musical, most of which are perfectly competent — well rehearsed, well acted — and yet you remain unmoved. This is when the coven of critics clutter the aisles, muttering about the lack of good writing and how we should give it up because there's nothing good to see any more. Then you hit a week — one single week in a whole season — when the stage lights up, when the performances are perfect, and when you're so grateful to be alive and able to be part of it, even as a member of the audience.
In just such a week I recently saw the best play of the London season, the best play revival, and the two best musical revivals of the year.
Here's my week.
Tuesday — I go to the Menier Chocolate Factory with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Why dread? Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along is the musical on offer and, despite its exquisite score, rarely works as a production. Also, because it is directed by a friend of mine — her directorial debut, no less — and I desperately want her to succeed, though with this show, I fear she may not. I need not have worried. Maria Friedman, a great singer much loved in the U.K. for her starring appearances in musicals, is better known in the U.S. for her cabaret appearances. She is not known on either continent as a director.
Merrily is a story of a friendship that begins on a rooftop in 1957, where three recent college graduates gather to see Sputnik, the first satellite, a symbol of the bright future in store for them. It ends in disillusion and disappointment, the friends each in their own ways having failed to realize those bright futures. Beginning to understand why the show rarely plays well? If the depressing nature of life doesn't get to you, the structure of the show will — the story is played backward, so our first view of the protagonists is when their friendship has crumbled and they're confronting the mess they've made of their lives. All the joy in this show is in the second half, as they get younger.
Sailing out on a post-war tide of optimism, the characters begin to face the darkening events of Vietnam, Black Power, nuclear threat, race riots, and a world in constant turmoil. Slowly, as they get younger, these stumbling blocks, not yet experienced, disappear. This director has exposed the great play that was buried inside a great musical. (And Friedman has cast it properly.) Brava!
Wednesday — imagine quantum physics in play form. Can't? Neither could I. Except that Constellations at the Duke of York's, the best play of this season and one of the best new plays in years, is just that. Compulsively watchable, this two-actor love story about a scientist and a beekeeper, who meet, marry, love, and argue until one of them dies, is the verbal equivalent of string theory.
Early in Constellations, Marianne (Sally Hawkins in a performance of intense delight) explains to the boy she has just met (Rafe Spall, a mixed up bundle of non-cloying sweetness) that everything we are and everything we are not is contained within each of us. He has no idea what she is talking about but finds her irresistibly sexy. In return, he proposes by reading her a description he has written about the lifecycle of the honey bee. These simple scenes are repeated with slight variations as if to demonstrate the alternative realities of our lives. Each of the recurring themes exists in its own space. Time, Marianne tells us, is not the same for everyone. So, what is time? What is love? What is death? And do any of them really exist? Hawkins and Spall are so real, so loving and loveable, that they appear not to be actors at all, so fine is their acting, just two people on an empty stage, a couple trying to make sense of the universe.
Thursday — Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. I've never met a grown-up human being who didn't adore Kiss Me, Kate. Sam and Bella Spewak's dazzling script, Cole Porter's unbeatable songs, divas, gangsters, dancing, jokes, and even Shakespeare make Kiss Me, Kate all that it is. A touring theatre company, on the brink of disaster, is mounting a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew. The impresario and leading man, Fred Graham, has brought in his ex-wife, Lili, to play Katharine to save the company's fortunes and the spats between them form the show's backbone. As Katharine/Lili, Hannah Waddingham is marvelous — her burnished soprano suddenly changing to belt and back — and Alex Bourne, new to me, is a fine foil as her Fred. As pure fun, this is the most entertaining show in London.
Friday — What a treat, that great actor Simon Russell Beale, rightly lauded on both sides of the Atlantic for his classical roles in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and Stoppard, bumps up as the drag queen in Peter Nichols' wonderful Privates on Parade, a love letter to the ramshackle troop-entertainment company he joined in Malaya just after the war. Beale plays a camp captain who has found his perfect job in the army, directing an ill-assorted bunch of well-meaning troopers who've never sung or danced a step in their lives in dreadful song-and-dance numbers to cheer up their compatriots. It's Peter Nichols' best play, I think, even more poignant than A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Privates is a study of men rubbing along together in a desolate army unit miles from civilization, with a martinet for a commander and a sadist for a sergeant, interspersed with the songs themselves, wonderfully created by Denis King. Some made me laugh until tears ran down my cheeks, particularly the perfect Noel Coward pastiche, delivered by doughy Simon Russell Beale with the aplomb of the slender sophisticated Coward. If you know Coward, and my husband was his authorized biographer, it's even funnier, but there were plenty of laughs to go around for the uninitiated too. This is, no contest, the funniest play in London, with perhaps the best cast. Of course nobody's noticing the rest because Simon Russell Beale is so bloody wonderful. Don't imagine he's slumming, though — this kind of comedy is as tough as any Shakespeare to master and the concentration from the entire company rewards any audience.
Saturday — The Donmar, never a theatre to shirk its revolutionary tendencies, is embarked on a very brave experiment. Shakespeare's most testosterone-laden history play, Julius Caesar, is being played by an all-female cast and directed by Phyllida Lloyd. It's something of a muddle-headed concept, in my view, but fascinating to see women being the warriors, the conspirators, the villains and the aggressors. Despite some amazing performances from Harriet Walter as Brutus and Jenny Jules as a vicious Cassius, it doesn't work for me because it argues with Shakespeare's original intention, to show men at their contentious worst and women, although equally contentious, do their arguing in a different way. The production adds an explanatory scene at beginning and end to explain why these women are behaving as men — because they're incarcerated in a women's jail and there are no men. In which case, it would seem to me, they'd just do another play. That's just me, I suppose. Other critics and audiences are loving it, and claiming that they are seeing the play anew.
As to the rest of my month? Well, John Lithgow is prancing around the National Theatre doing a credible English accent as The Magistrate, a Victorian farce by Arthur Wing Pinero and having the time of his life. Over at Hampstead there's another splendid performance by Maureen Lipman, ably supported by Tracy-Ann Oberman, as mother and daughter in Old Money, a drama about a woman who only begins to live after the death of her husband.
To my amazement, having expected very little from yet another stage adaptation of a popular movie, I thoroughly enjoyed The Bodyguard, with Heather Headley as the rock superstar under threat from a stalker who hires a tough but attractive security guard who proves to be as much man as she can handle. The production is slick, the songs are inoffensive, and Headley is plain terrific. This show has to be Broadway bound.
(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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