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

By Ruth Leon
17 Sep 2012

The Royal Family of Strange People are among performers at Priceless London Wonderground
The Royal Family of Strange People are among performers at Priceless London Wonderground

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.

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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.

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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.



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