A LETTER FROM LONDON: Powerful Dramas Pack the Stages and May is a Memorable Month

By Ruth Leon
05 May 2014

Natascha McElhone and Mark Bazeley in <em>Fatal Attraction</em>
Natascha McElhone and Mark Bazeley in Fatal Attraction
Photo by Alastair Muir

The monthly missive from Across the Pond pays a visit to Other Desert Cities and reports on the stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction

This might be known as the month when our national treasure, Angela Lansbury, returned to the London stage after many years on American television's "Murder, She Wrote." Or it could be the month when London got to see one of the finest American plays of the past few years, Other Desert Cities, in a Old Vic production, which I'm proud to report is every bit as strong as the Broadway version. Or it might be the month we celebrate arguably the worst play ever brought to the West End. Take your pick.

Let's tackle the last first. Fatal Attraction is almost bad enough for me to urge everybody who reads this to go see it. Almost, but not quite. The sad part of this set of serial disasters is that it ought to have been good, or, at least, not this bad. It has a respectable cast of West End A-listers, a respected designer, and a former head of the National Theatre as its director. But from the very first line, delivered portentously against a neon blue set of shifting screens that almost, but not quite, obscure the actors, the audience starts to titter. You remember the movie — Glenn Close and Michael Douglas as a one-night stand that goes psychotically wrong, an idiotic sexual interlude with catastrophic consequences — a pair of terrific screen actors having fun with a good script. Suffice to say that the best acting in this stage adaptation comes from the bunny.

That's all the bad news out of London this month. The rest of it has been pretty fabulous.

Noël Coward wrote five great comedies and about 50 other plays that were pretty good. From the moment Angela Lansbury steps onto the stage as the dotty medium in Blithe Spirit, one of the great ones, you know you're in the presence of a master who knows exactly what she needs to do to make you laugh, and then does it. From her tightly coiled orange braids through her Turkish ragbag of a costume, dripping with enormous jewels, to her sensible shoes, to her meticulous timing, she is on top of every moment, every line. The rest of the cast are excellent and Charles Edwards is particularly fine as the husband who has to cope not only with a tough new wife, but also with trying to dispose of the ghost of his flighty former wife, but, in truth, Lansbury, a remarkable 88 and counting, makes it her play as much as Coward's and owns it from beginning to end. Blithe, indeed, and blissful.

Sinéad Cusack, that most Irish of Irish actors, is simply brilliant as the elegant and destructive Jewish mother in that most Californian of plays, Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic. As Baitz dissects the effect on a rich Palm Springs family of a tell-all memoir by their most accomplished but damaged member, the seeds of Californian conservatism in the mode of Reagan and Schwarzenegger begin to sprout, and the schism between Right and Left emerge with laser clarity. This is a deeply political play as well as a family saga. As every character limns their own limitations, so does the political structure of this richest and poorest State reveal itself. Martha Plimpton is a welcome visitor to our shores in the role of the daughter who will blow up her family with her pen, and the sole American actor in an all-British cast. I noticed, but not until the play was over, that every actor's American accent was flawless, which says something for the training at British drama schools.


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