A LETTER FROM LONDON: Much Ado in India, Cabaret and I Am a Camera, Alan Ayckbourn's Chorus of Disapproval

By Ruth Leon
November 3, 2012

A look at London's East Indian-set Much Ado About Nothing; Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in All That Fall; Cabaret and its source material, I Am a Camera; A Chorus of Disapproval; and two new modern-war plays.



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What on earth are Dame Eileen Atkins and Sir Michael Gambon doing in a tiny, 60-seater basement as the stars and only characters of a play none of us has ever heard of? Theatrical royalty, knights and dames, are, when sighted onstage, usually in major West End theatres, not hidden away beneath an Italian restaurant. All is revealed when you know that the play, All That Fall, is by the late great Samuel Beckett.

We thought we knew all the plays of Samuel Beckett. The deliberate silences, the darkness, the obscurity, the bleakness, the purposeful use of odd stage directions for his characters — a woman is buried up to her neck in sand, a couple live in garbage cans, a man trudges endlessly back and forth playing tapes of his own voice, a play using only a mouth — are all devices familiar to the intellectual theatregoer.

Sam Beckett — the playwright who makes Harold Pinter as clear as Noël Coward, and as funny — has a "new" play, new to us, that is. It was originally written for radio, still a thriving theatrical medium in Britain, and its author consistently refused to allow it to be staged. Even now the two actors are clutching scripts, making it clear that this is not a staging of the play but a staged reading, complete with fake microphones. Still, it is new and it is Beckett so the director, Sir Trevor Nunn, matches the celebrity of the stars.

The Jermyn Street Theatre is one of my favorite London theatres, and the only one I can think of where the audience can't go to the bathroom during the play because it is behind the stage and you'd have to cross the playing area to get to it. The Beckett estate is notoriously secretive and it's a coup for this tiny theatre to have been granted the rights.

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Paul Bhattacharjee and Meera Syal in Much Ado About Nothing.
photo by Ellie Kurttz

One of the most interesting juxtapositions of Shakespeare I've seen in a while is the new West End Much Ado About Nothing (by Royal Shakespeare Company) reset from Italy to India and starring an all-Asian cast. In a country with a huge indigenous Indian community this makes perfect sense, especially when it stars our two best-known British-Indian actors, Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee as Beatrice and Benedick. Even the sub-plot, that idiotic notion about virginity and betrayal between Hero and Don Carlo, makes sense when set in a community where virginity and honor are still important notions.

This Much Ado is colorful and intelligent. I just wish it hadn't come so hard on the heels of two other splendid productions of less than a year ago. You can have too much of a good thing.

I never feel old, never. If anything, I feel too young to cope with everything that's happening in our world. But this week I saw a tribute band show about the Beatles, Let It Be, and realized that I could sing every single lyric, knew every note, instantly recognized every song from the very first notes of the introduction.

Whether the performers in the show, an interchangeable group who look sort of like the Beatles, are any good or not doesn't matter. What does is that they brought my youth alive, a time when it was all ahead of me. The entire audience had grey hair and was on its feet throughout, singing, laughing, dancing. It is really fun and if you're the right age you'll love it. Would I go back to that time? No, but I was glad to revisit it for a couple of hours.

Laurence Fox and Cian Barry in Our Boys.
Photo by Alastair Muir
And now for, as Monty Python used to say, something completely different. With an unpopular war or two going on it is inevitable that the theatre will hold up a mirror to what's happening.

Not over there, but over here when the boys get back. Our Boys at the Duchess Theatre is a searing and beautifully written drama by Jonathan Lewis about six young men — recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — in a military hospital ward recovering (or not) from various wounds, both physical and emotional.

Bully Boy, at the new St. James Theatre, is a two-actor play about war, friendship, and that perennial British preoccupation, class. It stars Anthony Andrews — in his strongest performance in years — as a wheelchair-using officer of the old school, trying to decide whether a chippy working-class soldier (Joshua Miles, almost frighteningly believable) is or is not culpable in the death of his comrades.

Bully Boy is, rather surprisingly, by the writer-comedienne Sandi Toksvig, who has managed to get into the heads of these alpha male characters and write a scary examination of what war means today.

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On a (much) lighter note, at the Pinter Theatre is Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval. Ayckbourn is the master of the English middle class. His infallible ear for the way people actually speak and his ability to heighten without parody is uncanny. In this comedy about community theatre or, as it known here, amdram, is not only funny but possessed of a splendid understanding of English innocence. Nigel Harman plays a man who joins a small town group putting on a production of The Beggar's Opera and, with no intention to do so, proceeds to decimate the company both on- and off-stage. Ayckbourn writes the best first acts outside of Shakespeare, although, as here, by the second act, the hilarious situations he has set up in the first tend to tip over into preposterousness by the end. No matter, A Chorus of Disapproval is hugely entertaining.

Michelle Ryan in Cabaret.
Photo by Keith Pattison
Interesting to see, in the same month, a small theatre production of John van Druten's I Am A Camera, based on the "Berlin Stories" of Christopher Isherwood, and a major new West End production of the Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, from the same source material. They're both very good indeed. The play is performed in an old wine vault, musty and dark, perfect for this evocation of the decadent Berlin '30s, leading to the catastrophe that was World War Two. Splendidly acted, directed and designed, this version is well worth the trip to the Southwark Playhouse.

Rufus Norris' new production of Cabaret is shockingly good. I had misgivings when I heard that Will Young, the first winner of television's "Pop Idol," was to play the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. This is an iconic role, as specific to Joel Grey as Yul Brynner was to The King and I, and I doubted whether Young had the dramatic chops to carry it. Wrong, again. He's really creepy in a disgustingly playful way, just as he should be, and Rufus Norris' dark production pays proper attention to the seedy and sordid side of Sally Bowles' Berlin life.

The score soars as always, Sian Phillips and Linal Haft are affecting as the older couple in '30s Berlin who simply can't be together because he is Jewish and she isn't, and, although young Michelle Ryan in her first major role, is no Liza Minnelli, her Sally Bowles has just the right touch of louche sexiness to carry her.

Javier di Frutos disjointed, spasmodic choreography is a true metaphor for a fragmented decadent society fast descending into goose-stepping Nazi chaos. The underlying menace, intentioned by its authors, leads to a terrifying final scene, which I won't spoil for you, but which confirms Rufus Norris, along with Jamie Lloyd whose Cyrano has recently won plaudits on Broadway, as the best of the young British directors.

(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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