A LETTER FROM LONDON: Soaking Up the Summer Sun, an Amusing Private Lives and Daniel Radcliffe Goes Dark in The Cripple of Inishmaan

By Ruth Leon
July 17, 2013

The monthly missive from Across the Pond introduces readers to summer in the city, Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in Private Lives and Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Summer finally arrived in London weeks after we'd given up on it. So late, in fact, that when it arrived we were all taken aback by its sweetness. The Royal Parks, the glory of our city living, are ablaze with floral color, the rose garden in Regent's Park is profligate in its almost absurd array of different hues and perfumes. Who knew there were so many varieties of roses? And, yes, it's hot, but nothing like the misery of a New York summer with all that humidity and the high buildings holding the heat. It's in the high 70s here during the day and the lobster-red of so many Londoners' skins at the end of a sunny day attests to some ill-advised and sudden exposure to Vitamin D.

It's not really theatre time, although the town is full of tourists who fill the seats at Wicked, Billy Elliott and Matilda. They dutifully troop around the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace but Londoners' hearts are down by the Thames at the ongoing outdoor festival that is held all day and night in lively Covent Garden Market. This is where the real summer theatre is to be found —  among the jugglers, street musicians, spontaneous performances and art exhibitions of a river city.

Here you can jump onto the London Eye, the rotating wheel whose capsules offer not only an unparalleled view all over London but also, should you wish it, the quintessential British summer drink, a long glass of Pimm's. Be careful, though. Pimm's tastes like fizzy fruity lemonade and packs a punch you won't be expecting. You can't miss London Wonderground, which has returned for its second spectacular year at Southbank Centre with a superlative line-up of circus, cabaret and family shows to delight and amaze, alongside bars, sideshows and outdoor performance spaces.

As you walk along the Thames on the South Bank, eating your way from one international foodie stall to the next and enjoying the outdoor entertainment that changes daily, you'll see some very big concrete beasts. These are our national showcases — the Hayward Gallery of Art, the British Film Institute for new and old movies, the Festival Hall for concerts, and, of course, the National Theatre. Without leaving the riverbank you can see a play in any of the National's four main performance spaces. They've just built the fourth, a big red wooden barn known as The Shed, already living up to its promise to provide new and experimental work.

This mass of activity Thameside is not to say that there's nothing happening on the streets in other parts of London. To the contrary, you can turn any corner and get caught up in a performance or concert. I just saw a splendid outdoor production of Julius Caesar all over the grounds, indeed, in the Actors' Church itself, amid the noise and flurry of Covent Garden. It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that even the buskers in the tube are becoming more accomplished and innovative. Coming out of the theatre the other evening, I heard a lovely mournful jazz version of 'Misty.' I looked around for the sax player to give him some coins but couldn't see him, even though the sound was close. Then I looked down. Sitting on the sidewalk was a young man playing...a traffic cone.

Anna Chancellor with Toby Stephens in Private Lives.
Photo by Donald Cooper

Stratford-upon-Avon is truly beautiful at this time of the year if the weather is good. The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its theatres and surroundings much more user-friendly and interactive. On weekends throughout the summer, the RSC's outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, situated on the banks of the River Avon, plays host to a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions. The RSC has really made an effort this year for children and families with a variety of theatre-related events from "Blood, Guts and Gore," a workshop on how to make realistic bruises, scars and cuts, conducted by the RSC's head of makeup, and another, Stage Fighting, on how to pull a punch and wield a sword. They also have a storytelling session for quite little children (up to the age of seven) about Hamlet and the opportunity to try on real stage costumes and even make them. Take a look at the Royal Shakespeare Company's website rsc.org.uk.

Back in London at the theatre (which is what I'm supposed to be writing about) is a very funny version of Noël Coward's most famous comedy, Private Lives, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. The more I see this play (and, believe me, I have seen it many, many times because my late husband, Sheridan Morley was the world's leading authority on Coward), the more convinced I become that Private Lives is the closest thing to a perfect comedy that exists in our universe. Even Shakespeare's best comedies, say, As You Like It, have a few boring moments the Bard threw in to allow his audiences to go to the loo or buy an orange, but Private Lives is so perfectly constructed that it has no holes, no seams, no languors. Every line is essential, every joke hits the mark, every moment is to be treasured.

And what of this production? Toby Stephens is the son of two of our greatest actors, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. I saw them in these same roles and I say, without hesitation, that this son has surpassed his father. These two stars make the play stronger, funnier, and, conversely, sadder, as it tells Coward's perennial lament of a couple who can live neither with nor without one another. The flimsy enough conceit of having a divorced couple meet on adjoining balconies on the first night of their honeymoons with different partners is all the plot Coward needed for precise word and picture portraits of real characters. It gives all four actors (Anthony Calf and Stephens' real-life wife, Anna-Louise Plowman, as the hapless second spouses) room to find a new and stronger play in this classic. Coward, never one to hide his light under a bushel, referred to the first act as "the second most famous balcony scene in theatre history."

Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Daniel Radcliffe has truly come of age as an actor, shedding Harry Potter forever, with a most accomplished and polished performance in the title role of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. Michael Grandage gathered a spectacularly fine cast around him for this wonderful play about loyalty and cruelty, set on a remote island in the west of Ireland. So far the Michael Grandage Company has had a major success with a variety of plays this season, all of which have dream casts from Simon Russell Beale to Judi Dench. The next one is Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed by Henry V, starring Jude Law. I'm looking forward to that.

On the Arthur Miller principle of "Attention must be paid," I draw attention to my longtime friends Sam Walters and his wife, the actor and director, Auriol Smith, who this season retire from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Outer London. Forty-two years ago, just after we all graduated, Sam announced his intention to produce theatre in a room above a pub and the Orange Tree was born. We expected Sam and Auriol to move on once their theatre had become an international success, but they didn't. Instead, they masterminded the building of a brand-new building, the first theatre-in-the-round in London, and over the years their reputation has grown and their policy of producing new plays and rediscovered masterpieces has given this tiny theatre a worldwide standing. To found and then run a successful theatre for 42 years is a remarkable achievement that should not go unnoticed. Godspeed, Sam and Auriol, whatever you do next.

(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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