A Letter from London: America Comes to the West End

London News   A Letter from London: America Comes to the West End
Columnist Ruth Leon highlights the London shows to see and skip.
Cherry Jones in <i>The Glass Menagerie</i>
Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie Michael J. Lutch

While Broadway welcomes a new Amanda Wingfield in Sally Field, we Londoners are being treated right now to a very fine production of The Glass Menagerie, a stunning transfer from Broadway circa 2013 directed by John Tiffany and starring three brilliant Americans and one brilliant Brit.

It helps, of course, that this production’s Amanda, Cherry Jones, grew up not two hours away from the hometown of Williams’ matriarch, a Southern lady who never quite loses her Mississippi nature despite years of living in Chicago. Jones knows her character down to the bone, from the silly frivolity of her chatter to the proud desperation of her ambition, and, within moments of meeting her, we know her too. The two men—Michael Esper as the Williams surrogate and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller—are very fine, but the evening is almost stolen by the sole Brit, Kate O’Flynn, as the damaged daughter, Laura. In her delicate performance, this shockingly shy girl is no pushover for either her overbearing mother or her own desires and hopes. This extraordinary young actor finds the multiple layers that Williams didn’t put into Laura’s dialogue but did write in his memoir of Rose, the younger sister whom he left in a cruel but necessary act of self-preservation, just as his alter ego does at the end of Menagerie. I don’t ever expect to see a better production of this great play.

Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith
Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith

Jones and Smith, who were Tony-nominated for their performances on Broadway, accompanied the production from across the Atlantic, and are treading the boards at the Duke of York’s Theatre through April 29. Tiffany was also Tony-nominated for his direction, and the production was awarded the Tony for best Revival of a Play. Esper and O’Flynn previously tackled the roles in the Edinburgh iteration of the show.

On the flip side of revivals, somebody must have thought it a good idea to revive Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 drama The Boys in the Band but, other than giving younger audiences a terrifying glimpse of how awful it could be to be gay in the years before AIDS, I can’t think why. Performed with the popular flowered shirts, permed hair, and bandanas of the time, the play seems so dated that the self-hate that permeates the proceedings, and indeed this community at the time, seems violently exaggerated. It isn’t. The Boys in the Band is now, fortunately for all of us, beyond its sell-by date. Directed by Adam Penford, Mark Gatiss stars as birthday boy Harold and Ian Hallard—real-life husband to Gatiss—as Michael, the party’s host.

I’ve just realized how American my month has been. At Hampstead Theatre through March 4 is Sex With Strangers, Chicagoan Laura Eason’s play about two writers, an older woman and a younger man, and the difficulties of getting a manuscript read and eventually published. It stars Emilia Fox, a big television star over here, and Theo James, recognizable to American audiences from Downton Abbey and the Divergent movies. The play is set in New York and both actors have reasonably authentic accents, although a New Yorker might find their cadences occasionally jarring. What is more difficult to take on board are the less-than-believable plot switches. Sex With Strangers is a bit too tidy.

In terms of what not to miss: I won’t bother you yet again with another paean of praise to Tom Stoppard’s breathtakingly good Travesties, because I did that last month, but it has now moved to the West End. If you’re in London any time soon, it’s the one play you must not skip.

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