A LETTER FROM LONDON: Memphis Hops Across the Pond and The Blokes-Fest That Is Neville's Island

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Memphis Hops Across the Pond and The Blokes-Fest That Is Neville's Island
The monthly missive from Across the Pond reflects on the history of British musical theatre and on some new on stage offerings.

Beverley Knight in <i>Memphis</i>
Beverley Knight in Memphis Photo by Johan Persson


I was reminded this week of a story told me by the great choreographer Gillian Lynne some years ago. This was way back in the Dark Ages, before Sir Cameron Mackintosh was a Sir, before Andrew Lloyd Webber was a Lord, and long before Dame Gillian Lynne was a Dame. They were just young people with a crazy idea. Mackintosh, then young and broke but far from foolish, was the only producer who would even consider Lloyd Webber's mad idea of turning T.S. Eliot's cat poems into a stage musical. But he couldn't afford to pay any of his creative staff what they might otherwise have earned for directing, choreographing, lighting or otherwise mounting a big West End musical, so he offered them shares in the show.

Nobody, including its progenitors, really believed that a show with no human characters and no stars (Judi Dench, also now a Dame, had been intended to lead the cast but was injured just before opening night) had a chance of succeeding but they wanted to do it anyway and they took the shares in payment. At that time all the major shows, even those set in England such as My Fair Lady, came from Broadway.

Cats opened in London, at the New London, a huge theatre that hadn't had a hit for years, and was an immediate and enormous smash hit. It was to change the face of musical theatre and to start an unbroken string of international British musicals heading back across the Atlantic to Broadway which would last for more than 20 years. Cats' entire cast was dancers in feline costumes and their movement, as realistic as she could make it, was based on Gilli Lynne's own three domestic moggies. The critics raved about the choreography, pointing out, correctly, that she had invented an entirely new vocabulary for dance, albeit based on her time as a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, her subsequent West End experience and, she will tell you, living with three cats. All the Cats cast were British and were lauded for their performances of Gilli's dances.

A year later, Mackintosh transferred the show to Broadway. Confidently, Gilli Lynne set out to conquer Broadway with her dances only to discover that American stage dancers, the 'gypsies,' were better trained, better disciplined, and just plain better than their British counterparts. Coming out of the English dance tradition, Lynne was shocked to see just how big a gap there was between her London cast and this new crop. Where the British cast had struggled mightily to learn the Cats choreography, these Amerian dancers were picking it up with only one demonstration at the auditions. She made a risky decision — to ditch her choreography which had been, and continued to be, so successful in London, and to completely re-make the dances for the stronger cast in New York. When Cats opened at the Winter Garden and was, if possible, an even bigger hit there, she then returned to London and taught the British dancers the new choreography she had made in New York. Only dance critics who bothered to return to re-review the show noticed the difference but she did. That was in 1982. I thought about all that this week at the joyous production of the Broadway musical Memphis which opened this week to London with an all-British cast and starring Britain's home-grown Queen of Soul, the outstanding Beverley Knight. From first note to last each member of the company is every bit the equal of any dancer and singer to be found anywhere in the world and I'm as sure as I can be that Sergio Trujillo, this show's choreographer, had no difficulty finding British dancers who can do the intricate, fast-paced, complex dances he has built for them. Training in British dance and drama schools has now come all the way up.

Gemma Arterton in <i>Made In Dagenham</i>
Gemma Arterton in Made In Dagenham Photo by Manuel Harlan

But it must be said, having sat through two excellent home-grown musicals this month too, that there is something special about a good American musical, perhaps an added intensity that American perfectionism brings, if no longer to the performances, then to the writing and direction.

Made In Dagenham is a cheerful companion piece to the earlier Kinky Boots and the even earlier Billy Elliot. Once again it is based on working-class blue collar English grit and determination as a small group of women, sewing car seats in the Ford Factory in Dagenham (a particularly unlovely suburb of London), strike for better conditions in the face of opposition from, well, just about everybody including their own husbands. What's not to love? The music is catchy, the performances are charming, the women win. Well, it's not exactly West Side Story but, then, what is?

Certainly not Sunny Afternoon, another user-friendly British tuner about the rise and rise of the 60s group The Kinks. This of course has the advantage of being able to use The Kinks' own songs which raises the level of the show considerably. There's a fine central performance from John Dagleish as Ray Davies, the lead singer and leading light of The Kinks and from George Maguire as his brother, Dave, but, given the plethora of new musicals on the London stage right now, this one is going to be of interest mainly to aging fans of The Kinks who just want to hear those songs again. Mind you, there are a lot of us.

And now, as the Pythons used to say, for something completely different. At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the ravishing new 16th-century theatre (yes, I did write that, didn't I?) at Shakespeare's Globe there's a lively production of John Ford's 1633 drama Tis Pity She's A Whore. In this enclosed space, lit only by candlelight, it's possible to believe that brother and sister Giovanni and Annabella were as foolhardy and careless about their incestuous affair as Ford's melodrama and director Michael Longhurst suggests. Anything that brings you to the Wanamaker Playhouse, though, is to be encouraged as it remains the most beautiful theatre built in my lifetime.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, someone has decided that Neville's Island, Tim Firth's comedy about four men stranded on an island during a team-building exercise, should transfer from the Chichester Festival, where it was a mildly funny summer offering, to London's West End. Now at the Duke of York's theatre, these four hapless middle-management losers exemplify, to me at any rate, what's wrong with men in general and British men in particular. All I can imagine is that the same someone thought that current plays were too girly and believed there might be a market for a blokes-fest. Not one for a girls' night out but possibly for a pub outing. Over at the National Theatre the always-worth-watching DV8 Physical Theatre is doing John, which apparently started out as a portrait of a man looking for love and sex but, in practice and performance, turned into an examination of all aspects of running a gay bathhouse. Again, despite the remarkable dance and movement that DV8 put into everything they do, a limited audience, I'd have thought.

Molly Hanson and Adam Buchanan in <i>First Episode</i>
Molly Hanson and Adam Buchanan in First Episode

And in two of London's smallest theatres are two curiosities which are well worth a look. At the powerhouse Jermyn St Theatre is First Episode, Terence Rattigan's first play and an undoubted harbinger of the major works to come. The show is a charming delve into student life at Oxford in those innocent early 1930s when a famous actress is persuaded to come to star in a student production and thereby disrupts the lives of every one of the boys she comes into contact with. This is Rattigan doing what every young writer is advised to do — writing about what he knows.

At the King's Head is a play by Norman Mailer's wife, Norris Church, called Go See, a two-character look at a middle-aged anthropology professor (Peter Tate) and a porn actress (Lauren Fox) paid to talk dirty to paying customers from inside a glass booth. Set in the AIDs era, it talks of the fears and hopes of a generation scared of their own sexuality, now fortunately disappeared. What raises Go See above the level of a small-time fringe play is the presence of its creative team, attracted, I should think, by the eminence of the director Sondra Lee. Lee is a legend in New York, partly because of her longevity and partly because as actor, dancer, teacher, director, painter, filmmaker and writer, she has been central to New York's artistic life since she played Tiger Lily to Mary Martin's Peter Pan in 1954. The stunning sets are by Broadway designer Klara Zeiglerova and lighting is by Olivier Award winner Mike Robertson. For the first time the King's Head looks like the Palladium.

(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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