A LETTER FROM LONDON: Stephen Sondheim Takes a Bow, Plus Eve Best and Sweeney Todd

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Stephen Sondheim Takes a Bow, Plus Eve Best and Sweeney Todd
A roundup of spring parties in London, including the presentation of the Sheridan Morley Prize to Stephen Sondheim, plus visits to his Sweeney Todd and the Old Vic's Duchess of Malfi starring Eve Best.

Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


"I've been to a mahvellous party." Well, all right, that was Noel Coward, not me, but in fact I've been to several sensational parties. I gave my own mahvellous party too, at the ancient theatrical Garrick Club, the home in Covent Garden of David Garrick, the actor-manager who revolutionized acting style in the 18th century and beyond. My husband, the theatre critic and biographer Sheridan Morley, was a lifelong member of the Garrick, as was his father, the actor Robert Morley, so this grand and beautiful townhouse is the obvious place to hold our annual celebration of the art of theatre writing. The Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography, known among the theatre fraternity as "The Sherrys," is awarded every year for the best show business biography, autobiography, or diary. It takes in books published in the U.S. and Australia as well as the U.K. and "theatre" in this context has a broad definition which includes theatrical personalities of all kinds including dance, comedy, film and video as well as traditional stage. This year, as chair, I waded through nearly 50 books, and ran my starry jury ragged. The 2012 jury was the playwright Martin Sherman, the critic Georgina Brown, and last year's winner, the actor/director/writer Simon Callow. Under a larger-than-life portrait of Sheridan's grandmother, the actress Gladys Cooper, tout London gossiped, drank champagne and met the authors of the shortlisted books.

The Sherrys' grand prize is £2000, one of the highest for any British literary prize, plus an engraved scroll and a bottle of the best champagne. The winner, who had been shortlisted last year for his first volume of memoirs and lyrics, was Stephen Sondheim who, having previously said that the only prizes worth having were those which had money attached to them, was both gracious and funny, "I'm thrilled," he said, "what more could any writer want than a Prize which gives you recognition, liquor and cash?"


Bob Lockyer

At The Place, London's premier modern dance venue, equivalent to the Joyce in New York, Bob Lockyer, the man responsible for all the dance seen on the BBC for 40 years, celebrated his 70th birthday by commissioning seven new dance works by the likes of Richard Alston, Bob Cohan and Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet. Over the champagne, I looked around at a room crammed with the great and the good of British dance of all kinds, from break- to ballet to Broadway to bizarre, and thought that without these people the face of modern dance, always thought to be American-led, could never have developed the way it did. *

Another mahvellous party was that given by American producer Ellen Krass for the cinema launch of the Broadway stage version of Company, Stephen Sondheim's first, and some would say greatest, hit. Even if you saw it on stage, this filmed version is worth seeing as the close-up view of the performers definitely changes the perspective and all the dynamics of the characters shift into a different focus. The room was full of movie people, West End theatre movers and shakers, British actors who specialize in Sondheim, and a few, like me, who will cross an ocean to see Company or anything by Sondheim.

And talking of Sondheim, which, as some of you have pointed out, I almost always am, you will, I confidently predict, never see a better production of his Sweeney Todd than the one selling out in the West End at the Adelphi. Michael Ball, darling of the blue-haired set on matinée days in his own show of easy listening favorites, is unrecognizable as the damaged, desperate barber as he seeks revenge from a corrupt judge for the death of his wife and daughter and his own unfair criminal incarceration. In his nefarious (and hilarious) effort to slit the throat of every one of his barbershop clients he is abetting his landlady by providing meat for her pieshop where she sells, she assures him at their first meeting, "the worst pies in London."

Ball's clear baritone soars in Sondheim's difficult music, now caressing, now murderous, always in control and he inhabits his character with an authority I didn't know he had. And Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Lovett, his helpmeet and partner in crime, deserves an entire column of her own to praise her on every level — vocal, emotional, comedic, dramatic and musical. This is truly a performance which has every actor in London who is not actually in a show themselves flocking to see. Stand in the lobby at intermission and you'll hear actors discussing the finer points of the two central performances to see how they do it.

Best in Duchess of Malfi.
Photo by Alastair Muir

The prodigiously talented Eve Best, whom Americans know best as the English doctor on TV's "Nurse Jackie," is chewing up the magnificent cathedral set at the Old Vic as the eponymous Duchess of Malfi in John Webster's Jacobean tragedy about the widowed Duchess imprisoned and tortured by her brothers for marrying her steward. Buckets of blood, a severed hand, wax corpses, dead children, madness and incest, all the fun of the fair is here, and it's always a challenge to keep the audience focused on the drama and not laughing at the over-the-top, one-after-the-next disasters that befall the hapless Duchess. Even after she finally dies, there is still the death of her frightful brothers — the Cardinal, no less, and the nobleman — and their henchman Bosola to accomplish and here Jamie Lloyd directs with a sure and confident hand, one that remains, we trust, attached to his arm.

Happier, much happier, is Shades of Blue, a new show performed by Harold Sanditon in cabaret venues on both sides of the Atlantic. Sanditon is a good story. An American who has lived in London for 25 years, he was, when I met him first, a successful West End theatre producer. His success, though, never completely obliterated his yearning to perform, specifically, to sing. This is an ambition common to many businessmen but few have the courage to quit their day jobs and follow their dream to an entirely new way of life.

It is good, therefore, to report that Harold Sanditon, who did just that, has succeeded beyond his own wildest dreams in his Shades of Blue, at what has become London's premiere cabaret venue, The Pheasantry, in Chelsea. Blue is a sophisticated and intelligent collection of songs well sung. They all have some connection with the color or the mood but what strikes the listener is that the singer has thought through each of the lyrics and is pulling every shade of meaning from them. His voice and presentation are infinitely stronger than they were even a year ago and he isn't the same performer as when he started to find himself in this complicated world of a man in a spotlight with a mic. The audience likes him, enjoys his easy way with a joke and a tune, and is entertained by the idea of an entertainer who is palpably enjoying every moment of his new life. Harold Sanditon is having such a good time that he makes every show a "mahvellous party."

Check out Playbill.com's London listings.

 (Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) *

Check out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting.

Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball
Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball Photo by Catherine Ashmore
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