Onstage in London

Special Features   Onstage in London
Playbill's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reports on new shows that are the talk of the West End.

Playbill's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reports on new shows that are the talk of the West End.

Pam Gems, who forced us to see Piaf as more than a collection of songs and neuroses, has now done the same for Stanley, Spencer of that ilk, the British painter who married sex to Jesus Christ and came up with Bach. Something like that, anyway, these being his defining influences.

Antony Sher, looking and sounding as Spencer did, like a Cookham grocer rather than one of the leading artists of his generation, redefines himself as an actor with this finely observed portrayal of an ego so out of control that he believed himself to be entitled to the undivided attention of any woman he wanted.

As it happened, he wanted his clever, saintly wife Hilda, explaining impatiently that he needed the time she gave to their children for himself as much as he needed to give their house to the odious upper-class Patricia, so that she would live with him. Anna Chancellor's glacial Patricia is an amoral, extravagant child/woman who insists on sharing her life, even honeymooning, with Dorothy, her "longtime companion," sensitively limned by Selina Cadell in an unsensationalist but brilliant performance.

Old Stanley, with his passions for Giotto, Cooldlarn, sex, the nonstop sound of his own voice and what he wrongly defined as artistic honesty, must have been a tiresome companion to Augustus John and the other luminaries of his between-the-wars artsy world. "Decorators, drunks or daft in the head" is how Stanley describes Patricia's Bloomsbury set friends, but Pam Gems's gem of a play and John Caird's painterly production makes him endlessly fascinating. Caird and his designer Tim Hatley have hung and lit reproductions of Spencer's paintings all over the Cottesloe so that we don't forget the conflation of sacred and profane that inform all of Stanley's self-justificatory speeches, perorations of such ego-ridden carelessness that the laughter they generate has a kind of gob smacked admiration. They are often couched in that profoundly English embarrassment in which sex is freely discussed but never in real words, only with sentences trailing off and awkward pauses. He is willing, indeed avid, to do what he is incapable of saying.
Caird has assembled a cast of rare quality with Deborah Findlay's Hilda, a haunted and haunting testament to earth mothering without a cause; and Anna Chancellor gives Patricia just the right combination of hauteur and girlishness, while Selina Cadell triumphs as Dorothy. Antony Sher's peerless Spencer peers at his shambles of a domestic situation through owl-like glasses and never stops talking in his Essex accent, but Stanley belongs to the women.

By the end, in true English style, Stanley is alone, having driven Hilda first mad, then into an early grave, and Patricia, still living with the long-suffering Dorothy, is estranged from Stanley but delighting in being addressed as Lady Spencer. Serves him right.

The smaller the better: The lesson of this winter season around the fringe of the West End has been that big, old Broadway blockbusters can come back to us looking as good as new in intimate surroundings on a budget that would barely have bought a few costumes the first time.

After last month's South Pacific at the Drill Hall, we now get Damn Yankees at the Bridewell. This is the Faust story updated to 1955, where a middle-aged man sells himself to the Devil (here called Mr. Applegate) in order to become a young baseball player who rescues his favorite team from their arch rivals those Damn Yankees. Instead of a huge opera house setting the last and only professional London production was at the Coliseum here again we get a powerful pocket-handkerchief version of a big brash musical, one of only two written by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Only the previous year had these two burst onto the Broadway scene with The Pajama Game, an equally exuberant celebration of American factory life. Only one year later they were to disappear from the scene completely, leaving a shelfful of Tony Awards and two musicals deeply rooted in the American psyche. There is nothing more central to Americana than baseball and business, and Adler and Ross cornered the market on both.

There are actually only two memorable songs, but they are classics the irrepressibly optimistic "You've Gotta Have Heart" and the mock seductive "Whatever Lola Wants," and most of the others simply plug a hole in the plot. As a show, Damn Yankees has never really worked for me; maybe you really have to care about The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, to quote the title of the book from which all this came. In a patchy cast Peter Gale is outstanding as Applegate, and Carol Metcalfe's production is wonderfully energetic; all in all, a rather better evening than the recent Broadway revival.

At the Bush a season of new plays under the overall title London Fragments opens with one, which could scarcely be closer to home. Goldhawk Road is where the theatre, as well as this Simon Bent drama is set; it concerns an assortment of local losers hanging around a derelict flat waiting for an old man to die. Two may or may not be his sons, and one is a home help, but we are not really in Pinter territory here. If there is a guiding scenario, it is surely that of The Cherry Orchard where, again, everyone moves out, leaving a forgotten man to die alone.

Danny Webb, who was wonderfully strange in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny is wasted here as a manic drug dealer and all-purpose wiseguy, while Neil Stuke, so appealing in the Royal Court's Not a Game For Boys, is equally strong to less purpose here. In fact all the performances are smashing; the director, Paul Miller, never puts a foot wrong, but we are still up against the fact that eight characters are left searching for an author with some kind of a plot.

Bent has a real talent for characters and dialogue. His people are recognizable, and although totally lost in a city, which seems not to care about their existence, they have a lugubrious sense of humor even when facing up to their own disasters. Goldhawk Road is an inner-city lament for people who have dropped below street level and are now going quietly mad in a forlorn attempt to understand what is going on above and beyond their own squatters' hell. The humor comes mostly from their attempts to rise above their various catastrophes into a stratosphere that seems to consist mostly of a share in a bus company, but at the end, the characterization is so much more powerful than the context.

-- By Sheridan Morley

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