What's Hot in London -- March 1997

Special Features   What's Hot in London -- March 1997
Playbill On-Line's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews major recent London openings.

Playbill On-Line's London correspondent Sheridan Morley reviews major recent London openings.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: Considering that she made her name on screen being clutched in the paws of King Kong and has since won a brace of 0scars, Jessica Lange is perhaps the most surprising contemporary actress to have requisitioned Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams's stage masterpiece about dependence on the kindness of strangers, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Yet here she now is, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, tackling the role for the third time in a decade in Peter Hall's new production, one of the most hugely fascinating, enjoyable and entertaining misreadings of a classic text that I have ever seen.

First off, if as she says "the dark is comfortable to me," this Blanche seems a little unlucky to have been caught in the full glare of a lavish technicolored epic, not so much Miss Saigon as Miss Psycho perhaps, but certainly a setting where Lana Turner or Joan Crawford might have been the more obvious casting.

The only two areas of show business where Hall has never really achieved commercial success or acclaim are movies and musicals, and as though to repair that gap, he has bizarrely chosen to make this Streetcar far more Hollywood than anything even Miss Lange has ever been involved with hitherto. At moments of high emotion, Stephen Edwards's offstage score comes crashing in like a tribute to Dmitri Tiomkin or Eric Wolfgang Korngold; a set worthy of Porgy and Bess slightly defeats the claustrophobia and intimacy usually associated with this script, and all through Hall pulls lighting and sound effects of the kind much needed in Williams's later and more flawed work but not really essential here. The overall effect suggests a rescue job carried out on a problem play like Williams's Camino Real or The Red Devil Battery Sign rather than the usual stately revival of a work of genius.

Not that I really object to this: Miss Lange is infinitely better here than she was on Broadway five years ago, and the idea of Streetcar being hijacked by a driver determined to make it into a glossy epic is certainly something new. Toby Stephens is adequately Brandoesque as Kowalski, Imogen Stubbs is perhaps still a little local for Stella, but an impressive supporting cast boasts Sandra Dickinson (now there's a Blanche I'd love to see) as Eunice and Christian Burgess as the gentleman-caller Mitch.

At times of high drama (and there are enough of those here) light and sound come crashing in as if we were into some deep South version of Rebecca; Williams himself, a melodramatic old showman, would have just loved the glossiness of it, as well as the sound and fury; high camp and neon have replaced the usual low-light despair, and I just wish they had gone the whole hog and done it as the musical that this production seems so itchy to become.

Not since Pinter gave Lauren Bacall the all-stops-out superstar treatment in Sweet Bird of Youth has a Williams script been handled with such a sense of period stardom. What the production lacks in sheer dramatic energy (largely because Miss Lange is a highly efficient performer desperately lacking Vivien Leigh's unique ability to give us a woman on the verge of total nervous breakdown and manic depression, which was precisely what she was undergoing at the time in reality) it makes up in grand guignol, so that we are subtly shifted from Williams to Lillian Hellman's neighboring estate. The result is a mega showbiz night, on no account to be missed: Just don't expect it to resemble any Streetcar you have ever seen before. This one is the full VistaVision, and the streetcar is only taking full-fare first class travelers with an aching nostalgia for melodrama.

NINE: Question: Why is a flawed musical often so much more interesting to revive and discuss than one that is perfect in every way? As those who still meet for annual reunion dinners to discuss the nine performances of Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle on Broadway 30 years ago will testify, it's the musicals you think you'd better forget that linger in the mind. Another such is Maury Yeston's Nine, having now its London premiere some 15 years after it achieved critical if not tremendous commercial acclaim in New York.

Nine is nothing if not ambitious. It is based on the Fellini movie 8 1/2, which back in 1963 was a massive autobiographical folly starring Marcello Mastroianni as the film director in a major mid-life crisis, which is at once romantic, professional, marital and religious. The women in his life were played by the likes of Anouk, Claudia Cardinale and Rossella Falk, and for those who had long followed the careers of Fellini and Mastroianni, who made more films together than apart at that time, the movie was fascinating, full of references not only to the careers of maker and star but also to the whole postwar history of the Italian cinema, which Fellini had done so much to shape.

So much for the movie: In taking it over to Broadway 20 years later, Yeston and his book-writer Arthur Kopit had inevitably to create a show that might appeal to those who had never seen an art-house picture in their lives. So the format is roughly the same, with the director (a desperately uncharismatic Larry Lamb) the only man onstage, surrounded still by the 14 women in his life and himself as a very small boy, the one who finally tells the old hysterical egoist to shut up and get on with what's left of his life.

David Leveaux's production inevitably suffers by comparison with the Broadway original that made Tommy Tune, rather than any of his cast, into a star, and though he does conjure up on the miniscule Warehouse set a full-scale Venetian lagoon with real water, by that time the show itself is in danger of drowning amid its own uncertainties. One problem is that all 14 women need to be as desperately starry as they were, led by Liliane Montevecchi, on Broadway.On Warehouse salaries the only major turns come from Susannah Fellows, Clare Burt and Sara Kestelman with the rest looking ominously like the understudies rather than the stars of Fellini's great but complex life and career.

For all that, Yeston's score remains one of the most intriguing of recent times, albeit perched precariously somewhere halfway from Larry Hart to Sondheim: chilly, sophisticated, witty, brisk, introvert and sometimes as maddening as the show itself, it makes you want nevertheless to go on cheering encore to this show until they finally get it right.

THE HOMECOMING: Why were we always so afraid to laugh at, or at any rate with, Harold Pinter ? When The Homecoming first opened in 1965 at the Aldwych, I seem to remember reverent silences both on stage and in the auditorium, and a willing suspension of disbelief that this was the same dramatist who only a few years earlier had been writing hilariously sinister revue sketches for comics like Kenneth Williams and Peter Cook, not that there were ever many like them.

Thirty years on, an admirable new revival at the National Theatre by Roger Michell makes it clear that this is indeed the Pinter of the revue sketches, and much of at least the first half of the Lyttelton production is bleakly, blackly, hilariously funny.

0f all Pinter plays, The Homecoming is probably the most immediately accessible and user-friendly; it is the instant guide as well as the thumbnail sketch of what we mean by Pinteresque. A grotesque North London family, many of whose cousins were soon to appear in the works of Joe 0rton, send their newly-acquired relative, in this case a glacial Lindsay Duncan, to try her luck and theirs on the streets of Soho as a prostitute.

As so many of his other plays, The Homecoming is about sexual violence and the territorial imperative; it also affords half a dozen truly wonderful parts, and is perhaps the only Pinter in which these parts are in the end greater than the whole. Menace and ambiguity, which any first-year drama student will tell you are the playwright's especial stock-in-trade, are not so readily apparent here; instead we have a magnificently plotted drama dominated by the character of Lenny, of neither mice nor men but a magnificent creation once played by the author, a vintage semi-literate thug ("Apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there ?", a question to stun even a cabdriver or a television agony aunt) and a marvellously anarchic character superbly underplayed here by Michael Sheen. Whether arranging for his sister-in-law to go on the streets, or merely paying filial obeisance to his Dad ("I respect him not only as a father but also as a first-class butcher"), Lenny is one of the great creations of the modern theatre.

True, here as in Peter Hall's current Streetcar, the designer has taken a curious decision to set a claustrophobic piece in a space which could handsomely accommodate several armies, though at least here we do get to see a loft crammed with all the detritus of a long non-functional family. The truly comic voice of Britain in the early 60s, a mixture of threat and whine, is better caught here than anywhere, and in what could also have been a situation comedy called At Home With The Krazy Krays, Michell has wisely cast such vintage tele comics as Sam Kelly and the magnificently lugubrious David Bradley.

I don't believe there is a better revival in London at present, nor a better introduction to Pinter as a comic dramatist as well as the master of the sinister and the seriously strange.

0ut of London, the best news of this new year is that the producer Bill Kenwright has brought the Theatre Royal Windsor, England's longest surviving non-subsidised regional playhouse, back to life with an impressive new schedule; clearly just as his only real rival impresario, Duncan Weldon, now uses the Minerva in Chichester as the starting grid for all his West End transfers so Kenwright inteds to upgrade Windsor and his opening production (about to move into the Piccadilly) is also by Peter Hall, though in a very different mood. Moliere's L'Ecole Des Femmes (1662) has never been as popular over here as Le Malade Imaginaire or Tartuffe, but Ranjit Bolt's new translation makes a joyous little parable as The School For Wives.

Essentially this is still a one-joke play about a man falling in love with a teenage girl and trying to ensure her virginity which is of course lost all the sooner, but Peter Hall has given it a cool, elegant staging built around the wondrous double-act of Peter Bowles as the gullible prospective husband and Eric Sykes as his malevolent valet. Sykes, one of our last great vaudeville talents, has never been funnier than as the resentful, irritable, incompetent manservant with the manic, lethal sense of humour in distress; early days I know, but if we see a better comic turn on stage this year we shall be more than lucky.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: After a self imposed absence of ten years from British drama, Jonathan Miller returns to the Almeida with a staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream which is as courageous as it is sometimes foolhardy. His setting is somewhere I would guess in the late 1920s: points of reference would seem to be PG Wodehouse, Noel Coward and the kind of houseparty where Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers would have had at least one of the guests murdered at the outset.

I have no principled objection to such updating: the best As You Like It I ever saw was conceived for the Regent's Park 0pen Air Theatre by the actress Maria Aitken as one of those home movies that the aristocracy were forever making for their own amateur delights sixty years ago. But the problem with this DREAM is that it cannot be a sustained weekend party: something very odd is going in the woods, and though both James Bridie and JM Barrie managed to write hit plays about weird goings-on during country-house weekends of the period, the Shakespearian magic is here defeated by clunkingly necessary rewrites such as having Helena make her exit hailing a taxi.

Like a celebrated Mermaid Henry V which opened with the Chorus announcing "This is a play about War" only to have someone in the audience shout back "Wrong" at the start of three hours of the all military version, Miller's is a brilliant idea which goes horribly wrong somewhere around half-time. The country-houseparty conceit works splendidly for as long as we are with Theseus (a world-weary Robert Swann) and Hippolyta (Angela Down,looking like she's had a tough day at the Harrods Sale), but falls apart once we have to go into the woods, despite Jason Watkins's irritable manservant of a Puck and Peter Bayliss as a vaudevillian Bottom.

After Georges Feydeau, before Brian Rix and Ray Cooney, Ben Travers was the world's greatest farceur: he lived almost as long as this century, wrote West End hits from 1919 for his own team of Aldwych players, disappeared mid-century only to be rediscovered and revived when already well past his three score years and ten.

(brilliantly and tactfully revived at the Savoy by Peter James with a massive cast headed by Griff Rhys Jones) has a plot of amazing dexterity about snobbery with violence, weekend house parties, a little light larceny and everything else that made life worth living among the upper Wodehouse classes of the 1920s.

A plot of considerable dexterity takes off very slowly, like a classic steeplechase; Rachel Bell, dressed in a series of carpets and curtains ("You'd have to go a long way to get around me"; "Yes, I may even take a taxi") is claiming to have married above her station and therefore to be in dubious possession of a great deal of jewellery. Enter Rhys Jones and Kevin McNally as the gentlemenly thieves determined to burgle the lady while she sleeps; the attendant and concomitant complications can only be envisaged by those familiar with the original Aldwych farces, and Travers's stunning talents to amuse and abuse. The moment when Rhys Jones knocks himself out repeatedly with ether designed for his recumbent victim is perhaps the funniest on any London stage this year, and what makes Plunder such a rich and rare treasure is the sight of a perfectly-tuned theatrical machine grinding into action and then racing away with itself down a brilliantly laid track. 1996 has brought us no more joyous evening: "Rats," Rhys Jones tells the police detective come to arrest him: "If I were you, Sir, I'd be a little less discourteous" "0h very well then, Mice". They don't write them like that any more, and apart from big Ben they of course never did.

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: To the Barbican from last summer at Stratford comes Ian Judge's radical reworking of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, a production which perfectly summarises the credit and debit notes for this particular director. In an unusually difficult time for the RSC, it is Judge alone who seems to have the long-lost knack of getting large audiences into the most difficult of Shakespeares; in a generation of academic directors he is one of the last of the great showmen, willing to try just about anything to make his work user friendly.

When dealing with contemporary or classic musicals or the kind of minor Shakespearian comedy much in need of his flair, there is a lot to be said for his kind of Judgement; the problem arises when he is faced with a major and tricky text such as this one, and sure enough he has managed to reduce Troilus to a weird mix of Hollywood apolcalypse and gay men's leather and bath night down in old Troy.

This therefore becomes a Troilus for people who hate Troilus, and when such remarkable actors as Philip Voss, Edward de Souza and the amazingly old Griffith Jones try to return the text to some sort of classical authority they are abruptly defeated by the next of the director's increasingly desperate attempts to turn the show into period musical pantomime. Neither the Greek nor the Trojan camps can ever have been meant to be quite as high camp as this.

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