What to See in London Theatre: Summer 2017

Letters From London   What to See in London Theatre: Summer 2017
From Angels in America to 42nd Street, Playbill correspondent Ruth Leon recommends her top picks for London theatre this summer.
Angels_in_America_London_Production_Photo_2017_5. Nathan Lane (Roy M Cohn) in Angels in America - Millennium Approaches (c) Helen Maybanks_HR.jpg
Nathan Lane Helen Maybanks

This is the moment when American friends descend on London in a flurry of theatre-going madness. With their tube tickets clutched firmly in their hands, their raincoats flying behind them (well, it is London in the Spring so it’s raining), their late-eating restaurant guides sticking out of their pockets, they run from theatre to theatre in an orgy of play-going, unwilling to miss a single worthwhile offering no matter how far-flung the venue. My telephone and email is in constant use with “What should we see?” calls. A difficult question, that. None of my friends or their friends want to subject themselves to a 10-minute interrogation as to what they like—musicals, plays, classics, Shakespeare, comedies, etc—in order to recommend so I fall back, inevitably, on what I like best and pray that my choices will find favour with them. So here goes.

There’s a lot of Americana around at the moment and most of it is very good. Most joyous musical is the New York production of An American in Paris with 42nd Street running it a close second.

The Goat (running through June 24), not my favourite for reasons we’ve discussed before (I simply can’t get my head around a man falling in love with a farm animal), comes off the heels of a successfullWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by James Macdonald, which was simply wonderful. I have seen Virginia Woolf several times in good productions with fine actors in New York, in London, in Washington D.C., and on film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and, while I have always appreciated the craft of it, had always felt it to be strangely lacking in heart, despite its shocking dissection of that most intimate of relationships—marriage. I had no particular interest in seeing this very American play with an all-British cast, no matter how strong. And then I saw Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill and they reduced me to tears.

This most British of actors, Staunton, was the greatest Mama Rose I ever saw in last year’s Gypsy, and I’ve seen them all, on both sides of the Atlantic, (except Ethel Merman, even I am not that old) so I should have known that she can be the most convincing American, in this case a living breathing manifestation of domestic disappointment. Conleth Hill, an Irish actor best know to Broadway audiences for his multi-award-winning performance in Stones In His Pockets, is able to disappear into a role, and here he becomes the apparently mild-mannered American academic whose hatred for his wife is an almost visible entity.

I have some hesitation in recommending City of Glass, a faithful British adaptation of the first novel of Paul Auster’s New York trilogy. I only do so on the basis that the visuals in the production—projections and all manner of technical wizardry—are absolutely worth your time even though the play itself, like the novel, is somewhat obscure.

I missed Martin Crimp’s The Treatment when it premiered in 1993 although many critics I respect had only praise for it. It is not a play to warm to, but I can see why they found it admirable. But I worry when I have to read the essays in the printed program to glean the playwright’s intention, excellent though those essays are, because I have an old-fashioned idea that I should be able to understand what the play is about by watching it. Mystified, I stayed in the theatre at intermission and was rewarded with several essays illuminating Crimp’s theme which is apparently the difference between our dream of cities and their reality.

Maybe I should have started with the big one. Tony Kushner’s two part masterpiece, Angels In America. This, in an enormous production by Marianne Elliott, reminds us of why we have a Royal National Theatre. Only the National could even have attempted the scale on which this 11-hour drama unfolds. In truth, Angels In America is at least five separate plays, each with its own logic and structure, knitted together, scene by scene, into a somewhat clumsy whole by the overriding insistent presence of AIDS. There are the angels, yes, improbable creatures complete with wings who make their own demands on our suspension of disbelief but there is also Roy Cohn, now famous again for being a mentor of Donald Trump but once henchman to Senator Macarthy and then Richard Nixon. He died of AIDS, but that isn’t why he matters.

He was proudly responsible for hanging Ethel Rosenberg as a spy and she has her own story in Angels. Running alongside the fiction, therefore, is the reality. There are other stories, the young Mormon who seems to embody the American dream, that dream itself and its unintended consequences, and the many characters who, as never before in the American theatre, brought gay men to the forefront of our consciousness, no longer locked in their own private society but forcing us to acknowledge the terror of a whole community of young, healthy men dying in their hundreds before our eyes.

On a personal note, I found hope in seeing Angels In America again after all these years. When it was first produced in London in 1993, the AIDS crisis was at its height, there was no cure, no effective treatment. My friends were dying around me and I was scared. That fear is behind us now so, for me, the accusation leveled by some at Angels, that it is dated, is for me a blessing. Thank goodness it is dated, I am overjoyed that those who are infected can now live as long as the rest of us, and that the scourge of AIDS is over. And the occasional longeurs in the second half of Angels, Perestroika, are a minor quibble in the face of this monumental production.

Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, in a lively new production at the Young Vic by Joe Wright is the latest attempt to make this wordy, worthy, and essentially academic rant accessible. With a blue jeans and tee-shirt-clad Australian actor in the title role and the playing area a circle surrounding the audience lying on cushions on the floor, this is as modern as Brecht gets. Brendan Cowell does a admirable job with the endless Brechtian speeches, parsing them into bite-size pieces and making Brecht’s theme, that of the importance of science and thinking for yourself, sound new again, even if he’s already stated it several (many) times. Coming out of a Brecht play (with the obvious exception of The Threepenny Opera) I always feel that it’s been good for me, like spinach; but, like spinach, it needs some dressing up to make it fun. Wright’s production, and Cowell’s performance, work hard to provide some.

A curious footnote on how theatrical serendipity works. I needn’t tell you that on Broadway there is currently a big musical about the rivalry between those two titans of the cosmetics industry, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden entitled War Paint. At the very same time, in a small London fringe theatre, there is Madame Rubinstein , a play, not a musical, by John Misto about the same two grande dames with exactly the same plot. And, just as in New York, the evening rests on the shoulders of its leading ladies—Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole on Broadway, and in London Miriam Margolyes and Frances Barber—all of whom are perfectly marvelous in rewarding roles which somehow don’t add up to satisfying plays because the women themselves are revealed to be one-dimensional. This should not detract from the achievement of these four ladies. If Rubinstein and Arden had had anything more to show us, these four superstars would have found it.

So, come on over. And, for the moment, it’s stopped raining.


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