All London's a stage...
On Tuesday, January 27th, the UK Critic's Circle Drama Awards for last year will be announced. Here's a small, incomplete survey of what's happening on the London stage at the beginning of 2009.
It's a busy time for the theatre in London. Despite the Old Vic postponing the first night of a new play "Complicit," reportedly because the star, Richard Dreyfuss, needed more time to learn his lines, there's a helluva lot going on. We've had a revamped "Oliver!" done by the hot director of the moment, Rupert Goold. (The production revitalised is Sam Mendes's 1994 staging, not the original.) With Anthony Ward's superlative (and expensive) costumes, and sets that give you a glimpse of St. Paul's through the crabbed, crowded streets of the City of London; with about a hundred urchins in the opening workhouse scene, choreographed and co-directed by another genius, Matthew Bourne; and with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, what's not to like? The box office had taken £15m before the show opened, so Cameron Mackintosh's investment is recession-proof.
That the evening is ever so slightly draggy simply says to me that poor old Lionel Bart's play, for all its (mostly) zippy tunes and (sometimes) clever lyrics, is not really first-rate - certainly not in the "Guys & Dolls" bracket, not even in the minor Rogers and Hammerstein category. But there's also a flaw in the production. Some of the casting (of Oliver, the Artful Dodger and - most egregiously, Nancy Sikes) was done on one of those god-awful, asinine and altogether odious TV talent shows (too aptly called "I'd Do Anything") , with voting by the "public." Besides that we know that some of these audience participation shows - even on the BBC - were rigged (though I'm not alleging that this one was), there is also the fact that even the casting couch provides a more sensible way to fill Nancy's, um, shoes. The Dodger I saw (there are three of each of the boys, as the law doesn't allow juveniles to work full-time, even in the West End) was fine, the Oliver a bit ho-hum, and Nancy (the TV-victor Jodie Prenger, a name that need not detain you) inadequate, as is indicated by the fact that the program says that "at certain performances the role of Nancy will be played by Tamsin Carroll."
This is a sensitive time to be presenting a play that emphasises a Jewish stereotype (and on the posters the "L" of Oliver is the silhouette of a large, hooked nose), even if it's an in-joke on the part of the late East End Jewish Cockney Lionel Bart. To Atkinson's great credit, he makes the whiff of anti-Semitism in the role of Fagin seem like cocking an entirely commendable snook at Political Correctness, neatly de-fusing the issue.
We are so lucky still to have a subsidised theatre. What commercial producer would even consider reviving Tom Stoppard and André Previn's 1977 "play for actors and orchestra," "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour"? It calls for only six actors, but there also has to be an entire symphony orchestra present on the stage. I didn't see the original production at the Royal Festival Hall; the revival is just down the road at the National Theatre, on the thrust stage of the big Olivier house.
The plot is fairly simple - a cell/hospital room in a Soviet mental institution is shared by one patient who hears (and conducts) an imaginary orchestra, and the other who is a political prisoner (told by the psychiatrist that "your opinions are your symptoms"). In the current version directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris, a new twist has been added (so Sir Tom told me the next day at lunch when, by sheer coincidence he sat next to me), and members of the orchestra, still holding their instruments, are beaten up by brown-shirted Soviet soldiers/police. The violence involved alarming acrobatics, and I found myself worrying more for the safety of the violins than for the actors.
The extraordinary aspect of this play is that the orchestra is an actor in it, not a prop - and in today's economic circumstances only a state-subsidised theatre could mount a production. It is a superb, ingenious play, superlatively done, and anyone able should take advantage of this rare opportunity to see (and hear) it.
It's a vintage time for Shakespeare. At Wyndham's Theatre the Donmar season continues with Michael Grandage's supreme "Twelfth Night." The sight of Sir Derek Jacobi as a cross-gartered Malvolio is not something you'll forget quickly. That his playing of the role is historic is only what you'd expect from this great company. But just down the Aldwych from where the Royal Shakespeare Company used to have (but foolishly gave up) their permanent London base, the RSC is giving a season at the Novello Theatre. David Tennant's ill-fated "Hamlet" (the actor famous for his "Dr. Who" injured his back, and had to withdraw) led the season; and now there is a pretty good "A Midsummer Night's Dream" there (which will be followed by "The Taming of the Shrew". Directed by Greg Doran, it has magical if minimal sets (and modern-dress costumes) designed by Francis O'Connor. Aside from too many mime-like gestures pointing up the text (making animal faces and hand movements to match Shakespeare's zoological tropes, for instance), most of the performances are good - and some, such as Bottom, Flute and Puck - outstanding. It's a staging that emphasises the comedy, but God knows, we need something to laugh at just now.
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