Theater in London: Home-grown Classics; Broadway Drama, Comedy, Musicals, and Epics
By: Ellis Nassour
American theatrical footprints are all over London theater – just as West End footprints are all over Broadway.
Besides American musicals Aladdin, An American in Paris, Beautiful, The Book of Mormon, Five Guys Named Moe, 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, The Lion King, Motown, Stomp, and Wicked, there’s a revival of Annie opening in May, the eagerly-anticipated arrival in June of Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, and, in September, Young Frankenstein, choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman. On the Town will have a 12-week run in Regent Park beginning May 19.
A production of Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman, and David Newman’s 1997 The Life was just presented, but not to the type of reviews that had been hoped for [maybe this show is one uniquely-suited for Manhattan]. [Through April 15, original Tony-winning co-star of the musical Lillias White is headlining the Fats Waller revue This Joint is Jumpin’ at The Other Palace.]
Hamilton will open in November in the shadow of Victoria Station and shopping mall at the historic Victoria Palace, undergoing a multi-million pound renovation and reconstruction in anticipation.
Then, there are the American plays, which include Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie; two from Edward Albee, The Goat or Who’s Sylvia and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate.
One of the problems of being a theaterlover (maybe even a critic) in London is the amazing number of shows by all manner of past and present playwrights presented in limited engagements – when one is loading out, another is loading in. A huge difference in London is the number of daily papers and Time Out, with numerous reviewers and, thus, numerous viewpoints.
Home-grown musicals still do socko business on the West End: Half a Sixpence, Les Miz, Mamma Mia, Matilda,The Phantom of the Opera, and School of Rock.
There’s still the official Half-Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square, but many shows on the board don’t offer 50% off. There’s a huge amount of confusion on the Square with several unofficial discount ticket sellers. The price of West End tickets has gradually crept up and aren’t too far off the Broadway mark.
There’s a vibe scene at a number of theatres which have nice lobby spaces for tea, coffee, and drinks and are open during non-performance hours; and post-office, pre- and post-theater restaurants where drinks are available. The small West End Arts Theatre not only has a historic private membership club but a very attractive street level café for beverages and snacks.
Two of the most popular are The Other Naughty Piglet at The Other Palace [formerly the St. James, and now owned by the Really Useful Company; 15 Palace Street, SW1E 5JA] [recently presented there was John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party] and the vast downstairs space at the Royal Court on busy Sloane Square. One of the most posh is pre-theater and interval service at the historic Theatre Royal Drury Lane (currently home of the lavish 42nd Street revival).
There’s a bit of sad news: Joe Allen’s in the shadow of The Lion King at the colonnaded Lyceum Theatre will soon be closing after 42 years at 13 Exeter Street, due to Robert De Niro’s purchase of the entire block, which will be demolished. The good news is that it will be relocated “quite nearby.” Orso is still just around the corner.
Olivier-nominated Cherry Jones Makes West End Debut
If you’ve wondered where the heck Tony and Drama Desk winner Cherry Jones has been, wonder no more. She’s making her long-awaited West End debut, reviving her Amanda Wingfield in John Tiffany’s production of Tennessee Williams’
The Glass Menagerie (through April 29) at the Duke of York – seen on Broadway in 2015. It has paid off handsomely with Olivier nominations for Jones, Best Revival, and co-stars Brian J. Smith [from the Broadway cast] and Kate O’Flynn. Michael Esper is Tom. It had a brief run summer, 2016 in Edinburgh.
Tiffany is having quite a hot London season as he’s double Olivier-nominated: for The Glass Menagerie and the Olivier-nominated smash hit adapted from J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two, arriving on Broadway next Spring at the Ambassador Group’s Lyric Theatre (which, on the close of Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour) also will undergo a transformation that will not only remove seating but also relocate the entrance to 43rd Street.
The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish raved, “Although it’s often revived, John Tiffany’s production casts a greater, more shiver-making spell than most . . . It has been said before that American stage star Cherry Jones is perfect as Amanda, the former Southern belle who frets night and day about her troublesome two [children], clinging to memories of the gentlemen callers who once courted her . . . Hers is a wonderfully animated performance . . . Kate O’Flynn remains an understated, introverted marvel as Laura . . . The late-evening brief encounter between her and Brian J Smith as Jim, her long-time high school crush, begins on a note of tender tragi-comedy, moves into a register of romance as glorious as anything you’ll see in La La Land, and ends up with all hopes shattered.”
And now to Edward Albee
Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, starring celebrated TV star Damian Lewis has become an established hit at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Want more Albee? There’s the revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter starring the indefatigable Imelda Staunton (Gypsy revival) as motor mouth monster Martha, Conleth Hill as George. Of the cast, co-starring Luke Treadaway as Nick and Imogen Poots as Honey, “a sabre-toothed pussycat,” a critic wrote “It is hard to imagine a cast that could be bettered.”
James Macdonald directed the production which is being hailed as “pitch-perfect” and “not only the most affecting and intelligent, but the most enjoyable evening in the West End.”
Of this 60s landmark play, Michael Arditti in the Express wrote, “It’s a moot point as to who is in the tighter corner: Nick and Honey, the young academic and his wife, invited for late-night drinks by the college president’s daughter [Martha] to watch her marriage [to George] unravel. Their discomfort is matched by the audience’s delight . . . With the action unfolding over a single night in George and Martha’s sitting room, as well as its conscious echoes of Eugene O’Neill, [it] might well be subtitled Long Night’s Journey Into Day . . . It’s the magnificent Conleth Hill’s raw pain and simmering resentment as George that provide the abiding image of the night . . . It offers one of the most intricate and intimate portraits of marriage seen on stage.”.
Two of the Bard’s lesser characters make a comeback
At the Old Vic, two of the Bard’s bit players find themselves center stage as the world’s most celebrated tragedy [Hamlet] is reworked by director David Leveaux into an absurdist comedy in Tom Stoppard’s “scintillating” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which a reviewer noted, “unleashes a coruscating cascade of wordplay and ideas [such as questions about predestination and free will].”
Daniel Radcliffe, “one of the most recognizable young actors on the planet,” as Rosencrantz, is partnered by Joshua McGuire as the more suspicious and cynical Guildenstern.” Several critics have compared the punkish characters to a cross between Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, even Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Early Stephen Karam
Recent runs included Tom Attenborough’s production of Stephen Karam’s 2006 dark comedy with music Speech & Debate, which featured Gideon Glick (Significant Other) as Howie. There’s now a film adaptation starring Sarah Steele [from the original cast], Austin McKenzie, and Liam James with appearances by Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
London as Theater
Many attractions are free or ask for a donation. An absolute must is a visit to the humongous V&A Museum (Victoria and Albert). It would take days to capture it all, but you can manage some exciting and eye-catching exhibits in a day visit.
In Trafalgar Square is the huge National Gallery, with floors of coveted masterpieces and sculpture from around the world. Currently, through June 25, is a beyond-dazzling retrospective, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, which not only has dozens of canvases from both artists but also details their long friendship – and sad falling out – in expressive letters.
It’s hard to escape theater in London, especially if you wander into the adventure, scents, clothing, and arts and crafts on sale at Covent Garden. There’s plenty of street theater.
Adjacent to Covent Garden is the must-visit Actors’ Church, St. Paul’s, with an array of memorial tributes to the Who’s Who of British Theatre on the walls. Nearby, the popular Transit Museum will take you railroading way back into time.
A lesser known area of the city to a majority of tourists is Market Borough [London Bridge Underground station], situated adjacent to the Thames on the remaining bulwark of old London Bridge. Dozens of restaurants and pubs offer great food at bargain prices. You can even find Louisiana gumbo and pulled pork BBQ! Worthy stops are at the Brood, Boro Bistro, and the vastly popular Italian Padella.
Next to the horror that replaced the old bridge is an octagon-shaped three-story building, Globe Tavern. On the second floor above the pub is a theater of food courtesy of young Newcastle chef Luke Hawkins. A great time to visit is on Sundays when he carries on the tradition of Sunday Roasties. Popular choices are the rump of beef and roast chicken – both come with old-fashioned Yorkshire Pudding and gravy.
Nearby is the aptly named Old Thameside Inn, with a large bankside outdoor patio. It sits right across from Sir Thomas Drake’s famous galleon, The Golden Hinde II.
Look around and you’ll note the lack of residential buildings in the immediate area. One reason might be that mornings and late afternoons historic and vaulted Southwark Cathedral provides a half-hour concert from its magnificent bell tower.