If theatre mirrors life then you would expect 2009 to be a bad year for the performing arts in London: economic downturns and credit crunches sound like gloomy news for our discretionary entertainment spending. But West End theatre box office figures have kept on going up in recent years, and the huge number of new productions sailing into town during 2009 could mean that Theatreland manages to buck the trend.
THE GREAT REVIVAL
The RSC, National Theatre, Donmar and Old Vic dominated straight drama in the West End in 2008, and they haven’t finished yet. Big hitters coming to town include Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike in the Donmar in the West End’s Madame de Sade at the Wyndhams; Jude Law offering us his, hopefully fighting fit, Hamlet; Gillian Anderson in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse; Helen Mirren making her return to the London stage in Phaedra at the National Theatre; and a number of crowd-pleasing revivals at the Old Vic, no more so than Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel’s hugely successful play starring Andrea Corr, and Sam Mendes directing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, both featuring Ethan Hawke, Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack.
Other stars shimmying into town include Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Haymarket, Ken Stott and Hayley Atwell in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Duke of York’s, heavy-hitter Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear at the Young Vic, and Antony Sher giving us his Prospero in the RSC’s The Tempest. The Gavin and Stacey phenomenon continues to roll on, as we see Joe Orton’s delicious romp Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Trafalgar Studios starring Gavin himself, Matthew Horne, alongside Imelda Staunton; whilst Gavin’s onscreen Mum Alison Steadman plays a barking Leeds housewife in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy at the Gielgud Theatre.
The sharp eyed amongst you will notice that all of these plays are revivals rather than new work, keeping audiences firmly in their comfort zones. That said, new plays may be thin on the ground but not absent all together, with the National offering up Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, following two lovers across four centuries, and Samuel Adamson’s Mrs Affleck set in the 1950s. Jez Butterworth has two new plays in pre-production, with comedy Parlour Song at the Almeida and Jerusalem at the Royal Court. Also at the Royal Court, Mark Ravenhill will bring his new play Over There. Plus Hollywood man of the moment James McAvoy is to star in Richard Greenberg’s acclaimed play Three Days of Rain at the Apollo, and at The Old Vic Richard Dreyfuss headlines the world premiere of American playwright Joe Sutton’s new play Complicit, directed by Kevin Spacey.
“BASED ON A FILM”
In musical theatre, 2009 promises to be a year of great big fabulous and familiar shows, surely enough to see us through the dark times? And it’s no coincidence that many of them are based on hugely successful films.
Oliver! will be well and truly steaming ahead through 2009 at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal with Rowan Atkinson and Jodie Prenger; La Cage Aux Folles will continue camping it up at the Playhouse but with Graham Norton taking over from Douglas Hodge; and at the Adelphi Theatre Lee Mead will bow out of Joseph to be replaced by Gareth Gates.
Jason Donovan will be donning the wigs and lip gloss to take us on an Australian power-mince in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre. And Sister Act at the London Palladium will be doing its best to recreate the fun of the film, helped along by Whoopi Goldberg as co-producer. And not quite a musical but as good as, Calendar Girls the stage play will up the naked flesh quotient in the West End, starring Patricia Hodge and Lynda Bellingham at the Noel Coward Theatre.
Also in musicals-land the power of reality TV continues to wield its power, with Gareth Gates going into Joseph at the Adelphi Theatre, the X-factor’s Niki Evans continuing in Blood Brothers at the Phoenix, Jodie Prenger in Oliver at the Drury Lane, and Ray Quinn and Danny Bayne in Grease – joined for a limited time by the legendary Jimmy Osmond.
Kids should also see a good year in 2009 with an enormous live theatrical production of Walking with Dinosaurs coming to a stadium near you, and War Horse transfers from its successful run at the National Theatre to the New London Theatre.
I am frequently asked which five musicals I would like to take to a desert island with me, and while my answers invariably depend on the mood of the moment, the one that never changes is Carousel.
Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945, a year after their first collaboration, Oklahoma!, and based on a Hungarian play by Ferenc Molnar called Liliom, it has, arguably, the greatest, most melodious score R & H ever wrote.
Beginning with the lilting Carousel Waltz, and ending with a reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone, there isn’t a note in it that isn’t burnished with inspiration. One great tune follows another, and of all the memorable R & H love duets, is there any more hauntingly lovely – or moving than If I Loved You, sung by carnival barker Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, the factory girl he eventually marries – and to whom he brings such sadness?
Indeed, the scene, very early on in the show, in which Billy and Julie meet and fall in love is one of the most lyrical, brilliantly conceived in all musical comedy. The heartbreak that follows, as Billy loses his job, becomes a wife-beater and ultimately takes his own life after a robbery in which he is involved goes wrong, is hardly what audiences in 1945 expected from their musicals.
Yet, such was the ground-breaking genius of the team who wrote Carousel, that they were able to turn a potential no-go subject into a three-hankie weepie. Far from being a downer, it sends audiences home with hope in their hearts and on a decided high.
Yes, it is shamelessly sentimental, and yes, the fantasy elements in Act Two may not sit well with folk who like their musicals raunchier and with more sophistication attached. Well, that’s their loss.
For me, from the moment Billy returns to earth on a day’s furlough from Heaven in order to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and teenage daughter, tears begin to well and they don’t stop until the curtain call.
And so it once again proved in Lindsay Posner’s glorious revival which also benefits from Adam Cooper’s robust choreography and William Dudley’s stunning visual concept. That said, there were occasions when I thought the show needlessly over-amplified, and I’d have preferred a more charismatic Billy Bigelow than Jeremiah James, who sang better than he acted.
No problems, though, with Alexandra Silber’s Julie – the best I’ve ever seen; Alan Vicary’s splendidly sung Mr. Snow, Lesley Garrett’s feisty and full-throated Nettie Fowler, and Graham MacDuff as Jigger, Billy’s obnoxious partner in crime.
A wonderful revival, then, and a chance to sample the pleasures of the classic Broadway musical at its very, very best.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN, courtesy of This Is London.
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THE WALWORTH FARCE Cottesloe
Much as I admired the speed and technical proficiency of the acting in Druid theatre company’s production of Enda Walsh’s black comedy, I just couldn’t warm to the relentlessly manic pace which rarely let up for over two hours.
But what fails to tickle one person’s funny bone works a treat on another’s – the lady seated in front of me clearly relished every frenetic moment of this violent farce with its shades of Orton and Synge, remarking to her companion at half time that surely it couldn’t be the interval already.
Set in the shabby, high-rise Elephant and Castle flat of Irish immigrant Dinny and his two sons, it takes us through the fictionalised scenario which he compels them to enact every day, reliving (with fanciful embellishments) the circumstances which forced him to flee his native Ireland and hide himself away imprisoned behind their locked front door. Sean (Tadhg Murphy), his head partially shaved to mimic the receding hairline of one of the characters he’s made to play, has at least managed to make some contact with the outside world – making a daily trip to Tesco to purchase the never-changing shopping involved in their daily ritual.
But this particular morning things don’t go according to plan when he mistakenly picks up the wrong plastic bag and returns without a chicken.
Denis Conway is superb as Dinny, controlling, apoplectic and secretly running scared from an awful truth, whilst Garrett Lombard’s damaged Blake (dressed up in women’s clothes and a succession of wigs) is equally disturbed and potentially dangerous, his naturally deep voice coming as a shock after the fluting high-pitched tones he adopts to play his own mother.
But it is left to Mercy Ojelade’s well intentioned Hayley (walking unsuspectingly into the distorted ceremony of their everyday lives and forced to participate in their grotesque game playing) to bring the only note of normality and a brief slowing of pace to this brutal, very Irish play which Mikel Murfi directs with an assured hand.
Louise Kingsley. Courtesy of This Is London.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY - National Theatre
Winner of five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, ‘August: Osage County,’ by Tracy Letts, opens this week at the National Theatre straight from Broadway where it ran to great critical acclaim. The play is running at the Lyttelton Theatre from 21 November until 21 January in the original production by the internationally renowned Steppenwolf Company.
When the large Weston family unexpectedly reunites in Oklahoma, after their father disappears, their home explodes in a maelstrom of repressed truths and unsettling secrets.
Tracy Letts’ new play unflinchingly, and uproariously, exposes the dark side of the Midwestern American family.
Among the many awards won by August: Osage County since it opened in Chicago, are five Tony Awards including Best Play for Tracy Letts, Best Direction (Anna D. Shapiro), Best Leading Actress (Deanna Dunagan), Best Featured Actress (Rondi Reed) and Best Scenic Design (Todd Rosenthal); and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company was formed in 1976 and is committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights. Among their members are John Mahoney, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Steppenwolf was last seen at the National Theatre in 1989 with The Grapes of Wrath.
Tracy Letts’ work includes Man From Nebraska, Killer Joe at London’s Bush and Vaudeville Theatres, Bug, and Superior Donuts, which is currently playing in the Steppenwolf repertoire. He has been a member of the Steppenwolf acting ensemble since 1988 and has appeared in many of their productions, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Homebody/Kabul and in the title role of The Dresser.
Courtesy of This Is London.
THE NORMAN CONQUESTS – Old Vic
Calling Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests a towering tour de force and the greatest theatrical achievement of his long and distinguished career is little more than stating the obvious.
First produced in 1974, this Chekhovian mix of comedy and pathos offers up pleasure and pain in more or less equal proportions, and, as a comment on middle-class values and mores, it remains unrivalled and unequalled.
Set over a summer weekend in the garden, dining room and sitting room of a rambling Victorian country house, Ayckbourn the magician has conjured up three separate plays, each one satisfying in itself but even more satisfying when experienced as a trilogy.
Nor does it matter in which order you you see them. Technically, Table Manners comes first, followed by Living Together, and ending with Round and Round the Garden.
I saw the last one first and caught the other two at a matinee and evening performance. But it would have made no difference to my enjoyment had the order been reversed. The plays are so skilfully structured and meticuloulsy interlocked that whichever way you approach them, the rewards are plentiful.
Though the trilogy’s seven and a half hour running time doesn’t yield a great deal of plot, it’s full of incident – some side-splittingly hilarious, others heartbreakingly poignant.
And while all six characters work very much as an ensemble, the two standouts are assistant librarian Norman (Stephen Mangan) and Annie (Jessica Hynes), a spinster who shares the family home with her (unseen) bedridden mother.
Though Norman is married to Annie’s testy sister Ruth (Amelia Bullmore), Annie has agreed to go on a dirty weekend to East Grinstead with her brother-in-law.
But circumstances intervene, and instead of Annie’s anticipated liaison with Norman she spends the weekend at home in the company of her long-suffering real-estate agent brother Reg (Paul Ritter), his bossy wife Sarah (Amanda Root), and Ruth, who reluctantly turns up after receiving a drunken phone call from Norman.
The sixth character is Tom (Ben Miles) a local vet, whose attraction to Annie is camouflaged by an almost catatonic personality that refuses to acknowledge any emotion and who, when he finally plucks up the courage to propose to Annie, obliquely asks her whether she would like him to marry her. Indeed, at times he is so stupid and so obtuse, you wonder how he ever successfully completed his veterinary degree.
In a series of memorable set-pieces, most conspicuously during a family-meal in Living Together, Ayckbourn explores the relationships endured by these six very different people, and, in the process, leaves no emotion unexcavated. If Norman’s self-acclaimed modus operandi is simply to make people happy, it is his philandering ways that, in the end, wreak the most havoc, albeit with hilarious results.
Annie’s plight, on the other hand, is not entirely of her own making, nor is it as funny. Encroaching spinsterhood, a sterile relationship with Tom, and a nonnegotiable commitment to her monstrously selfish mother – have strait-jacketed her. Her misery and frustration are palpable.
Ayckbourn’s uncanny ability to mix laughter and pain so potently is, apart from his theatrical sleight-of-hand, his greatest gift. In The Norman Conquests he demonstrates this ability at full throttle.
All the performances are flawless. You will find no better ensemble acting in London, and, in a season that boasts impressive revivals of Ivanov, Six Characters In Search of an Author, No Man’s Land, Waste and Creditors, that’s saying something.
Matthew Warchus’s direction is alive to the play’s vast, forever changing emotional landscape, and not a mood nor a nuance is missed. Surely this has to be the theatrical event of the year.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.