By William Wolf

LONDON THEATER REPORT 2004  Send This Review to a Friend

On every trip to London I can count upon seeing good theater, some of it a preview of what’s ahead for New York, and always the strong starting center is at the National Theater. It was no different with the most recent time around, and the major reward was Alan Bennett”s “The History Boys,” which is one of the very best plays I have seen in years. Although the setting is very British, what it has to say about the changing educational system in the context of changing times would be applicable to the United States as well, which is why I hope it crosses the Atlantic.

Although Bennett’s play set in a school where students are preparing in expectation of going on to university has much on its mind, the drama is far from a mere polemic. It is rich in characterization and humor as well as sadness, and it speaks to us as a thrilling entertainment, intellectual and emotional. As directed by Nicholas Hytner and acted by the superb cast that I saw, the play came remarkably alive. The character of Hector, played colorfully and poignantly by Richard Griffiths, embodies the very essence of the individualistic teacher who refuses to be stamped into a mold but who is becoming an anachronism in the pressure to conform to a more crass educational system in which advancement rather than enlightenment is most prized.

The boys whom he is challenging and educating are a diverse group reflecting class backgrounds, sexuality and different aspirations, and they have been well cast. Others excellent in the production I saw were Clive Merrison as the Headmaster and Frances De La Tour as Mrs. Lintott, who brings a further human dimension to the drama. This was a case in which the staging and the play itself lived up to the lavishly favorable advance word.

In a flamboyant change of pace, the National also was offering “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the low-comedy musical by Stephen Sondheim, who also wrote the lyrics, and a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. I approached this with some trepidation fueled by doubt that a British production could catch the necessary burlesque flavor captured in the Broadway versions I’d seen. No need to have worried. The acting and the staging was absolutely delightful, from the creative Romanesque sets by Julian Crouch to the wickedly broad comedy by Desmond Barrit as the manipulative slave Pseudolus. True, he is no Zero Mostel, but who is?

Sam Kelly was funny as the elderly Senex, and Isla Blair was comically overbearing as his wife, Domina. Hamish McColl was a show-stealer as the slave Hysterium, Caroline Sheen was just right as the virginal Philia, Vince Leigh was perfect as the love-sick son Hero and Philip Quast had the right egotistical tone as the warrior Miles Gloriosus. However, I thought David Schneider was far too smarmy and over-the-top as the brothel operator Lycus. Also, while the women playing the various courtesans performed entertainingly in their dancing come-ons, they didn’t have the overpowering effect that one finds in Broadway casting of the ultimate in showgirl types. But that’s a quibble. This was a riotous, clever and audience-pleasing presentation of what is one of the funniest of American musicals.

”The False Servant,” by Marivaux and newly translated by Martin Crimp, was yet another attraction seen at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre in a somewhat updated setting, taking place at a chateau outside Paris. The opening was quite effective, as we saw servants diligently cleaning and polishing. It gave the right feeling of class and opulence. The play is a deeply cynical one, with its characters manipulative and scheming, money the basic motive for their behavior.

I was drawn to seeing “The False Servant” by the presence of Charlotte Rampling in the cast, as she is among my favorite actresses for various performances of hers that I have seen on screen. Here on stage she played The Countess, and while it is not one of her greatest roles, it nonetheless was a pleasure to see her performing in person and appreciating that creditable job that she did.

I’m forever wary of efforts to update and tinker with Shakespeare to be more popular, but the National’s new staging of “Measure for Measure” at the Olivier was in the hands of director Simon McBurney in a collaboration between the National and McBurney’s Complicite company. The staging worked brilliantly, thanks to a strong cast and an intelligent approach to the drama, set in Vienna.

The play is powerful in its condemnation of official manipulation and abuse, and is in tune with current concerns about injustice. Angelo (Paul Rhys), deputy to the Duke Vincentio (David Throughton), revives old laws about sexual immorality, which results in a death sentence to Claudio (Ben Mayjes) stemming from his fiancée becoming pregnant before marriage. Eventually Angelo is undone. The Bard’s work so effectively staged had resonance for an American viewer, given the upsurge of Christian right moralizing and trying to mold the country according to its prejudices.

McBurney’s approach was consistently arresting, and the cast was outstanding. I would like to see this version done in New York, although the potential venues are limited due to the tough economic situation. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) would be the most likely place.

The National Theatre production of Michael Frayn’s “Democracy,” directed by Michael Blakemore, was at Wydham’s Theatre, and this was a major target of my visit. The play lived up to its advance reputation as an intellectual treat in its examination of the intricacies of the West German government under Willy Brandt during the Cold War years, as well as an intensely personal story of the East German mole who was Brandt’s close aide.

Roger Allam was most convincing as Brandt, with Michael Simkins also credible and fascinating as Günter Guillaume, the spy who had mixed emotions because of his admiration for Brandt and guilt feelings over betraying him. Peter J. Davison designed a smart-looking two-level set that worked very well with the need to shift the action around. The production held additional preview interest, as the drama was expected to come to New York City, although an American cast would probably change the effect.

The revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Donmar afforded the opportunity to see Jeremy Northam on stage after my being most acquainted with him through his film work, such as his roles in “The Winslow Boy,” “Carrington” and “Wuthering Heights.” On stage he looks less imposing—film enlarges one so much—but his acting was first-rate and it was a revelation to see his sharp theater work as Deely, who is faced with two women in his life, one from the present, another from the past.

Helen McCrory delivered a superb performance as Anna, as did Gina McKee as Kate. Directed by Roger Michell, the staging was dramatic, with the cast confined to a small playing area, giving the caged effect that the three were under inspection by a voyeuristic audience. Pinter’s ability to build tension through his pointed dialogue and equally pointed pauses was maximized, and the audience was left wondering whether what unfolded before their eyes was actually happening or meant to be a memory reflection intertwined with reality. There is something Bergmanesque about this particular Pinter play, and the compact but volatile staging emphasized the intensity of the character relationships.

“Jerry Springer the Opera,” which I saw at the Cambridge Theatre, is in a class by itself, and there was advance word that it would be coming to New York on Broadway, assuming the finances are in place. The show is a rollicking satire, as well as in some respects a tribute, to Jerry Springer, known for his television program in which guests expose themselves to ridicule and come to blows with each other.

The genius of the musical lies in its juxtaposition of a sophisticated opera style score with vulgar lyrics and characterizations. Richard Thonmas did the music and co-authored the book and lyrics with director Steward Lee. The explicitness of the lyrics is unusual for the theater even in these anything-goes times, and the result is hilarious for anyone on the show’s wavelength.

Michael Brandon not only plays Springer exceedingly well but looks quite like him. The second act gets a little heavy after Jerry has been shot and is in hell, but it gets rescued with more of the outrageous numbers and antics. This is a very funny show with a swell cast that manages to project the essence of what makes Springer so popular even though the show is so gross.

One unhappy experience was “We Happy Few,” a big disappointment considering the subject matter, the quality of the cast and the fact that the direction was by Trevor Nunn. At the Gielgud Theatre, the play by Imogene Stubbs told of a women’s acting troupe entertaining during World War II. Juliet Stevenson, another favorite of mine, was cast as Hetty, who is in charge of the company, which is working under difficult wartime conditions but is inspired by the feeling of doing something to help build morale.

Unfortunately Stubbs has inundated her play with so much soap opera nonsense that it becomes a mess of clichés, including an interracial romance, a pregnancy and a secret that Hetty harbors, plus melodramatic flourishes as the plot unfolds toward its climax. There is a clumsy flashback mechanism to get matters started. Stevenson was fine in the part, as were supporting players, but her role was especially clichéd.

On the up side, I did get to see her once again on stage, and it is always instructive to watch a British cast in action. One lemon in a busy London theater expedition isn’t a bad average.


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