London Theater Review of Seven Current Plays

Theater Review – January 13, 2019

LONDON THEATER REMAINS THE ENGLISH SPEAKING FINEST

“THE INHERITANCE”
Noel Coward Theatre

“COMPANY”
Gielgud Theatre

“EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE”
Apollo Theatre

“THE COMEDY ABOUT A BANK ROBBERY”
Criterion Theatre

“SWITZERLAND”
Ambassadors Theatre

“THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG”
Duchess Theatre

Although the Phoenix theater scene grows richer and more diverse over time, true theater lovers must head to New York to see the latest in trend-setting contemporary theater.  Just about every theater piece seen in Phoenix starts in New York.  But for truly fabulous theatergoing, London is the place to see the best in English speaking comedy, drama, and musical theater as occurred on a recent five-day London trip where all but one of seven shows proved amazing in diverse ways.

Interestingly, the dud of the lot continues to play on Broadway and it is now touring the country.  It will soon hit Tempe’s ASU Gammage.  That show, a very British but not very clever farce, “The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, premiered in London in 2012 where it remains popular although tickets are available for every performance at the many reduced priced ticket emporiums in the English capital.  A capacity crowd laughed mildly at the predictable jokes and tired word-plays but it is the kind of British farce Americans don’t usually admire like English audiences.  It is also a tiny play with a small set and a limited ensemble where hearing every word of dialogue is critical.  Presenting “The Play That Goes Wrong” at ASU Gammage will do it no favors.  More about this farce later.  First let’s look at the six superior plays and musicals that were beautifully staged and impeccably acted, a typical British theater tradition.

“The Inheritance”

This two-part play about a group of gay guys explains how they deal with the limited inheritance options available to those not officially married.  It is a contemporary “The Boys in the Band” or “Angels in America” but it deals with more than the difficulties of being homosexual.  It explores discrimination against people who choose not to live by established norms.  It is filled with touching moments of how exclusions hurt gays.  Some of the most emotional moments come in the second part and are stunningly performed by Vanessa Redgrave who only appears in this section.  It’s been a while since the gay lifestyle and the unfairness of living an alternate existence has been presented and in such an eloquent but amusing style.  One imagines the play will find an American audience in big cities but don’t expect “The Inheritance” in many theaters here.  And that is truly a shame because masses of theatergoers need to understand how discrimination affects what is estimated to be ten percent of the population.  “The Inheritance” is the best play in London but do see the first part before the second.  Seeing the plays out-of-order will lessen its profound impact.

“Company”

Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical masterpiece is transformed to contemporary times by changing the male characters to female and the women to men.  Playboy Bobby has morphed into a wild and swinging gal called Bobbie.  The only part that hasn’t been altered is the two-fisted drinker, Joanne, who was originally portrayed by Elaine Stritch.  That part now is handled by Patti LuPone.  She is so marvelous, though and so brilliantly executes “The Ladies Who Lunch” solo that LuPone throws the musical’s focus off because the audience follows LuPone at the expense of everyone else whenever she is on stage.  The central lead is well played by Rosalie Craig, but she can’t distinguish herself from LuPone so the play is all about a subordinate character and this change takes away from the forsaking and torturous lead character’s  maxinations that make the central part and the musical so richly rewarding.  Rumors are that the show may transfer to Broadway but the largely English cast will be replaced by American performers except LuPone will remain with the show.  So, like in London, “Company” if it comes to Broadway will not be the show that Sondheim originally intended, a concept error for a long overdue revival of this outstanding musical.

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”

The other major London musical is “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” a gaudy but superficial show about a central character who hopes to become a drag queen.  Jamie’s career desire allows a series of splashy musical numbers that allow him to display his dream.  The plot’s conclusion that he succeeds while offending his uptight father but understanding mother is clear almost immediately so the brightly staged production goes nowhere unsuspected.  It’s the kind of entertaining musical that usually becomes a New York hit so expect to see “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” on Broadway where it probably will be Americanized.  Is it worth the astronomical Broadway prices?  Probably not.

“The Comedy About A Bank Robbery”

This whodunit is by the same three playwrights who created “The Play That Goes Wrong” but it is much more interesting and even though it is also a typical British farce it is much funnier and far more elusive than their earlier piece.  There are more unexpected plot twists and turns and the performances are far more appealing than in the earlier play.  Interestingly, I saw these two plays on the same day so the earlier play’s weaknesses became even more glaring because the second play was so much better and was performed by an excellent ensemble cast.  It is still an intimate piece that won’t play well in huge theaters but will be its best in venues where the audience is close to the performance and, like the earlier piece, where every word of dialogue can be clearly understood.  To reveal any of “The Comedy About A Bank Robbery” would ruin it but the title suggests what happens so even without plot details it funny to watch.  Also where plot shifts make initial impressions of where the comedy is going, it doesn’t necessarily veer the way you might anticipate.  The playwrighting trio obviously learned lots of lessons in “The Play That Goes Wrong” which allowed them to improve their second piece in a similar genre.

“Switzerland”

“Switzerland” is an excellent who-done-it that keeps audiences guessing what will happen from the moment the curtain rises.  As newspaper reporter, Edward, interviews suspense author Patricia Highsmith, about how she conceives her plots.  You know something fowl will happen but it is hard to guess exactly what will transpire while the literate pair dual about crafting mysteries but with discussions of current politics added to the play’s brilliant wit and limber style.  Two marvelous performances by Phyllis Logan as the writer and Calum Finlay as the journalist keep the play tight and taut as the twists and turns of a typical thriller are unleashed.  Sharp writing distinguish this play and its popularity in America seems assured.  If it doesn’t end up on Broadway, regional and community theaters will relish presenting “Switzerland” to wildly receptive audiences.

“The Play That Goes Wrong”

My earlier comments about this chatty but not very funny or very clever piece warrant no further discussion but make sure you spend any time you have for London theater at any play other than “The Play Goes Wrong.”

And pre-Christmas London was not just about theater.  The City was decked out for the holidays with Leicester Square transformed into a festive Christmas market, the major department stores – Harrods, Selfridge’s, and Liberty – were full of shoppers, elaborate decorations with unbelievable store windows, and the emporiums were filled with expensive but impressive merchandise.  Yes, it was cold and occasionally rainy but unlike a temperate desert Christmas in Arizona, London was a true holiday party.  Everyone who loves Christmas and enjoys masterful theater should experience London in December.  What more could a holiday-loving theatergoer ask?

 

Leave a Reply