London Theater Review – The Hits

This review aired on KBAQ October 18, 2010


Palace Theatre
London, England

New London Theatre
London, England

Noel Coward Theatre
London, England

There’s always rivalry between New York and London over which city dominates English speaking theater. A recent London trip afforded the chance to see six of the latest West End shows and helped structure a reasoned answer to the dispute.

Broadway leads the musical theater world but London takes the honors for plays. While some Broadway musicals debuted in the West End, hit London musicals are usually recent Broadway successes. Most London musicals that haven’t hit New York are works-in-progress that require fine-tuning for Broadway. Unlike Broadway, the West End boasts a richly diverse collection of new and old plays in fine productions while Broadway struggles to sustain a few plays each season. The best American plays come from off-Broadway or regional theaters.

So, London’s West End and Broadway each has an unique focus and share honors for presenting the best English theater.

The three London hits I saw included the musical version of the screen comedy, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” a marvelous new British drama, “War Horse,” and a star-studded revival of “Deathtrap,” a classic American murder/thriller.

“Priscilla” premiered in Australia where the hilarious show tracks three Sydney drag queens who decide to take their unique entertainment to Australia’s Outback. The movie focused on the journey as the guys prepared their act. The musical explodes over the giant Palace Theatre stage with huge production numbers set in many of the tiny towns the trio went through. The acceptance of drag entertainment by these rural people is amazing in several splashy numbers. “Priscilla’s” bound for Broadway and should pack a major entertainment wallop.

“War Horse,” a great English drama tells about a horse that leaves his farm for a place on the World War I battle lines. It focuses on the strength of friendship in the unique relationship between the animal and owner. It uses creative ways to tell the story and to make the horse a fascinating character. There are shades of “Equus” in “War Horse” and it uses “Lion King” techniques to turn actors into animals. The animals were crafted with intricate believability by the Handspring Puppet Theatre and the magnificent staging is by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. If you’re in London and have time for just one play, “War Horse” is it.

The revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 murder/thriller “Deathtrap” stars brilliant British stage and screen star Simon Russell Beale as playwright Sydney Bruhl. The play traces the writer’s attempt to deal with a creative block. When a student introduces a clever thriller idea, Bruhl weaves a bizarre journey to use the student’s play as his own. The intricate machinations shock several times and director Matthew Warchus guides a superb ensemble in the intriguing subterfuge. The cast includes not only Beale’s nuanced Bruhl, but American actor Jonathan Groff’s richly etched portrait of the young playwright, and Estelle Parsons’ mischievous mayhem as a local psychic who figures out Bruhl’s plan.

Three fine productions makes an enamored theatergoer think annual West End theater pilgrimages are a must. Order tickets to all three shows online at