London Theater – A Look At Five Plays and Musicals

This review aired on KBAQ October 22, 2012


Like Broadway, the London theater scene is alive but the most popular shows are holdovers from previous seasons or revivals of past hits.  A September London trip allowed time to see five plays and musicals but only two, a new play and a popular Stephen Sondheim musical revival, were hits.  The other three shows, while well performed and conceived, aren’t destined to become big successes.

The surprise hit was April De Angelis’ funny but frank family drama, “Jumpy,” that explores parental anxieties about life after 50 while looking at teens’ changing attitudes about life.  With a deft comic touch, the playwright tells it like it is with older, anxiety-prone parents and smart aleck teens.  Tamsin Greig’s Hilary, the concerned mother, was right-on, while Bel Powley’s Tilly, the teen, stood up to her often perplexed mother even though her reasons were silly.  The cast became a cohesive family.  The play is timely, honest, and an occasionally touching treatise that will appeal to American audiences.

The other London hit was a revival of Sondheim’s dark “Sweeney Todd” that tells of an avenging barber who kills his patrons.  It starred West End musical theater star Michael Ball who proved a brilliant and insightful Todd.  Another London musical theater star, Imelda Staunton, was a bizarrely exuberant Mrs. Lovett who uses the bodies Todd’s killed to goose up her awful meat pies.  The pair was masterful in the starkly staged and scary interpretation of the now classic musical.

The other three shows lacked the stature of most London theater.  “One Man, Two Guvnors” played Broadway but its success is attributable to the show’s original star, James Corden who is no longer in it.  The script is filled with British comedy that doesn’t strike Americans as funny.  The show is sold in London as a “glorious celebration of British comedy.”  There’s nothing wrong with Richard Bean’s play except that the raucous time Britishers have doesn’t transfer to Americans.

Noel Coward’s “Volcano” is a newly discovered play about a widow seduced by a married man.  When his wife comes to fight off her competition, tensions erupt.  The story is said to relay Coward’s actual life but the talky play lacks the sparkle of most of his plays.

London’s biggest musical hit is “Matilda,” a show that has engrossed London theatergoers but is an overproduced dud.  The children’s movie is popular in England but the trite music, repetitious staging, and myriad musical theater clichés don’t make it sparkling.  Kids seemed to enjoy it far more than adults.

Like Broadway, London theater is expensive but there’s a half price ticket booth in Leicester Square and, with the exception of “Matilda,” most London shows are available at a discount.