London Theatre Round-up: Spring 2023
By Carol Rocamora for Sandi Durell’s Theater Pizzazz
London theatre has been soaring this spring with a striking variety of offerings, ranging from the sensational to the scintillating to the sentimental.
Nicholas Hytner’s exuberant Guys & Dolls has turned the Bridge Theatre into an immersive spectacle. He and his designer Bunny Christie have gutted the auditorium, providing an empty space where a promenade audience (hundreds of standing, cheering folks) can watch Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical unfolding on a set of mobile platforms that rise magically from under the theater floor. The rest of us perch on outer tiers or hang over the railing of gallery seats, marveling at the ever-changing scene as platforms turn, rise, and recede. Overhead, dazzling neon signs (by Paule Constable) place Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s story in the colorful 1920s-30s of New York, when gangsters and gamblers ruled the underworld (adapted from Damon Runyon’s story).
The plot focuses on two relationships. One is between Sky Masterson (a dashing, reckless gambler, played by Andrew Richardson) and Sarah Brown (an ardent reformer of sinners like Sky, played by Celinde Schoenmaker); the second is between Adelaide (a showgirl, played by Marisha Wallace) and Nathan Detroit (organizer of an illegal crap game, played by Daniel Mays) who has been promising to marry her for the last fourteen years. (For a full review, see my colleague Adam Cohen’s piece, posted on Theater Pizzazz). They lead an energetic cast through all the show’s great numbers, culminating in a sensational “Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat!”
If you’ll permit a personal digression, this musical is what made me fall in love with the theater in the first place. My father was an entertainment lawyer who worked on the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls, and as a child I met all the cast members at a party in my parents’ living room. I remember how star-struck I was by Robert Alda and Isabel Bigley, and will never forget Viviane Blaine singing: “Take back your mink, take back your poils/ what made you think/that I was one of those goils.” Also unforgettable was Sam Levene speak-singing “Sue me, sue me/what can you do me?”—that brought the house down, even though he couldn’t carry a tune. This current revival may be more “larger than life” than “gaudy and gritty” like the original, but Nicholas Hytner has replaced authenticity with extravagant theatricality, infusing it with a joy and a scale that is positively thrilling. It’s a spectacular theatrical experience, worth crossing the pond to see (or wait and pray that it will come to New York).
Across the river you’ll find another pair of feisty, sparring couples. Noel Coward’s immortal Private Lives (1930) is enjoying a spirited revival at the Donmar Warehouse. The jewel in the crown of Coward’s oeuvre, this rollicking comedy of errors features a divorced couple who meet by chance during the simultaneous honeymoons of their second marriages. The opening scene on the balcony of the French Riviera hotel boasts one of the funniest double-takes in contemporary comedy, when Elyot and Amanda (originally played by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence) suddenly recognize each other with horror. Their subsequent escape to Paris, pursued by their furious new spouses, results in interspousal mayhem that earned Coward the title of the king of drawing room comedy. Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling (of “The Bletchley Circle” series) give virtuosic performances as the divorced-now-reunited couple who can’t live with or without each other. Laura Carmichael (“Downton Abbey”) is an avenging Sibyl, Elyot’s scorned new wife, while Sargon Yelda plays a prim Victor Prynne, Amanda’s rejected new husband. Both end up behaving as badly as their respective new spouses. All the performances are utterly delightful. “Very flat, Norfolk” and “Don’t quibble, Sybil” never sounded so scintillating.
Director Michael Longhurst adds a hilarious touch—a violinist and cellist who play in between scenes, and then end up as the third sparring couple in the show. At first I thought Private Lives was a surprising choice in a time when theaters are featuring plays about socially and politically relevant topics. But I was happily proven wrong. As Longhurst and his superb cast show, comedy is also serious business, timeless and universal. “Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers,” declares Amanda, as they reignite their mutual passion between fistfights. What could be more relevant than a reminder of the flaws of human nature, especially in these current, turbulent times?
At the Royal National Theatre, a luminous revival of Dancing at Lughnasa is gracing the grand Olivier Stage. Brian Friel has never seemed so Chekhovian as in Josie Rourke’s glowing production, loosely based on the author’s own life. Set in a tiny Irish village in County Donegal, it is a memory play narrated by Michael (representing Friel) as a grown man, looking back to the summer of 1936 when he was seven. Michael is being raised by his mother and her four sisters—all of whom are single, all of whom live on the edge of poverty, surviving off the meager wages of the eldest (a schoolteacher) and two other sisters who knit gloves. Like Chekhov’s three sisters, these five are among the most beautifully realized characters in contemporary dramatic literature. Other wonderfully drawn roles include Michael’s Uncle Jack, recently returned from a twenty–five year stint as a missionary in an African leper colony; and Gerry, Michael’s charming, irresponsible father who dips in and out of their lives. Under Rourke’s loving direction, the ensemble shines.
Robert Jones’ gorgeous set features a sloping green hill to the sisters’ house, down which Michael descends to narrate the play—as well as the wayward Gerry, who makes his occasional visits to Michael’s poor mother. Upstage, a shimmering see-through curtain hangs, as if to protect the beauty of their memory. As in Chekhov, nothing “happens,” but nonetheless we get the full spectrum of these sisters’ past, present and (tragic) future. And yet (as in Chekhov, again) there are unforgettable moments of joy, as when the five sisters burst into wild, ecstatic dancing, celebrating the atavistic festival of Lughnasa. In that moment, like the Russian author who inspires him, Friel captures the joyous essence of life, despite its inevitable tragedy. “Dancing with eyes half-closed . . . Dancing when there are no words,” as Michael describes it so poignantly.
An unexpected treat is being offered next door, on the Lyttelton Stage at the National. The Motive and the Cue, Jack Thorne’s artful new play, dramatizes a rich chapter in theater history—namely, the preparation for the London production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1964, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. Thorne’s clever script—featuring highlights during the turbulent twenty-five-day rehearsal period—brings these two theater titans to vibrant life. As played by Johnny Flynn (a master of villainous roles—e.g. Hangman, The Outfit), Burton comes across as an unruly, unpredictable, flamboyant actor who refuses to be directed and who challenges Gielgud in every possible way, turning the rehearsal room into a battle zone. In contrast, Mark Gatiss’s Gielgud (a marvelous portrayal) exemplifies admirable self-control and restraint as he deals with his explosive, uncontrollable leading man. Gielgud struggles to reach Burton (at one point, throwing him out of rehearsal for drunkenness). The strength of Thorne’s script lies in its deeper themes—namely, what it means to be an actor and what it means to play Hamlet. The truth, Gielgud discovers, is in allowing Burton to make Hamlet his own, rather than emulate Gielgud (who played the role so famously) or to follow his direction.
It’s a rich theater experience, masterfully directed by Sam Mendes, featuring these two electrifying performances plus a strong supporting cast (including Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie, the actress who played Gertrude, and Tuppence Middleton as a surprisingly sympathetic Liz Taylor, giving advice to Gielgud on how to “handle” Burton). There are touching scenes between Gielgud and Burton, as they struggle through the artistic process together, revealing moments of vulnerability and ultimately addressing the essentials of theater. “Theatre is bravery,” says Gielgud, alone on the stage with Burton moments before the triumphant opening night. Director Mendes adds an enlightening coda at the end of the production, reminding us that Hamlet is the most performed play in the history of theater (over 250,000 productions).
Finally, it is gratifying to see an American playwright being celebrated at the Almeida Theatre. The Secret Life of Bees, Lynn Nottage’s moving stage adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel (which premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 2019), is receiving a spirited London production directed by Whitney White, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Set in South Carolina in 1964 (the year of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation), it tells the story of Lily, a young white woman who escapes her abusive father together with Rosaleen, a black domestic worker, who has been beaten and jailed for attempting to vote. Together, they seek refuge with a family of three black beekeeping sisters, and find spiritual healing in their world. The period in American history—including the death of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi and the moon landing—provides a vital context. Whitney White directs a spirited cast, featuring Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Lily and Abiona Omonua as Rosaleen.
The rich score (featuring songs in folk and gospel style) ends in “You are home,” sung by a full-voiced, passionate chorus of women. It’s a powerful final tableau (on Soutra Gilmour’s colorful set) and an underscoring of Nottage’s consistent theme—namely, black women in history and their search for agency and dignity.
If you’re planning a trip to London, click through for more information:
Guys and Dolls. Bridge Theatre (through February 24, 2024)
Private Lives. Donmar Warehouse (this show has ended)
The Motive and the Cue. The National Theatre (through July 15)
Dancing at Lughnasa. Royal National Theatre (this show has ended)
The Secret Life of Bees. Almeida Theatre (this show has ended)
Sandi Durell is Publisher/Editor of www.theaterpizzazz.com/
and has been writing, reviewing, producing, having a voice in the theater, cabaret and entertainment communities for over 25+ years. She is a Voting Member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards; member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Sandi is a producer of Broadway & Hollywood Live! Revues (www.ShaRellProductions.com); has produced numerous Songwriter Events for the American Popular Song Society (APSS – formerly New York Sheet Music Society on which she is a Board member); the benefit CD “Our Heart Sings;” is a producer on the Award winning film “Broadway the Golden Age” (with Rick McKay) and has produced a variety of entertainment events for most of her career.
She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU – Advisory Board),100+ year old Dutch Treat Club, The Lambs; an occasional theater “angel” and has had a career as a vocalist-performer.
Her column can also be found at www.theaterlife.com