Wednesday, 30 December 2009

TOP 10

Now that my 2009 theatergoing is over (yes, I am going to make in until January 2 without seeing anything!), I can decide on my picks for the best of London theater in 2010, which was a very good year for new plays.
1. THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN. Actually 14 plays in one day by osme of the best British playwrights performed by a very strong acting ensemble. Tricycle Theatre
2. WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING by Andrew Upton. Almeida Theatre.
3. JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth. Royal Court
4. ENRON by Lucy Prebble. Chichester Theatre Festival
5. TUSK TUSK by Poly Stenham. Royal Court
6. PORNOGRAPHY by Simon Stephens. Tricycle Theatre.
7. COCK by Mike Bartlett. Royal Court Theatre
8. BE NEAR ME by Ian McDairmid. Donmar Warehouse, co-production with National Theatre of Scotland.
9. THE HABIT OF ART by Alan Bennett. National Theatre
10. WIG OUT by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. Royal Court Theatre

I find at this stage of my life that I am less interested in seeing revivals, particularly of plays I have seen before (yes, even Shakespeare!) than I am in seeing new work. Nonetheless, in no particular order of preference, here is my list of the most impressive revivals of 2009
TIME AND THE CONWAYS by J.B. Priestley directed by Rupert Goold. National Theatre.
AS YOU LIKE IT, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Shakespeare's Globe
WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett, directed by Sean Mathias
ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard, directed by David Leveaux
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Tennessee Williams, directed by Debbie Allen
Although the productions weren't earth shaking, I was happy to see revivals of Terrence Rattigan's THE WINSLOW BOY (Rose Theatre, Kingston) and Noel Coward's A SONG AT TWILIGHT (Richmond Theatre)


A new Alan Bennett play is always an occasion in London. THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE and HISTORY BOYS had long, sellout runs and went on to be films. His new play, THE HABIT OF ART, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre as usual is the hottest ticket in London right now and will go out into movie theaters around the world as a high definition telecast in April. Last night's audience was filled with leading theater and television actors and directors.
At the heart of this rich, complex, funny play is a 1972 meeting in Oxford between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in Auden's unkempt Oxford flat. Auden, celebrated for his poetry of an earlier era, is now an eminence but no longer the poet he once was. He lives more on pontificating than poetry. On this particular day he awaits a visit from a rent boy, but instead Humphrey Carpenter, who will eventually write biographies of both Auden and Britten, arrives on his doorstep, eager to interview the poet for the local BBC station. After visits from Carpenter and the rent boy, Britten arrives, rekindling a friendship that he severed decades before. Lonely and frightened, Britten wants moral support in the writing of his new opera, DEATH IN VENICE, a work which deals more overtly with Britten's repressed pedophilia than any of his other works. Auden wants to rewrite the libretto to make it more direct, closer to Britten's own predilections: Britten basically wants someone to tell him he's on the right track.
Somewhere in the revising of his work, Bennett decided that the play needed a means of questioning its own assumptions. Now this meeting between Auden and Britten is presented as the rehearsal of the play. The actors portray actors playing Britten, Auden, Carpenter, the rent boy and others. We see the prcoess of them questioning their characters as they go through their own artistic process. Some of the play we see them rehearse is powerful, some downright pretentious and silly. So we watch a work of art, the play, recreate an artistic process, the rehearsal, which presents the meeting of two great artists, poet and composer, who discuss their own artistic process. Bennett, with Tom Stoppard the most gifted of his generation of living writers, makes all this work.
At the heart of the play is the intersection of art, sex and mortality. A lot of the discussion of Auden and Britten is about their sexual predilections. We see the encounter of Auden with a rent boy and, provoking some nervous coughing from audience members, a candid discussion of Britten's love for boys. Along with his partner, Peter Pears, boys are Britten's source of inspiration. For Auden, the rent boy is a business transaction without even sexual satisfaction. If love for boys is at the heart of Britten's work, desire for young men is at the heart of Bennett's recent plays. The relationship between teacher and male student in HISTORY BOYS is partly sexual. The most powerful scene in the play is young Dakin's attempt to seduce his teacher. Here the rent boy becomes a focal character. He is supposed the stand naked at the end of the play, a Caliban, the ordinary non-intellectual person. He wants his place in the story recognized: "There's always someone left out. You all have a map. I don't have a map. I don't even know what I don't know. I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know." Auden responds: No. You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know any more. You want what Caliban always wants.: you want to be knowing." At the end Henry, the character playing Britten, wants to leave with the actor playing the rent boy. Life and sex go on. The place of flesh in art is one of Bennett's concerns here, particularly for old men. The playwright in this fictional rehearsal is a young man, but this is a play only an older man could write, about age, sex and what the dying body does to the imagination. Fitz, the actor playing Auden complains that the play's focus on Auden's physicality -- peeing in the sink, discussing cocks with the rent boy -- diminishes the poet, but it is the humanity of these figures, warts and all, that interests Bennett. The filthy, farting Auden is a contrast to the immaculate, uptight Britten. Auden discusses sex with the rent boy: Britten discusses music with him. Of course, the rent boy knows a lot about sex and nothing about music.
DEATH IN VENICE is a great work in part because it is so close to Britten's own experience of unrequited desire. The music has both a yearning quality and a sense of constraint, as if it constantly wants to break free. It is perfect for the story as Britten imagined it. Britten died shortly after completing it in the arms of his long time partner, Peter Pears, for whom the role of Aschenbach was written.
THE HABIT OF ART is given an impaccable production. The setting is a replica of one of the National's large rehearsal rooms with a playwood mock up of the play's setting in the center. There is no conventional theatrical lighting, only harsh rehearsal light. Richard Griffiths who had such a success with HISTORY BOYS, plays Auden (the part was supposed to be played by Michael Gambon, but illness forced him out of the production early on in the rehearsal period). For me, watching Griffiths onstage poses problems. He's fine in the part, but one has to deal with his grotesquely obese physical appearance. I find him such a physical turnoff that it distracts me from his performance and the play. Ah, the erotics of theater! Alex Jennings is fine as Henry, the slightly effeminate gay actor playing Britten. Frances de la Tour, who can do wry better than any other living actress, plays the all-knowing stage manager who gets the last word, a lovely speech in celebration of theater. Stephen Wight is charming as the overly idealized rent boy -- the play and the production need to give the character a few more rough edges.
At one point I thought about how a British audience can appreciate this rather graphic (in language) play about gay men and wondered how it will fare in Puritanical America. Yet Bennett's approach to homosexuality is not without its vexations. One of the most intelligent (and talented) British actors I know was infuriated by HISTORY BOYS, on one hand a play focusing on repressed and openly gay characters but without the possibility of happiness of fulfillment in a same-sex relationship. This actor was sitting a few rows in front of me at THE HABIT OF ART and I wonder if this pleased him more. After all, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were in long term relationships with men who were creative partners as well as domestic partners. Chester Kallman collaborated with Auden on the libretto of Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, now a repertory staple, as well as other works. Pears was Britten's chief interpreter (I had trouble with Britten's operas at first because I didn't like Pears's voice or mannered style -- it was a revelation to hear other tenors in the roles Pears initiated) and his companion for almost forty years. They are buried together. One assumes these relationships brought some love and joy to these men, but there is no hint of it in the play. Instead we are presented with lonely men whose only desire is for youth. This is a distortion of the truth of these men's lives which is unfair to these men, to gay men in general and to the audience.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009


The Young Vic Theatre, founded in the 1960s as an alternative to the National theatre, then in residence at the Old Vic down the road, was intended to be a more alternative, experimental space. In recent years it has been difficult to glean an artistic philosophy as the theater was renovated including a second smaller auditorium and a large bar/restaurant that dominates the front of the building (eating and drinking seem to have been the priority in many of the theater renovations in London from the Royal Opera House to Off West End spaces like the Old Vic and Almeida Theatres). But what is the Young Vic now? The best new plays go to the Royal Court, the Bush, the Almeida or, to a lessser degree, the National (Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner does not have the best taste in new scripts). The Young Vic productions I have most admired in recent years have demonstrated a more radical approach to production that sometimes questions exactly what a theater is and what the relationship of performance and audience might be.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, the corny 1946 Irving Berlin/Herbert and Dorothy Fields musical, written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, would seem an odd choice for a production rethinking theater, but Richard Jones, known and often vilified for his radical productions of theater and opera has given the slight musical a different approach. Jones loves to challenge one's sense of the stage space. Here he has reduced it to a low, wide, narrow "CinemaScope" size. The basic setting is a
1950s diner somewhere in Ohio, but this mythical Ohio has cactus. The furnishings of this tacky diner are used to create a railroad train and steamship with the help of a ocnveyor belt with miniature scenery traveling along its path. Wagon wheel ceiling lights like those one might find in an old steakhouse are raised and lowered like the chandeliers at the Met when the lights are dimmed. The proscenium is broken as actors also move into the theater itself. Jones often likes pushing the action as far downstage as possible and this shallow playing area removes much use of depth. There's a small hotel room above the stage used in the first and last scene. The walls of the theater are painted American flag red, white and blue. Lighting is not at all illusionistic. Clever film is used at the beginning of each act. There are a lot of clever effects, but no illusion of versimilitude. Once one accepts Jones's conventions, one can enjoy their cleverness.
Scrawny blond Jane Horrocks is the opposite of Ethel Merman. She specializes in playing strange characters and her Annie is certainly strange. Horrocks has an idiosyncratic, mannered performance style, but so did Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Bernadette Peters and Reba McIntyre -- the other famous Annies. Merman, Martin and Peters were creatures of the stage. None have had successful film careers in part because, already "larger than life", their performances did not work magnified even more on screen. Their singing styles were unique, unlike the bland homogenized sound of the kiddies on Glee. Horrocks's performance is in the tradition of past musical divas. It's a bit demented at times, but so were some of the divas of the past (Carol Channing, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley). It would not be to everyone's taste, but she looks the part and sings well enough. Annie is a cartoon character after all. Annie was originally tailored to Merman's considerable ego -- of course she thought she was the best shot -- but Horrocks is able to make Annie's self ocnfidence part of a larger character. In a way, she's the traditional "can do" American spirit. Julian Ovendon is gorgeous and sings beautifully.
The book has been doctored to remove potentially offensive racial stereotypes. Annie does not sing "I'm an Indian Too." Instead Sitting Bull shoots the loudspeaker when the song starts playing. And the ending in which Annie throws her shooting match so she can get her man is made less a woman's duty and more about male ego. There's no development of the romance between her and Frank, but that was always a problem with the book. Merman couldn't play love scenes.
The four pianos that provide the accompaniment make a wonderful sound.
Show queen friends of mine hate this production. Like the packed audience in the Young Vic last night, I enjoyed it. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN is not one of the greatest musicals ever written (Oh, if only Dorothy Fields had written the lyrics as originally planned -- Berlin's lyrics tend to be generic and there's one too many comic patter songs) so why not find a new way to see it?

Monday, 28 December 2009


The tiny, claustrophobic Menier Chocolate Factory theater has been the setting for musical revivals that have moved on to the West End and Broadway. The brilliant SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and now A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC have been the best revivals of Sondheim's work since Sam Mendes's Donmar productions and the National Theatre revivals in the 90s. I hated the tacky Menier revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but it did move on to the West End with osme success and is scheduled for Broadway this winter. No self respecting drag artist would wear the dowdy, ill-fitting costumes dreamed up for this version.
Now the Menier is serving up a revival of the Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields 1966 show SWEET CHARITY which was one of the last solid, old fashioned book musicals created as a star vehicle. SWEET CHARITY was one of a series of musicals created for the unique talents of Gwen Verdon (DAMN YANKEES, NEW GIRL IN TOWN, REDHARD preceded it, all choreographed by Bob Fosse who was, for a while, Verdon's husband). Verdon was inimitable. Like most Broadway divas, she wasn't conventionally beautiful. She had a decent singing voice, great comic timing but most of all, she was a terrific dancer with a radiant stage perosnality. She wasn't a cartoon like Carol Channing or a one tick pony like Ethel Merman. You went to see her shows in great part because she was in them. During yesterday's fine performance of SWEET CHARITY, I still heard Verdon. Clearly the Charity, Tamsin Outhwaite had listen to the original cast recording -- she tried to capture that throaty uqaver that was Verdon's singing style -- and some of Stephen Mear's choreography for Charity came from watching Fosse's original. Outhwaite carried the show with the help of Mark Umbers who played all of Charity's lovers. She didn't light up the stage as stars like Verdon did, but was fine for the small Menier. Originally neurotic Oscar was played by the terminally bland John McMartin. the much more talented Mark Umbers made him a real human being and, as always sang beautifully.
Everyone in the company was fine. Matthew White's staging was clever. Mears's choreography wasn't up to Fosse's level but was highly enjoyable. The band was great. Most important, the show still works. though Cy Coleman's score is one of the best of 1960s musicals, I was most impressed with the virtuosity of Dorothy Fields's witty lyrics. I had never put SWEET CHARITY in my pantheon of great musicals, but this production came close to changing my mind.


It is a shame that there seems to be little room for new plays either on Broadway or the West End unless they are cast (or miscast) with big name television or film stars. Revivals have name recognition, in addition to the name recognition of the stars who justify them. Curently in Londn we have Moliere's THE MISANTHROPE with Keira Knightly, and Ian McKellan in WAITING FOR GODOT returning after a three month sellout run. And, fresh from Broadway, Debbie Allen's all Black production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy, Phylicia Rashad (Allen's sister) as Big Mama (very much a uspporting role), and British stage and television star Adrian Lester as Brick. with young American actress Sanaa Latham as Maggie. CAT keeps being revived. There was a superb production here in London a few years ago with Brendan Fraser a very touching Brick. It is an American classic, but who is the current or future Tennessee Williams?
CAT is a masterpiece of ocndensation. The play takes place over two hours in one setting. None of the short attention span cutting between short scenes that has vitiated the emotional impact of so many contemporary plays. Theater isn't film or television and great drama can develop a conflict in long paragraphs rather than short sentences. The twenty-plus minute scene between Big Daddy and Brick is an example of the power of a long, intense scene.
CAT is such a well wrought play that the updating to the 1980s and the change from 1950s Southern white nouveau riche to African-American characters doesn't affect it much at all. James Earl Jones is a great, towering Big Daddy, Lester a fine Brick trying desperately to remove himself from his surroundings and numb himself from his self-hatred, and Latham hits all the right buttons as Maggie: beautiful, sexy, funny, desperate, irritating and brave. There were things I had never seen before in other productions of CAT -- Brick's compassionate (as opposed to vengeful) telling his father the truth about his illness, for instance. And, finally, a Brick who really acted drunk after drinking ocnstantly throughout the play. Lester made Brick's sexuality less ambiguous than Ian Charleson or Brendan Fraser did in recent London productions, but his Brick is a man who simply doesn't know what to do about any sexuality -- an "ass-aching Puritan", as Maggie calls him.
Like all of Williams's work, CAT is about sex and mortality -- how we deal with our sexual desire and how we face death. In the greatest scene in the play between Big Daddy and Brick, the two come together. Brick admits that Skipper's feelings for him weren't so pure (Brick's ideal is a sexless male friendship) and that he, in his typical passice-aggressive style, cuts off the friend who loved and needed him because he oculdn't deal with the reality of homosexuality as he has cut off his wife for wanting him and Skipper to face the truth; and Big Daddy faces his terminal cancer and the end of his life. Beside these big issues, the squabbling over inheritance seems petty. Big Daddy tells Brick that man is the only animal that knows he is going to die. Everything in Williams follows from that.
So Tennessee Williams has been well served this year in London -- a fine STREETCAR with Rachel Weisz and an intense, often appropriately funny CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Since 1993 the Royal National Theatre has mounted a holiday family show. This is not the usual mindless pantomime, but a spectacular production of an adaptation of a book written for young people aimed at over 12s and adults. They began with a six hour, two part adaptation of Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS (a holiday show that attacked organized religion!). After running that for two sold out seasons, they mounted MELLY STILL's inventive production of CORAM BOY, followed by WAR HORSE, their biggest hit which has moved on to a sold out run on the West End. This year's production, Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's NATION has not been so well received by critics and is not the sellout hit previous shows have been. Nonetheless it is a beautiful, inventive production (Melly Still again).
NATION is politically tricky which has put off some of the critics. In the height of the British Empire a girl is shipwrecked on an island. There she becomes friends with a boy who has become chief after many of his tribe have been killed by a tsunami. So proper British girl and native boy have adventures together and the girl discovers that the native civilization has its own ancient culture established long before England was inhabited. The whites who survive the shipwreck are the violent, destructive ones and the natives sing and dance. All politically correct but still reinforcing stereotypes. If one can get beyond that, the production is beautiful to behold with terrific "underwater" aerial effects. Melly Still is great at creating theatrical effects very simply. The cast (no NT stars) is fine and the original score is music is enjoyable but forgettable.
Nowhere near the excellence of CORAM BOY or WAR HORSE but perfectly enjoyable.

NATION by Mark Ravenhill from the novel by Terry Pratchett. Directed by Melly Still, designed by Melly Still with Mark Friend; costumes designed by Dinah Collin; puppets designed by Yvonne Stone. Royal National Theatre. December 21, 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Recent opera productions in London made me think about what makes a successful realization of a classic piece of musical theater. The tendency in Europe is to "revise" opera -- to assume that an audience knows a work well and the director can set it anywhere or present it as a more abstract theater piece. Christof Loy's LULU at the Royal Opera last spring was such a work. Loy so stripped the work of any decor or narrative that it was little more than a concert.
Rufus Goold's recent TURANDOT at the English National Opera certainly wasn't minimalist, but it filled the stage with so many peripheral details that audience members were so busy trying to figure out what was going on that the opera got lost in the shuffle. No storybook ancient Peking here. Instead we were in a contemporary London Chinese restaurant, the "Imperial Palace", where there seemed to be a costume party going on. Chorus members were dressed as Elvis impersonators, drag queens, Margaret Thatcher lookalikes. In he midst of this, a hyperactive writer seemed to be imagining the story of Turandot and turning partygoers into the characters in the opera. The opera had more to do with Rupert Goold than Puccini or his librettists and I defy anyone to tell me what three Elvis impersonators had to do with anything. There were some good moments; for instance, Ping, Pang and Pong, the chefs, sitting on a fire escape in the first scene of the second act.
In the midst of all this, the singing was mediocre. Turandot was loud, period. Liu could not sing softly -- a requirement for that role. Only the tenor singing Calaf seemed appropriately cast. The orchestra was -- loud.
Earlier that week, I saw Deborah Warner's staging of THE MESSIAH at the English National Opera. In one sense, Warner was doing the impossible -- THE MESSIAH is not inherently theatrical -- but I found Warner's attempt at giving the work contemporary relevance deeply moving and the most religious presentation of the work in or out of a church I have seen. Warner took the words seriously and make one think about what they meant. I am not a believer in the resurrection of the body, but Warner's production made me want to believe.
This was a contemporary setting with solists and chorus looking like they just walked in from the street. The Christmas section centered on children, the passion on Christ and the final section on the citizenry dying and being reborn as the trumpet sounded. The chorus sang and moved brilliantly and the soloists were excellent singers and actors. At the performance I saw, ailing tenor John Mark Ainsley was replaced by a young Irish tenor, Eamonn Mulwell. He had a lovely voice, good looks and superb stage presence. Lawrence Cummings directed the ENO orchestra as if they were an original instrument group -- virtually no vibrato.
The Royal Opera revived its decades old production of DER ROSENKAVALIER originally directed by the late film director John Schlesinger. To contemporary eyes, this is an old fashioned production that reminded me of the Met production of the fifties and sixties. However old the production is, it tells the story effectively (the first thing I ask of any production). This production boasted the best Marschalin I have ever seen or heard, the Finnish soprano Soile Iskowski. What a great singing actress she is -- I couldn't take my eyes off her expressive face during Act I. The other leads were fine, though the conducting (Kiril Petrenko) was coarse and the horns, so crucial to this score, having an off night.


Plays about the making of art are always tricky. How does one dramatize what goes on in an artist's head? How to balance the audience in the know about an artist with those who may know little or nothing? One can be overly specialized or dumb down to the lowest common denominator as Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS did with Mozart -- only a person who cared nothing about Mozart could make it through that play. John Logan's RED creates the proper balance. For those of us who know something about the life and work of Mark Rothko, this play imaginatively and convincingly takes us inside the artist's mind. For the rest, the play is a fascinating character study and an arresting conflict between an older and younger man. The older man (Rothko) plays the role of patriatch, mentor, critic and bully to a younger, aspiring artist who is his assistant, but the younger man more than holds his own. Rothko's hermetic studio is the only environment in which the brooding, angst-ridden artist feels in control. It is his world in which he slowly and painstakingly conceives of his paintings which he fears no one will understand. For him, they are dark psychodramas: for those who can afford them, they will be decor. The young man is a fan of the younger generation of artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg.
Each scene in RED is a kind of battle, for Rothko sees himself as an Ahab battling dark forces within and without. The young man, who has suffered genuine tragedy in his short life, is more resilient. Without resilience and a fighting spirit, he could never survive two years as Rothko's assistant. During the course of the play Rothko is creating the large paintings commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram's Building in New York. We know that he will ultimately refuse to have the paintings hanging there where they will indeed be mere decor for the rich patrons drinking and dining there. In this version, it is the young man who confronts him with the irony of pacing his paintings in such a commercial venue. It could never be the temple of art he wants it to be.
RED is beautifully written and a great vehicle for actors. Alfred Molina is excellent as the hulking, brooding Rothko and the gifted Eddie Redmayne, an intense, highly physical actor, as his young assistant and antagonist. The Donmar Warehouse stage was convincingly turned into an artist's loft. All in all an intense, play brilliantly directed (Can Michael Grandage do otherwise) and acted.
RED by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage, designed by Christopher Oram. Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. December 19, 2009.


The title of Mike Bartlett's intriguing new play at the Royal Court's small upstairs space is certainly provocative, if not necessarily appropriate. It isn't really about sex.
COCK is a pared down four character play presented, at the author's request, without sets, furniture or props. The space has been converted into a kind of mini arena, a circular space with the audience on cushioned benches looking down at a small, bare playing area. We watch a series of psychological battles over a young man who admits he doesn't know who he is or what he wants. In a very telling speech, he remembers that when he was young, he loved to imitate other people's voices, but when he was finished, he couldn't remember his own voice He survives by being what people want him to be at any particular moment.
John (Ben Whishaw playing the only character given a name) is in a seven year, turbulent relationship with his partner (Andrew Scott). Said partner often voices his frustration at John's total fecklessness. At the beginning of the play, John is moving toward breaking up with his partner, but such a definite decision with lasting consequences is beyond him. In the brief hiatus in their relationship, John starts an affair with a twenty-eight-year-old divorcee (Katherine Paarkinson), his first with a woman. Said woman is even more needy and manipulative than John's male partmer and John yoyos back and forth between the two, being, to put it mildly, less than honest about his feelings. He tells her that he wants to leave his partner (not totally true) and tells his partner than his girlfriend is very masculine (definitely not true). At a dinner from hell, John's partner and girlfriend fight it out over him (with the help of partner's father who has been called in for reinforcement) and try to get him to make a decision. Girlfriend offers him a "normal life" with a doting wife, kids, and family Christmas which she thinks trumps anything the partner can offer. Partner offers him basically anything he wants, including adopted children, as long as he'll stay in the relationship, but John has no idea what he wants. The father keeps saying "Decide who your are," which is exactly what John can't do. Of course, John finally decides on what is easiest.
The question is not so much why John is the way he is as why this man and woman want to be paired up with him. Their neediness, their hunger to have a partner and settled life even if the partner is, as they both admit, a mess, is the saddest aspect of the play. In this battle between partner and girlfriend, no one can win anything worth having.
Ben Whishaw is excellent as the cipher. Scrawny, homely, messy and with a tendency to collapse into a heap on the floor, he captures John's emptiness, his narcissism and his flashes of cruelty. As his partner, Andrew Scott, as usual, comes close to acting everyone else off the stage. He is one of the most fascinating actors working in British and Irish theater. If only the director had found an actress who could be a worthy adversary for Scott. Katherine Parkinson has made her name playing the stupid, inept, goofy receptionist on the tv sitcom DOC MARTIN. She comes close to playing the same character here. She simply isn't up to being on the stage stage with Whishaw and Scott and this throws the play a bit off balance. They seem to love acting: she seems to be doing a job.
What most critics first notice about COCK is that it is a reversal of the common formula for gay drama in which a married man finds he is in love with another man and the wife fights a losing battle to get him back. However, sexual orientation is not the issue here. John recalls at one point that coming out at university suddenly gave him an identity. It may not have totally fit, but it was something. This is a picture of a total mess (his girlfriend says that she can see space garbage circling around his head) and the needy, lonely people foolish enough to settle for such a mess of pottage.
Bartlett's writing is spare, funny, but deeply sad at the core. The story may verge on sitcom at times but Bartlett never lets the play go there. He tries to balance particularity with universality. The fact that John's partner and girlfriend aren't given names suggests a generic rather than particular reading and there is a tendency to stereotype -- the gay partner is well educated, financially comfortable, collects art, cooks well has a powerful sense of irony and a gift for bitchiness. At the same time he seems a more specific and sympathetic character than the woman, but that is partly because of what Andrew Scott brings to him.
This is a character study of profoundly lost, lonely people with brilliant acting from the gifted male leads.
COCK by Mike Bartlett, directed by James MacDonald, designed by Miriam Buethner. At the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott, Katherine Parkinson and Paul Jesson. December 19, 2009.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Theresa Rebeck's new comedy, THE UNDERSTUDY, is one of those plays that is delightful but gets richer as one thinks about it. The basic premise is a simple one that allows Rebeck to offer a satire on the current state of the commercial theater. We see what is uspposed to be an understudy rehearsal for a newly discovered three-hour play by Franz Kafka (Wait! It will make sense). The lead in this Kafka opus is played by Bruce, a $22 million a film star who wants to have a shot on Broadway. Bruce is like God, an unseen power who ultimately controls the fate of the production. He can't act, but audiences are flocking to this play because he is in it. His co-star is Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), another film actor but lower in the pecking order -- he only earns a tenth of what Bruce does for shouting lines like "Get in the Truck" in disaster movies. Jake also understudies Bruce's role in case Bruce disappears to get a film gig. Harry (Justin Kirk) has been brought in to cover Jake's part should Jake have to move into Bruce's. Got it? In charge of this two person undersudy rehearsal is the stage manager Roxanne (Julie White). Poor Roxanne has not been warned that the new understudy is the guy who left her without a word two weeks before their wedding and Harry's reappearance throws her into emotional turmoil. Harry is also uppity about Broadway being polluted by untalented movie actors rather than relying on experienced stage actors like himself. But, as Jake and Roxanne remind him, he is at the bottom of the theatrical pecking order.
OK, why Kafka? In this understudy rehearsal, no one seems to be in control. The stage manager is at the mercy of an unseen but stoned technician who keeps moving in the wrong scenery and bringing up the wrong cues. Everyone's emotional life seems out of control. Props disappear. And everyone's fate seems controlled by the unseen Bruce. The Kafka scenes are very funny and the satire of the current state of theater is on target.
THE UNDERSTUDY depends on brilliant comic performers and, under Scott Ellis's direction, gets them. Julie White, as usual, is wonderful as the neurotic Roxanne trying to hold on to her emotions while dealing with her feckless ex-lover and the unreliable technician. Justin Kirk give Harry the right combination of arrogance and fecklessness. Both White and Kirk are great physical actors whose every emotion somehow is reflected in posture and movement. Television actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar has never appeared on the professional stage before (he has starred in tv shows written by Rebeck) but is fine as Jake who, above all, wants to be taken seriously. Jake discovers that, despite his multi-million dollar salary, he is no more in control of his fate that Roxanne and Harry are.
Great fun. And in a commercial theater where an Australian and British movie star are filling a Broadway theater playing Chicago policemen in a play that would never get to Broadway without such a gimmick, the play is timely.
THE UNDERSTUDY by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Scott Ellis. Roundabout at Laure Pels Theatre, New York. November 21, 2009.

1940s Musicals in the NYC area

When I heard that FINIAN'S RAINBOW was going to be revived on Broadway, I was very skeptical. The show has a lovely score, but the book is a bit twee (a cutesy leprechaun and a whimsical story) and potentially racist. Without changing the book -- only trimming it down -- and taking the story and characters seriously, this production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is charming and suprisingly relevant. Yip Harburg, hwo wrote the book and lyrics, wanted to use a popular form to express serious ideas without being preachy and he succeeded. FINIAN'S RAINBOWS satire of Southern racism may be a bit dates, but its prescient presentation of a debtor society in which buying on credit is supposed to bring happiness seemed extremely timely. The simple unit set is a bit tacky, but Carlyle has wisely moved the action down to the footlights so that the talented, charming cast really plays to the audience. All the leads are superb. Christopher Fitzgerald manages to make the leprechaun funny, Jim Norton avoids the usual Irish stereotpyes as Finian and Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin look and sound great.
I have seen three attempts at reviving ON THE TOWN. The one in the early 70s with Bernadette Peters Failed because the choreography (Ron Field) was lame and the show had no sense of style. One in the 90s failed for the same reason. The English National Opera did a lovely production a few years ago. The sets were decidedly low budget but the staging and choreography (Stephen Mears) were fine and the cast was strong -- heavier on good singers than dancers, but it worked. Now the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, once famed for fine revivals of classic musicals but recently experienced a creative and audience slump, has mounted a really fine revival of the show. Perhaps I have seen ON THE TOWN once or twice too often, but I find the comic scenes that fill the 90 minute Act I repetitive and tiresome. The Paper Mill folks could have followed the example of the Encores series and trimmed to book down to essentials. Given that this production was so much a dance show, the static book scenes seemed all the more dated. But Leonard Bernstein wrote such a magnificent score for ON THE TOWN that the show should be revived.
There is more dancing in ON THE TOWN than in WEST SIDE STORY. This is the challenge for choreographers -- how to keep inventive when there is an hour of choreography to create. Patti Colombo met that challenge for the most part, and her dancers were terrific. In this production the three sailors whose story the show tells were all superb dancers as well as singers and actors. Tyler Hanes who played Gabey was a real dancer (Gabey is usually cast as a singer who has minimal dancing to do) who led most of the mini ballets that fill the show.
Lovely sets, gorgeous costumes, a good orchestra (strings replaced by synthesizers) and a great, energetic cast made this a delight.
FINIAN'S RAINBOW. Music by Burton Lane, book and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Saint James Theatre. November 19, 2009.
ON THE TOWN. Music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Bill Berry, choreographed by Patti Colombo. Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ. November 20, 2009.

Monday, 9 November 2009


I have written some on Joe Orton, have read his work and just about everything written on it, have seen a number of fine revivals of his work (LOOT and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE in London this year) and have directed most of his plays. Of course I read John Lahr's book, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, the Orton diaries and the movie of Lahr's book. Like many gay writers, Orton's life and death have almost overshadowed his brilliant work. Now one cannot write on Orton without in some way dealing with the fifteen year relationship with Kenneth Halliwell and Halliwell's murder of Orton.

Simon Bent's play, PRICK UP YOUR EARS tries to present a view of the Orton-Halliwell relationship that explains why Orton remained with Halliwell (why Halliwell killed him is much easier to understand).

HALLIWELL: You need me to write.

ORTON: You need me to breathe.

This exchange crystallizes their relationship. The older Halliwell needs to feel he is Orton's muse. He was, after all, Orton's mentor when the two first met as RADA students. Now, barely capable of leaving their tiny flat, he seems dependent on his self-confident partner.

The play begins just before Halliwell and Orton serve their six month prison term for defacing hundreds of library books. We see them in their 12 by 16 foot Islington bedsit improvising plays and "revising" all those library books. In their little world, they are playmates, collaborators and conspirators against dreary bourgeoise respectability. The older Hall has mentored Orton in an anarchic, camp style but their "creations" remain in the bedsit. When they return from prison, Orton is a changed man, eager to strike out on his own as a writer. But how much of his witty dialogue is taken from Halliwell? Orton becomes a celebrity and Halliwell is left behind, bitter and lonely. "What do you want?" Orton keeps asking. "You know what I want, " Halliwell responds. He wants Orton to himself. He is thrilled when the initial tour of LOOT fails. But LOOT becomes a London hit and Orton has success and celebrity outside of their flat. The relationship is sexless -Orton gets his sex as often as possible with as many strangers as possible while Halliwell remains home alone with his many bottles of barbiturates.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS is an intense play. The only other person who enters the bedsit is the landlady, Mrs. Cordon, who sounds like an Orton character, but is a surrogate mother and referee to the couple. The tragic end comes after she has moved away. One really feels Haliwell's immense neediness and how awful it must have been to live with him. Orton stays out of guilt and a sense of responsibility to Kenneth, but he rightfully feels trapped. Of course we know how it is going to end, but that does not alleviate the play's power and pleasure.

The cast is superb. Chris New perfectly captures Orton's cockiness and sexiness. Orton, after all, was a kind of counter-cultural sex symbol in his white T-short and dungaress. Con O'Nell's voice has always irritated me, but here, since we are suposed to feel how irritating Halliwell can be, it is appropriate. O'Neill is a fine physical actor and one feels great sympathy for Halliwell while understanding Orton's frustration and anger. GwenTaylor is both funny and touching as Mrs. Cordon. Daniel Kramer, for once, has not filled the production with needless directoral interventions. And the set is ingenious. Over their years together, Hallwill turned the walls of the flat into an all-enveloping collage and in this production the collage grows from scene to scene making the setting both a trap and the inside of Halliwell's head.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS has not been a hit, particularly after television star Matt Lucas left the cast after his ex-partner committed suicide. The West End, like Broadway, is dependent on television and film stars to attract audiences. Con O'Neill is not as well known, but is an experienced stage actor. The play probably would have been better in a smaller space than a West End theater, but I was both impressed and unsettled by the play and production.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS by Simon Bent. Directed by Daniel Kramer, designed by Peter Macdonald. Comedy Theatre. November 5, 2009.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


As someone who has written a lot on gay drama, I was delighted last year when there were a number of gay plays being produced in London. THE PRIDE at the Royal Court won awards and is on its way to New York. Joe diPietro's FUCKING MEN was an interesting look at sexual mores among gay men. After a successful run at the small but interesting Finborough, a pub theater near Earl's Court, it moved on to another pub theater, the King's Head in Islington, where it ran for months before a short sting at the ill fated Arts Theater near Leicester Square. THE BACKROOM was revived successfully at the aptly named Cock Theatre in Kilburn. Then the Above the Stag theatre (over a gay bar near Victoria) inaugurated a series of quite good new gay plays -- I particularly liked one called PROUD about a gay working class kid who wants to be a boxer. This fall, there is very little in the way of gay drama, but in general there are fewer new plays around.
Stewart Perlmutt's MANY ROADS TO PARADISE began life at the Finborough and after a sellout run has been transferred to the Jermyn Street Theatre near Piccadilly Circus. The Jermyn Street is a smallish, but not uncomfortable basement theatre that specializes in cabaret and small musicals. Clearly MANY ROADS TO PARADISE is not drawing too well. Last night there was a small audience comprised mostly of older gay couples who all seemed to know each other.
MANY ROADS TO PARADISE is not a great play, but it is amusing and in some cases touching. The six characters all connect in some way. Eighty-four year old Stella is in a Jewish nursing home, lovingly cared for by Sadia, a Somalian Muslim nurse there. Stella is far more attached to Sadia than to her fifty-nine year old daughter, Helen. Stella sees Helen as a homely loser and demeans her at every opportunity. Helen is in a twenty-five year relationship with Avril, a former director of radio drama, who spends her days drinking and insulting poor Helen in vicious, but funny ways. Helen works for Martin, a fifty-five year old owner of a failing small travel agency. Martin is also her only good friend (Avril has driven everyone else away). Martin has a history of brief, sad affairs with younger men. During the course of the play, he is seeing Leo, a thirty-three year old who wants to be cared for but also doesn't want to be tied down, a common male problem. Leo is assistant manager of the nursing home where Stella lives. Got it?
It's a perfectly enjoyable play, though far more episodic than it needs to be. Perlmutt, who has had a fair number of plays produced on the fringe, writes plays as if he were writing for television -- jumping back and forth between short scenes more than is necessary on stage. One misses a clear through line and sense of build to his two acts.
The cast was ore than competent, though there were age problems. Helen looks to be the same age as her mother (all those insults would age one). Thirty-three year old Leo looked more 45. Anthony Biggs directed it effectively on the small stage.
It was nice to see a play about middle-aged gay people rather than humpy young men.

MANY ROADS TO PARADISE by Stewart Perlmutt. Jermyn Street Theatre. October 29, 2009.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Best of 2009 Thus Far

Here are the best of the new plays I have seen in London in the past year. Many comment on contemporary issues in challenging ways -- they make one think and question. At this stage in my life, I am far more interested in new work than more revivals of plays I have seen many times before.

1. THE GREAT GAME: AFGHANISTAN (Tricycle Theatre). Fourteen one-act plays on the history, politics and people of this country in three three-hour segments which one could see in a day. One of the best theatrical experiences in recent memory. Excellent ensemble cast performed all the plays.
2. ENRON. Lucy Prebble's almost Shakespearean drama of the rise and fall of this corporation and its leaders in a perfect production by Rupert Goold. Five star performances from Samuel West and Tim Pigott-Smith. Why isn't this playing in the US? Saw it at the Chichester Theatre festival. Now at the Royal Court (the run is sold out) and soon to be on the West End.
3. WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING. Andrew Bovell's poetic drama of love and forgiveness. Almeida Theatre. Soon to be in New York.
4. JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth. What has happened to mythical Olde England and Shakespeare's green world. The 21st century Falstaff is a drunken, drug-addled lover to teenage girls, but also a rebel against conformity and mediocrity and perhaps possessing magical powers. Funny and sad simultaneously. I'm not always a fan of Mark Rylance but he's brilliant in htis one. Royal Court. Will transfer to the West End in January.
5. PORNOGRAPHY by Simon Stephens. A series of monologues on the days leading up to the July 5 bombings in London. Far more arresting than it sounds. Stephens is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. He's fascinated with the anger and violent impulses behind the surface of ordinary citizens. Tricycle Theatre.
6. TUSK TUSK by Polly Stenham. A scary, touching picture of feral children trying to hold together in the absence of parents. Amazing cast of young actors. Royal Court.
7. THE PRIDE by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Three actors playing characters from the 1950s and the present. In the past a doomed affair between an artist and a terrified married man. At the center is the man's wife who is betrayed by both husband and gay friend. In the present, on Gay Pride, a sex addict grows up. Royal Court.

BEST REVIVALS -- in no particular order
TIME AND THE CONWAYS by J.B. Priestley in a production by Rupert Goold at the National.
THE WINSLOW BOY by Terrence Rattigan at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. A lesson in how to craft a play.
SONG AT TWILIGHT by Noel Coward at the richmond Theatre. Coward's last play and one of his few candid treatmment's of homosexuality.
AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare's Globe. Perfect production.


Truman Capote's novella, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S really isn't the stuff of drama. It's really a character study with little dramatic conflict. Yet it is as timely as it was when it was written half a century ago.
Holly Golightly is a classic American character, a white trash girl from the sticks who ends up in a world of New York minor celebrities and gangsters. In a way, she's a female version of Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. At fourteen Lula Mae marries a veterinarian who gives her a comfortable life, but she has bigger dreams of the world she reads about in magazines and finds herself in New York in the early 1940s (when her creator Truman Capote, a man with an even more insatiable hunger for celebrity, first worked in the city). She's charming and beautiful and men gravitate toward her, but they seem more a means to an ill-defined end. Her social world is made of up people who, like her, are basically all appearance, a world of bad actors playing self-created roles. Enter a young Southern writer who develops an obsession with Holly. He keeps saying "There are all kinds of love," and Holly seems to understand that this is a virginal gay man's crush on someone he wouldn't know what to do with if she did offer herself to him. Holly sees him as "Fred" her brother
To some extent, the formula here is the same as in CABARET (young probably gay writer and larger than life woman), but while that fine musical puts Sally Bowles at the center of a society about to be destroyed, The play gives us the heartless world Holly has chosen to inhabit, but they are really only background to Holly.
Samuel Adamson has turned this story into an absorbing play that is filling the Theatre Royal Haymarket in a brisk, lovely production by Sean Mathias. There are non great dramatic ocnflicts, no shattering moments of self-realization, no grand climax. What we get is a stage realization of Capote's character study. I would have liked the young writer to have more of a life beyond his obsession with Holly, but Adamson wants to keep the spotlight on his central character. The episodic play's success depends on two things: how much we in the audience care about Holly (not everyone will) and the ability of the lead actress to capture this amorphous character. I thought Anna Friel was superb. She's beautiful, which helps, and there seems a sadness and vulnerability that keeps us on her side. Holly is a kind of innocent in a tawdry world and Friel captures that well. When her husband finds her in New York, we see the real person: sweet, unsophisticated Lula Mae who wants to be held and loved. Lula Mae, however, is not the person she wants to be. Friel also sings well. The show is not a musical but Holly does sing a couple of songs during transitions.
Friel's co-star is a young American film actor, Joseph Cross. Like a number of young film and television actors with zero to limited stage experience I have seen recently in plays in London (Matt DiAngelis in LOOT, Matthew Horne in ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE), he has no idea how to project his voice naturally and comfortably on stage so one has the impression that he is shouting every line in a high, whiny voice. I wanted more from the character and the actor.
Friel and Cross are supported by a large, excellent supporting cast, but it's Friel and Holly's play. .
Holly was born a half century too soon. Now attractive, ambitious dreamers can more easily become celebrities without possessing any real marketable skills. Her dream is even more universal than it whas when Capote created her.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Samuel Adamson. Directed by Sean Mathias. Theatre Royal, Haymarket. October 28, 2009.

London Theater - October 2009

After months of consistently excellent theater, the fall offers a more mixed bag.
Last week I saw three productions at the National Theatre.
I have never been a great fan of David Hare's plays. I always feel that I am watching a rough draft of a work he didn't bother to revise and that characters are often no more than mouthpieces for his opinions as in the recent GETHSEMANE. What he can do well is create absorbing docudramas. I have fond memories of STUFF HAPPENS, his presentation for events leading up to the Iraq war. THE POWER OF YES is another absorbing docudrama chronicling the events and leading figures of the current financial crisis. At the center is a writer trying to figure out how bankers got us into this mess. Hare had edited the material he gathered into a fascinating work. Angus McDonald's direction is just right -- fast moving and physically lively and the ensemble cast is excellent.
Tadeusz Slobodzianek's OUR CLASS takes the form of a docudrama as it presents through first person narration and short scenes, the events leading up to and the aftermath of the horrible massacre of 1600 Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne. We begin in 1926 in an elementary school with ten students, half Jewish and half Gentile who seem at first to be a cohesive group. It doesn't take long for the rifts to develop as the Jews are blamed for the Soviet occupation and anti-Semitism grows even more virulent as Nazi occupiers drive out the Soviets. But the Nazis didn't have to tell the townspeople to slaughter their Jews. The recounting of beatings, rapes and massacre is truly horrific. However, that's only the first half of the three and a quarter hour play. The second half traces the lives of the surviving eight Poles (two were killed in the massacre) from the massacre to their deaths decades later. The ringleaders go on to key positions in local government and the Church. Others either live with the secret or get out. The Cottesloe has been transformed into a theater-in-the round (actually rectangle) for this production. On a bare stage ten fine actors bring these people to life. It's not an easy play to sit through -- it is relentless and uncompromising -- but it is also totally absorbing.
Then there is Katie Mitchell's production of Ferdinand Bruckner's 1920s German play, THE PAINS OF YOUTH (terse adaptation by Martin Crimp). I keep swearing to stop going to Katie Mitchell productions. She's the darling of critics over here, but she often takes alienation too far for my taste. Often in her productions the stage is too dark to see actors' faces or she has them running too and fro on stage for no reason. Recently she has gone through a "Let's Make a Video" phase in which you see a group of good actors run around doing video setups of scenes which you watch simultaneously on a screen. It was interesting the first time. This production is more traditional, except for the many unnecessary interrruptions by black suited, bespectacled actors acting as stage hands. If a character is supposed to light a cigarette, the lights change and one of these men in black enters, puts the cigarette in the character's mouth and lights it. The man in black exits, the lights return to normal and the scene progresses. Alienation! At the end of scenes, the black-suited people (actually the actors who have to change from their characters' costumes into these black outfits when required, which is often) return with large plastic bags to collect props. Yes, it is distracting, but given the tedium of the play itself, it is welcome relief. The play depicts the lives of a group of medical students. One critic called it a study in anomie. I have to be less kind and say it is a tedious play about empty, boring people-- one of those plays when I am tempted to scream, "Who cares."
I loved Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, which was at the Almeida this past summer and will soon open in New York. Right now there is a fine revival on the West End of his 1996 play, SPEAKING IN TONGUES, now in a limited run at the Duke of York's. In it four characters play nine people and scenes between two sets of characters often overlap. Bovell is often almost musical in his love of counterpoint. He loves to disrupt our linear sense of time. He also loves repetition of images. SPEAKING IN TONGUES centers on two married couples and the people with whom they have adulterous liaisons. It's a lovely meditation on love, need, loneliness and nameless fears. It shows how one can kill through willful inaction. The cast is brilliant.
Britain may be in a bad recession, but the theaters are filled. Go figure! The National has its usually elderly audience, but there was a mostly young audience filling the Duke of York's for the Andrew Bovell play.
More soon on this week's theatergoing.