Sunday, 28 November 2010


     Philip Ridley's VINCENT RIVER is ten years old now. It played successfully in 2000 and was revived in 2007. Ben Brantley of the New York TIMES raved about the 2008 Off-Broadway production with British actors Deborah Findlay and Mark Field. This revival at the Old Red Lion pub theater near Angel station has also been well received. By the time we saw it, the theater had run out of programs.
     VINCENT RIVER is a textook example of a kind of two-character play in which a traumatic past is relived by its characters. The play is mostly exposition, but so well written that the audience is totally absorbed. We can see where the play is leading us, but are rapt during the journey. The play makes enormous emotional demands of its actors. Fortunately Debra Baker and Frank C. Keogh were totally convincing in this small space and were rbought out for repeated curtain calls.
     We never see the title character. He was murdered a month before the play begins in a horrific gay bashing in the men's room of an abandoned railroad station in East London. Vincent's mother has had to move out of her apartment because of vicious attacks from the neighbors at her council estate. She is still unpacking in her new apartment when the play begins. She is visited by sixteen year old Davey, dressed in the suit he wore to his mother's funeral the day before, but bleeding from a beating he has received.. Davey has been stalking her since her son died but now has worked up the courage to visit. Over the course of the next hour and a half, we discover Davey's connection to Vincent and Vincent's murder, but the play isn't a simple mystery. We get the history of both characters. The single mother who had a child with her married boss and lost her job and her place in her family as a result. The deeply troubled teenage boy who got engaged to please his dying mother, but who is struggling with his sexuality. And, in the background, the mother's relationship with Vincent, who couldn't stand to be away from her. Vincent may have been gay, but his first love was his mother who has never dealt with his sexuality.
     The long expository speeches Ridley has written for his characters are both specific and metaphorical. The mother trying to  get rid of her son's gay porn, but unable to find a place to dump it. The boy's description of his feelings for Vincent, a love he cannot describe as love. The boy's visit is cathartic for both characters who finally come to terms with their guilt and their grief. There are a couple of moments when niggling questions arose for me, but they didn't dilute to force of this experience.
     VINCENT RIVER is a almost unbearably emotionally raw. Both actors move convincingly from defensiveness to honesty, thanks in part to gin, pills and pot. They are totally believable. These are courageous performances one had to cheer.
     Were I still teaching playwriting, I would use VINCENT RIVER as a model for fine traditional playwriting.
VINCENT RIVER by Philip Ridley. Directed by Gary Reid. With Debra Baker and Frank C. Keogh. Old Red Lion Theatre. November 27, 2010     

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


     We opera buffs know that the great thrill of opera is hearing beautiful voices fill a theater without amplification. I lived through the golden age of opera singing and had the joy of seeing and hearing Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nillson, Leonie Rysanek, Carlo Bergonzi, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli. Recently I was lucky to hear the first performances at Covent Garden of Jonas Kauffman and Vittorio Grigolo. Of course, I have also witnessed vocal disasters. There is nothing like live opera. At the same time, I discovered opera as a kid through Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, have collected opera recordings for most of my life and have enjoyed opera on television from the old NBC Opera Theatre through Met telecasts. So I have enjoyed "canned opera." I know you can't quite judge the size of a voice through microphones though you get some sense of the quality of a voice.
     OK, I also have to admit that I don't like going to the Metropolitan Opera House. It is too big. Even in orchestra seats (and I certainly won't pay what they're charging for those seats now), one can feel far away from the stage. You hear well almost everywhere, but the performance is miles away. It's one reason the Met depends so much on spectacle. One also has to deal with the Met's interminable intermissions which can be longer than the acts they follow or precede. I much prefer the smaller Royal Opera House where one feels even from some of the cheaper seats a connection with the stage. The orchestra and chorus are as good as the Met's. The same stars appear there. I must say many of their productions are hideous to look at but some of the most egregious, like the new DON CARLO, are shared by the Met.
     All this is to say, I prefer going to my local movie theater and watching a Met HD telecast to going to the Met. Yes, the sound is amplified, not live, but you are seeing opera as musical theater. And it is more fun watching the backstage scene changes than sitting in the dark in the opera house for five or six minutes waiting for the scene change. We get those silly, but fun interviews with the principal singers, though some background on the opera would be more interesting. At the BORIS broadcast, the audience at the London IMAX roared with laughter at Patricia Racette's ineptitude as a compere. When one singer started to say something substantive about the opera, she shut him up and moved on to another silly question.
     One does get a sense of the aesthetic of an opera house. The Met's aesthetic is visual splendor. If one is paying $330 for a seat (the price of an orchestra seat these days) one wants to see where his money went. Sets and stars. The gigantic set for DAS RHEINGOLD which had some great visual moments, though I didn't feel the characters were very well defined. The gorgeous costumes for BORIS GODUNOV. Recently the DON PASQUALE had extremely heavy, realistic sets which took a fair amount of time to change when lightness and simplicity would be better. I remember the old 1950s production of the opera on a revolving stage so scenes moved swiftly. Last night we went to a Netherlands Opera production of LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST. If the Met privileges realism, many European houses offer much more stylized productions. Act I of this FANCIULLA seemed to take place in an urban leather bar instead of the wild west saloon called for in the script. This made Minnie something of a fag hag to a bunch of leather queens.  The third act was in an automobile junkyard until Minnie appeared on a set out of an MGM musical looking like Jean Harlow. Musically the performance was fine, but directoral interpretation often came between the audience and the ultra romantic music. The audience in the opera house applauded when the set suddenly changed to a grand staircase and the MGM lion was projected in the background. The audience at our London cinema laughed. I know this Netherlands approach is mild compared to what goes on at Bayreuth and other German houses. I realize that I am something of a traditionalist but I have yet to see a contemporary directoral vision that improved on what the composer and librettist created. Most of all, directors are terrified of sentiment. They should stay away from Puccini.   
     The problem with HD transmissions on a big screen is that looks become important. Opera is traditionally an art form in which one has accepted that singers were not going to look like the romantic roles they played. When I first started going to opera the singers were hefty and homely. Some tried to act while others stood there. Now acting is important as are looks. Anna Netrebko is a fine singer and a lovely woman. She's no Joan Sutherland, but would Sutherland be accepted on the big screen? Would Pavarotti be as big a star now as handsome tenors like Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kauffman or Vittorio Grigolo? What would HD do with chubby, homely Carlo Bergonzi who just happened to be a great singer, but did all his acting with his voice? We accept a hefty singer like Eric Owens as a Wagner villain, but poor, chubby Stephanie Blythe looked absurd as Wotan's wife. No wonder he slept around a lot. This may not matter in the cavernous Met, but it closeup it matters a lot.
      The big question is what will these HD trasmissions do to live opera? Will people in Atlanta pay the high prices to go to the Atlanta Opera when they can see the Met at their movie theater for $20? The big question for the Met is whether people will pay outrageous Met prices when they can see the production better in a movie theatre. Will live opera be only for the very rich?

Sunday, 14 November 2010


     I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm always delighted to see a new, original musical comedy that isn't based on a movie (it wouldn't be original if it were) or based on pop hits of the past (ditto). So I went to LEGACY FALLS with some trepidation but hoping for the best. The show needs some pruning (too long by about twenty minutes), but nonetheless is delightful.
     "LEGACY FALLS" is a long-running American daytime soap opera. Some of its cast has been with the show for all of its thirty years. The script has gone through the usual mad permutations of daytime soaps. However, like current soaps, LEGACY FALLS is threatened with extinction. A new producer has been brought in to make the show more interesting to a young audience (more skin, more sex) and a special live broadcast is planned in which an earthquake will wipe out half of the cast so younger actors can take their place. None of the actors knows who will survive the earthquake. The show's handsome, grey-haired leading man starts a romance with a cute young PR man and is outed which could ruin his career. We seen some typically inane scenes from the soap opera. Can you really parody material as absurd as the scripts of daytime soaps?. Nonethelesss, the scenes are hilarious and acted with all the deadpan conventions of soap opera acting.
     LEGACY FALLS is a rarity -- a musical in which score, book and lyrics are by the same person (James Burn). The funny scenes are really funny, particularly the live earthquake broadcast which does not follow the script. In fact, the show would be better if it kept its tongue in its cheek. The sentimental moments clash with the overall tone of the piece -- the love songs between the star ad his boyfriend, the PFLAG ballad of the boyfriend's mother. If the offset moments were as zany as the onset moments, this would be a fine show instead of a very good one. But the score is very strong, most of the lyrics good, particularly in the comic numbers. I particularly liked the first act finale, "Soap Is a Dirty Business." And I must say I actually came out of the theater humming some of the tunes. Overall the direction is effective, though sometimes the show seems to stop cold at the ends of scenes.
     The cast is very strong. Mark Inscoe looks perfect as the tanned, greying leading man and Tim Oxbrow is charming as his young boyfriend. Tara Hugo is hilarious as the reigning bitch of the soap terrified of losing her job. I particularly liked Aimie Atkinson's performance as Amber, who slept her way into a role but is so dumb she thinks what is happening on the soap is real. Everybody sings well and the small band is terrific, though the sound is much too loud.  
      I hope LEGACY FALLS has a future. It deserves more than a limited run. The audience loved it.
LEGACY FALLS by James Burn. Directed by Ian Poitier. New Players Theatre. November 14, 2010.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


     I have seen two productions of stage versions of this classic MGM musical. Both left me wondering even more than usual about why one needs to see a stage version of a great film. Unlike many classic musicals, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN isn't a tribute to the stage, presenting its musical numbers as if they were in a theater. It is a movie about movies and these works cannot be translated to the stage. Moreover, like many classic film musicals, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is great because of its performances which cannot be duplicated on stage or on screen (who could be as good as Gene Kelly or Donald O'Connor today and in the age of hyper editing they would be ruined anyway by a director terrified of losing his audience's attention).          So who needs SINGIN' IN THE RAIN live? Conductor- arranger John Wilson, for one. Wilson is fanatic about MGM musicals and is intent on recreating the lost orchestrations of these films. He loves the sound of the MGM studio orchestra, a hybrid of symphony and dance band and has recreated the sound with his own orchestra. His BBC Proms concerts are among the first to sell out every year. Wilson is a combination of musical nerd and matinee idol. He certainly is the most handsome conductor around these days. One of Wilson's pet projects has been the reconstruction of the score to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. So what he brought to the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday was a semi-staged version of the MGM classic. The star was the orchestra. The sound was thrilling enough to justify the project. Wilson adores this music and his love radiates through the experience. He also played some of the smaller roles including the voice coach.
     The rest of the cast was fine. Kim Criswell adapted (she could have pruned it a bit more) the dialogue and played the shrill Lena Lamont. Julian Ovendon and Annalene Beechey sang beautifully and looked handsome (she had some beautiful costumes). And Josh Prince literally threw himself into the Donald O'Connor role. Nonetheless,  Wilson and the orchestra (the Philharmonia augmented with some of Wilson's usual musicians) stole the show. We didn't need Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse to appreciate the ballet music when it sounded that good.
     All 2900 seats were filled and the audience went wild.    

Friday, 12 November 2010


      In my old age I have become allergic to musicals aimed at people under 13 (most musicals nowadays), musicals based on movies and book musicals based on someone's greatest hits. In the latter category, I did find MAMMA MIA enjoyable and even witty in its self-reflexive shoehorning of ABBA songs into the paper thin book. Even though The Four Seasons were part of my growing up, I thought JERSEY BOYS verged on dull. Needless to say, I went to FELA, now in previews at the Royal National Theatre, with some trepidation. I came out thrilled.
      The production has two stars, both brilliant artists. The first is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the inventor of what became known as Afropop. In terms of popular music, Fela is one of the most mportant figures of the late twentieth-century. He created a unique sound, a fusion of African, jazz, rock, and Latin-American music. It is complex and highly infectious. He would be an important figure in any context, but he was also something of a political hero, using his music to protest the corruption of post-colonial Nigeria. He and his family and cohorts paid a high price for his daring. He was arrested many times and his mother was murdered in a brutal government attack on his compound. Yet, though he was world famous, Fela stayed in Nigeria. The troubled country was his inspiration. The musical is as much about political commitment as it is about Fela's music.
     What the show leaves out are Fela's troublesome, to put it mildly, sexual politics. The man exemplified the worst of African misogyny and homophobia. His marriage to twenty-seven women might be considered a statement of sexual liberation were it not for his refusal to wear condoms ("un-African") which led to his spreading his HIV virus (he died of AIDS). Then there's the nasty verbal gay bashing expressed in his lyrics (not used in the show, of course). So this cultural hero had clay feet. The musical gives us a hero and a martyr. The real man was not so nice. It is necessary to see the Fela the musical offers as a fictional creation based on the real person, but isn't that always true of biographical plays and musicals? 
     The conceit of this show, conceived by Bill T. Jones, Jim Lewis (who wrote the book) and Stephen Hendel, is that it is the last night in Fela's Lagos nightclub, The Shrine, which was destroyed by government police. During the course of the show, Fela tells his life story and performs his music. The conceit sounds simple and all-too familiar. However, Bill T. Jones has turned Fela's story into a celebration of his music through dance. An ensemble of two dozen brilliant performers enthrall the audience in their tireless performance of Jones's brilliant choreography. They're everywhere in the theater -- and I must say Jones uses every inch of space in the Olivier Theatre. I know this is a very different space than the conventional Broadway theater, but Jones has used it better than any director I have experienced. Not only are the dancers everywhere, but there are projections and constantly changing patterns of light everywhere. This is very much a multi-media show.The costumes are gorgeous -- and there are a lot of costume changes. The show gets more spectacular as it progresses. I can't remember being so impressed by all the elements of a visual production.
     One can't say enough about the dancers who barely stop for almost three hours. Or about the terrific twelve piece band, which plays from the time the house opens until the end of the show. We saw the alternate Fela, Rolan Bell. He was fine. It was a preview and he's new to the role (the other Fela played it on Broadway). I didn't feel it was quite under his skin yet. I'd like to go back and see it with Sahr Nagaujah in order to compare. I want to go back anyway.
      I can't believe that FELA is only at the National for a limited run. There must be plans for a transfer if the British critics appreciate the show. One never knows over here how American musicals will fare. RENT and SPRING AWAKENING, two superb musicals, flopped in London while fluff like LEGALLY BLONDE is a hit. This production was created for the Olivier and it is hard to imagine it anywhere else.
       One seldom sees standing ovations at the staid National Theater and I must say I hope England does not go the route of America where everything gets a standing ovation, thus rendering the gesture meaningless. however FELA got one last night and it was richly deserved.
 FELA. Royal National Theatre. November 11, 2010.      

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


     Sarah Kane has become something of a legend in contemporary British drama. Her first play, BLASTED Royal Court, 1995), was greeted with howls of derision from critics and shock and digust from many audience members. The legend was aided by her suicide at the age of twenty-nine after the composition of a play, 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, that is a kind of public suicide note. By the time of her death, there had been a critical reappraisal of her work and Kane was considered a major talent.
     I must say that my own initial reaction to her work after seeing the premiere of PHAEDRA'S LOVE was that she had an adolescent desire to shock, but little else. Lots of simulated masturbation and blow jobs, but at the time I didn't see the point. I was won over to some extent by 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, a haunting, poetic work as carefully composed as a piece of serious music. I had read BLASTED but never seen it until the current revival, directed by Sean Holmes, at the Lyric Hammersmith. Since visual imagery is as important to much of Kane's work as verbal imagery, seeing her work in the theater is necessary to make a real assessment. Yes, this is true of all plays, but, since many crucial moments in BLASTED are silent, it must be seen.
     The setting is at first realistic. We're in a nondescript hotel room in Leeds occupied by a middle-aged man with a gun in a shoulder holster. Is he a gangster or a policeman? At first he seems to be a journalist, but why then is he carrying a gun in relatively gunless England? We later find out he is an assasin for a government intelligence agency. The man is visited by a young woman with whom he has had a sexual relationsip. She has strange fits. At first the play echoes the work of Harold Pinter. There's a sense of menace under the dialogue and a Pinter-esque conflict between a macho man and a somewhat mysterious woman. The man seems scared of something outside the door.
     In the second scene, the play becomes more violent, less rational, but the violence is at first limited to sexual violence between the two characters. The woman disappears and a soldier comes in. An explosion occurs and we are in the wreckage of the hotel. Only the bed is left. With war comes an apocalyptic sense of the end of civilization. We're in a horrifying combination of KING LEAR and a horror film. The soldier rapes the man and bites out his eyes. Later, the starving man eats part of the corpse of a baby before climbing into the baby's grave while waiting to die.
     Much has been written about the shocking moments in BLASTED, but they are no more shocking than KING LEAR or TITUS ANDRONICUS which certainly were in the back of Sarah Kane's mind when she wrote this. In 1995, the great fear of violence in England was from the IRA. I kept thinking of how more timely the play is now in our age of terrorism and seemingly endless wars. The odd beauty of BLASTED comes from the moments when violence and tenderness become strangely linked. The soldier rapes the man, but there's affection mixed with the brutality. The man sexually exploits the young woman, but also loves her. When the social order dissolves, all sorts of borders blur. The man longs for death but also will perform desperate acts to stay alive. The young woman wants to love, but there's no one left to receive her affection. At the end she seems the only person left.
      Kane had a real gift for theatrical poetry. She didn't have much of a sense of humor -- I thought about how her contemporary Martin McDonagh can make this kind of anarchic horror funny. Her models -- the works of Pinter, KING LEAR and TITUS ANDRONICUS -- have moments of humor to make the horror more palatable. Kane is relentless. Slowly, inexorably she leads us from a potentially violent scene into a nightmare. The last five minutes are a series of non-verbal snapshots of a man losing his sanity, his humanity and, finally his life.
      I can't imagine a better production of BLASTED than this one. Sean Holmes has paced the play to lead the audience slowly, inexorably into the nightmare. Danny Webb gives a virtuoso performance as the man, first a racist thug with glimmer of human feeling, then a passive victim, then something not quite human. Young Lydia Wilson almost matches him. Even in the relatively sane first scene, she convincingly alternates power and passivity; normalty, hysteria and cataonia. Aidan Kelly towers over the other actors and manages to be both terrifying and oddly tender.
     I remember a friend screaming after a Sarah Kane production: "Get me out of that person's head!!" One has to surrender to her vision. There is no doubt, that she had a great talent. To put it mildly, this is not the work of a happy camper, but I'm glad I experienced it.  
BLASTED by Sarah Kane. Directed by Sean Holmes. Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. November 10, 2010.           

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


     When I first heard about TRIBES, I thought it sounded a bit like a television movie of the week -- a deaf kid growing up in a non-deaf household. But the brilliantly written play by Nina Raines was so much more than that. It's about the various ways that people who love each other communicate and don't communicate -- about various forms of verbal and non-verbal language.
     Most of the play takes place around a large kitchen table. The family is affluent, hyper-articulate and committed in various ways to expression. Christopher, the father, is a literary critic; Ruth, his wife is a novelist. Daniel is studying literary theory at university. His sister, Ruth, wants to be an opera singer. The oldest son, Billy, just home from university, is deaf. As a result, he cannot participate fully in the constant roar of conversation and argument surrounding him. He has been raised to function in a non-deaf world, to listen, lip read and speak, but not to sign. He has little connection with other deaf people until he meets and falls in love with Sylvia, who was raised by deaf parents and is now going deaf. Sylvia has been around the deaf community enough to know it is insular, hierarchical and not totally satisfying. This is much the way Daniel, Ruth and Billy see their family.
      Billy moves out of the family home to live with Sylvia. He loves being part of a deaf community and is angry that his family never learned sign language -- that he had to do al the work of understanding them. Unfortunately his brother Daniel, who hears voices, cannot cope without his beloved brother and goes to pieces. And Sylvia, not born deaf, but now going deaf, needs more understanding and compassion than Billy can provide. He loves her in part because she can sign and teach him to sign and thus be part of the deaf community. However, deafness is new to her, and frightening in ways he cannot appreciate. "I didn't know deafness could be so loud," she cries. She's rather be part of the troubled, noisy world of Billy's family.
      TRIBES is a play about language and love. Throughout we hear bits of opera because, as one character says, "what's great about opera is that it creates feelings that you can't put into words." The final moments are played with the haunting wordless humming chrus from MADAMA BUTTERFLY playing in the background. But some characters don't believe feelings can exist without words. At the end, Daniel is beginning to learn sign language so he can reach out to Billy on Billy's terms. He asks Billy what the sign is for love. When Daniel tries to sign "love", "it looks like he's miming being in a straitjacket."
      This is a beautifully written play. I have been reading Jonathan Franzen's novel FREEDOM. Nina Raines has Franzen's ability to turn a domestic story into something much deeper, with cultural and metaphysical resonances. The production by veteran stage and film director Roger Michell (NOTTING HILL) is simple, elegant and deeply moving. The entire cast is brilliant, particularly Harry Treadaway as haunted Daniel and Michelle Terry as Sylvia, so wanting to be part of the world of sound. At the end of act I, the Family listens to Sylvia play Debussy's "Claire de Lune" on the piano, not totally aware that she can no longer hear the music she creates. Michelle Terry is the finest young British actress, moving from role to role with total mastery. As the play goes on and she loses the ability to hear herself, we hear her language flatten out.
      The trouble with productions in limited runs is that one does not have time to see them again. We'd love a second chance to see TRIBES.
       I've been writing recently about the cost of theatergoing. We saw TRIBES at a Monday night performance at the Royal Court with all seats £10. The theater was packed -- the entire run is sold out -- and at least half of the audience was under 30, many of the age of the twenty-something characters they were watching. Very healthy.

TRIBES by Nina Raine. Directed by Roger Michell. Royal Court Theatre. November 8, 2010.  

Saturday, 6 November 2010


     In the past two decades, there have been two revelatory productions of J.B. Priestley plays at the National Theatre that demonstrated how a contemporary director can give new life and meaning to an older play. Stephen Daldry's production of AN INSPECTOR CALLS that moved from the National to a long run on the West End and on Broadway turned a three act drawing room philosophical mystery into a no-interval expressionistic piece. Last year, Rupert Goold's production of TIME AND THE CONWAYS was faithful to the play while adding dazzling visual moments that underscored the theme of the relativity of time. This is not to say that every revival of an older play must be director's theater with a startlingly different stylistic approach to a realistic drama. The recent production of Arthur Wing Pinero's 1908 play THE THUNDERBOLT at the Orange Tree in Richmond was faithful to the text, but the director and actors had clear ideas about the play and how it should be performed 102 years after its debut. Leaving the West End revival of Priestley's WHEN WE ARE MARRIED, I could not help but mull over the old question of the value of theater as a museum of artifacts from the past. I also couldn't help thinking of the adage, "Treat a new play as if it is a classic and treat a classic as if it is a new play." A production must justify itself and the play being performed. This revival of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED did neither.
     J.B. Priestley is known for his novels and his philosophical dramas. WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is more situation comedy with some dark overtones. The play was written in 1938. There was still the depression and World War II was beginning in Europe. At this dark point in Britain's history, Priestley chose to write a light play that is also a piece of nostalgia both for Britain's past and for a kind of drama that he knew as a young man. The play is set in 1908 in a mythical West Yorkshire town not unlike Priestley's home town, Bradford. Stylistically, it could have been written in 1908. The characters are the wealthy, powerful folk of the town. They are the same sort of people Pinero satirizes in THE THUNDERBOLT, written in the year WHEN WE ARE MARRIED takes place, but Pinero has a point of view toward his characters. Priestley wants us to see them both realistically and as comic types. In the style of feelgood comedy, he also wants us to believe that they can change once their faults are pointed out.
     Three couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They got married on the same day and now are the prominent citizens of the town. They discover that due to a technicality they aren't legally married. This leads to the usual comic reversals. A henpecked husband stands up to his domineering wife. A docile wife tells her husband what she thinks of him. An infidelity is discovered. A drunken photographer comes in and out. After two hours the couples discover that their marriages are legal after all. Given the revelations, this isn't necessarily a happy conclusion, more an ambivalent one like the end of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE. At the end of this production, they characters all sang a period song as if nothing had been questioned.
      WHEN WE ARE MARRIED is considered a classic British comedy and has had a number of successfl revivals. I wonder if it hasn't past its due date. We see better period comedy and drama on television now, like the brilliant series DOWNTON ABBEY now on British television. Even if there were any substance in Priestley's play, and I don't discern any, it would take a better production than this to make it worth seeing. The production is cast with veteran stars of stage and television, but they go through this as if real acting weren't necessary. First of all, they are all too old. The couples are celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversaries, not their fiftieth. The characters should be in their forties, not their sixties and seventies. The ingenue leads even looked too old for their parts. Perhaps because of the age, the production is far too slow. Light comedy needs above all pace. This had none. As the house lights go down, we hear a lugubrious piece of period music (hardly a piece to signal comedy) but a fitting introduction to a flaccid production. The men play Yorkshire types, but are far too muted. Of the women, only Maureen Lipman seems to realize that she's in a comedy. Her schtick gets the only full out laughs. As the photographer, Roy Hudd is tedious and he's onstage a lot. He gets paired up with party girl Rosemary Ashe who screams and cackles her way through her part. This seemed to be one of those productions where the director (Christopher Luscombe) simply let the actors do their thing with minimal intervention. There was no overall style and no rhythm.
The set was lovely and the costumes were appropriate.
Fortunately, we got half-price tickets, but this production of WHEN WE ARE MARRIED reinforced my skepticism about West End productions. I hate to bring up the subject of money, but I pay fifteen pounds or less to see intelligent, absorbing revivals at theaters like the Orange Tree and the Finborough. Even at half-price I paid £27.75 to see this mediocre production in the West End. Then there's the question of West End audiences. Like Broadway, the West End is for seeing stars rather than plays or productions. They have just announced a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1935 play, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, with Keira Knightley and MAD MEN's Elizabeth Moss. Prime seats for this will be £75 which is high even for a West End musical. But will this production justify reviving this old play about accusations of lesbianism? In all the press releases I have seen, no mention is made of who will be directing it. Nonetheless, it will get an audience to see the leads in person. Wouldn't it be better to find a good new play for them to be in? When Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig recently appeared on Broadway, they at least appeared in a new work, even if it was a mediocre one. The commercial theater is not the answer to keeping theater meaningful in the twenty-first century.
WHEN WE ARE MARRIED by J.B. Priestley. Directed by Christopher Luscombe. Garrick Theatre. November 5, 2010.