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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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1st December, 2001

JOANNA NAMED AS NEW ELIZA
No sooner had I posted my last letter, when the rumours surrounding Martine McCutcheon and ‘My Fair Lady’ were confirmed. Joanna Riding, fresh out of ‘The Witches of Eastwick’, will be the new Eliza Doolittle, replacing Martine McCutcheon from mid-December. It appears that McCutcheon hasn’t been sacked but is leaving of her own free will due to her illness (she has had vocal problems from the very beginning of the run).

LOTS OF NEWS ON ‘CHITTY’
The line up for the billed ‘Fantasmagorical’ stage musical gets more and more impressive as time goes on. Michael Ball is now confirmed to play the role originally performed by Dick Van Dyke’s in the much loved musical film. Truly Scrumptious will be played by newcomer Emma Williams, and the evil child catcher by Richard O Brien. Also in the cast is Nichola McAuliffe, who has appeared in such productions as the double bill of ‘The Real Inspector’ and ‘Black Comedy’, and most recently in Noel Coward’s ‘Semi Monde’.

The production is reported to be £5 million pound affair and includes a complete flying car, which is costing hundreds of thousands to build. Ticket prices for the show are higher than the usual (and already terribly costly), £37.50 for a top seat in the West End. ‘Chitty’ has notched this up to £40. Personally, I think it is an obscene amount to expect people to fork out and only reinforces the argument that the theatre is specifically aimed at those with a very full wallet. I’m sure there are plenty of parents of children who will keep the show going, but even so it will be interesting to see whether ‘Chitty’ can last a fair stretch of time when it has such big production costs.

‘BUDDY’ TO CLOSE
Quite unexpectedly, the musical ‘Buddy’ has announced closure in January 2002. A long runner which seemed to have undying appeal, the reason for the show’s demise is not clear. It is also unknown what show will follow into the Strand Theatre, though it is rumoured that ‘Contact’, ‘Aida’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ are all looking for a London venue.

‘GRADUATE’ TO CLOSE FOR ‘HUMBLE BOY’
The popular stage version of ‘The Graduate’ is set to shutter, to be replaced by the transfer of Charlotte Jones’ hit play ‘Humble Boy’, which opened to great acclaim at the National Theatre earlier this year. During its run in the West End, ‘The Graduate’ never failed to attract big names to the leading role of Mrs. Robinson and as a result the production benefited from frequent media coverage.

‘Humble Boy’ is set to transfer with Simon Russell Beale and Denis Quilley continuing in their current roles but Diana Rigg will be replaced by Felicity Kendal for the London run.

‘TABOO’
Boy George has written a musical set in the 1980s entitled ‘Taboo’, scheduled to open at The Venue in January 2002. I’m intrigued to see what the reactions are to this. Pop music in the theatre seldom does well. One need look no further than ‘Notre Dame De Paris’, ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Closer To Heaven’, all of which were attacked by the London critics.

SAM MENDES TO LEAVE THE DONMAR
Successful stage and screen director Sam Mendes is to leaves his position as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. It has been predicted that Michael Grandage will be his successor, whose credentials include the award winning London premiere of ‘Merrily We Roll Along’. Mendes has announced that Nicole Kidman and Simon Russell Beale are set to star in ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Uncle Vanya’ at the Donmar next year, with the two plays being performed in repertoire. These productions are scheduled to run from September to November 2002.

RECENT OPENINGS

‘KISS ME, KATE’ IS A TRUE HIT
The critics have gone wild over Michael Blakemore’s revival of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, which opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre. I shall bring you my views on the production next month, but judging by word of mouth it is every bit as good as the critics have made out. The production has also had an even bigger boost by being awarded the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. Looks like it will be in town for some time.

‘ROYAL FAMILY’ AND ‘DANGEROUS CORNER’ GET MIXED RECEPTION
Peter Hall’s production of ‘The Royal Family’ received surprisingly poor reviews from many critics who thought it a great disappointment. With an all-star cast headed by Judi Dench, many reckoned on this being a huge success. However, most critics were lukewarm about the play, though there was praise for Anthony Ward’s stylish set. It just goes to show that even with some of the best acting talent around, one cannot ever be certain of a gold plated hit.

J B Priestley’s ‘Dangerous Corner’ recently opened to a mixed bag of notices from the press. The play’s setting has been brought forward to modern day which some of the critics felt sat uncomfortably with such an old fashioned and melodramatic thriller. Word of mouth is strangely divided. It seems to be production you either love or hate, so really the only way to find out is to go yourself.

‘THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE’ – THE BEST COMEDY OF THE YEAR?
A tribute show to the double act of Morecambe and Wise, ‘The Play What I Wrote’ (at the Wyndhams Theatre), has opened to an almost ecstatic reception all round. Most critics agreed that this was a terrific new work of comedy, which has the added excitement of introducing a new guest appearance every week (Ralph Fiennes was the lucky individual on opening night). Directed by acclaimed actor/director Kenneth Branagh, it sounds like this is something of a must-see play.

REVIEWS – ONE GOOD, ONE GREAT AT THE NATIONAL

THE RELAPSE- Olivier Theatre at the National

John Vanbrugh’s restoration comedy is given a good dusting off in Trevor Nunn’s impressive production. I doubt ‘The Relapse’ has ever had so glamorous an outing and probably won’t for a long time after. As with most things at the National, the play gets given the works: beautiful costumes, clever sets, effective lighting and fine actors. As a production, overall it is excellent. As a play, it is a rather boring way to spend an evening.

I don’t even want to begin to try and explain Vanbrugh’s plot, which has so many twists and turns I got completely lost. The play’s alternative title ‘Virtue In Danger’, is perhaps the simplest way of summing up the events that take place, in a period where appearance and status were right at the top of people’s priority list. This is best displayed in the central role of Lord Foppington, elegantly played by Alex Jennings made up with a powdered face, wearing extremely large wigs. It’s an outrageous performance of an outrageous part, and one that disappointingly has little substance. The script relies too heavily on Foppington’s catch phrase “Stab me vitals” which amuses greatly the first three or four times, but then proves to be somewhat annoying.

Imogen Stubbs and Claire Price in the female leads of Amanda and Berinthia made a pleasing duo. Miss Price was especially good, outstanding in fact. She had that certain something which kept your attention throughout. Her delivery was always clear and easy to understand, and she did wonderful gestures during her scripted asides.

In the smaller roles Paul Bradley as Dr. Bull and Maxine Peake as the flirtatious Hoyden stood out, whilst there was also a truly awful performance from Brian Blessed as Sir Tunbelly Clumsey. I could not understand a single word he said. He mumbled his way through the evening, having these peculiar outbursts of laughter whilst stamping his feet on the floor. It was immensely irritating and so bad that just the thought of it angers me. Worse, Mr. Blessed also chose to improvise at one point in the hope of gaining an extra laugh from the audience. In doing so he made himself corpse. I consider this to be highly unprofessional and it is the second time I have been to a show with Mr. Blessed when he has done this. It’s disgracefully amateur and should not happen.

There was good support from the rest of the company, dressed in Sue Blane’s stunning costumes. Her set was also excellent, transforming the Olivier stage into a theatre of that era. On the whole it was well done but I found the play rather bland and Trevor Nunn’s decision to perform the entire text meant that the evening ran on for far too long. Though I praise the efforts of all involved (except the aforementioned Mr. Blessed), I’m afraid it didn’t do anything for me and therefore I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone other than the most ardent fans of restoration theatre.

FOOTNOTE – Alex Jennings has been awarded the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor for his performances in ‘The Relapse’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’, both at the National Theatre.

JITNEY - Lyttleton Theatre at the National

In the last year, I have been privileged to see two great, great plays at the National. ‘Cloudsteet’ was the first, ‘Jitney’ the second.

Set in a Pittsburg cab firm, ‘Jitney’ charts the lives of the drivers who work there, their difficulties with working in tough times and their difficulties coping with each other. The latter situations are especially poignant and so true to life. The play reaches its pinnacle of brilliance in one such moment towards the end of the first half, where Roger Robinson’s Becker confronts his murderer son Booster (recently released from jail), on the effect his crime had on his mother. I haven’t heard a more powerful exchange on stage in any play or one so beautifully written. It’s a triumph of writing and acting.

However, this scene is not the only great part of the play. August Wilson’s script is sensational throughout. It is full of character and shifts mood so subtly you barely notice it. It manages to tug at all your emotions; one minute you are laughing, the next you are in shock. It has such an impact and I found it fascinating to hear the audience’s response. There were times when you could have heard a pin drop in the Lyttleton auditorium. I haven’t experienced that kind of power in the theatre for a long, long time.

I really am lost for words when it comes to the cast, who together produced an outstanding piece of ensemble acting and did Wilson’s beautiful play justice. Seldom do I call an evening perfect, but ‘Jitney’ was just that.

Tim Connor, London

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