LONDON Last Week (Very Long and Maybe a Spoiler or Two)
Last Edit: sergius 09:55 am EDT 03/13/23
Posted by: sergius 09:50 am EDT 03/13/23

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TROUBLE IN BUTETOWN—This is an oddly uninteresting choice for the Donmar Warehouse. It’s a sort of wartime thriller about residents in a desegragated area, Butetown, of Cardiff, Wales during WWII. The play does very little with this potentially rich material. It’s plodding and static. All of the characters are underdeveloped; there’s no depth or reach to them. And the actors struggle to animate what’s not on the page. I expect more adventuresome work from the Donmar so this was a disappointment.

THE WINTER’S TALE—This is the first time a production has utilized both the MainStage Globe Theater and the much smaller, candlelit Sam Wanamaker. The evening starts at the Wanamaker, moves to the Globe, and ends back at the Wanamaker. It’s a great idea, but the director doesn’t find a way for it to really make sense. And THE WINTER’S TALE is hard enough to make sense of. It’s one of Shakespeare’s more tonally uncertain plays and here the director just seems to give up on it, pushing for easy laughs at the expense of narrative clarity. Additionally, and oddly, it’s badly performed. Even when Shakespeare’s intentions are unclear, it’s never a good idea to underestimate him. When in doubt, play the play.

BRILLIANT JERKS—Nicely acted if unsurprising. It’s about the origins of Uber and the “brilliant jerks” who come up with the idea. So, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, basically, but not as well written. These types—bros really—are more convincing as jerks than as brilliant; they’re not nearly as interesting as they think they are. Rather, like the play, they’re speedy and slight. However, the three young actors here are deft, especially with a variety of accents. They’re a pleasure to watch even as the play isn’t up to their abilities.

STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE—An affecting, if uneven, new musical. It’s a hit at the National and will probably have a life beyond though likely not here as it’s too specifically British. There’s something ingratiating about the material. At it’s core, STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE has a sentimental view of personal and economic hardship, but it’s big and feelingfull. Its anthemic and balladic style is appealing if not altogether convincing. The performance I saw was delayed 35 minutes due to a power failure across all three of the National’s theaters (!), and the first Act was then played without its lighting design and with the house lights up. Somehow this subtraction made the show more interesting, the plainness of the presentation a better match for the material. This is a homegrown show that trades significantly on the audience’s familiarity with its historical and cultural references. In fact, the exaltation of shared experience is its engine. There’s too much going on—an unnecessary narrator, a drummed up, non-sensical Act One ending, and a score of often ill-fitting songs employed both contextually and annotatively—and yet the show is winning, it’s got bluster. And considerable heart.

FURTHER THAN THE FURTHEST THING—At the Young Vic. A simple ampitheater-and-a-revolve staging of a play that, unbeknownst to me, is thought of by many as a contemporary British classic. There’s a lot of story here, but it’s compelling told by all five actors, especially Jenna Russell who’s riveting throughout. Like the current Broadway production of A DOLL’S HOUSE, FURTHER THAN THE FURTHEST THING makes its audience work harder than some may care to. There’s a surfeit of incident—a lot of telling—and the play leans slightly at times toward melodrama, but the sparse staging balances it and anchors it in mystery and, by the end, great feeling.

PHAEDRA—This version, at the National, wants to be, and is, something else. It’s written and directed by Simon Stone, who previously directed YERMA, “after Euripides, Seneca and Racine.” Way after. Once again, Stone’s got everyone in a glass box and miked. It’s preposterous and thrilling. And, glass house or not, Janet McTeer is a predictable storm; she’s galvanizing. Stone turns PHAEDRA into a story about a middle aged woman defying cultural mores and imperatives to reclaim impetuous passion. She’s reckless if not exactly tragic. It’s a reasonable interpretation and Stone’s work, a sort of contemporary baroque, is always interesting. He’s got ideas. And he aims for the rafters. They’re hard to reach, but they’re meant to be.

NOISES OFF—Forty years on, I guess NOISES OFF is now a classic. Fine by me. This revival is a model tribute to its ingenuity and impeccable construction. Everyone here bounds through it, as they must, with great actorly aplomb. All of the considerable pleasure is in this motion of course. As written, the play’s an exemplar of physical comedy. Without game and gifted actors, there’s no getting through it. I’ve seen a few productions of NOISES OFF and this was the most entire, the most even. Maybe we should leave British farce to the British.

MEDEA—spare and propulsive. Optimally, MEDEA runs like a train coming at you as it does here. Sohoplace is a new West End theater and, while the common areas are somewhat garish and cramped, the stage and seating are quite nice. And efficient. Here, the amphitheater staging is historically apt and has the added benefit of making the very proximate audience a part of the Chorus. Sophie Okonedo, fierce and implacable, pummels through the play. She’s at the center of things and Ben Daniels (mesmerizing) playing all the men—Jason, Creon, Aegeus, and the children’s Tutor—circles her slowly, threateningly throughout as if to keep her there. But of course the center will not hold. MEDEA’s a pile up; there’s no getting out from under. A precise, consummately directed production.

GUYS AND DOLLS—An immersive GUYS AND DOLLS? A roll of the dice, but Nicholas Hytner pulls it off. The production is entirely surprising and winning and will likely be a huge hit for his Bridge Theatre and maybe beyond. Following the template he used with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM a few years ago, Hytner stages the show on and around four hydraulic platforms enveloped by audience members who are easefully shepherded about by several circa 1950’s NYC cops. The proximity of the audience doesn’t distract from the show, it enhances it. But even as this neighborhood/nightclub/mission environment is superbly accomplished, it wouldn’t matter much if the cast weren’t up to the material which they assuredly are. Beyond the unique staging, it’s a mostly straightforward production. The biggest departure from the show as written is the depiction of Miss Adelaide who here is still aggrieved but more tough-as-nails than she is a cutie pie. It’s a startling revision and entirely viable. And exciting. And having this Sky Masterson, who’s a perfect cross between Bobby Cannavale and Frank Sinatra, take a “why not” spin on a Havana dance floor with another guy—the choreography throughout is compact and smart—is unexpected and pretty inspired. But the whole show spins and dazzles. I’ve never seen a better, more alive, version of it. GUYS AND DOLLS is bright as new. Who’da thought?

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