A Theatre Junkies Guide to London Theatre, 2019

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Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton, Tom Hiddleston in Pinter’s Betrayal. Photo by Marc Brenner.

The Reviews: London Theatre 2019

By Ross
Throw me that flower, Denis O’Hare, the captivating hobo star of the National‘s Tartuffe, you saucy little minx, because my heart beats strong and the London theatre scene of March 2019 is just my kind of party, and I’m guessing yours too. In one week, this frontmezzjunkie and his fellow addict saw more theatre then I care to admit. It’s a bit crazy, I fully admit, this thing that we do when in London but how can one help themselves? When boarding the flight from NYC to London Heathrow, we had six pairs of tickets; a few at the National Theatre, one at the Old Vic (a theatre I have never actually set my feet inside), with all the others being planted in the West End. All plays, surprisingly, and no musicals (although I did do something about that in the last hours of my stay). That’s not to say that there wasn’t some great musicals playing, and my theatre companion did have a solo ticket for one, but, being the self-proclaimed junkie that I am, I had already seen the National Theatre‘s gorgeous production of Follies, and, I’m proud to say, I had also already seen the other Sondheim masterpiece, Company starring Rosalie Craig and Patti LuPone (although I was very tempted to go see it again, especially as my traveling companion was going on our second night in London). The rest, I’ve either already seen in New York, like the spectacular Hamilton and heartbreaking Come From Away, or I’m patiently waiting for Tina and the lot to fly over the pond and land on Broadway.
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National Theatre’s Tartuffe
But for this London Theatre trip, all our tickets, at least when we arrived at our AirBnB flat in Southwark, were for plays, straight and circular. In our planning, what really caught our attention were numerous great works of playwriting art: Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, Molière‘s Tartuffe with a new adaptation by John Donnelly, Pinter’s Betrayal, Bruce Norris’ Downstate flying in from Steppenwolf, and two wildly exciting cards: Ivo Van Hove’s stage adaptation of All About Eve, and the National’s West End transfer of Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. It was looking to be a great time.

Day 1: National Theatre’s Tartuffe

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Kevin Doyle, Hari Dhillon. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Starring the formidable and adorable Denis O’Hare, who I was lucky enough to see so many moons ago in Take Me Out, the two of us couldn’t resist the opportunity to see Molière’s classic comedy, Tartuffe, or the Imposter. I had never seen the play, and with a fine and modern adaptation by John Donnelly, Tartuffe strutted onto the stage, just like he did back in 1664, but this production, unlike that first, wasn’t banned immediately, but embraced and applauded. In this updated ramshackle witty new version, Denis O’Hare, with hipster freewheeling charm, captivates with his outrageousness, cross legged and hobo-like within Blanche McIntyre’s perfectly funny production. He’s the charlatan trickster, donning the man-bunned garb of a pseudo-cult leader, sucking blood like a parasite from the eager and willing patriarch of the family, played solidly by Kevin Doyle (RSC’s Henry IV).  “I want things to be how they were when I was young” Doyle’s Orgon cries, trying to explain to his exasperated family, beautifully enlivened by the stellar cast. That plea speaks to the faltering reign of consumerism, desperate for salvation from themselves, but oblivious to the fake ego petting of politicians and sham religious fanaticism. Yes, I’m talking to you America!
The structure and symbolism are strong, eschewing the rhyming couplets of Molière until needed, while giving a nod to Brexit ridiculousness, and the demented Trump fanatics. The delusional throw their life and morals away on a charlatan, claiming rejection as conspiracy – like many a Republican supporter of the raging lunatic orange monster.
The essence of this farce is played out with invigorating effect by Georffrey Lumb’s diabolically brilliant embodiment of the obnoxious socialist ‘street-poet’ Valère, suitor to Organ’s daughter, Mariane (Kitty Archer). He unleashes ridiculousness inside an awfully constructed ‘truth-bomb’ driving forth a dynamic meaning within a joke. On Robert Jones’ diabolically slanting set, it’s easier to believe in the falseness of it all, then to face reality and the responsibility that comes with that. What a great way to begin.

Day 2: West End’s Company

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This reality is a dream, and “No”, I did not give in to my desires, and buy a last minute ticket to go see this Sondheim classic with a gendered twist.  I should have, trust me, as it closed soon after we left, but I’m hoping the brilliance of Rosalie Craig as Bobbie and the utter powerhouse wonderfulness of Patti LuPone in Company will make its way to Broadway soon, and I’ll be one of the lucky ones who get to see it for a second time.

Day 3, Part 1: West End’s Home, I’m Darling

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Katherine Parkinson in ‘Home, I’m Darling‘  Photo by Manuel Harlan.
And as luck would have it, Mr. Sandman, please bring this dream of a show to Broadway so we may all be in as much awe of its wit as I was, especially in the deliciousness of leading lady Katherine Parkinson (Channel 4’s ‘The IT Crowd‘), who captivates all with her spotlessly perfect portrayal of Judy. She’s a 1950’s dream wife, direct out of the pages of Good Housekeeping. Dressed in colorful floral prints, she creates the perfect breakfast moment so she may wish her lovingly joyful husband, Johnny (Richard Harrington) off to work as pleasantly as possible. It’s breathtakingly exacting, this two level household courtesy of set designer Anna Fleischle (West End’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and all seems right in this picturesque world, that is until Judy reaches into the drawer and furtively pulls out a MacBook laptop and logs in. What the…?
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It’s a calculated and brilliantly executed beginning, and with each and every nuanced detail sliding into place, the examination of the domestic goddess grows thicker and more emotionally complicated.  Parkinson digs in and drags us along on Judy’s compulsive obsessional ride, even though she has given up her car as any good 50’s housewife would have. She hooks us in to her desperation and fear with an expert hand, and surprises us with a twist when Judy’s mother, the delectable Susan Brown (National/Broadway’s Angels in America) has her say on the matter.
A National Theatre co-production with Theatr Clwyd, directed by Clwyd artistic director Tamara Harve, Home, I’m Darling dives into the witty sad comedy with zeal, dancing out a 21st Century career woman so crippled with fear of the past and her future, that she wraps up her present behind a mask of a fantastical period of time in hopes to shield herself from pain. It’s as beautifully rendered as the production’s design and the cast of pros, giving us a performance by Parkinson that is filled to the brim with perky brightness laced with anxious fear. Now that’s a 50’s cocktail outfit I want to order from Amazon.

Day 3, Part 2: Old Vic’s The American Clock

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Old Vic’s ‘The American Clock‘  Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Clocking in at just slightly more than three hours, Old Vic‘s whip smart revival of Arther Miller’s classy The American Clock dances in as fast and slow as needed, infused with Jazz and physical exhaustion. The fascinating production, even without a dramatic driving force of an arc or plot, feels genuinely deep and filled with care and rhythm. It’s like a musical just waiting to get in groove, but the dancing legs are weighed down with time and a heavy conscientious exploration. With scenes lifted from Studs Terkel’s oral history “Hard Times,” the fragmented, coming apart at the seams Depression era descent waltzes forward like a decade-long dance marathon framed with couples just trying to stay on their feet and in the game. The kaleidoscopic examination of the Great Depression is partly Miller’s autobiography sliced with the smell of anger and social history. Detailing the decade after the Wall Street crash when the more trouble a person had, the less likely they would fight back, director Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown, The Great Comet) fills the stage expertly with snapshots of daily life and floods us with an emotional trifecta of pain, hope, and destitution.
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Old Vic’s ‘The American Clock‘  Photo by Manuel Harlan.
The one family becomes three — one white Jewish household, one South Asian and one African-American — in Old Vic’s solid and hypnotic retelling, playing forth a description of poverty and the failure of America that is equally devastating, but unequally cruel. It is etched in the play’s musicality, spinning around on Chloe Lamford’s cleanly and simplistic revolving stage reeling and swinging with An Yee’s dynamic and impulsive choreography. The difficult play, that really doesn’t have a dramatic arc other than history and personally detailed moments shows a nation holding its collective breath and looking at the stalled and unfair societal clock, waiting for something to shift. It’s the inventive movement of depressive dance and repossession of the societal soul, as formulated by Chavkin. She doesn’t play easy, when the money is gone, but years after America’s own financial crash, The American Clock‘s alarm bells are ringing, pleading for us all to wake up to a possible and destructive future.

Day 4; Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

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Zawe Ashton, Charlie Cox, Tom Hiddleston in Pinter’s Betrayal. Photo by Marc Brenner.
The future of an affair, in reverse, that’s the layout of Pinter’s Betrayal. Rotating against time within a stark white cube. A triangle within a circle against a rectangular wall, poised for interaction, one by one, as directed with precision by Jamie Lloyd (Trafalgar Studio’s The Maids). The pairs unwrap a series of betrayals between friends, lovers, and partners, as the clock turns backwards, beautifully structured and balanced, facing off against the things they don’t know are coming, but strangely we do.
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Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton. Photo by Marc Brenner.

It’s breathtakingly simple in concept and design, ending just as it is beginning, on a stage brilliantly created by Soutra Gilmour (Trafalgar Studio’s Apologia), with impeccable lighting by Jon Clark (West End’s The Inheritance), and solid sound and composition by Ben and Max Ringham (NT’s Tartuffe). Director Jamie Lloyd fastens our eyes on the out front and the background internal, giving us the pairs speaking their truths and lies, while allowing the other, who is definitively being affected by the fabrications, hover and flinch at the mention of their name. Within this stellar production, Betrayal never lets us off the hook, repeating that deception is happening directly in front, but the essence of the other lingers painfully in the back of our mind like a ghost. It’s a powerful altercation, starring the fantastically elegant Tom Hiddleston (Cheek by Jowl’s The Changeling) leaning in quite brilliantly as Robert, the husband; Zawe Ashton (Royal Court’s Rhinoceros) as the sensual Emma, the deceiving wife; and the gloriously sexy and intense Charlie Cox (MTC’s Incognito) as Jerry, the best friend of Robert and the lover of Emma. Naturally, because who wouldn’t want him hanging around.

Strikingly heavy with the stillness breathing loud, Betrayal was first staged in 1978 featuring Penelope Wilton, Michael Gambon, and Daniel Massey, but seen on Broadway in the 2013 revival starring Daniel Craig, his real-life wife Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. And even though that production broke records in weekly revenue, the play felt fussy and overly produced, oddly stripped of its power and its passion.  Here void of locational references, the triangulational impact of the secrets and lies told within an extra-marital affair by all three, lash out harder and pin point the pain of love and deception with an exacting punch. “He’s my oldest friend, how could you tell him?” Betrayal, it seems, is what they all do, to hold on to love and attachment, for the other and for the security within.

Day 5: Ivo Van Hove’s All About Eve

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Gillian Anderson and Lily James. Image: Jan Versweyveld.

Insecurity and betrayal, that was also a big part of the main event, the igniter of the whole London Theatre shebang. And through the clever eye of director Ivo Van Hove (Broadway’s Network, Park Ave Armory’s The Damned), disappointment was no where to be found in his All About Eve. Within the depth, sensuality, and despair that can be found in Gillian Anderson (St. Ann’s A Streetcar Named Desire), she delivers forth an aging actress by the name of Margo Channing that will be remembered, maybe not as much as that other lady who played her in the film, but in this West End season, it is worthy of that projected Van Hove close-up, a trick of the trade that is almost at the point of over-kill.

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Gillian Anderson and Lily James. Image: Jan Versweyveld.

The telling, it is said, is essentially Joseph L Mankiewicz’s screenplay treated as if it were theatre text. It’s a compelling piece of staging presented with a slow strong reveal by designer Jan Versweyveld (Van Hove/Broadway’s The Crucible, A View From the Bridge). All About Eve is about the women who roam the stage and call it their home, basking in the spotlight and taking on the attention as something akin to love.  Channing, a middle-aged Broadway star is getting rave reviews and standing ovations nightly in the plays directed by her lover, solidly portrayed by the wonderfully eye-rolling Julian Ovenden (‘Downton Abbey’, ‘The Crown’).  She is not an easy one to manage, just ask her hot-shot playwright friend, Lloyd, played forcibly by Rhashan Stone (TV Series ‘Strike Back‘) and his wife and producing partner, Karen, deftly played to perfection by Olivier winning Monica Dolan (RSC’s The Seagull).

But then one night, Karen casually ushers into Channing’s dressing room, in one of the most delicately delicious scenarios of the play, a young and apparently naive fan of Margo’s, played to nuanced perfection by Lily James (2015’s “Cinderella”, Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet). Eve is pure wonderment, at first, dynamically prattling on about the journey that brought her to that stage door, charming all with her authentic fabrications, but we are compelled to look elsewhere. Van Hove has planted within the dressing room mirror a camera, giving us a close up view projected high above the stage of Anderson’s Margo taking off her makeup and rolling her eyes at Eve’s elaborate machinations. It’s genius and hypnotic, especially when used later on to mark internalized fears.
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Julian Ovenden, Gillian Anderson. Image: Jan Versweyveld.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Margo is oblivious at first to the young woman’s heroic story, but slowly she turns with curiosity and in that moment, she is caught, like almost everyone else in the room but her personal dresser. It’s that change, heightened by projection, that captivates us in her dynamic. The blank stare that changes into fascination, propelling her to insert the young Eve into her household, without realizing that soon, as we in the audience are all very aware of, she will become the bitterest of  rivals, attempting to tear her down so she herself may rise up into her spotlight.

It’s eye-catching stuff, the close-ups and backstage drama all laid out in front and beyond the walls and doors of this elaborate creation. When Margo warns of a bumpy night ahead, we grin with recognition, but also find ourselves fully invested in Anderson singing the saddest of songs. Others are off stage but present in projection, tense and uncomfortable with the drama going down onstage, knowing that one of them will have to go in eventually. James also rules the bathroom box, harnessing the numerous masks of deception with a blink and a nod, crying on cue, and tensing with anger when provoked. It’s a powerhouse presentation, in large screened cinematic reveal, that is only overtaken by the captivating push-down that she receives from her critic, guide, and eventual dominator, Addison DeWitt, beautifully played by Stanley Townsend (Royal Court’s The Nether). It’s dynamic and engaging, and filled to the brim with modernist reformatting of a classic film about those crazy theater folk, planted down exactly where it belongs in the West End, and on Broadway, hopefully.

Day 6: The National’s Downstate

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Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Celilia Noble, Eddie Torres, K. Todd Freeman. Photo by Michael Brosilow

From big screen theatrical glamour and drama, to the Steppenwolf‘s transfer to the Dorfman of Bruce Norris’ Downstate co-produced by The National Theatre, we venture strongly forward, digging in for this controversial and dynamically real argument about punishment and survival in a morally ambiguous dimension. Authentically moving and disturbing, the play begins with a victim coming forward to confront his past and the perpetrator of sexual abuse he experienced when he was a young child from his piano teacher. It rolls out with awkward anger and defiance, matched and returned with simpleton kindness and compassion in a group home in downstate Illinois, filled to overflowing with confined and convicted child abusing men. Norris (Claybourne Park) expertly fills the flat with real individuals, each tormented in their own way and manner. The troubled Andy, played valiantly by Tim Hopper (Primary Stages’ Him) has come to the house in order to get a more fleshed out retributive confession from the wheel chair bound Fred, played with penitent perfection by Francis Guinan (Steppenwolf/Broadway’s August: Osage County) to help with his recovery program. It’s a harrowing journey, listening to the two interact, filling the theatrical air with pain and frustration in a complicated mix of empathy and remorse. It’s a moment not for the faint of heart or head.

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Francis Guinan (Fred), K. Todd Freeman (Dee) and Tim Hopper (Andy) in DownstatePhoto by Michael Brosilow.

But the conflict really lies in the powerful construction of Fred’s fellow inmate, Dee, played to the stellar skies by K. Todd Freeman (Broadway’s Airline Highway) who shows little patience with the angry Andy. He also has little remorse for the problematic long-term relationship he had with a young boy he was completely in ‘love’ with, who was, quite naturally, one of the Lost Boys in a touring production of Peter Pan. “He wasn’t a young man, he was a 14 year old boy“. Dee’s fiery anger at his controlled position mirrors with distortion the aggressive hetero Gio, powerfully portrayed with gusto by Glenn Davis (Steppenwolf’s The Christians). He lives out his restricted days in a state of denial, guilty of a sexual offense with an underage teenage girl but shows more defiance than guilt. Is that a double standard of offensiveness or a complacent reality? Filling out the unhappy foursome is Felix, played by the talented Eddie Torres (director/Old Globe’s Familiar) who struggles almost innocently, with the idea that his love for his daughter was something inappropriate, dangerous, and wrong. His scene with the parole officer, authentically played to exhausted perfection by Cecilia Noble (National’s The Amen Corner) paints in detail the tangled webs of deceit that lives inside the paedophile and the person.

It’s a complex scenario, overflowing with compassion and conflict, asking many difficult questions about the never ending punishment within the prison-like world of sex offenders in America who have served their time, but are basically never released. “It’s my house, and I live here“, and in that house, the cast soars even while required to wear their ankle bracelets, only leaving the character of one victim behind mired in a return visit that never truly registers as being as human as all the others. It’s a disservice in a way to the victims of such abuse, but Downstate makes it up to those lost in the sex offender quagmire of the punitive system.

Day 7: The Bonus Round: West End’s Six

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Six the Musical. Photo Credit: Idil Sukan.
Totally unplanned and prompted by an iMessage from another New York theatre junkie, I wandered over to the Arts Theatre to bow down to the one and only musical of this London theatrical adventure. Six the Musical. A Spice Dead Queens pop concert featuring the likes of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and crew competitively telling their personal sad tales through song of being married to King Henry VIII. I was surrounded by teenage girls, screaming their approval of each and every one of these pop girls, and as directed by Lucy Moss (Soho/Bedlam’s Pelican: The Cat Man Curse) and Jamie Armitage (Tristan Bates Theatre’s Love Me Now), the Six deceased sing and chant their order, “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived” with Britney abandonment.
Co-director Moss, with Toby Armitage (Hot Gay Time Machine) have created quite the hell raising sex-dynamo, with each determined to not be erased from history. It’s a musical equivalent of British Historical Idol, with one hoping to be crowned the one with the saddest story. Is that truly a win, I jokingly ask? “Sorry, Not Sorry“, says one contestant to another. It’s snappy in its dialogue, making it a joyful pleasure to crown this cast with our pleasure, and a whole castle full of fun to behold. It’s not deep, by any means, but not all musical theatre has to be Company, I guess, although I’m not entirely sure I believe that statement day in and day out.
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Jameia Richard-Noel. Photo Credit: Idil Sukan.
What hurts more than a broken heart?” asks Jane Seymour, as portrayed by the dynamic Natalie Paris, claiming her story is the saddest. “A severed head,” (snap) fires back Anne Boleyn, feistily portrayed by Millie O’Connell. Backed by the solid Ladies In Waiting band (Musical Director: Katy Richardson; Drums: Alice Angliss; Guitar: Amy Shaw; Bass: Terri De Marco), the dead foxy ladies, Seymour, Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon (Jameia Richard-Noel), Anna of Cleves (Alexia McIntosh), Katherine Howard (Aimie Atkinson), and Catherine Parr (Courtney Stapleton) are each given their moment to shine in the spotlight. Paris’ Boleyn gets a smart “Don’t Lose Your Head” number, O’Connell’s Seymour is gifted with well sung ballads, and Atkinson’s Catherine Howard gets a terrific “All You Wanna Do” moment to detail the way she had been groomed for this reigning post since the age of 13.

McIntosh’s Anne of Cleves has fun enjoying life as a divorcee living large in her own castle, thanks to Henry VIII, and Richard-Noel’s Catherine of Aragon, dismissing Stapleton’s Catherine Parr as the least relevant one, playful embraces the sharp-tongued wit of this frothy exploration of female victimhood and the demand to be remembered. The choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille (ZooNation Dance Company) hits all the right pop gum marks, accentuating the sparkly black costumes by Gabriella Slade lit by the enthusiastic concert lighting of Tim Deiling. Emerging forward at the Edinburgh fringe as a student production, the lively entertaining show has amassed a following that fills the Arts Theatre most days and nights. It’s sassy and fun, and one wisely executed (excuse the pun) thesis on girl power, strutting forward, demanding to be taken seriously to the sound of harpsichord remixes.

The cast of Six taking their bows.

So there ya have it; a never-to-be-forgotten frontmezzjunkies theatrical week-long journey through the West End and the South Bank. Maybe Six the Musical was not the ultimate best way to end a week of high brow and dynamic drama in London, but the finale was filled with sparkling confetti and screaming teenagers bit with the bug of theatre love, just like I was so many moons ago. What a grand way to use the historical past to build a theatrical future for these young audience members and the West End in general. The Betrayal within All About Eve were the highlights, but as The American Clock ticked towards our departure to Downstate New York, I still wanted the Six flowers of Tartuffe to keep me Company and welcome me Home, I’m Darling. “Sorry, not sorry“.

PS: Congrats to all involved with Company!
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