London’s West End Is Bustling With Options This Summer
By Dan Bacalzo, Contributing Writer, July 19, 2018
London is a treasure trove for theatre lovers, with a wide range of exciting new stage offerings, Broadway imports, top-notch revivals, and a rich theatrical history. During my recent visit to the city, I indulged in a bit from each of these categories.
The most impressive new stage work that I attended was The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. The play, inspired by real-world events, is set in a migrant refugee camp in Calais, France. The West End production transforms the Playhouse Theatre into an Afghan café, with the audience on the ground level of the theatre seated along benches with long counter-top tables in front of them. The environmental staging of the piece encompasses the entirety of the theatre with cast members frequently sitting side-by-side with audience members and localized activities occurring where only a handful of audience members can see them. The timely production – dynamically directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin – is bursting with energy and urgency, and features a talented ensemble cast. Standouts include Ben Turner as Salar, the owner of the café where the action takes place, and Alex Lawther as Sam, the young British volunteer whose drive to build housing for the refugees paradoxically becomes the greatest threat to the existence of the camp, as French officials want to avoid any indication that the refugees are setting down roots.
Perhaps the most ambitious dramatic work I saw was the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Imperium, adapted by Mike Poulton from Robert Harris’s Cicero novels. It’s divided into two separately ticketed parts of roughly three hours apiece. The first is subtitled Conspirator, and is largely about Cicero in his prime, wielding great power in the Ancient Roman state while also being constantly under threat of attack. In Part II, subtitled Dictator, Cicero has lost influence due to Julius Caesar’s ascendency, but plays a pivotal role in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. The play, directed by Gregory Doran, is a challenging and intellectual drama that may not appeal to all audience members. It has such a large cast of characters that it’s hard to keep track of them all – especially as several actors play multiple parts. Still, I found this epic work fascinating. Award-winning actor Richard McCabe is excellent as Cicero, capturing the complex combination of heroism, arrogance, weakness, and vanity that makes Cicero such a compelling figure. Joseph Kloska is a delight as Cicero’s long-suffering secretary Tiro, who starts out the play as a slave but becomes Cicero’s closest friend, as well as a fourth-wall breaking narrator who speaks directly to the audience on several occasions.
Another ambitious new work is The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power from an Italian play by Stefano Massini. The production, performing at the National Theatre, tells the story of the rise and fall of the American company, Lehman Brothers, which started out selling suits in the mid-19th century and eventually transformed into one of the most powerful investment banks prior to its declaration of bankruptcy during the financial crisis of 2008. A trio of top-notch British actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley – narrate the story and play all the characters, starting with the three brothers who began the company, and then moving on to inhabit the roles of sons, wives, business partners, and more. While I can appreciate the play’s take on American capitalism and its associated dangers, I’ll confess that I nodded off once or twice due to the copious amounts of exposition provided and director Sam Mendes’s leisurely pace for the production.
On the other hand, I was absolutely riveted by One for Sorrow, an excellent new play by Cordelia Lynn that performs at the Royal Court Theatre in its intimate Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space. It is set on the night of a terrorist attack in London, as a British family opens its doors to victims who might need a place to stay the night. However, the non-white young man who shows up at their doorstep is not the kind of refugee they expected. The play is a captivating exploration of privilege, race, and hospitality. Director James Macdonald’s taut production is well performed by a five-person ensemble, with particularly fine work by Pearl Chanda as Imogen, the family member most invested in welcoming their guest, and by Irfan Shamji as John, whose arrival creates an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is another production that I greatly enjoyed. This new musical by Dan Gillespie Sells (music) and Tom MacRae (book and lyrics) centers on a teenage boy whose life ambition is to become a drag queen. John McCrea is delightful as the title character, bringing both fierceness and vulnerability to Jamie. Equally strong are Josie Walker, as Jamie’s mother, and Lucie Shorthouse, as Jamie’s best friend, Pritti Pasha. I also found Shorthouse’s role a refreshing breath of fresh air in a musical, as it is rare to see a strong-willed, LGBT-positive hijab-wearing Muslim character. Her second-act solo, “It Means Beautiful” – my favorite song in the pop-inflected score – has an aching sincerity that brought tears to my eyes.
I was also moved by the one Broadway import that I saw on my trip – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stirring historical musical, Hamilton, performing at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Jamael Westman gives a strong performance in the title role, endowing Hamilton with an air of dignity occasionally punctuated by flashes of joyful exuberance. The real stand-out, though, is Giles Terera, whose Aaron Burr is a complex creation inspiring empathy from the audience. It was also a delight to see the British reaction to the character of King George, whose performance by Michael Jibson seemed to be a real crowd-pleaser. Obioma Ugoala’s George Washington and Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza Hamilton are likewise terrific, with Go delivering a soul-searing rendition of the powerful second-act anthem “Burn.”
Oscar Wilde’s delightful comedy of manners, An Ideal Husband, receives an outstanding revival at the Vaudeville Theatre under the sure-handed direction of Jonathan Church. This satiric take on politics and morality seems particularly apt for this moment in time. The career of the play’s protagonist, Sir Robert Chiltern (solidly portrayed by Nathaniel Parker), is at stake when the scheming Mrs. Cheveley (played with delicious devilment by Frances Barber) threatens to expose a long-held secret about the origins of Chiltern’s fortune. This production has the benefit of featuring father and son Freddie Fox and Edward Fox as, respectively, the foppish Viscount Goring who always has a well-turned phrase at hand, and his stern father, the Earl of Caversham. Their scenes together are comic gems that the duo renders flawlessly.
A revival of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe. Will Keen gives a particularly convincing portrayal of King Leontes, whose unsubstantiated suspicion that his wife is having an affair with his friend, the visiting king of Bohemia, drives the tragic first act of the play. The turn towards comedy in the second act is perhaps not as keen as it could be, although Jordan Metcalfe gives an amusing performance as the clownish shepherd’s son. What makes the experience of watching the play more worthwhile, however, is seeing it in the open-air theatre that was reconstructed to resemble the nearby original Globe Theatre, home to Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, who premiered the play there in 1611.
I took a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened to the public in 1997, and learned more about the history of Elizabethan playhouses and the role they played in the society of their day. Since this is a working theatre, a rehearsal was underway when my tour group entered the theatre space. We kept quiet as the actors in the upcoming new play Emilia (premiering at the Globe in August) engaged in a vocal exercise that was beautiful to watch. When they went on break, we were allowed to explore the theatre more, and take photographs.
Nearby to the Globe is the site of the Rose Playhouse, which housed some of the earliest performances of plays by Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare. While the theatre no longer exists, its remains were uncovered during a 1989 archaeological excavation, and the building that was erected on the site contains a dedicated basement space for future preservation efforts. The theatre remains are kept under water, with a layer of concrete to prevent further deterioration until enough money is raised for a proper excavation and historical preservation. My husband and I met with a few of the Rose’s staff members, who showed us the archeological site, which can be lit up to display the position of the two stages (from different eras of the theatre) that have been discovered. The Rose holds “open days” on Saturdays so that the public can see the site and engage in workshops exploring period costume, archaeology, or performance. It’s a truly unique experience.
While the Globe gives an indication of what Elizabethan theatres were like back in their day, and the Rose Playhouse promises to reveal even more about the era once the archeological site is fully excavated, there are other historical locations worth mentioning that are less visible, and marked only by plaques that suggest their importance. In Shoreditch, a sign on a building declares that this was roughly the original location of The Theatre, the first successful purpose-built playhouse, which existed from 1576 to 1598. (The sign states The Theatre opened in 1577, but that is incorrect.) It was here that Shakespeare first established his reputation with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, prior to that company’s relocation to The Globe. Historical markers can also be found near the locations of the original Globe Theatre (on Park Street, a short distance away from the new structure bearing the Globe’s name); the Fortune Theatre (on the aptly named Fortune Street), built in 1600 as a competitor for the Globe; and the Salisbury Court Playhouse (on the south side of Salisbury Square), a 17th-century indoor theatre which replaced the Whitefriar’s Playhouse near the same site.
For more tangible representations of theatre history, I recommend taking a tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. While the theatre can be traced back as far as the early 17th century, the building that now exists was erected in the early 19th century and is the fourth one to bear the name, as the others either burned down or were demolished. The tour I attended was run by two actors who impersonated various historical personages such as playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who managed the theatre for several years, and Nell Gwynne, one of the first professional actresses on the English stage, who made her debut at the Drury Lane, and who later became mistress to King Charles II.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, which offers discount fares on tickets to theatre shows for day-of-performance sales and up to two days in advance. While you’re not going to find sold-out productions like Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on offer, there is still likely to be a good selection, and I took advantage of this service several times during my visit.
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Cover: A view of the marquee of ‘Les Misérables’ at the Queen’s Theatre — its third home since opening in 1985, and other theaters in the West End of London.