In the last few weeks, I saw so many players on the various stages of London’s many theatres, as well as plays in various stages of their theatrical lives. Here’s a brief playbill of my favorites from the past month:
Now at the New London Theatre and long into its London run, War Horse is a revelation. During a backstage tour of the National Theatre, I saw (and surreptitiously touched) a “horse” cut after previews and now retired as a highly prized prop, but nothing prepared me for the framework to come to life on stage. I sat in the front row center (close enough for my leg to brush Albert’s when he sat on the edge of the stage—and close enough to look up into the horses’ amber eyes when the puppeteers trotted by), but every character, whether actor or puppet, was alive and unique. Because I was so close to the action (even getting “gassed” during one battle, but, hey, isn’t smoke supposed to follow beauty? I coped), I felt that War Horse was almost interactive. I was entranced as well as almost literally entrenched in the story. Go. See it.
Much Ado About Nothing
My co-favorite production is Much Ado About Nothing. Two versions are currently running, but my attention was caught by the modernized (at least to the 1980s) play starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate. I saw it twice in previews and had a blast both times. I’d seen Tennant do drama but not comedy—so the physical comedy as well as perfectly punched up dialogue was a special treat. I could watch him dance (in denim miniskirt or uniform) all evening. He’s loose limbed and looking like he’s having fun. I confess that I’m sometimes lukewarm to Tate’s performances. Loved Donna, but other roles…not so much. I adored her physical comedy here, and although some critics on press night dubbed her performance one note, I enjoyed her work. Again, go. See them—if you can get a ticket. I met some people who were very lucky in the seat lottery, but if you plan to be in London this summer, get tickets online now.
From Drama to Musical, Live Performance to Recordings
I caught In a Forest, Dark and Deep before it left London. The two-person play starred Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams. Both were good overall in the performance I saw, but each achieved great moments as the play darkened and deepened. The plot telegraphed some of the “shock” moments; I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been by the dramatic twists. Still, an interesting night at the theatre.
Also in likely its last weeks is Love Never Dies. OK, I’m a Phantom fan (but not even a phantom fan of the sequel). Although the voices are amazing, the book and music merely left me wanting to see Phantom again. A few days after I saw Love Never Dies at the Adelphi, I read where the revised, vastly improved version will soon debut in Australia and then possibly head to New York. I was irked that the “good” version wasn’t the current London musical.
As a researcher/writer, I sometimes fall into exciting opportunities. The National Theatre provided me with two: one directly for academic articles about the recent production of Frankenstein, one a not-so-guilty pleasure. I always tell my students to pick their research topics carefully. Sometimes I really am glad I follow my own advice.
During the National Theatre tour, I learned about the archives. A few questions later and a gracious guide handed me contact info for the archivists. The two staffers who replied to my email scheduled an appointment for me to view the materials currently available for Frankenstein. It’s still too soon to have much in the file, but I was able to view a recording of the National Theatre Live’s tech rehearsal—an incredible opportunity to see an additional performance and one few have seen. So, on a sunny day, I spent six uninterrupted hours watching that recording and then, to my immense delight, I was able to watch the archival recording of After the Dance. (Such a geek—this is why I’m not tan, even if I live in Florida most of the year. Sunny day outdoors or a Frankenstein/After the Dance combo—a no brainer.)
If the original London cast does indeed make it to Broadway in the next year (a rumor persistent about a month ago but nothing new since), I’ll make it a point to be there, too. In case After the Dance doesn’t make the transatlantic crossing, at least I can say I’ve seen it, even if it wasn’t live performance. Wow—it’s impressive. You might look at a description and not be as enthusiastic if you don’t like period pieces (Dance is set in 1938) or Terence Rattigan, but if you get the chance to see the cast from the London revival—go. The lead performances make the play.
When I walk throughout the West End and lack the time and money to see everything that catches my eye, it’s hard to believe that live theatre is an endangered species. But London is a rarity, as is New York or Toronto. I came away convinced that we have to support theatre, locally, nationally, internationally. All the world’s stages need us to play our part and keep theatre alive. That’s a role I can relish. Let’s see—Paul Gross on stage in Toronto and New York and that rumor about Benedict Cumberbatch coming to New York—I’d better start saving now.