It’s been 6 years since I last visited this beautiful city, and much has changed. For that matter, much has changed in NYC as well, but there’s a difference here. The feeling of extreme civility is gone. People on the street are edgier, sharper in tone-almost, but not quite, to the point of rudeness. They walk without looking, they don’t say “excuse me” as they once did when they walk directly into you, and, trust me, they do that A LOT. The people seem angry-maybe it’s the fact that many seem to be using the gyms much more than they used to-I remember past years when Londoners were puffing and out of shape…that seems to have disapeared. You see more gyms around town-you see many more runners than before. But then, there’s the smokers. It’s not like NYC, where most folks seem to have quit-here, the puffers are everywhere-in fact, despite the fact that I quit 6 years ago, right after my last visit-for the first time, I felt myself craving a smoke. People here seem to enjoy it so much! But they can’t do it inside the pubs anymore-or offices for that matter. Much like NYC, they huddle in doorways in front of office buildings, guiltily inhaling outside because they can’t do it inside. I’ve a feeling it’s harder for Londoners to break the habit than it was for New Yorkers. And then, there’s the theater, a main reason for me to come, at one time, every summer. There’s always been a wealth of theater in the summer months here, a little bit of everything to sample in a city that was always famous for its theatrical goings-on.
Sadly, that too has changed.
This summer in London, most of what’s onstage are musicals and revivals. It feels like Broadway rather than the West End. There’s “Phantom” and “Les Miz” of course, but there’s also “Jersey Boys”, “Avenue Q”, “Mama Mia”, “Oliver!”, “La Cage Aux Folles”, “A Little Night Music”, “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, and two new musicals as well; “Sister Act”, based on the Whoopi Goldberg movie and produced by Miss Goldberg, and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, based on that Australian film of 15 years ago. Of the two, “Sister Act” is the more original, with a bright, disco-ish score and some winning performances, but it’s clumsily directed and sloppily written. A new book and experienced directed would do the show a world of good, and, of course, that’s bound to happen, since it’s intention is Broadway. But more work needs to be done before that can happen. “Priscilla” is exactly where the creators intend it to be-the movie script onstage, using a wide variety of old disco songs, that amazingly, works beautifully. It’s one giant campfest, and lots of near naked flesh in and out of drag-and packed to the rafters. In fact, the performance I saw had an audience that was full of giddy older ladies having the time of their lives. I can’t imagine “Priscilla” not eventually working its way to NYC. Then there’s “Dirty Dancing”, which I popped in on for a Friday matinee, and which turned out to be one horribly embarassing disaster full of trite dialogue and awful songs from years gone by, including badly sung versions of “We Shall Overcome” and “The Pirate King” from “Pirates of Penzance”. Trust me, it’s far worse than it sounds. Even the kids in the audience were bored.
The National Theatere on the South Bank has some remarkable stuff running, however, especially Racine’s “Phedre” with Helen Mirren and Dominick Cooper, which is mesmerizing, and a JB Priestley chestnut called “Time And The Conways”, which is getting a terrific production, and is fascinating stuff. The “Alls Well That Ends Well” is somewhat less successful in a very strange production, but the West End transfer of “War Horse”, set during WWI, about a young man and his horse, is a heady theatrical experience, featuring some incredibly manipulated horse puppets and live actors, who are somewhat outshown by their fiberglass counterparts.
The two biggest attractions this summer in the West End, however, are “Hamlet” with Jude Law and the Donmar Warehouse production of A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Rachel Weisz”. For me, both were somewhat disapointing. Law is a hyperkinetic, animated prince of Denmark, emoting very clearly and forcefully, but adding nothing to the role that hasn’t been seen before. The physical production is dark and moody, beautifully done, if only the performances came close. It arrives on Broadway in September. The “Streetcar” is completely sold out and has been praised to the skies by London critics, but I found it lacking emotionally, with only Elliot Cowan’s strangely-accented Stanley the exception. Miss Weisz is a terrific actress, but she hasn’t found Blanche’s heart or her madness-she just feels miscast, and filling the stage with ghosts of characters heretofore only discussed in previous productions, does the play a disservice. I’ve seen many “Streetcars”, but the last successful one, as far as I’m concerned, was directed by Ellis Raab and starred Rosemary Harris and James Farentino at Lincoln Center-35 years ago!!! I’m still waiting for something to match that.
I’ve saved “Billy Elliot” for last, because after disliking it so much on Broadway, I thought I’d give it a shot here. Well, the difference is amazing. The 12 year old actor playing Billy was exceptional, as was the supporting cast. Maybe it’s a show that needs to be seen on home turf.
But the absolute best of London theater this summer isn’t in the West End, it’s at The Royal Court in Sloane Square, where a remarkable Jez Butterworth play called “Jerusalem” is running, starring Mark Rylance in one of the most breathtaking stage performances I’ve ever seen. Here’s hoping this incredible play finds its way to NYC sometime in the near future, because it is beautifully written, and impeccably staged by Ian Rickson. This play, and the amazing Mr. Rylance, last seen in NYC in “Boeing, Boeing”, were the highlight of the entire trip.
In a city that feels under construction at every corner, with weather that defied the advance reports of a “barbecue summer” and has disapointed Londoners expecting heat and humidity, the theater scene is somewhat disapointing as well. But, like NYC’s Broadway, it will recover and, of course, I’ll continue to attend. Let’s hope next summer, with the promise of Simon Russell Beale in a revival of “Deathtrap” proves worthier.