West End, April 2019

By Philip Pearce

IT SAID “LONDON THEATRE TOUR” on our brochures, but you’d hardly have guessed that’s what it was from the plays we saw or the menu of other shows happening in and around London’s West End early in April.

The seven plays in our tour package included a brilliant new production of Arthur Miller’s The Price, a lavish and powerful National Theatre revival of Sondheim’s Follies and a gross, unaccountably popular stage adaptation of All About Eve. Then the London company of Broadway’s Tony winner Come From Away picked up a well deserved Olivier for best new musical two nights before we saw it at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road.   

Meanwhile, Hamilton continued to be the hottest ticket in London, Sondheim’s gender-bending rewrite of Company had just closed a sold-out run at the Gielgud, and the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams received two Oliviers, one as best revival and one for Patsy Ferran’s performance in the lead role.  

Looking ahead, Sally Field was warming up for a revival of Miller’s All My Sons at the Old Vic, while across The Cut near Waterloo Road the Young Vic was rehearsing a new Death of a Salesman. The Menier Chocolate Factory (that’s the real name of the theater) announced the opening of Williams’ Orpheus Descending, and the Regents Park Outdoor Theatre was about to launch its version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

No surprise that British critics began churning out newsprint and on-line commentaries on The Current American Theatrical Invasion. 

A fourth exposure to The Price only strengthened my heretical view that it may be Miller’s most powerful play. As an A List television favorite, David Suchet gets star billing but takes on the supporting role of the quirky Jewish antique dealer who agrees to appraise a brownstone attic full of a lifetime’s worth of possessions left after a suicide victim of the 1929 market crash. The appraiser checks in at the invitation of one of the dead man’s two surviving sons, a confused but good-hearted Manhattan cop named Victor Franz. Cast in the role, Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey fame was sidelined by an injured arm on the night we saw the show, but his understudy Sion Lloyd delivered a sensitive and nuanced performance that earned him a curtain call ovation. Suchet acted the old appraiser with a comic clarity that didn’t miss a laugh line while doing full justice to the fact that the octogenarian Gregory Solomon is the only character in Miller’s complex plot who isn’t living out a tragic illusion.

Come From Away worked magic with the unlikely idea that you can make a moving and funny musical from the desperate fits and starts that sent scheduled commercial flights off to unexpected destinations after the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks. A notable instance was the homing in of stray aircraft on the previously peaceful and little known Newfoundland island of Gander. Based on fact and the real life experiences of men and women memorialized on the lobby walls of the Phoenix Theatre, the script and production are extraordinary in the way a single company of twelve actors portray both the stranded passengers and their challenged but compassionate Canadian hosts with a quick-changing skill that never leaves you in doubt about which group they belong to or which member of that group they are currently portraying. Our tour group and a lot of other visiting Americans stood up and cheered. 

Follies was appropriately huge and glitzy, thanks to the resources of the National’s massive Olivier Theatre. The acting and music were bold and ironic.

I have seen better work from ninth graders at Ariel in Salinas and Christian Youth Theater of Santa Cruz.”

I am at a loss to say why Ivo van Hove, Flemish darling of today’s theatrical avant-garde, decided to mess with Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. We were warned in advance not to expect it to be like the movie, and I hoped that meant it might provide the kind of stark and startling new insights van Hove is known for. Alas, his flat, plodding adaptation follows the movie dialogue and action so closely that it only underlines how inferior it is to the polished élan of the original. The film survives not so much on the basis of its comedy-melodrama plot and characters as the slickness and style with which it presents them. The van Hove script attacks both with an indifference amounting to contempt. The acting, especially by another Downton Abbey veteran named Lily James as Eve, was appallingly broad and obvious. I have seen better work from ninth graders at Ariel in Salinas and Christian Youth Theater of Santa Cruz.

Enough about Eve.  

Our group lucked out with tickets to a final preview of Maggie Smith’s (pictured above) return to the stage after a twelve year hiatus. She was, as usual, persuasive and powerful in in A German Life, Christopher Hampton’s one-character stage adaptation of a film documentary about Brunhilde Pomsel, private secretary of Joseph Goebbels during the rise and fall of the Third Reich. 

We traveled to Islington for an unconventional, interesting, minimalist reworking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters by an up-and-coming young English playwright named Cordelia Lynn. Chekhov traditionalists in the group found it too bare-boned and un-pretty. 

Of all the American theater adventures I think the most provocative was a play I decided to see in addition to our list of London tour shows. A recent transplant from New York’s Lincoln Center, Joshua Harmon’s Admissions had me gasping at the prophetic relevance of a script written in 2014 which, with the harsh precision of a Swiss Army knife, carves out the tale of two liberal leaning parents who suddenly take on the tactics of right-wing cut-throats when their gifted son’s application to Yale is rejected. Admissions deserves, when available, to be snatched up and mounted by PacRep in Monterey or Jewel Theatre Company, Santa Cruz. 

If that happens, take a hint from the real Margo Channing of the cinematic All About Eve and fasten your seat belts.