Every summer, the 50 theatres in London’s legendary West End gear up for an onslaught of visitors from abroad. They are among the estimated 17 million tourists who descend on London annually, and they frequently spell the difference between a show’s success or failure. This year, the theatrical fare includes about a dozen musicals, five of them by Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as several revivals of the classics. But the current season offers relatively few strong original plays. As the West End steers a safe course this summer, original drama seems to have fallen by the wayside.
The lure of lucrative television contracts is a key reason that few writers are producing new material for the stage. Reductions in government subsidies to the arts are also taking their toll, notably on fringe theatres that have traditionally been an important breeding ground for original drama. Government cutbacks have also had a devastating effect on the venerable Royal Shakespeare Company. Burdened with an accumulated deficit of $6 million, the RSC recently announced that it will close its two London theatres at the Barbican Centre be-
tween November, 1990, and March, 1991—a move that should save $2.6 million. “Unless there is a drastic upsurge in subsidies,” said Guardian drama critic Michael Billington, “the outlook for the 1990s is reasonably gloomy. There will be a spate of revivals, together with the usual star turns, and relatively little new writing emerging.”
Still, there are some undeniable signs of vitality in the West End. Such leading British playwrights as David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn and Simon Gray have strong new plays in production. Meanwhile, the popularity of Aspects of Love, by Lloyd Webber, and Miss Saigon, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, prove that London remains an important source for musicals. Aspects of Love opened in a separate production in New York City last April, and Miss Saigon is slated to open on Broadway this fall.
Composer Lloyd Webber remains the West End’s undisputed box-office king. His Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Song and Dance and Aspects of Love continue to attract more than 35,000 theatregoers weekly. More than 1.8 million people see a Lloyd
Webber show each year, accounting for a staggering 17 per cent of all West End boxoffice receipts. Cats, which opened in May, 1981, continues to hold the title as London’s longest-running musical.
Aspects of Love, the newest of the Lloyd Webber quintet, chronicles the romance between a young Englishman, Alex, and a penniless French actress, Rose, who meet in the south of France. The musical, which premiered in April, 1989, now has $8 million in advance ticket sales. It has divided the critics, and it did not receive a single nomination in the Society of West End Theatre’s annual Laurence Olivier Awards, which were given out in April. But, according to International Herald Tribune drama critic Sheridan Morley, Aspects of Love ranks as “the best musical Lloyd Webber has produced.” Added Morley: “For the first time, he is not relying on a dancing cat or a chandelier for dramatic effect.”
Despite Lloyd Webber’s popularity, Miss Saigon, which opened last September, is currently the most popular musical in the West End. A reworking of the Madame Butterfly story set in the dying days of the Vietnam War, the show focuses on the naïve Kim (Lea Salonga), a teenage Vietnamese prostitute who is seduced and then abandoned by an American marine named Chris (Simon Bowman). Created by Boublil and Schönberg, the team responsible for Les Misérables, and lavishly produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who staged Les Misérables, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, the musical has a powerful emotional impact.
Like those previous productions, Miss Saigon boasts satisfyingly slick special effects,
including the simulated landing of a helicopter. And all of the elements are tied together by the pulsating musical score by Schönberg. Salonga, a Filipino newcomer, makes an impressive debut, while veteran British actor Jonathan Pryce is superb as The Engineer, her corrupt, manipulative boss.
The sleeper musical hit of the year, a rockopera version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, bears the unlikely title of Return to the Forbidden Planet. Panned by the critics when it opened last fall, it quickly developed a cult following for its lively songs, great visual effects and parody of the Bard. The show, with songs from the 1950s and 1960s and a script by Bob Carlton, became a box-office sensation, and in April it won the Olivier Award for best musical of the year.
Amid the song-and-dance extravaganzas, several leading British playwrights explore meatier issues in their latest works. David Hare’s Racing Demon, which opened last February at the Royal National Theatre, is unquestionably the most interesting play of the season. Biting and highly entertaining, it raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the Church of England in contemporary society. It focuses on four clergymen struggling to make sense of their role in decaying South London. The drama draws parallels between the church, divided by streams of liberalism and authoritarianism, and Thatcher’s Britain.
A doubting clergyman is also a central figure in Hidden Laughter, the stunning new play by
Simon Gray. Peter Barkworth has won accolades for his portrayal of Ronnie, an elderly village vicar whose essential goodness is no protection against the loss of faith. The conflict between goodness and cynicism is also a central theme in Ayckbourn’s Man of the Moment, at the Globe Theatre. Michael Gambon, famous for his role in Dennis Potter’s acclaimed TV mini-series, The Singing Detective, turns in a brilliant performance as the hapless do-gooder Douglas Beechy in this satire about media
manipulation. Beechy, a modest clerk, has a heroic past: two decades earlier, he thwarted an attempted robbery at the bank where he worked. The robber, who maimed Beechy’s future wife during the attempted crime, has since become a television talk-show host, and he invites Beechy to his Spanish villa for a reunion that will be recorded by a documentary producer. Beechy is comically out of place amid the opulence of the Mediterranean coast and the distorting gaze of the TV camera.
The search for love is central to Shadowlands, an engaging examination of the romance between English writer C. S. Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman. Nigel Hawthorne, known to television viewers as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the series Yes, Minister, gives a poignant portrayal of the introspective and misogynistic Lewis, best known for his Narnia series of children’s books. The drama traces Lewis’s gradual recognition and acceptance of his love for Davidman, whom he married solely to enable her to attain permanent-resident status in Britain. Slated to move to Broadway this fall, Shadowlands is an impressive stage debut by writer William Nicholson.
Two popular new plays offer more ribald pleasures. The Apollo Theatre has Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, written by Keith Waterhouse and starring Tom Conti. Based on the character of the real-life gossip columnist of Britain’s Spectator magazine, it takes place during a night when Bernard accidentally gets locked inside his favorite pub after hours, and proceeds to indulge liberally in drink and reminiscence. Meanwhile, Ben Elton’s Gasping, at the Haymarket Theatre, is a parody of marketing mania and corporate greed: it focuses on a company zealously pushing the latest commodity—air.
A few of the highlights this summer come from the United States. Chief among them is the Royal National’s revival of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s timeless morality tale about the Salem witch trials. In his review, Sunday Times critic John Peter declared that the current proas duction confirms the play’s 8 stature as one that “will both 9 survive the century and bear I witness to it.” The National is “ also mounting the London
première of Miller’s After the Fall. Meanwhile, another American drama, Lanford Wilson’s 1987 Broadway hit, Burn This, arrives in the West End on July 11. John Malkovich returns in his role as Pale, the stranger who upsets the ordered world of a Manhattan choreographer and her homosexual roommate.
As in any good London season, there are several fine productions of the classics. At the Phoenix Theatre, renowned director Peter Hall boldly reinterprets Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. The Old Vic, owned by Toronto’s
Ed and David Mirvish, is presenting Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion, a 17th-century comedy about deception, disguise and the art of theatre. The production is a dazzling display of theatrical illusion. And at the Royal National, British-born John Neville, former artistic director of Canada’s Stratford Festival, has made a triumphant return to the London stage after a 20-year absence. He is starring as Sir Peter Teazle in Richard Sheridan’s satiric Restoration comedy about 18th-century manners, The School for Scandal. London critics have heaped praise on Neville, with one describing his performance as “true classical acting: elegant, subdued, but piercingly effective.”
No London season would be complete without Shakespeare. And this summer, the Royal National is offering a double bill of Richard III and King Lear, with the celebrated Ian McKellen and Brian Cox taking major roles in both productions. The RSC is limiting its offerings from the Bard to two comedies, All’s Well that Ends Well and As You Like It, and two dramas, Coriolanus and Pericles.
The RSC’s only high-profile new venture, Peter Flannery’s Singer, already a success at Stratford over the winter, moves to the Barbican Centre in July, providing another opportunity for well-known classical actor Antony Sher to give his virtuoso performance in the tragicomedy about a man who survives a concentration camp. The play is among the highlights that, even in a troubled season, confirm the West End’s reputation for excellence.
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