Theatre

STARS SHINE IN LONDON

The city’s West End stages are lustrous once again

ROBERT MASON LEE June 6 2005
Theatre

STARS SHINE IN LONDON

The city’s West End stages are lustrous once again

ROBERT MASON LEE June 6 2005

STARS SHINE IN LONDON

Theatre

ROBERT MASON LEE

The city’s West End stages are lustrous once again

THERE HAS ALWAYS been a gentle sort of rivalry between New York’s Broadway and London’s West End. More often than not, it’s a rivalry expressed through the flattery of imitation: shows hatched on Broadway, such as Mel Brooks’ The Producers, often end up reproduced in London, or vice-versa, as with Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Lately, however, this theatrical mirror has been casting up some strange and unusual reflections. In both places, there’s been a virtual stampede of actors from film and television who

suddenly feel the need to bolster their credentials in the more rigorous world of the footlights. In the U.S., many of these actors are American, yet weirdly enough, most of the screen actors being drawn to the London stage are American too.

The result is a curious inversion of snobbery—the English are smugly confident in the belief their theatre scene is superior, and the proof is its ability to draw talent from across the Atlantic. At the same time, it may not be fashionable to confess a buzz of excitement when celebs from U.S. film and TV appear in London, but the buzz still exists—and their sellout performances confirm it.

Both cities continue to play host to glitzy stage musicals with knockout production numbers, which will always be a draw for outof-towners. But their homegrown audiences have shown a renewal of interest in more serious-minded revivals of important works. Here again, Londoners like to believe they have the upper hand. In New York, a season of “serious revivals” means plenty of David Mamet; in London, it means plenty of David Mamet, with Shakespeare on the side.

Still, theatre in London’s West End is enjoying a resurgence that’s easily the match of anything in New York, with the added bonus of renewed life being breathed into the streets of the theatre district itself. A recent visitor from Toronto, who had not been in the city for eight years, was escorted the other day to the useful, half-price “tkts” booth in Leicester Square (it’s operated by

the Society of London Theatre and offers same-day tickets at reductions of at least 50 per cent). The visitor remarked how clean the square looked. This is not something a Londoner likes to hear—city residents prefer to revel in tales of how squalid, expensive and impossible life in the capital has become—but there was no denying the visitor was right. Tourists were not constantly tripping over tramps and dog droppings, the facade of the Odeon cinema was polished to a gleaming shine for a premiere, and there is but one surviving sex shop, looking as decidedly sad and lonely as its few remaining patrons. Leicester Square has become respectable, even—on a bright spring day when the birds are singing—something approaching charming, if the point were stretched a bit.

The nearby restaurant district of Soho has been thoroughly gentrified. The seedy dives of Fitzrovia have all but given way to trendy establishments serving chilled lagers and fresh sushi. Chinatown has become unrecognizably safe. Unlike the good old days, the food now is unlikely to poison you, and there’s hardly any chance of the added latenight entertainment of being mugged.

The most shocking change to London’s Theatreland, however, is the theatres themselves. A few years ago, not only was there nothing to watch on the London stage, but patrons were guaranteed to be uncomfortable watching it. Patrons were pestered at theatre entrances clogged by tramps, touts, and beggars; once-magnificent interiors

were chipped and faded by neglect; seats, despite the extortionate cost of tickets, were likely to buckle and sag. It was generally believed tourist numbers would always keep theatres in the black, but declining traffic after 9/11 and a general disinclination among Londoners to see their own plays finally provoked the owners into action.

Although few theatregoers realize it, many tickets sold to West End shows now carry a 75-pence (almost $2) Theatre Restoration Fund levy, and state lottery funds have also been plowed into fixing up the capital’s public theatres. The money has been visibly

well-spent. Seats today are likely to be firm and comfortable, and the auditoriums gleam with freshly applied gilt. The number of theatres that have undergone a thorough restoration is difficult to track. To name only a few: the Savoy’s splendid Art Deco auditorium has been returned to its former glory; the classical revival frontage of the circa-1834 Lyceum has been repainted and refurbished; the Prince of Wales has gone through a lavish refit with a nostalgic 1930s neon cladding.

But probably no theatre is closer to Londoner’s hearts than the Regency-style Old Vic, built in 1818 and one of the oldest theatres in the city. Long faded by neglect and disrepair, the theatre was threatened some years ago by demolition, or even worse, conversion to a bingo hall. It was an unthinkable end for a stage that had once entertained Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens, and been the favourite performance hall for such actors as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier,

Dame Peggy Ashcroft,

Sir Ralph Richardson,

IN THE British capital, as in New York, there’s been a virtual stampede of film and TV actors to the world of the footlights

Vivien Leigh, Dame Judi Dench and Peter O’Toole. A board of trustees was established to rush to the theatre’s defence, led by Sir Elton John and counting such luminaries as Lord David Attenborough, Sir Peter Hall, Tina Brown, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and the advertising guru and art collector Charles Saatchi. Film star Kevin Spacey agreed to take over as artistic director and launched a fundraising drive, now in its second year. The theatre’s grand whiteand-gilt brocade stalls have been restored, and its future appears safe.

But the London theatre renaissance is about more than bricks and mortar. Including Spacey, there has been a steady stream of prominent U.S.—and even Canadian— film actors making appearances in West End plays—names in productions of the past few years include Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kathleen Turner, Matt Damon, Christian Slater, Kim Cattrall, Matthew Perry and even Madonna—who proved once and for all, in the miserable West End comedy Up For Grabs, at Wyndhams Theatre, that her inability to act on screen was not a camera trick.

American actor Brian Dennehy, the barrelchested star of such films as Peter Green-

away’s Belly of an Architect, has won Tony and Golden Globe Awards for his portrayal of Willy Loman in the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman. He has taken the role to London for the first time with a run at the Lyric Theatre (to early November). And Spacey, whose choice of scripts as artistic director of the Old Vic has been spotty in the past, hoped to strike a popular chord with the West End debut of the Broadway classic The Philadelphia Story, in which he stars opposite Jennifer Ehle. The performance opened on May 1 and runs until Aug. 6. Currently David Schwimmer, Ross in Friends, is playing a louche Lothario in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) at the Gielgud. And last week, Batman Forever star Val Kilmer started previews for a 10-week run in Andrew Rattenbury’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice at the Playhouse.

Among British film actors taking a turn in the West End are Jude Law and his fiancée, Sienna Miller, performing in back-toback Shakespearean productions at the Young Vic. Miller will headline in a sexy 1940s update of As You Like It, while The Talented Mr. Ripley star will take a turn as the lead in Hamlet. The theatre’s patron, Ewan McGregor, is trading light sabre for dancing shoes as he takes the role of Sky Masterson in the 1950s classic musical Guys and Dolls. He will be appearing opposite Ally McBeal actress Jane Krakowski in a production that will open at the Piccadilly this week. As an added windfall, a veteran of British stage and screen has been thrilling audiences in what critics agree to be the performance of his life. The irreplaceable Sir Michael Gambon, Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, is eating the scenery as the fat gourmand Falstaff in Henry TV, Parts One and Two (until Aug. 31).

With talents like these available, with many tickets on sale at half price or on special promotions as low as £10 ($25), and with a bevy of restored West End theatres, there likely has not been as good a time to make a theatrical pilgrimage to London since the 1960s. New Yorkers may have it good, but Londoners know that they have it better.

Robert Mason Lee is a Canadian journalist and author living in London.