World on the Verge of a Breakdown

Jack Lowden and James McArdle in “Chariots of Fire.” | Hugo Glendenning

BY ANDY HUMM | London got a fresh coat of paint in advance of the Olympics, but the dark side of Austerity Britain and a world hurtling towards economic catastrophe was on full display in West End playhouses.

Most chilling — and entertaining — was the “Sweeney Todd” at the Adelphi (thru 9/22) with Michael Ball (the original Marius from “Les Miserables”), almost unrecognizable as the anti-hero Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Imelda Staunton (of “Vera Drake” fame) a revelation as Mrs. Lovett. She seizes center stage with hilarity amid the blood, guts and glory of her gruesome business.

Director Jonathan Kent originated this production at the Chichester Festival Theatre and set it in Depression-Era London — desperate times call for desperate pies. While Anthony Ward’s set adds to the gloom, the bracing juxtaposition of tender love, base venality, revenge, and butchery in this Sondheim-Wheeler masterwork shine through in a company of great voices.

Fast forward to 1963 and London on the verge of the swinging ‘60s in a revival of Matthew Bourne’s 2002 “Play Without Words” based on “The Servant” and transformed into a dizzying dance of classes and genders. Post-war rationing is a memory, rigid censorship is loosening, and taboos are being broken as we move from the angry young men of the ‘50s to the Mad Men era.

Anabel Kutay and Richard Winsor in Matthew Bourne’s “Play Without Words.” | Simon Annand

Bourne ingeniously deploys three dancers for each of the five principal characters as they sensuously and sometimes menacingly wriggle out of their black-and-white world into a brave new one of unsure roles.

The cast is supported by Lez Brotherston’s set and Terry Davies’ searing jazz score (thru 8/5).

In “The Physicists,” by the Swiss modernist Friedrich Durrenmatt, now at the Donmar Warehouse, we’re in even lower depths — an insane asylum housing just three men who think they are Newton, Einstein, and under the direction of King Solomon. Or do they? Stick around for the second act of Josie Rourke’s debut as artistic director of the Donmar as all is explained and then unraveled again on Robert Jones’ white-on-white set.

In 1962, Durrenmatt wrote that the mad men physicists had put the world on the verge of nuclear extinction. Commerce prevails over science and morality, especially as embodied by Sophie Thompson’s deliciously absurd nut-house director who emerges as the savviest of all the geniuses — if you don’t care about the world ending.

The planet avoided nuclear destruction, but all I could think about is that most successful physicists today write impenetrable formulae for unregulated credit default swaps that will crush the world economy in the very near future.

Credit the Royal Court Theatre for bringing us a new play, “Birthday” by Joe Penhall, featuring fist fucking, butt fucking, and urethral insertion — all in a maternity ward. In the play, Penhall has applied his rich imagination to the growing phenomenon of male pregnancy. And he can’t resist the cheap jokes.

Only Stephen Mangan, who triumphed on Broadway in “The Norman Conquests,” could pull off the role of man-with-child. He and his stage wife (Lisa Dillon) play this situation for laughs without resorting to mugging, “Birthday” is less illuminating than it ought to be under Roger Michell’s able direction. Llewella Gideon, as the no-nonsense midwife, is a treasure.

The Olympic-proud British are making room for colonials. The Menier Chocolate Factory, which has given new life to Stephen Sondheim and Harvey Fierstein shows before they end up on Broadway, is offering Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” directed by Douglas Hodge (ZaZa in “La Cage Aux Folles” and coming to Broadway in “Cyrano de Bergerac”). The production stars David Bedella as Arnold Beckoff, the role Fierstein originated and won the Tony for.

While no one can match Fierstein’s performance, Bedella does a creditable job. The second act is very cleverly choreographed. The final act with Arnold’s mom (Sara Kestelman) has lost none of its emotional power. There are several winning touches, not least a group torch song at the curtain.

The National Theatre’s relationship with Steppenwolf, the Chicago theater company, brought us Lisa D’Amour’s dark, suburban drama The production premiered at Steppenwolf in 2010, just closed in London, and is headed for New York under Austin Pendleton’s direction.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Detroit” approaches profound, but gets lost in the quirks of its unsubtle characters. A mix of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with a Lanford Wilson elegy for lost America, it tells us little about our dying culture. It does have five actors who are fully committed to their work.

In the National’s Olivier Theatre is “Timon of Athens,” “Shakespeare’s coldest and cruelest play” according to scholar James Shapiro — and that’s saying something about the man who gave us Lear, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus.

To make this difficult play work, you need Nick Hytner to direct, Simon Russell Beale to star, and the resources of the National Theatre to stage. That’s what we are blessed with. They worked over the unfinished play and created a tale for our times about the power of money. This production is not for Shakespeare enthusiasts only. (Thru 11/1 when it will be televised worldwide by NT Live.)

A less successful update is Polly Findlay’s production of Don Taylor’s 1986 version of “Antigone,” set in the modern war rooms of Creon (Christopher Eccleston) and also at the Olivier. While all the protagonists state their cases emphatically, none do so regally or with any apparent belief in their deeply held principles. (Closed)

No updating at Shakespeare’s Globe where Mark Rylance, the former artistic director there and two-time Tony winner for comedies “Boeing, Boeing” and “Jerusalem,” keeps the laughs coming in the funniest “Richard III” I have ever seen. With an all-male cast in Elizabethan dress, this isn’t camp, but a vision of the amoral king as a joker who is constantly getting over on the decent people around him until it all catches up with him in the end.

This is the most complete a version of the play I’ve seen with the long scenes with the little princes included. Rylance makes Richard’s treachery against these kids work splendidly under Tim Carroll’s direction. He is aided by fine supporting performances, notably Samuel Barnett (Tony-nominated as the gay student in “History Boys”) as Queen Elizabeth and Roger Lloyd Pack as Richard’s co-conspirator Buckingham. (To 10/13 at the Globe then at the Apollo 11/6-2/2)

Less important struggles are seen in the double bill “South Downs” by David Hare and “The Browning Version” by Terrence Rattigan at the Harold Pinter Theatre, but lives are still on the line. We’re in all-male English public (prep) schools with Hare evoking his awkward adolescence as a gay-seeming, middle class intellectual (John Blakemore played by Alex Lawther) amid posh boys. It’s all about how his life is saved by tea and sympathy from the actress mum (Anna Chancellor) of one of the popular boys in school (Jonathan Bailey) who is looking out for him. A sweet story, even if Hare is unsparing in the boys’ views on the “queers” who teach them and watch them swim nude.

“The Browning Version” shifts the focus to an uptight Greek teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris played with heartbreaking reticence by Nicholas Farrell with Chancellor as his philandering wife and Liam Morton as Taplow, the boy who moves him with a special gift only to have the sincerity of that gesture called into question. These are thoughtful, unpredictable plays on serious themes, leavened with humor and humanity. (Closed)

For more white male struggle, there is the stage version of “Chariots of Fire” at the Gielgud Theatre adapted by Mike Bartlett and directed by Edward Hall. I liked the movie and they’ve done their best to make it a compelling live action event with tracks laced into the audience. It brings us back to a time when the biggest controversy in sport was the Judaism of one runner, Harold Abrahams (James McArdle), and the Christianity of Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden), whose insistence on Sunday observance threatens his participation in the big race.

It’s spirited with regular runs by handsome, fit men in outfits that are back in fashion in London. But the shining performances are in supporting roles from two Nicks — Nickolas Grace as the Duke of Sutherland and Colonel Keddie and Nicholas Woodeson as the coach, Sam Mussabini. (To 11/10)

My visit was capped off with Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” just opened at the National’s Lyttleton. The script moves while integrating the lacerating comedy and incisive social commentary Shaw is known for. Director Nadia Fall in her solo debut at the National makes great use of a company of exceptional talent in roles small to leading, notably David Calder as Sir Patrick Cullen, finding layers as the eldest doctor, and the languid Tom Burke is compelling as the rebellious artist and consumptive.

What starts out as a debate about medical practice among doctors in the swank office of Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett) moves to a debate about who deserves to live or die over a fancy dinner and in the artist’s slummy studio.

It is a thought-provoking and entertaining production, not least because none of the hands wink at this material from more than 100 years ago. They make it work by playing it straight and attuned to the ways and mores of the time it was written — a hallmark of the National — while making it feel as if it is happening anew in 2012. (To 9/12)

COMING UP IN LONDON THEATRE: “Proud” about a gay, 17-year old Olympic boxer bows at The Lost Theatre (to 8/12). “This House” is a new play about UK politics in 1974 at the National’s Cottesloe (9/18-12/1). Fiona Shaw is doing “Scenes from an Execution” at the National’s Lyttleton (10/2-11/7). Richard Bean gives us a new version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” at the National’s Olivier (11/17-1/16). Out gay Roger Rees is doing “What You Will” at the Apollo about his relationship with Shakespeare (9/18-10/6). There’s a very well-reviewed “Long Day’s Journey into Night” here at the Apollo with David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf until 8/18. A star-studded season of plays directed by Michael Grandage, the great former director of the Donmar, starts in December including “Privates on Parade” with Simon Russell Beale, “Peter and Alice” with Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” with Daniel Radcliffe, and Jude Law as Henry V. Not too shabby for a new venture. Details at www.MichaelGrandageCompany.com For details on all other productions, go to www.londontheatre.co.uk

MUSEUM HIGHLIGHTS: There is a spectacular exhibit at the British Museum, “Shakespeare: Staging the World” about the times the genius lived in. Priceless artifacts are on display, right down to the eyeball of one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. The audio guide is narrated by Sir Antony Sher. The British Library has an equally impressive show of manuscripts, first editions, and recorded readings in “Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands.” Many gems, including drafts of Wilde’s script for “Earnest” and Joyce’s work on “Ulysses.”

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