London Theater Bounces Back
Strong productions - and box office - offer a buoyant response to sagging state subsidies. THEATER
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It's an enjoyable show put together by two Englishmen, Alan Janes (book) and Rob Bettinson (director), who were motivated primarily by their love for the music of Buddy Holly. I found the simple tribute affecting both times I saw it (yes, it's that good - and I didn't even like Buddy Holly music beforehand).Skip to next paragraph
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Virtually the entire audience, ranging from the very young to the middle-aged young-at-heart were, by the end, spontaneously on their feet rocking out to the exhilaratingly executed rhythms and clamoring for encores. I have yet to see a group of people, spanning the generations, made so happy by a piece of theater.
There are also a healthy number of more subdued new works doing well here at the moment.
``Shadowlands,'' by William Nicholson, for example, at the Queens Theater, is a thoughtful and intelligent account of the real-life relationship between British writer C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, an American woman whom Lewis eventually married.
The play centers on Lewis, a kindly man but one who is profoundly awkward with women. Ironically, his awkwardness dissipates only when Joy, with whom he has had a long, touching friendship, is stricken by illness. Feeling both ecstatic fulfillment and acute misery at the prospect that his new-found happiness may soon be snatched away, Lewis, though a committed Christian, finds himself questioning his faith and the nature of God. Shortly afterward, Joy dies.
HER son, Douglas, by a previous marriage, recently wrote of ``Shadowlands'' that it ``comes closer to the truth'' about his mother and stepfather than anything else previously written and further praises it for bringing out an essential point: that Joy's death taught Lewis ``something he had yet to learn; that in the very deepest despair there is hope and when, by grief, the entire universe is suddenly emptied, there is God.''
Much-loved British actor Nigel Hawthorne (Lewis) is, by turns, both endearingly droll and moving, while Tony Award-winning American actress Jane Alexander (Joy) provides an inspired match. Americans will be able to catch the two in ``Shadowlands'' when it opens at New York's Brooks Atkinson Theater on Nov. 11.
These days the nature of God and faith is topical. Another new work, ``Racing Demons,'' by highly acclaimed British playwright David Hare - in repertoire at the Royal National Theater (RNT) - also has that subject at its heart. The show, which snapped up this year's Olivier Award for Best Play of the Year, takes a shrewd look at the Church of England today, juxtaposing its staid, diminishing appeal with the evangelical movement's more dynamic method of drawing in the masses. Neither is left unscathed. Various styles of Christian conviction are explored with perspicacious humor and insight. Richard Eyre, the RNT's artistic chief, directs this small gem, with perfect precision.
Undoubtedly, the predominant trend in British drama today is toward exploring larger social issues. Hare's play, rather than being personally introspective - which is more the American style - does just this. ``Man of the Moment,'' at the Globe Theater, from the prolific pen of Alan Ayckbourn (who also directs), is another apt example.
AYCKBOURN has long been the king of British stage comedy, but his works are gradually developing a darker edge. In this vein, ``Man of the Moment'' is perhaps his most artistically successful play to date. It deals with two men whose paths crossed many years earlier - one a quondam bank robber, the other a momentary hero who thwarted the gun-wielding crook in action.
They come face-to-face for a second time for the sake of a TV special. Over the years, the ex-robber has become a prosperous media star, while the other man, of touchingly humble character and means, has been swallowed up by obscurity. The play gradually unfolds as an ingenious expos'e of today's TV-fashioned values in which people, sometimes of questionable character can become rich and famous because they project engaging media personalities, while others who are inherently good and kind often go unrewarded. ``Man of the Moment'' is a deeply funny, but, ultimately, rather disturbing work.
As for noteworthy classic revivals, the RNT has two glittering offerings: ``Richard III,'' starring Ian McKellen, and ``King Lear,'' both currently on a worldwide tour., using the same cast with, in the latter, the formidable Brian Cox filling the title role The shows provide bold interpretations, particularly so in ``Richard III,'' where the production takes on a modern fascist flavor. McKellen is in peak form.
But the cachet of the most exciting actor in the West End right now must surely go to Derek Jacobi in Sartre's ``Kean.'' His coruscating wit, verve, and breathtaking versatility in this deft comedy based on the lovelorn life of flamboyant 19th-century English thespian Edmund Kean is well worth beating a track to the Old Vic Theater for. If any performance deserves to be Broadway-bound, it is this.