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LONDON’S THEATRE LIFE (article first published : 2000-11-23)

Journalist Patrick Leeman offers his recent experiences in London:

London continues to offer the South African traveller a host of theatrical and musical treats, especially during the Christmas/New Year period. Earlier this year I had the privilege of seeing Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard directed by Trevor Nunn “in the round” at the Cottesloe Theatre of the National Theatre. Catch if it is still on – it’s a must for the discriminating theatregoer.

I did not get to see Julie Walters in All My Sons by Arthur Miller, also at the National, in spite of impeccable contacts through my brother Kevin, who is head of music at the National. Miller is on record as having said that this is the finest production of his play that he has ever seen in a long theatrical career. Julie Walters is on a “high” this year, having scored another triumph in Billy Elliott, the British film which opened this year’s Durban International Film Festival.

Noises Off, a revival of the 1982 farce by Michael Frayn, is also worth a visit. It, too, is running at the National. Frayn is the author of the award-winning play Copenhagen still playing on the West End. I did not see it because the Durban production at the Square Space Theatre in Durban earlier this year was quite excellent and I could not see how the London, nor indeed the New York production could be better.

Another theatrical tour de force is Stones in his Pockets, a two-hander written by Marie Jones. It concerns two unemployed characters who are taken on as “extras” for a Hollywood-backed movie being shot on location in Ireland. A revival of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, with its intrigues and sexual undercurrents at an all-boys English public schools, is currently playing at the newly revamped Arts Theatre in London. In my opinion, it’s a much better, tighter production than the original staged in the early 1980’s. Certainly the play is better staged. Then The Mystery of Charles Dickens written by the prolific Peter Ackroyd and starring the versatile Simon Callow continues to do good business at the Albery Theatre, having been transferred there from the smaller Comedy Theatre.

On the musical side, both The King and I, starring the evergreen Elaine Page (still the Queen of the West End musical theatre) and The Mikado are impressive. Both revivals are running in highly appropriate venues – the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit at the atmospheric London Palladium and the Gilbert and Sullivan classic at the plush Savoy Theatre, specially built for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company more than 100 years ago.

Do look out for what is termed “lost musicals”. These are musical productions of distinction which have not been performed on the London stage for decades. I saw a stylish revival of Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce, written by the master musician in 1932 and last performed on the London stage in 1933. The BBC Theatre Orchestra provided the backing at the Palace Theatre for a talented cast, all in evening dress presenting a concert version of Porter’s catchy musical score. This includes the hit number Night and Day. Musical comedy star of the 1950’s Elaine Wilson was flown over from New York especially for the occasion and she spoke of her meeting with the legendary Cole Porter.

On the classical musical side, try to get to hear the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. They are really going great guns this year under the baton of their resident conductor, Sir Colin Davis. The English National Opera at the Coliseum is specialising in operatic works with an Italian theme this year. It was there that I saw Monteverdi’s operative masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppae said to be the oldest opera in the form in which we know it today. It was performed on a circular stage with ladders and other trendy theatrical devices. A stunning production.

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (thank you, National Lottery) is worth a visit. When I attempted to buy a ticket from the box office there, I was politely told that only the £150 seats (about R1,200) were available. Ouch! (Patrick Leeman)




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