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BILLY SUTER IN LONDON (#3) (article first published : 2004-07-25)

Mercury Arts Editor Billy Suter reports on his London visit, focusing on drama productions.

And so on to the drama contingent. It is greatly satisfying attending any world premiere production and particularly one in a theatre which marked the starting point for the careers of, among others, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Kathy Burke, Jim Broadbent and Kate Beckinsale. The venue is the quaint, 65-seater Bush Theatre opposite Shepherd's Bush Green, which opened in 1972 and has become Britain's leading venue for new writing, with more than 350 productions to its credit. It was here that Julie Walters and Victoria Wood first worked together - and where Wood wrote her first sketch on an old typewriter she found backstage.

Every year, management at the theatre receives some 1,500 manuscripts through the post - and reads them all. The theatre has attracted major acting and directing talent, including Stephen Rea, Mike Leigh, Bob Hoskins, Mike Newell, Jane Horrocks, Tim Roth, Antony Sher, Alison Steadman and Simon Callow. Currently the spotlight is on new writer Steve Thompson, a former teacher from Hertfordshire, whose first professionally produced play, Damages - about tabloids, tantrums and truth - has drawn good reviews since it opened on June 2. Its run has now been extended to July 23.

A topical drama, it focuses on the dilemma of whether or not to print something guaranteed to sell newspapers but which involves ethical and moral issues. Played out in real time, an hour before a popular morning tabloid's print deadline, the play unfolds on a finely detailed set of a newspaperman's office. It contains two desks and features a doorway to another office.

The story intended for the next day's front page deals with a topless photo of a children's TV presenter - sent anonymously to the tabloid. Summoned for her legal services, as temporary night-lawyer, Abigail (Amanda Drew) arrives and is upset to discover the picture is of a close friend. To add to her personal dilemma, the stand-in night editor turns out to be her former lover, smooth-talking Bas (Paul Albertson).

Much of the sharp dialogue pertains to how and why the picture suddenly arrived at the paper, personal and professional exchanges clouding judgements about whether or not to print it. Abigail becomes desperate to figure out how her pal could have been so careless as to allow such a scandal to unfold. Then, aided by wise, amusing, old-school journalist Howard (a bow-tied John Bett), she uncovers some dark secrets which lead to a thought-provoking climax.

Completing the cast is Phil McKee as arrogant journalist, Lister, who has an axe to grind with both Bas and the woman in the photo, and is anxious to have his story published. The tension builds nicely in a captivating and very well-acted production which is let down only by the playwright sidestepping his initial focus on ethics to turn out a suspense tale which, rather infuriating for some, is left unresolved, the outcome left for the audience to debate.

Completing the cast is Phil McKee as arrogant journalist, Lister, who has an axe to grind with both Bas and the woman in the photo, and is anxious to have his story published. The tension builds nicely in a captivating and very well-acted production which is let down only by the playwright sidestepping his initial focus on ethics to turn out a suspense tale which, rather infuriating for some, is left unresolved, the outcome left for the audience to debate.

Drawing good reviews and full houses in the West End is a revival of David Mamet's Oleanna, with Hollywood stars Aaron Eckhart (Julia Roberts' biker beau in Erin Brockovich) and Julia Stiles (of Save the Last Dance fame). To be seen at London's Garrick Theatre until late July, Mamet’s sharply scripted 1992 drama about pressure, confusion, sexual mores and political correctness pushed beyond extremes, unwinds on a stage bare but for a desk, two chairs and a doorway.

In three acts, the story examines the relationship between a bright college professor, John (Eckhart) and a troubled student, Carol (Stiles). Pressurised by his pending promotion, marital hiccups and woes affecting the purchase of his new house, John spends the first act constantly answering and shouting into his phone in between trying to converse with Carol, who is confused about her low grade, her course itself and, as the meeting wears on, is even confused by her tutor. After much cross-coversation, many interruptions and each doing little to really get to understand the other, the meeting breaks up and we have an interval, after which the tone of the play changes dramatically bulding to an explosive and quite unexpected thought-provoking finale. I could have done without the long, unnecessary interval 20 minutes into the proceedings, and found Stiles a little too lethargic initially but Eckhart is superb and this is a wry and compelling production which the discerning theatre fan will relish.

Over at the Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus, the three-member Reduced Shakespeare Company, which has a constantly changing cast, has long been running three productions in repertory: The Complete Works of Wlliam Shakespeare (a Durban version of which proved a big hit twice); The Complete History of America, and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged). In spite of a packed house of mostly American tourists laughing and applauding constantly, I found The Complete History of America a rather dire slice of theatre - increasingly silly and with little of universal interest. The less said about it the better, frankly. But the nod to the Bible is a constant treat, beginning with a bearded guitarist announcing he is God and wondering the worth of a modern world where two members of The Beatles are dead yet all of Boyzone remain healthy. Great opener! A raucous romp in which both the old and new testament are covered, the show is peppered with highlights that include a fun send-up of the Tower of Babel and a recurring gag pertinent to Noah's Ark. It's huge fun! – Billy Suter

The other parts of this report can be found on the Music pages.




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