Cooper’s London: June 2009
by Mel Cooper
Under Water in the Arctic, and No Esther Williams in Sight
In New York, you get summer blockbusters at the multiplex. In London, the summer blockbuster experience right now is Kursk, at the Young Vic. Their Maria auditorium has been turned into a submarine, and you are turned into a member of the crew. You’re on board to spy on Russian summer manoeuvres under the Arctic and periscope in on their supposedly state-of-the-art nuclear ship, the Kursk. This is superb theatre—and a real (nothing virtual about it) experience—convincingly acted, thought-provoking. Try also the new Young Vic musical in the main auditorium, Been So Long– book and lyrics by Che Walker, music and lyrics by Arthur Darvill.
Lassie the Horse
User’s Warning: they will tell you War Horse is brilliant theatre, too. Let’s say that it’s certainly good for a family outing, and the stagings of the horses and of the war are theatrically interesting, though not as original and beautiful as Julie Taymor’s approach to The Lion King, to which I think it accrues an unacknowledged debt. The play itself disappointed me. It’s a cross between Lassie Come Home and Black Beauty, set in the battlefields of World War I after doing pastoral, rural England – to which it then returns for the sob-worthy ending. It owes everything to earlier melodramatic books and films for younger people who love animals, and almost nothing to direct experience or life. The only thing missing is Roddy MacDowell. I would at least have added a friendly chipmunk.
Maria the Magnificent
Have you met a girl named Maria? Then discover one of the West End’s greatest music theatre stars: Maria Friedman. A versatile actress and singer, a powerful show-woman, she is never to be missed. She’s won Olivier Awards for her one-woman shows, and for her Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion; her Roxie Hart in Chicago was an Olivier nomination. She was the National Theatre’s Lady in the Dark; their unforgettable Hayyah in Ghetto; moving and unforgettable in their Sunday in the Park with George. She was also an unforgettable Mary in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. So get going! Check out her recordings on Amazon! A brave person in real life too, she’s playing Anna Leonowens in a lavish arena production of The King and I at the Royal Albert Hall until 28 June. Since there are 5,000 places there every night, you should be able to get in. The cast includes Daniel Dae Kim of the hit TV series, Lost (am I the only person in the world who’s never seen it?) as the King of Siam.
Opera al Fresco
Opera Holland Park’s annual festival is on. You can champagne and picnic in the park (cheaper, and closer, than Glyndebourne); the tickets are about one-third the cost of the Royal Opera House or less; and though I cannot vouch for production quality in advance, the rough-and-ready nature of the event is always enjoyable. So far this summer, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux was a substantial hit and a welcome revelation of a rare opera; and Humperdinck”s Hansel and Gretel was extremely missable. Coming up: La Boheme, Orpheus in the Underworld, Ballo in Maschera, and a strongly-cast Katya Kabanova by Janacek. Take your pick. Take your champagne and caviar. Eat, drink, and listen.
Standing up for Music
The other great local music festival, of course, is the BBC Proms, running from 17 July to 12 September, mainly at the Royal Albert Hall once The King and I abdicates. Try being a “Prommer”– a unique and wonderful experience that involves queuing, buying last-minute tickets for a fiver, and standing among the most enthusiastic classical music crowd in the world. Take your pick of 100 programs: 76 at the Royal Albert Hall, 19 chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall, and 5 Proms in the Park. It’s more satisfying and even more electric than moonwalking with Michael Jackson! Check the season details at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/2009/
Royal Shakespeare Away from Home
Though their As You Like It is no more than satisfactory, this summer the RSC is doing a strong Winter’s Tale and a truly brilliant Julius Caesar at Stratford, both illuminating, and with Greg Hicks as both Leontes and Julius Caesar. There are always standby seats, but phone the box office first. (011) 44 20 8534 0310 (or firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Little Night Decrescendo
Sadly, the exceptionally touching Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music at the Garrick –Sondheim’s finest score –will close soon. Catch it while you can, and look out for discounted bargain deals! The music is served well, and the cast is simply brilliant. Hannah Waddingham, in particular, is a Scandinavian goddess of the theatre as the worldly, lonely, witty Désirée Armfeldt reaching for one last chance at happiness for herself and her daughter. Maureen Lipman is a genius Mme. Armfeldt, the best since Hermione Gingold, with impeccable timing and one-liner delivery rivaling Eve Arden’s. (Hear her talk a bit about it at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7982741.stm)
She has a great wig too!
In the Park Without George
Finally, if the weather is really good, check on the 1930s outdoor amphitheatre in Regent’s Park, or even see a show at the Globe. Regent’s Park is almost invariably a good night out; and at the moment it has a lovely and witty Much Ado About Nothing (with a very sexy Benedick and Beatrice), and a bring-the-whole-family romp, The Tempest. Coming up soon is a promising The Importance of Being Earnest. Then Samantha Spiro, currently the edgy-yet-endearing Beatrice, is taking on Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman’s Hello,Dolly! The Globe Theatre experience, by contrast, is necessary about once in every lifetime (eat your peas!), just to be reminded how Elizabethans experienced Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Ben Johnson–in the round an on their feet. The productions are unreliable (or, rather, reliably mediocre) and I am not fond of the declamatory style that the space seems to promote in every single play. Regent’s Park makes being outdoors an asset most of the time; the Globe makes it an obstacle.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (many think it’s his best play) has opened in a fine revival at the Duke of York’s theatre. If you want an evening of great acting, great timing and brain teasers that will have you laughing with surprise and recognition, then this is the one play guaranteed to deliver all that, and some tears, too. It’s the best blending of sharp ideas and comedy since the Marx Brothers, with a terrific double story and double time frame scheme. Cast, director and design all work seamlessly together at the highest level to make a generous play. It always sounds tough when described, but Stoppard knows best just how to take you with him every step of the way.