by Mel Cooper

Royal Home Runs

If you’re in London, The Royal Court Theatre has a lovely, completely entertaining Christmas treat — The Priory—by Michael Wynne, in the theatre downstairs. Essentially, it’s a clever West End farce with grit and lots of contemporary issues and references. And it’s truly a thousand laughs!

A group of thirty-something friends rents a National Trust priory in the depths of a forest and spends New Year’s Eve together. Naturally it all turns into a self-revealing series of “party games.” à la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the ghost of a mediaeval friar possibly haunting the original stones for added interest. A superb ensemble cast of six is directed brilliantly by Jeremy Herrin. Remember that name, because you can see his work in two upcoming plays (they sound interesting!),also at the Royal Court, in 2010. And note particularly the nuanced performances of Jessica Hynes and Joseph Millson (they have the most sympathetically-scripted characters). There’s not a weak link in the cast or any aspect of the production, which also has a stunning set.
 
Meantime, the theatre upstairs has scored heavily with Mike Bartlett’s Cock. This also has a strong ensemble cast (of four), directed by James Macdonald. It’s brilliantly staged and acted, and its “gay” theme is subsidiary—it’s really a play about personal responsibility and the impact of one’s sometimes selfish decisions on others.
 
The acting of Ben Whishaw (of Bright Star) is what all the critics are talking about, and he’s very good; but Andrew Scott is even more striking, in my opinion, in a much tougher role; for me, also much more the focus of the story. His physical gestures and facial expressions conveyed even the most subtle thoughts. The staging is brilliant: four actors in a circle interacting (but making you imagine everything)—cooking in the kitchen, performing a strip-tease, making love in the bedroom, etc.—while just standing there, fully-clothed, saying things relevant to the situation you’re not actually seeing, but which is happening in your mind’s eye.
 
Royal Revisists

And don’t forget my advice: 1) avoid the West End transfer of Lucy Prebble’s ENRON (which everyone else loves, but I found it meretricious). If you’re still determined, it’s going to New York later. 2) And do everything you can to get tickets to the return of Jez Butterworth’s provocative, searing and completely wonderful play Jerusalem, which deservedly won the Evening Standard Best Play and Best Actor awards. Mark Rylance is astonishing in the lead. The entire cast is working at the same level; so all praise also to director, Ian Rickson. and to the set by Ultz.
 
But, oh dear, in general the West End is still essentially in a time warp, and I am on the lookout for something exciting to share with you. The most interesting long-running show in the West End at the moment is still  The Lion King. 3) So check out the fringe and the Christmas shows! 

Panto Raids

Trying to take the children to holiday theatre? Consider going to a panto. This is a traditional Christmas vaudeville, developed only in the UK (possibly with Mediaeval roots). The story is always some sort of adaptation of a famous fairy tale or ballad-style story, and the principal boy, in this tradition, is played by a girl. (Think Mary Martin as Peter Pan?) And characters like the wicked sisters in Cinderella are always played grotesquely by men. Cross-dressing is rampant but innocent, and one of the pantos this year even has Baywatch’s well-endowed Pamela Anderson, re-incarnated as a fairy godmother!
 
There are two Aladdins in the East End worth making the effort to visit – one at the innovative Theatre Royal Stratford East—with a good score, a strong cast and a very clever script directed dazzlingly by Kerry Michael; and a revival at the Hackney Empire—a very beautiful restored theatre that is being closed because of a cash crisis. With flying genies, a singing camel, tap dancing pandas and all the usual comic inconsequentials of this genre, this version features the Widow Twanky of the distinctly over-endowed Clive Rowe – a performance right up there with Ian McKellan’s interpretation of the same iconic Panto character. And you get to laugh, cry and, best of all, to boo the villains!
 
You should also consider, if you have kids under the age of seven, a rather charming show called The Forest at the Young Vic. It’s only an hour long (and really a contemporary dance show), but captivating for kiddies— pitched just right!
 

A Sure Shot? Taking that Bet!

Some entertainments have as many lives as a cat, so I vote that we should check out Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. They have a high rate of scoring hits with their Christmas Classic Musical revivals. I haven’t had a chance to see it myself yet, but the cast of Tamsin Outhwaite, Josefina Gabrielle, and Tiffany Graves as the three friends seems unbeatable on paper; Paul J. Medford, Mark Umbers, and Ebony Molina are also promising casting; the score was always strong; and I have seen good things by the director, Matthew White. That said, if all else fails, catch the Bob Fosse movie with Shirley Maclaine or, even better, the film Le Notte di Cabiria—the original source material—by Federico Fellini.
 

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