London Theater: This, That, and the Other (Glorious) Thing

“I’m going to a play.” A simple enough statement, but what does it conjure up in your imagination? A blockbuster musical? A small community effort? A revival of a standard? An experimental happening?

In a city with a rich theatrical scene, “going to a play” still means all of these and more. My recent trip to London reminded me of the many wondrous shapes theater can take.

MATILDA at the Cambridge Theatre:

I didn’t immediately think of attending a West End extravaganza. But then I remembered one quintessentially British Broadway piece worth seeing in its original London iteration. Matilda, based on the book by British children’s writer Roald Dahl, is as Brit as Brit can be. I swallowed my “big theater = lame theater” cynicism and went to the Cambridge for a night of pure entertainment.matilda

And, while I loved the production and performances (especially Alex Gaumond as Miss Trunchbull), I enjoyed the audience just as much. It was mostly parents and kids, the latter (at least) hyper from candy from the start plus the ice cream sold during the interval. They all had an absolutely joyous time watching live theater. Warmed the cockles of me heart, it did.

A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS at the National Theatre

As well-established as the West End, but with a more respectable rep among theater aficionados, the National beckoned from the South Bank of the Thames. There’s no playwright more quintessentially British than Alan Ayckbourn, so I jumped at the chance to see his 1987 play, A Small Family Business. It was done in the National’s main space, the Olivier, recognizable by its famous gray stage with a rotating disc that bulges out toward the audience.

I’ll be honest: I don’t completely get Ayckbourn. I always wish his comedy were either a bit darker or a bit lighter. But that doesn’t matter. Ayckbourn’s work is a major cog in the mechanisms of British theater, and therefore must be seen, just as a music student who doesn’t dig Brahms should still get to know that composer’s oeuvre. And, as I expected, the largely British audience gobbled up this signature national dish by one of their favorite theatrical chefs.

BIRDLAND at the Royal Court Theatre

Another standard-bearer of British theater history is the Royal Court, on Sloane Square south of Hyde Park. In decades past, this theater was the working lab for such playwriting luminaries as Joe Orton and David Hare.

I attended Birdland, Simon Stephens’ exploration of the tortured life of a rockstar. The play, the performances, and especially the direction by Carrie Cracknell were astonishing and completely original, as the legacy of the Royal Court demands. I was delighted by the youth of the audience at this challenging piece. Their average age seemed to be 15-20 years below that of the National Theatre patrons. The future of great British theater is secured!

SAFE SEX / ON TIDY ENDINGS at the Tristan Bates Theatre

The show that made the biggest impression on me was by far the smallest affair. The Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden presented the UK premiere of two Harvey Fierstein one-acts Safe Sexfrom the mid-1980s. (See my previous post about these plays.)

The production, starring UK television star CJ de Mooi, was a project of the Actor’s Centre. As I waited in their cafe to be let into the tiny black-box space, I was surrounded by theater pros discussing shows they were in or auditioning for, poring over scripts, and telling backstage war stories. This was theater by and for people who live theater, preserving these gorgeous little plays just for the love of the plays themselves.

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I hope it won’t be long before I can go back and attend four more London theaters for more uniquely thrilling experiences. Where am I going, you ask? To see a play! What does that mean? Anything and everything, and I can’t wait.


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