Phil Willmott travels through theatreland...
And gives his round-up of the best (and worst) in the Autumn season.
The prime autumn theatre season is now in full swing in London with new world-class productions opening nearly every night.
Let's start with my favourite. Do yourself a favour and go to see The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of comedies at the Old Vic. Yes, a trilogy because in the 1970s comic maestro Alan Ayckbourn wrote a play called Table Manners in which a family hilariously but poignantly fail in their efforts to enjoy a harmonious weekend together. The extraordinary thing is that he then wrote a second comedy, Living Together, about exactly the same weekend but showing what occurred in the living room whilst the events of the first play were happening in the dining room. Then, in a final play, Round And Round The Garden, things are rehashed a third time only now you see the parallel action on the lawn. Each play is a polished gem operating like clockwork to switch you rollercoaster-like between uncontrollable laughter and moments of near tears as your forced to recognise the little tragedies that lie behind all our family lives. It’s beautifully performed by some of our finest "30 something" comedy actors and played out in the round; a triumphant conversion of the Old Vic Theatre. Really don’t miss it, it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year and I don’t expect to see it bettered for a while. I recommend for clarity of understanding that you start with either Table Manners or Round And Round The Garden and that Living Together is the least successful on its own.
The trilogy’s title character, Norman, seduces his way around three women, a situation echoed in the musical Witches of Eastwick, which never quite succeeded in the West End but has now been successfully dusted off by enterprising producer Kenny Wax, in a glossy regional tour starring Marti Pellow. He really goes for it, portraying the demonic stranger who corrupts a small New England town with a Jim Carey like machine gun attack that never quite convinces as a seduction technique but keeps things fast and funny. I caught the production at the New Wimbledon Theatre, so cavernous that it’s hard for any production to make an impact, but thanks to classy performances in the supporting rolls and two or three excellent numbers it won over the press night audience very quickly. Well worth catching when it tours near you.
Elsewhere, the emphatic acting in Edwardian political thriller Waste (at Islington’s Almeida Theatre) is as good as you’ve heard; but really, who wants to sit through a three hour play about obsolete politics?
Creditors at the Donmar is a shorter burst of quality thespping. Enjoy it's nineteenth century Swedish threesome rip each other to psychological shreds; nasty, up close and personal and as compulsively watchable as your friends splitting up.
Meanwhile at the Wyndhams Theatre I’m sure Kenneth Branagh is as good as we’ve all been told in Chekhov’s nervous break down drama Ivanov, but wait a few weeks because I think he’ll get even better. On the second night I felt Ken’s character could have been dragged back from the abyss of depression by a group hug and a bowl of ice cream. Existential Russian angst is called for and I bet he’ll nail it later in the run. Apparently he really turned it in on press night.
By the way, avoid Girl with a Pearl Ear Ring at the Haymarket. It’s a cynical attempt to cash in on the book and movie but lacks the class of either.