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Phil Willmott travels through theatreland...

And gives you the lowdown on what's currently hot (and not) in London's West End.


It’s been rather a “Marmite” fortnight for London Theatre. A couple of the major openings have fiercely divided the critics between loving and loathing, rather like attitudes to the yeasty spread… or indeed the pop combo The Killers! Here’s my take on the capitals latest shows.

PLAGUE OVER ENGLAND The Duchess Theatre ****
This is a must see for all gay men. You can read my full review in the April issue of GT, but it’s a theatrical snapshot of queer life in the UK before we were legal. A depressing flashback but the playwright also ensures the evening’s sexy, fast moving and funny too. Combine this with a trip to see Milk at the cinema for a palatable crash course in gay identity.

ON THE WATERFRONT The Haymarket Theatre *****
You’ll love or loath this stylised staging of the classic Marlon Brando film. Handsome Simon Merrills takes the lead as an ex-boxer who stands up for his rights against organised crime. It’s all played out on a bare stage with actors creating the doom laden atmosphere of everything from a union rally, a waterfront bar, even a pigeon coop, with exaggerated movement, mime and slow motion in beautiful film noir lighting. It works for me far better then a “realistic” restaging of the film ever could. Check it out.

SATURDAY NIGHT at the Jermyn Street Theatre ****
Ambitious young director Tom Littler mounts an ingenious pocket size revival of this rarely seen early musical by Stephen Sondhiem (darling of show tune queens everywhere for his sophisticated, bitter sweet lyrics). An unusual piece like this would never sell enough tickets to fill a big theatre so we should be grateful to this talented company for giving us the chance to enjoy it in a production that makes an asset of the intimate Jermyn Street space. There’s no room for a band, so many of the actors play instruments too whilst enacting a charming love story from 1920’s New York, laced with the young Sondhiem’s blossoming wit.

ENGLAND PEOPLE VERY NICE at the National Theatre ****
This has divided critics too. It’s a rude, raucous, tuneful and very funny romp through Bethnal Green's immigrant history as if performed by today’s cultural diverse community. It’s joyfully un PC and I was very frustrated that illness forced me to skip the second half. Trevor Laird is particularly funny as a series of incredulous onlookers. Don’t be put off by the serious subject matter this is glorious celebration of life, love, sex and survival.

OF THEE I SING at the Saddlers Wells Theatre (No stars)
Be grateful if you missed Opera North’s dire revival of a depression era Gershwin musical that was so funny and tuneful only a few years ago at The Bridewell Theatre. Lumpy acting, dirge-like tempos, an inadequately lit, cheap and unpractical set, the worst choreography I’ve ever seen and an ugly, disinterested, obviously miserable cast contributed to the poorest production I’ve endured in months.

Phil Willmott has directed over fifty productions across the world from Shakespeare and musicals to cutting edge new writing. He is founding Artistic Director of his own multi award winning theatre company The Steam Industry, incorporating The Finborough Theatre (under the Artistic Directorship of Neil NcPherson), and the London's annual Free Theatre Festival .http://www.philwillmott.co.uk.


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