Phil Willmott's travels through theatreland

Hello Dolly, Streetcar and a bit of tragedy...

The summer months are quiet for London openings with most of the industry’s attention focussed on the Edinburgh Festival. I can however tell you that the smouldering production of Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans Melodrama A Street Car Named Desire, currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre is every bit as good as you may have read. It’s sexy, atmospheric and poignant as damaged southern Belle Blanche arouses the passions of her hunky brother in law. The trouble is the casting of Rachel Weiss in the lead meant that this production sold out months before it opened so if you want to see it, and its well worth the effort, you’ll have to be prepared to queue for a return ticket hours before.

Most of the big summer opening nights are in open air theatres. Check out my productions of the family musical Jason and the Argonauts and the Greek tragedy Medea at the Scoop amphitheatre adjacent to City Hall by the Thames near Tower Bridge. Both shows are completely free to watch. Or further up the river the Globe are having a great season too. Tickets here aren’t free but it’s cheap enough to stand and watch their Greek drama Helen. It’s an odd play that supposes that the entire Trojan War was fought over the infidelities of a fake Helen of Troy whist the real and innocent Helen was held captive in Egypt. Ethical discussion of a pointless war is of course pertinent to our times too but when this was originally written an entire generation of young men had been wiped out, our current skirmishes hardly compare. So the pitch black, vicious humour doesn’t quite resonate on a summer night in modern London despite an assured production by Deborah Bruce and a barnstorming performance from Penny Downie in the title role. An interesting oddity and well worth a look.

You’re guaranteed a terrific evening at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park where this year’s musical production is Hello Dolly and what a treat it is. Wisecracking Dolly Levi tires of being a widow and decides to marry a rich grumpy grocer, during the process of ensnaring him she also manages to find romance for two grocery clerks and her future daughter-in-law. This is perfect vintage musical comedy; everyone is cute, funny and belting out feel good hits like Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Before the Parade Passes By and of course the title song. Peter Mckintosh provides a wonderful set which, with a few velvet swags, converts from grocery store to a suitably grand staircase for the handsome waiters of the Harmonia Gardens to assure our leading lady “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong”. Barbara Streisand was legendarily too young for the role in the Hollywood movie, although I’ve always loved her sharp tongue and fog horn voice. Regent’s Parks’ Dolly, Samantha Spiro, can’t compete with those vocal chords of course but she is just as sassy and effortlessly carries the show. Old fashioned, a bit camp, a bit cheesy and an utter delight. Even the rain on press night didn’t dampen the high spirits.

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