Diary of a Theatre Addict: School’s out (sort of), but I’m still catching up

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At Thursday night’s opening of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Warehouse, it felt like the last day of term for many critics, so some were demob happy: it was the last big London first night of the year, at the end of a day that had earlier embraced two more press openings for the West End returns of The Gruffalo in the morning and Goodnight Mister Tom in the afternoon.

lesliaisons-donmarEven I, the self-confessed theatre addict, only managed two of those three openings myself — my reviews are here for Goodnight Mister Tom (in The Stage) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (for London Theatre Guide, from which pictured, right, are Dominic West and Janet McTeer).

Of course I’d seen both plays before — Goodnight Mister Tom in its previous West End outing at the Phoenix in 2012, after missing its Chichester premiere in 2011; and Les Liaisons Dangereuses severally, from its original RSC production it its first transfer to the Barbican’s Pit, then the West End’s Ambassadors, in 1986; then in two separate, less successful revivals in the West End and on Broadway.

The West End one — at the Playhouse in 2003 — with a cast that included Polly Walker and Jared Harris, elicited this priceless review from Rhoda Koenig, then writing in The Independent:

Tim Fywell has certainly hit on a novel way of distinguishing his production of Christopher Hampton’s play from Howard Davies’s unforgettable hit of 1985. One might call this the Bugsy Malone version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but, not having seen the film in question, I may be doing its actors an injustice. They may have had more pathos and conviction than Fywell’s youthful cast, who certainly give the impression of a lot of children who have raided the dressing-up box.

Of the two leads, she goes on to say,

Polly Walker, whose inspiration for the role seems to have been Joan Collins (heavy eyeliner, hands on hips, saucy ringlets, wide smiles), is spoilt and petulant rather than blood-freezingly cool, and one never believes that she has the intellect and steel to formulate the cruel plan. Jared Harris is likewise immature as Valmont, her accomplice, a man whose latent sexual power is meant to be obvious and terrifying. Harris’s voice is flat and thin, and his mouth is often screwed into an expression that is presumably intended as blasé but looks as if he’s thinking: “Not sprouts again!”

les-liaisons-linney-daniels-b'wayThe Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival in 2008 at the American Airlines Theatre, which starred our very own Ben Daniels and Laura Linney (pictured left), with Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as the young love interest Cecile Volanges) was directed by Rufus Norris, now artistic director the National, which Ben Brantley dubbed “an eye-filling, very imbalance revival” in the New York Times. Daniels, he said, made “a sensational Broadway debut”, but Linney, he felt, was “uncomfortably cast.”

He went on to amplify,

Mr. Daniels provides both the silliest and most serious rendering I’ve seen of Valmont, who has been memorably played onstage by Alan Rickman (in the Royal Shakespeare Company production that came to Broadway in 1987) and on screen by John Malkovich (in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons) and Colin Firth (in Milos Forman’s Valmont). His warm, fluid performance reflects what would appear to be Mr. Norris’s intention: to turn up the temperature in a work of famously icy cynicism. Unfortunately no one else in this revival approaches Mr. Daniels’s level of complexity, including Ms. Linney, a wonderful actress who has been shoehorned into a part out of her natural range and is perceptibly pinched.

I’ve seen every single one of these productions, and the Donmar’s is easily the best since the original. It returns the work to a studio space where it was originally created — it first premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon’s The Other Place — which amplifies the close-up intensity no end.

Goodnight-Mister-TomEarlier the same day, I saw a re-cast version of Angus Jackson’s original Chichester production of Goodnight Mister Tom, now with David Troughton (pictured left) in the role of the Dorset widower who takes in a London evacuee in Second World War Britain, originally played by Oliver Ford Davies, and I was very happy to see again, not just because Troughton is, like Davies, an instinctively warm an sympathetic actor, but that I was utterly delighted to find that the very youthful audience I saw it with at a matinee performance was extremely attentive. Producer Ed Snape told me afterwards they were keen for critics to see it with a ‘real’ audience, and so am I.

The same was true the day before at the press matinee for The Lorax at the Old Vic, which I reviewed for The Stage here. It’s the real test of this type of show if it can reach its intended audience successfully, and this one transcended that to reach me, too.

gatehouseIt was a week otherwise of revisiting musicals I’d seen before in new productions from Sheffield to Highgate, and a play in Islington. In Sheffield, I saw director Daniel Evans’s latest Christmas musical, the 1927 Broadway classic Show Boat (my review for The Stage is here); and in Highgate I saw the 19th annual Christmas show at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse (pictured right), which this year is a revival of another Broadway show of a more recent vintage, namely the 2007 musical version of the film Legally Blonde.

I adored both; though Show Boat is quite clearly the more significant achievement, both as a musical that has cast an enduring influence over the form itself and as a production that honours it so lovingly, I also gained a renewed respect for Legally Blonde, a show I’d previously thought was mere fluff, but in fact has a lot more punch than that.

Finally I caught up with Richard Eyre’s current return to the Almeida as he added Little Eyolf to a triumvirate of Ibsen plays he has now revived there that also includes Ghosts and Hedda Gabler, both of which transferred to the West End and were subsequently seen in New York. This short (but far from sweet) play about an already difficult marriage imploding after the death of a child is given a captivating restraint that also makes it all the more scorchingly powerful. I also liked the fact that it featured a cast of principal actors whose work I was mostly unfamiliar with. Invariably at theatres like the NT, RSC, Donmar or Almeida you see the same faces turning up again and again. These actors may have had some credits at those places, too — but here were stepping up for the first time for me to notice them for the first time.

I’ve still got quite a bit of catching up to do — having missed a bunch of openings after my hip replacement, then its subsequent displacement, I’m not quite finished with my theatregoing this side of Christmas. This coming week, I’ll be catching up with Linda at the Royal Court, Mr Foote’s Other Leg transferred from Hampstead (where I saw and loved it) to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and the return of Bull to the Young Vic (in a re-cast version of the original production), as well as catching the launch of a new tour of The Rocky Horror Show at Brighton’s Theatre Royal.