My two absolutely favourite shows have now departed the West End — Bend it Like Beckham (which closed last Saturday, but I’m sure will be back) and Close to You. Coupled with a slew of other recent scheudled closures, the West End is suddenly an unaccountably dark place — in addition to the Phoenix and the Criterion, also dark this week are the Palace (pictured right), Wyndham’s and Prince Edward, as well as mostly the London Palladium (though it is staging one-nighters).
And the imminent closures this week of Guys and Dolls at the Savoy and War Horse at the New London will soon join the list of dark theatres.
All of them, of course, have their next shows already lined up, so it’s not for long — Hangmen, which closed at Wyndham’s last Saturday, is being replaced but People and Places and Things from next March 15; Guys and Dolls goes to the Phoenix from the Savoy from March 19.
But as Whatsonstage recently reported, as of March 13 there will be approximately 8,000 seats across the West End empty (in addition to the unsold inventory elsewhere) — almost 20% of all seats in the West End.
As Ryan Woods, Head of Sales and marketing at London Theatre Bookings, tells Whatsonstage, “I don’t think there has ever been a point where 20 per cent of the West End has been completely inaccessible. Spring can always be a time for change but even looking further ahead, large houses remain empty, the Victoria Palace is due to close for refurbishment and Aladdin doesn’t open at the Prince Edward until the end of May. It’s very unusual to have this amount of seats just not available.”
That doesn’t mean London is a wasteland — far from it. Here are some of the shows opening this week and my top tips for what’s still playing.
MAIN THEATRE OPENINGS OF THE WEEK
Motown – Shaftesbury Theatre
Import from Broadway of the ultimate pop catalogue of Motown, the Detroit record label founded in the 60s by Berry Gordy who has itself authored the book for this show. It launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and more, whose music all variously features in the show, opening officially on March 8.
Bar Mitzvah Boy — Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Fringe outing for the short-lived 1978 West End musical that has a score with music by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl), and lyrics by the Oscar-winning Don Black (currently represented int he West End by Mrs Henderson Presents, see below, and soon to be represented by the revival of Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum that he also wrote lyrics for). It opens on March 10.
MY TOP TEN SHOWS OF THIS WEEK
1) Akhnaten. OK, surprise entry here: but Philip Glass’s 1984 opera is, now that Bend it Like Beckham has left town, my favourite musical evening in town! The evening is a glorious wallow in rapturously beautiful music, with an amazing, meditative staging by Phelim McDermott that is full of haunting imagery — and even juggling. It was seeing the ENO’s original version in 1985 that made me a fully-fledged fan of Glass; now it’s wonderful to see it again in a brand-new production, running in rep at the London Coliseum, to March 18. Website: https://www.eno.org/whats-on/akhnaten/
2) Nell Gwynn. A ravishing, rambunctious and hilarious new play by Jessica Swale that’s about a love affair both in and of the theatre, revolving around the true story of the 17th century actress who ended up as mistress to KIng Charles II. First seen at Shakespeare’s Globe for a run of just 11 performances last summer, it now gets a West End transfer the Apollo, starring the wonderful Gemma Arterton in the title role of Chris Luscombe’s production. Shakespeare’s Globe previously also transferred Twelfth Night and Richard III with Mark Rylance to the same theatre. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://nellgwynn.co.uk/
3) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The National revisit August Wilson’s early play in his ten-play cycle of American black experience across the last century that they previously presented the UK premiere of back in 1989 to offer a stunning new production in the Lyttelton, starring Sharon D Clarke in the title role (pictured above). Lucian Msamati, just announced last week to play Salieri in the NT’s new forthcoming production of Amadeus, is extraordinary, too, amongst a superb ensemble that also features Clint Dyer and Giles Terrera. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/ma-raineys-black-bottom
4) Guys and Dolls. Originally only booking for a limited season at the Savoy before heading off on a U.K tour, the Chichester transfer of the show I consider to be the greatest Broadway musical of all time is now moving to the Phoenix after it ends its run at the Savoy on March 12, to resume performances March 19. A separate company will fulfil the touring obligations. See my review of the Savoy opening here. Website: http://www.guysanddollsthemusical.co.uk/
5) In the Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony winning Broadway musical returns to London in the exhilarating production first seen at Southwark Playhouse last year, and now at King’s Cross Theatre, where it is currently booking to October. It has just been Olivier nominated for Best Musical, with David Bedella (pictured right) also nominated for Best Supporting Performance. See my review here. Website: http://intheheightslondon.com/
6) Uncle Vanya. There isn’t a more up-and-coming director in town than Robert Icke, associate at the Almeida, who last year directed the award-winning Oresteia there that transferred to the West End. Now he does equally revelatory work on Chekhov’s enduring masterpiece, bringing it into the here and now with startling immediacy, and with an astonishing lead performance from Paul Rhys in the title role (actually re-named Uncle Johnny in this version, pictured above). My review for londontheatre.co.uk is here. Website: http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/uncle-vanya/5-feb-2016-26-mar-2016
7 and 8) The Father/ The Mother. French playwright Florian Zeller has gone from unkown to soon having three plays running simultaneously in London — The Truth begins performnces at the Menier Chocolate Factory this week from March 10, while The Mother, with Gina McKee plays the title role of a middle-aged woman losing her family, ends its run at the Tricycle this week. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://www.tricycle.co.uk/current-programme-pages/theatre/theatre-programme-main/the-mother/
But it is is James Macdonald’s beautiful production of The Father (pictured right), now back in the West End at the Duke of York’s until March 26 prior to a national tour, that has caused this flurry of interest. Kenneth Cranham, who won the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor, is newly joined now by Amanda Drew as his daughter. See my reivew for The Stage here; Website: http://sfentertainment.co.uk/projects/the-father/
9) Bad Jews. Return run to the West End for Joshua Harmon’s brilliant, exorciating study of a family of young Jewish people and their claims and counter-claims for assimilation… or not. A ferocious, lacerating family comedy that’s like a gladiatorial contest, it was first seen at Bath’s Ustinov Studio, then transferred to the St James before moving to the Arts and now the Haymarket, where it runs to March 20. Even the poster ignited controversy, getting banned by London Underground. But the show demands to be seen. Website: http://www.trh.co.uk/whatson/bad-jews/
10) Welcome Home, Captain Fox! Rare sighting of a still rarer Jean Anouilh play is updated to the late 50s by playwright Anthony Weigh, and turned into a strange, funny and stylish evening. See my review for The Stage here; Website: http://www.donmarwarehouse.com/whats-on/donmar-warehouse/on-now/2016/welcome-home-captain-fox