In London, the play's the thing from 'Iguana' to 'Vanya' to 'Phantom'

March 15, 1992|By Michele Nevard | Michele Nevard,Staff Writer

London -- With 37 theaters open in the West End of London this spring, and numerous fringe theaters active, visiting Americans have rarely enjoyed such a wide choice.

Walk across Waterloo Bridge, catch one of the most impressive views of London, and head to the Royal National Theatre.

Home to three theaters -- the Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe -- there's a coice of at least six different productions at any time.

In the Olivier there's the highly successful production of Kenneth Graham's classic children's story, "Wind in the Willows," adapted by Alan Bennett, one of England's leading playwrights. A story about the exploits of animals Toad, Ratty and compatriots, this has universal appeal. The play, which sold out its last run, returns with a new cast.

If it's wit and intellect you're after, then David Hare's new play "Murmuring Judges," also at the Olivier, will appeal to you. Here's the British judicial system under close scrutiny by a master writer with a cutting edge.

Or if you want to escape the chill of an English spring breeze then the hot, steamy Mexican jungle of Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana" should suit you.

Directed by Richard Eyre, with a stunning tropical set design by Bob Crowley, this is a play whose theme, as Tennessee Williams said, "is how to live beyond despair and live on."

However, "Night of the Iguana" has humor, and a scene with the excellent Eileen Atkins and Alfred Molina fairly bristles with sexual tension. Quite an achievement when you consider the characters they play are a Nantucket spinster and a defrocked Episcopal priest.

The brilliance of Tennessee Williams' writing is that it is often what isn't said that tells us the most, something that may be attributed to his admiration for Chekhov, both as a writer and a dramatist. And if Chekhov is your suit, then the production of "Uncle Vanya," hailed by one critic as the best in 30 years, can be seen at the Cottesloe.

Sir Ian McKellen, one of Britain's foremost actors, plays Vanya, and the reviews have been stunning. The production has been described as "quite sensational" by the Evening Standard; and as "a total triumph for the art of theatre" and "'an overwhelming occasion" by the Financial Times.

Tickets for shows such as Uncle Vanya are at a premium. You can try for returns on the day of the production at the theater. The half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square is worth visiting, too, as listings of available seats are posted there. And remember, some West End theaters have recently broken with tradition and are opening on Sundays.

Walk back across Waterloo Bridge and you find yourself in the heart of theaterland. The pick of the selection here is varied and numerous. And there is no shortage of musicals to get your feet tapping.

"Me and My Girl" is in its seventh year and still going strong. This is British music hall at its best, with all the old songs like "Doing the Lambeth Walk" and "The Sun Has Got His Hat On." In a role-reversal of "Pygmalion," we find out if it's possible to turn a cockney lad into a lord and have a lot of fun along the way. A word of warning -- watch out for the flower petals.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," based on Gaston Leroux's novel, still draws crowds five years later with its songs and elaborate sets. There are currently two "Phantoms" ++ playing in the West End. Mr. Lloyd Webber's version features his own songs, whereas an adaptation by Ken Hill draws directly on opera and arias that would have played at the Paris Opera in the 1890s. The choice is yours.

"Phantom of the Opera," Webber-style, is one of several successful Cameron Mackintosh productions. The man with the Midas touch can do no wrong. "Cats" is in its 11th year, and according to Mr. Mackintosh, is "the most successful musical in the world." "Miss Saigon" plays to full houses, as does the adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." This month, he is presenting a new show, "Moby Dick."

"Moby Dick" features a young ladies school down on its luck. In order to raise funds, it stages a musical version of Herman Melville's story. With the lure of "the most spectacular and inventive sets ever seen in a swimming pool," the only new musical here this year and the Cameron Mackintosh handle, this promises to be a show worth seeing.

Coming soon to the West End with a star cast is Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House," directed by Trevor Nunn and featuring Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave.

John Malkovich and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company open in a new Dusty Hughes play, "A Slip of the Tongue," in April, having premiered in Chicago last month. This is his first performance here since his record-breaking sellout with "Burn This" in 1990.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company, performing in the West End at the end of March for a limited run, is from California. You can experience the complete works of William Shakespeare, all 37 plays and the sonnets, in just 90 minutes.

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