That's The Ticket

Fans Of Live Theater Have Much To Choose From In England

August 02, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

An American like me who is obsessed with live theater occasionally feels a bit out of place in her native land, where conversation turns more frequently to the Birds than to the Bard.

But in 1995, when I set foot in England for the first time, I felt instantly at home. This is a nation where 20 people will line up after work on a rainy Tuesday night for the privilege of watching five people sit in chairs and talk about putting on a play. It is a nation where it is possible to eavesdrop on strangers on the subway passionately debating the merits of a production staged nearly a dozen years ago.

Is this a great country, or what?

During a recent, repeat trip through southwestern England, I found that everywhere I went, there was something theatrical worth seeing. What follows is my idiosyncratic, by no means exhaustive, take on some offerings of the current season, from London to Bath:

A West End musical: : True, Billy Elliot is still running in London, and it was a sensation in the U.K. even before it came to Broadway and won all those Tony Awards. But I didn't want to cross the Atlantic to see a show I can catch in New York. I wanted to see something new. I wanted to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical.

If possible, the stage version of Priscilla, which tells the story of three transvestites taking a trip through the Australian outback, has even less plot than the 1994 cult film on which it is based. But who cares?

Priscilla is a gaudy, over-the-top extravaganza with a score comprised of disco dance floor faves. As I was typing the musical's title, I misspelled "desert" as "dessert" - and that's not entirely an accident. This show is the stage equivalent of whipped cream.

Members of your party will enjoy debating which of the 541 costumes crammed into the running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes, is the most outrageous. I'll cast my vote now for the fetching Marie Antoinette gowns worn during the curtain call.

Is Priscilla great art? No. But I defy you not to have fun.

Theater tip: Don't bother springing for the most expensive seats. For 50 pence (less than $1) you can rent the pair of high-powered binoculars thoughtfully attached to the back of the seat in front of you. You won't miss a single sequin.

A classic comedy or drama: : If there's a theme to this summer's London season, it's that there's nothing like a dame - literally. Such acclaimed actresses as Juliet Stevenson, Dame Helen Mirren, Rachel Weisz and Anna Friel are presiding over modern and ancient classics.

Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply), just finished a mesmerizing turn as a world-class violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis that deservedly won critical plaudits in the revival of Duet for One. Tom Kempinski's play is loosely based on the real-life story of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, and features a fierce battle of wits between the violinist, who hides her despondency behind an outward cheer, and her psychiatrist, compellingly performed by Henry Goodman.

Unfortunately, my trip was too early to catch Phedre , the most in-demand show of the season, but if you're planning on being in London this month, you'll have better luck. Jean Racine's version of the ancient Greek myth stars the Academy Award-winning Mirren as a besieged monarch who conceives a fatal passion for her strapping stepson. The production will transfer to Washington in mid-September for a limited run, and you can still snap up a ticket locally by subscribing to the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

While abroad, you might prefer seeing whether Weisz, also an Oscar winner, can pull off the fragile Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Or, after Sept. 9, you can catch Friel (Pushing Daisies) as socialite Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Theater tip: Theater cognescenti have long known about the half-price ticket booth in London's Leicester Square. But now, you can buy the discounted tickets in person up to a week in advance. The booth is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, and between noon and 3 p.m. on Saturdays.

Shakespeare: : My 14-year-old goddaughter loves theater almost as much as I do, so I've been looking for an opportunity to indoctrinate - um, introduce - Carrie to the works of the Bard. The Royal Shakespeare Company's summer season in Stratford-upon-Avon seemed the perfect opportunity. Not only was Shakespeare born in this picturesque hamlet, but the RSC is arguably the world's top theater troupe.

Stratford is a relatively quick and easy train ride from London, and the RSC is offering three plays in rotation through the first weekend in October, including The Winter's Tale. This bittersweet comedy stars Greg Hicks as King Leontes, whose unreasoning jealousy destroys his family. Reviews by the London critics of Hicks' performance have included descriptions such as "riveting" and "truly tremendous."

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