It’s reassuring to realize that London remains a spectacular theater destination. That’s if the British domination of this year’s Tony Awards hadn’t already established as much. For further proof, here’s part one of what’s currently on view:
Everyman (National). Rufus Norris, now the theater’s artistic director following Nicholas Hytner, loves a parade. He tries to include one whenever he can and succeeds much of the time. This parade accompanies the character Good Deeds (Kate Duchene, who also plays God) when she arrives to deal with Everyman (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Playwright Carol Ann Duffy presents a contemporary title character attempting to celebrate his 40th birthday. After having been lowered precariously from the fly as if from the Mad Men intro, he isn’t succeeding. He asks the usual age-old questions and Death (Dermot Crowley) gives pretty much the same answers. But while there’s little new here, it’s theatrical as all get-out. Also, Everyman calls God a “cunt,” and God demurs. That’s something of a first. God is also introduced as a cleaning lady.
High Society (Old Vic). When the smashing 1956 film was transferred to the stage and updated from the 1938 Philip Barry play, it didn’t quite work. Now, with Arthur Kopit’s book and some new Susan Birkenhead lyrics to complement the dazzling Cole Porter score, it’s mostly working like a charm. You can thank director Maria Friedman and choreographer Nathan M. Wright for that. They’ve staged it in the round as if it’s a swell party for swells. There’s no explaining why the cast seems to be overdoing it in Act 1, but when the characters get drunk in Act 2, they ironically find their footing. Kate Fleetwood is Tracy Lord, Rupert Young is C.K. Dexter Haven and sings “Just One of Those Things” on gossamer wings, and Jamie Parker as Mike Conner makes “You’re Sensational” the stand-out vocal. Also giving a flashy performance is jazz singer Joe Stilgoe. He’s there in place of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and “Now You Has Jazz.”
Death of a Salesman (Noel Coward). Director Gregory Doran calls Arthur Miller’s 1947 classic the best American play of the century. No need to go that far to recognize it as a magnificent drama, which gets its full due here — with all the accents in their correct place. Antony Sher, who has Willy Loman’s defeated walk from the instant he enters, gets all the colors of a dying flame into his volatile turn. When he insists “I am known,” he’s shattering. Harriet Walter plays Linda Loman as if no one has ever taken it on. Her dressing-down of sons Biff (Alex Hassell) and Happy (Sam Marks) feels as if she’s administering 20 lashes. Hassell and Marks inhabit their roles like wolves on the prowl. It’s possible Miller’s aspect of a family tragically used to lying to one another has never registered quite so completely.
McQueen (St. James). Even before Stephen Wight as Alexander — born Lee — McQueen begins to speak, he’s been pacing in a dim circle of light, clearly setting the mood for the depiction of a troubled man. He still hasn’t spoken when vogueing dancers appear on David Farley’s elegant set with video designer Timothy Bird’s elegant projections behind them. When McQueen does begin to speak, it’s to an American woman calling herself Dahlia (Glee’s Dianna Agron), who’s broken into his studio demanding that he make a dress on her. Slowly acquiescing, he begins what is a discourse on the creation of beauty that includes a visit to the famous Anderson & Sheppard men’s bespoke tailor to the stars where he learned that great designing is based on superb tailoring. McQueen’s muse, the eventual suicide Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman), arrives in James Phillips’s clever script and under John Caird’s imaginative direction. The beauty created here is that it matches perfectly McQueen flamboyant and at the same time sinister (suicidal?) collections. A first-rate work of art.
The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess). Since the title spills the beans, perhaps the most amusing way to watch this laugh-a-minute exercise is, on entering the venue, to scan Nigel Hook’s set — a cluttered, late-Victorian drawing room — and guess what in it will go wrong before the final curtain falls or goes up in flames. Everything suspected to fall apart probably will when what is announced as The Murder at Haversham Manor unfolds. Mark Bell directed the ensuing chaos required by writer-performers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who are joined by Rob Falconer, Greg Tannahill, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn, Nancy Wallinger, Alys Metcalf and Leonard Cook. Such comic acting expertise is rarely seen this side of a Noises Off revival.
King John (Shakespeare’s Globe). To commemorate the 800th anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta, the theater reconstructed to honor William Shakespeare is presenting his rarely performed early work. Though it may not take another 800 years for it to be revived again, it’s advised that every Bard lover able to take advantage of this treatment brimming with music and ritual do so. Shakespeare didn’t think too highly of the monarch (Jo Stone-Fewings) to whom he assigned traits that would reappear in the figures of Richard III and Macbeth. The action concerns various rightful heirs to the English throne, or those claiming to be, as well as King John’s temporary détente with King Philip of France (Simon Coates). It’s all well-directed and well-played under James Dacre’s regal direction. N.B.: Though King John states that he is a “scribbled form, drawn with a pen/Upon a parchment,” and thus “against this fire/Do I shrink up” as a result of the Magna Carta, Shakespeare doesn’t include the grandly historical 1215 scene.
The Beaux’ Stratagem (National). In George Farquhar’s last comedy, two swains, Aimwell (Samuel Barnett) and his servant Archer (Geoffrey Streatfeild), awkwardly woo the unhappily married Mrs. Sullen (Susannah Fielding) and the nubile Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) amid as many twists, turns, ups and downs as a carnival ride. The merry play receives lively direction at the hands of Simon Godwin and a towering set from the hands of designer Lizzie Clachan. Before the right couples pair off, despite the two men’s plans seeming to go awry, any number of amusing characters populate the stage in pursuit of one folly or another — all of it amusing enough to explain why the comedy continues to be beloved.
Temple (Donmar Warehouse). Placed prominently on the credits page for Steve Waters’ extremely smart, extremely emotional Temple is a notification that the 90-minute drama is “a fictional account, inspired by the Occupy London movement in 2011.” In other words, nothing that transpires on Tim Hatley’s depiction of a St. Paul’s Cathedral conference room overlooking the edifice’s tent-filled plaza may have happened as the conflicted Dean (Simon Russell Beale), his dissatisfied Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins), disgusted verger (Sarah Calder-Marshall), first-day-on-the-job PA (Rebecca Humphries), the Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) and a lawyer representing the City (Shereen Martin) converge to debate the reopening of the two-week shuttered place of Church of England worship as well as the possible eviction of the occupiers. Waters’ triumph is that everything that occurs in this crisis of religious and secular priorities seems absolutely likely, especially as played, under the impeccable Howard Davies’ direction, by the incomparable Russell Beale and solid ensemble.