5 More Must-See London Theater Productions

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Felicity Kendal in "Gypsy." Photo by Nobby Clark.

In my last column, I covered eight must-see shows playing right now in London. Here’s part two of my summer roundup:

Oresteia (Almeida). Adapter-director Robert Icke has decided it’s time to update Aeschylus for today’s audiences. On paper that sounds just the slightest bit presumptuous, since he’s not simply contemporizing the dialogue. Instead, Icke is giving an imaginative new spin to the world’s first-ever dysfunctional family drama. (Well, as far as we know it’s the first, and from some angles it’s never been surpassed.) So cheers for fiddling. Presented in sections over close to four hours, he elaborates on how Klytemnestra (Lia Williams) reacts to the announcement from Agamemnon (Rufus Wright) that in order to get the dormant winds blowing and the Trojan War underway, he must kill daughter Iphigenia (Amelia Baldock at the performance I caught). The emotional storm that whips up between them, and is as strong as the eventual torrents resulting from the murder, is something to see. Icke also has other updates in mind — primarily putting Orestes (Luke Thompson) on a contemporary trial for murdering his mother after she’s murdered the returning Agamemnon. This is something that Aeschylus never gets around to, of course. Though Icke’s head is in the right place in regard to Orestes’s actions being called to account and justice being done, the attenuated segment works less well in the writing and in the histrionic performing to which it results.

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Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. Photo by Johan Persson.
Imelda Staunton is nearly Shakespearean in Gypsy. Photo by Johan Persson.

Gypsy (Savoy). When Ethel Merman bowed in the original production of this monumental Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical, she seemed born to play the role. Since then, a few others have given the impression that they, too, shared quintessential stage mother Rose Hovick’s DNA. Now Imelda Staunton claims the domineering chase of the Orpheum circuit as her birthright. Without making any specific comparisons, I’ll only say that I’ve never before seen anyone raise Rose to nearly Shakespearean levels. Along with the feigned sweetness and light when Rose wants to get her way, there’s fury in Staunton when she doesn’t get it. Her renditions of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” don’t just chill the spine, they freeze it. The acting and the singing plumb the depths of a woman living through her daughters with vicarious menace. As directed by Jonathan Kent and choreographed by Stephen Mear (the latte replicating Jerome Robbins’s unforgettable strobe-lighting time transition sequence and the always hilarious “You Gotta Have a Gimmick”), this is a first-class production — no matter that the stage seems a bit small. Lara Pulver is the grown Louise, Peter Davison is Herbie, Gemma Sutton is the grown June. With Staunton, they’re heading a spot-on cast in a spot-on production — with great help from gimmick strippers Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand,

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Hang (Royal Court). Debbie Tucker Green takes only about 60 minutes to write and direct a tautly disturbing little tale. Choosing not to name her characters, she introduces One (Claire Rushbrook) and Two (Shane Zaza), who are factotums at an unspecified institution attempting to put Three (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) at her ease in a waiting room tidily designed by Jon Bausor. The catch is that Three doesn’t want to be eased; she is in a predicament, one affecting her too deeply. At first, Green only hints at that predicament vaguely, although the terse drama’s title is a hefty clue. By the fade-out, not much more has been revealed, so nothing about it will be detailed here. But what she does provide, as aided by the fierce cast of three — especially by Jean-Baptiste, with Three’s withering demurrals — is a powerful portrait of humanity ill served by faceless systems.

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Felicity Kendal in "Gypsy." Photo by Nobby Clark.
Felicity Kendal surprisingly infelicitous in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Photo by Nobby Clark.

Hay Fever (Duke of York’s). Noel Coward was known for returning to productions every once in a while to “take out the improvements.” Were he alive today, he might drop in on this early play of his — the one that really put him on the theater map — to take out the misunderstandings. Somehow, director Lindsay Posner failed to notice that Coward intended his account of a weekend with the self-involved Bliss family (modeled on Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners) to be quite funny. Unfortunately, there are very few laughs in these three acts (an intermission only after the first), which means that even Felicity Kendal, for whom the role of flamboyant actress Judith Bliss should fit like an opera glove, can’t get the patrons giggling more than once or twice. This well-dressed (by set designer Peter McIntosh) Bliss contingent, intended to be amusing in their family-wide egotism even when they’re relentlessly irritating, are strictly irritating. Who wouldn’t sneak out on them, as their had-enough guests do? It’s an ending, incidentally, that the acclaimed-for-being-inventive Coward — forever doodling about the conventional versus the unconventional — repeated in Private Lives and Present Laughter. Gets you thinking about the great entertainer’s conventional limitations, doesn’t it?

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The Red Lion (National). The pitiable lack of sportsmanship in sports nowadays is Patrick Marber’s woeful concern in this tense three-hander. John Kidd (Daniel Mays), who runs The Red Lion football team (that’s soccer to statesiders) for his unseen owners, and Jim Yates, who sees to the clubhouse (Anthony Ward’s high-ceiling design) are waiting for new player Jordan (Calvin Demba) to arrive so they can test his psychological mettle. He passes the test in the first scene, and, in the second scene, has become such a winner on the field — with help from a substance unknown to Kidd and Yates — that he’s become a commodity and could be of great interest to higher division teams. The drama that eventuates pits Kidd and Yates against each other with their financial designs in getting Jordan to sign or not sign a team contract, thereby giving them a certain control. That their machinations are also a metaphor for current societal stresses is implied, but the immediate conflicts and confrontations, under Ian Rickson’s muscular direction (Terry King is the fight director) is the unflagging come-on. Let’s hope Marber’s powerful work isn’t considered “too English” not to be imported.

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N.B.: In my previous column, I reviewed both Everyman and The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National. The former will be screened in high-def starting July 3 and the latter starting Sept. 3. Check listings for exact dates.

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