Seen in London:


In London for the PLASA trade show, your Entertainment Design/Lighting Dimensions staff prowled the West End, looking for the latest hits. At the Haymarket Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company revival of Antony and Cleopatra is a solid hit, sparked by Sinead Cusack’s ruthlessly honest portrayal of Cleopatra and Stuart Wilson’s interesting take on Antony. These lovers are bound together by a mixture of pride, rage, and lust; you totally believe that their affair could ignite a war that engulfs the Roman Empire. Michael Attenborough’s direction eliminates one major character (Pompey) but provides a strong dramatic line; the staging is bloody, remorseless, gripping. It’s a study in the violent transfer of power—the story of a regime change, if you will—and it couldn’t be more pertinent at this time. Es Devlin’s setting provides a map of the Mediterranean world, allowing us to see exactly what’s at stake as Romans and Egyptians scramble for leverage against each other; his costumes, including sheer dresses for the Egyptian court ladies and martial robes for the Romans, are consistent and apt. John Leonard’s sound design adds to the barbarity of the battle scenes. The real news is Tim Mitchell’s brilliant lighting scheme: Contrasting the Egyptian scenes (a haze of orange light) with those in Rome (blades of metallic white beams), he uses light in the most cinematic way possible, instantly wiping the stage as the action moves from one city to the next. Antony and Cleopatra is strong stuff, but it has a bracing effect.

The West End revival of Somerset Maugham’s 1927 comedy The Constant Wife also carries an invigorating sting. Jenny Seagrove (seen in the US mostly in miniseries) is a revelation as a satisfied wife who is forced to bail her erring husband out of an embarrassing situation. She pulls off the deception in style, then seeks elegant revenge, attaining financial and emotional independence. Seen as trivial in its day, Maugham’s ironies about upper-middle-class marriage now appear sharply feminist. (I wish some of our contemporary playwrights were this unsentimental). Aside from Seagrove, there’s also good work from Steven Pacey as her complacent husband and Moira Lister as her overemotional mother. The direction by Edward Hall, son of noted stager Peter Hall, is especially acute—you can virtually see the title character’s mind at work as she sorts out her destiny. The design, a drawing room with an odd arrangement of mirrors around the center door, and the costumes are by Michael Pavelka. While they don’t offend, they aren’t particularly notable either. Ben Ormerod’s lighting and Simon Whitehorn’s sound are both professional and not very exciting. The play is the thing here, that and Seagrove’s brilliantly incisive performance.

We also saw the musicals Bombay Dreams and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, both of which Ellen Lampert-Gréaux commented on several weeks back. Give Bombay Dreams points for being different. This musical salute to the Bollywood film industry has a number of pluses, including attractive music, a dynamic cast, and stunning lighting design. On the other hand, there’s that ridiculous book, banal lyrics, and listlessly staged book scenes. The exciting choreography helps If you don’t leave the theatre humming the take-home tune, "Shakalaka Baby," then you’ve probably been sleeping….I couldn’t stand the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 30 years ago, and I don’t really care for the current stage version either, although it is certainly done with verve. Anthony Ward’s scenery and costumes are something to see, especially when the car takes off. But this is a quintessentially British show, with a twee storyline, unmemorable score, and large injections of wild camp humor to keep the adults awake. Like they said in Entertainment Design, the car’s the star.
--David Barbour

Heard at PLASA:
The London theatre scene is churning along. The next big musical to arrive will be Our House, a new book show worked around songs by the group Madness, opening in October. Madness was much bigger in England than here, so we’ll see how it goes. Rob Howell is designing sets and costumes. Will it be another Mamma Mia?….Hopes are high for the new revival of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal National, starring Glenn Close and Iain Glen (best-known here for nude cavortings with Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room). I hear that the combination of Glenn and Glen will be pretty steamy. Bunny Christie designs, with lighting by Paul PyantAnything Goes returns to the Royal National in December, in a new production designed by John Gunter, Anthony Powell, and David Hersey. No word yet on who’s playing Reno Sweeney…Other notable fall productions include Mrs. Warren’s Profession, starring Brenda Blethyn (designed by John Gunter and Peter Mumford);, the London engagement of Elaine Stritch: At Liberty; The Talking Cure (starring Ralph Fiennes as Carl Jung, designed by Tim Hatley and Peter Mumford) and The Vortex, Noel Coward’s 1927 play about drug addiction and psychological incest (designers to be announced)….
--DB