Theater (Theatre) in London (Londinium): A Review (Revue)
|April 4, 2018||Posted by Jess under Musicals|
As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Instagram already knows, I recently spent a week in London! It was grand. I’d used the fact that a friend had an extra Hamilton ticket as an excuse to take the trip, but I wound up seeing more theater than I expected. Four shows in a week, you guys! It’s like I’m 20 and addicted to student rush tickets again!
When I got home, I was like, “Man, I wish I had a better forum than Twitter to talk about these shows!” And then I was like, “Oh yeah…I have a blog.”
Anyway, the shows!
At the risk of sounding like a total jag, this was my fourth time seeing Hamilton – I’ve already seen it three times in New York. (And no, before you ask, I am not a millionaire or a VIP. You just need to pay attention to when blocks of tickets go on sale and be prepared to buy them as much as six months out. It also helped that I saw it – and immediately bought another set of tickets – before the soundtrack1 came out and the show blew up.) It’s nearly identical in London, albeit in what felt like a slightly smaller theater but actually seats about 200 more people. I got a lot of questions about accents, and yes, everyone except King George uses an American accent (although they do slip up occasionally). The emotional responses mostly come in the same places, although the cheers at “Immigrants: we get the job done” weren’t as loud (in New York the actors have to pause for the audience reaction to play out) and no one laughed at “He seems approachable, like you could get a beer with him.” I guess Bush jokes don’t play in England in 2018. Also, three lines have been changed: “Weehawken, dawn” is changed to “Jersey, dawn”; “Well, I propose the Potomac” is changed to “Well, invite him over”; and “John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway” is changed to “Vice president’s not a real job anyway.” All pretty understandable replacements, I think.
The cast was marvelous, which is pretty much to be expected. I was particularly wowed by Christine Allado as Peggy/Maria and Tarinn Callender as Mulligan/Madison – I find that actors in those roles tend to have stunning voices but be overlooked in favor of flashier characters, and these two were no exception. Rachel John’s Angelica was all fire and power, and Giles Terera’s Burr was…the best way I can describe him is almost Urkel-ish? Which sounds like an insult, but really, there was this sort of weaponized nerdiness to his performance that was really interesting. And Jamael Westman was eight feet of adorableness as Hamilton, my goodness, those dimples.2
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
I looked at the Globe’s website before we left to see what would be playing, and it was all educational programs and non-Shakespeare puppet shows, so we figured we’d walk by the building on one of our sightseeing jaunts and that would be that. But when we got there, there were ads everywhere for Much Ado, which is my favorite Shakespeare because I’m a romcom girl at heart. It turned out that the “educational program” or whatever they called it was a shortened but otherwise unedited Much Ado for kids. Only school groups could attend during the week, but tickets were available to the general public on weekends, and it was Friday, and they had two tickets left for the groundling area the next day…
Of course, it wound up snowing (lightly, but still) the entire day, and the groundling area is uncovered, so we watched the play in the snow, and it was so cold we bought fish stew at the theater’s cafe to keep warm, much to the dismay of everyone around us. (Sorry, everyone.) But hey, it was atmospheric!
Since it was a shortened kids’ version, it was a pretty straightforward production. The cast was trimmed down to 10, with Dogberry and the friar played by the same woman, Don John (well, Donna Joan) and Margaret playing additional bit parts, and all the other householders and minions written out. Don John was, as I mentioned, played by a woman and called “Donna Joan,” which I think has the potential to be fascinating, given that the character basically weaponizes misogyny against Hero as their main evil plot. What does it do to the play to have a woman behind Hero’s public shaming? (And in this case, also behind the plan to pretend she’s dead to redeem her reputation.) How does it affect the play’s general dichotomy between cruel and capricious men and faithful, suffering women? (Even Benedick was capricious at least once, as Beatrice tells us.) But because it was such a simple production that took care not to linger in the uncomfy bits,3 they didn’t really do anything with Donna Joan’s changed gender. She performed the “no man” speech very intensely, which was really, really interesting (“I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure…” etc.) but then they just sort of dropped it.
On the other hand, all the soldiers dressed as superheroes for the masquerade ball and there was a big choreographed dance number, so it was basically all I’ve ever wanted in any theater ever.
This is the Agatha Christie play that’s been running since 1952, making it the longest-running play in history. I got on a Christie kick last year and read…well, everything, so I figured as long as I was in London I might as well see this!
It was…fine? It was charming to see theater basically as it would have been in the 50s, and it’s a pretty good mystery (I’d already read the later-published short story adaptation, “Three Blind Mice,” but luckily had forgotten the details), but the pacing was a little slow, almost like the cast was uncertain. But it’s an institution, so I’m glad I saw it.
(And perhaps a not-long-for-this-world institution? The theater was like two thirds empty. I’m sure it’s a very cheap production to maintain but at a certain point I’m not sure the longevity will outweigh the narrow margins. Go see it now if you can!)
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
So I somehow managed to grow up a Broadway-loving kid in New York City without ever having seen this one.4 I’m not a big ALW fan, so I’d never really seen the need to rectify this, but I was traveling with my mom, and a British friend of hers wanted to join us for a show and wasn’t interested in The Mousetrap. I had no interest in flying across an ocean to see Broadway behemoths like Wicked or The Lion King, so I suggested Phantom since it’s a UK original and such a West End staple.
I enjoyed it more than I expected to! It really is something you have to see live, with the chandelier and the mist and the silhouetted murder and all the virtuosic singing. I do wish I’d seen it at, say, age 13, when it could really have made an impression on me, Les Mis-style. (Though Les Mis is a stronger show.)
That said, I do have some #notes. First of all: the lyrics are absolutely dreadful. No one ever talks about lyrics but, like…these are bad. Extremely bad. If I’m being generous I’d say that they’re meant to sound like translated Italian or German opera, which always sounds idiotic in English, but Phantom isn’t stylized enough for me to buy that level of commitment. I think they’re just lazy. I mean: “Angel of music, guide and guardian/ Grant to me your glory/ Angel of music, hide no longer/ Secret and strange angel.” What is that? It’s just random words in a jumble. The recitatives are even worse, and after Hamilton I frankly have no patience for lazy recitatives. (Okay, maybe it’s not fair to compare anything to Hamilton, but come on, you could at least try to rhyme occasionally.)
And speaking of commitment…this is kind of a weird thing to say about a show that’s so balls-to-the-wall Extra (™), but I kind of wanted it to be…more so? More stylized, more precise, more about something than just EMOTIONS!!! and HAIR!!! The program5 went on a bit about ALW’s original conception of the show as a satirical pastiche of late 19th century opera, partially inspired by Rocky Horror Picture Show, of all things. Apparently when ALW mentioned this to Rocky Horror director Jim Sharman, Sharman told him to go for a straight romance. Obviously it was good advice considering what a stupendous success Phantom has been, but…I kind of want to see that satire.
Similarly, my ears absolutely perked up when the synth came wailing in on the title song, and I don’t understand why it’s only present on that one song. I’m not enough of a musicologist (…or whatever) to analyze the show closely, but by and large the soundtrack seems to be cut from the same cloth. I would love to see the version where all of the diegetic music (the show-within-a-show stuff) is in a traditional, acoustic Victorian opera style, and everything non-diegetic (or maybe just the Phantom’s songs, to show how ahead of his time and/or what an outsider he is) is synthesized and more rock. Basically I was just looking for that extra level of thoughtfulness and deliberateness, and didn’t find it. But I’m glad I’ve finally seen it!
Bonus: I heartily recommend Lindsey Ellis’ video essay on the Phantom movie, it is hilarious and spot on.
Anyway, those were my London shows! Have you seen any of them? What are your thoughts and feelings? Have I angered any Phans out there? Let me know!
- I know it’s technically Original Broadway Cast Recording, but a) “soundtrack” is more widely understood, and b) I have been snottily corrected on this enough times that I use “soundtrack” out of spite. ↩
- I realize that Hamilton is pretty obviously a show where none of the characters look like their historical antecedents, but it did kind of throw me for a loop that Hamilton was the tallest man on that stage, and Jefferson was the smallest. So much is made in our national myth-making of giant Washington, lanky Jefferson, and tiny Hamilton and Madison (and Mr. Not-Appearing-in-This-Show Adams) – and so much of their personalities attributed to being either enormous or a weensy spitfire – that to see some of those dynamics reversed made me blink in a way I don’t think I successfully explained to my Austrian companion. ↩
- There were lots of kids in the audience, 100% on board with Benedick/Beatrice, but none of them clapped when Hero and Claudio reunited. The kids are all right. ↩
- My class had a field trip to see it when I was in second grade but I wasn’t allowed to go since I’d misbehaved on our previous field trip to the post office and gone for a joy ride on a mail cart. I was an…extremely energetic child. ↩
- Did you know you have to buy the programs in the UK? But they do have a lot more info in them, so I guess I kind of get it. ↩