When Will Shakespeare penned these lines for Jacques in As You Like It, he was giving his character a chance to meditate on the human condition, but he was also taking his metaphor for the seven ages of man from the thriving theatrical scene that was Elizabethan London. For centuries London has stood at the epicenter of world theatre, and though rivaled by Broadway today, the West End still remains arguably the heart and soul of the English-speaking stage.
Each year I make a “pilgrimage” to the West End to take in a selection of plays and musicals and to relish the ever so passionate and civilized experience that London theatre-going offers. This year’s five productions yielded the usual breadth of style and themes and offered up three especially stunning experiences.
Perhaps the most memorable is the British production of Come From Away playing at the Phoenix Theatre. While it is no surprise that this musical theatre gem should be every bit as moving in London as it has been in New York and in countless world tours, it is still a powerful experience to be swept up by this uplifting story about human goodness in the face of the 9/11 tragedy. Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s tightly written ensemble piece chronicles the aftermath of the terrorist attacks as experienced by travelers grounded on airplanes at Newfoundland’s Gander Airport. The musical in which a small ensemble of twelve actors who play multiple roles, switching seamlessly from character to character with a slight change of accessory, recounts the response of the Newfoundlanders to the influx of 7,000 people into their tiny community and how in these days of devastation, they demonstrated
the best of humanity in their care of and service to the stranded passengers.
Directed by Christopher Ashley with musical staging by Kelly Devine, the taut, ninety-minute drama moves with a quiet, yet uplifting spirit, delving into the emotional experiences of those stranded and those ministering to their needs. While the tragedy lurks off stage, its unseen spectre becomes all the more haunting, surfacing in a few poignant moments such as Hannah’s ultimate discovery that her firefighter son has perished. The focus is on unspeakable loss – of loved ones, of dreams, of career aspirations and expectations, of a world that will no longer be the same – and at the same time it is about love, compassion, and bonds forged in this crucible of pain. Anthems such as “Welcome to the Rock,” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere” have a rousing power, while the pilot Beverly’s “Me and the Sky” or Hannah’s “I Am
Here” deliver a searing poignancy.
The British cast headlined by Jenna Boyd as Beulah, Helen Hobson as Diane, Rachel Tucker as Beverly, Cat Simmons as Hannah, and Robert Hands as Nick all offer strong performances, while the fluid scenic design by Beowulf Boritt with lighting by Howell Binkley and simple costumes by Toni-Leslie James all add to the eloquence of the work and demonstrate its staying power. This little musical that began with such humble ambitions in 2012 has taken the theatre world by storm and rightly so. It is a work of unvarnished truth and sensibility and a tribute to the best human nature can offer.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, written by Dan Gillespie and Tom Macrae, is based on a true story of a gay boy from a small mining town in County Durham, Jamie Campbell – Jamie New in the musical - who yearns to become a drag queen. The original book by Jonathan Butterell has been skillfully transformed into a musical that empathetically tells Jamie’s story, tracing his suffering at the hands of an abusive father and school bullies, his feelings of abandonment and yet his determination to become who he believes he truly is. It is a tale of hurt and cruelty, but more so, it is a tale of friendship and love with characters such as Jamie’s supportive mother and her friend, Ray, and school chum Pritti Pasha. The score is upbeat with several sassy production numbers such as Hugo’s “The Legend of Coco Chanelle,” but
it is the heartfelt ballads which resonate the most, especially the mother’s “If I Met Myself Again” and “He’s My Boy,” sung with lovely intensity by Melissa Jacques. The performance I saw featured an understudy as Jamie, though on most nights Layton Williams is said to rock the Apollo Theatre with his performance of the title role.
Directed briskly by Jonathan Butterell with lively choreography by Kate Prince, the production uses a simple modular set by Anna Fleischle with cubes and benches moved by the cast and video by Luke Halls. The original costumes by Jackie Orton capture the banal existence of the Northern mining town and then go for the garishly outrageous in the drag sequences. While this is not a new story – there are hints of Billy Elliott and The Prom – it is one that is told with an affecting simplicity and honesty that strikes the viewer to the core.
The third production that is creating a sensation on the West End and is scheduled to come to Broadway is Six, a bold seventy- five--minute rock concert about the six wives of Henry VIII. With music and lyrics by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, this brash, loud, yet strangely moving musical layers one pulsing rock soliloquy on top of another, interspersed with stirring ensemble pieces. The conceit is that the six wives, all “divorced, beheaded, died,” as the first song declares, are vying to win a competition for audience sympathy, but as the narrative progresses they come to understand that they have more in common as women than they do reason to be competitive. And moreover, they arrive at the very modern realization that they do not wish to be remembered as Henry’s wives, but rather each an individual in her own right.
Nominated for five Olivier awards, the musical has an arresting originality. Jamie Armitage’s fast-paced direction and Carrie Anne Ingrouille’s wild choreography keep the audience at the edge of its seats. The scenic design by Emma Bailey, with lights by Tim Deiling, and throbbingly electric sound by Paul Gatehouse all contribute to the aura of a rock concert. Gabriella Slade’s costumes - punk hairstyles, bold geometrically patterned and brightly colored futuristic dresses – push the aesthetic into the realm of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And the audience response confirms this! Since the show opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 before moving to the West End, it has acquired a cult following. Young women in the audience come dressed as their favorite characters, and the screams and squeals from the audience underscore much or what was going on onstage.
The cast was driven by a wired intensity, all possessed of powerful voices and the ability to delineate different characters. Jarnela Richard-Noel was an affecting Catherine of Aragon; Millie O’Connell as Anne Boleyn has a show stopping number in “Don’t Lose Your Head,” while Natalie Paris as Jane Seymour gets to sing the sentimental ballad, “Heart of Stone.” Alexia McIntosh shines as Anne of Cleves in “Get Down,” and Ainie Atkinson delivers a strong “All You Wanna Do” as Katharine Howard. But the finest moment comes from Maiya Quansah-Breed as the sole surviving wife, Catherine Parr, who delivers the transformative song, “I Don’t Need Your Love” with feline intensity. The six women also combine vocal resources for the big production numbers like “Hans of Holbein” and “Six” finishing with a mega mash
that leaves the audience on kts feet cheering breathlessly.
There are already plans for a triumphant transfer of Six to Broadway, and one can imagine the same cult devotion will follow it to the Great White Way. It is clever, inventive, irresistibly visceral, and it speaks to the current generation with a message of strength and sisterhood.
The remaining two shows which I saw did not measure up to the innovativeness of the aforementioned three. A re-write of the 1996 JohnWeidman/David Shire/Richard Maltby musical Big, based on the movie of the same title, proved lackluster. The story of a boy who wishes himself to be big and then finds himself in a man’s body somehow never strikes the comic note which the movie starring Tom Hanks found. Morgan Young’s direction and choreography is serviceable without ever being rousing. The score seems dated; the current West End lead, Jay McGuiness, with a resume in boybands and television, does not convince, and despite the elaborate visuals – sets and costumes by Simon Higlett, lighting by Tim Lutkin, and video by Ian William Galloway – the musical never seems to take emotional root.
The same can be said of Groan Ups, the straight comedy written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – the team responsible for The Play That Goes Wrong. The eleven-person comedy troupe applies their distinctly broad, unsubtle style of humor to a story about a group of school mates who grow up together, go their separate ways, and reconnect at a reunion years later. While the narrative takes aim at some serious topics like bullying, the search for gender identity, the quest for social acceptance, and while there are moments which do grab our sympathy, the entire tone is far too obvious, the humor too belabored, and the structure in need of tightening. That said, the set design by Fly Davis which allows the actors – who are adults throughout – to appear to be children and adolescents by changing the scale of the
furniture and props is most clever and complemented by similar changes in costuming designed by Roberto Surace. The cast benefits from being a regular ensemble with some especially good acting by Henry Lewis as the awkward Spencer.
Quibbles with these last two productions aside, I still enjoy the opportunity to experience what the Brits have to offer onstage. There is a richness in the West End theatre landscape, a spirit of adventure among the producers, a loyalty in the audiences who make theatre-going a regular pastime. It is all this, together with the shows that really do soar like Come from Away, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Six, that continue to make London the theatrical hub it is.