December 2023

Gandhi, Agatha Christie, and Musicals Re-Imagined:
Another Sojourn in London's West End

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

This year's visit to London was enriched by seven plays spanning a wide range of genres from classic chestnuts like Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution to the gripping new play about Indian independence, The Father and the Assassin, and then on to five American musicals – some new, some old, some considerably re- imagined.  Variety of material and versatility of performance and production styles marked the experiences, and while some of what we saw, seemed to misfire, several evenings proved truly memorable.

Our theatregoing began with the long-running (seven years) Witness for the Prosecution staged by Lucy Bailey in The Chamber at London County Hall, an actual courtroom on the South Bank. The dramatic venue is, in itself, one of the major factors that insures the production's spellbinding impact.  Entering by several imposing staircases, we finally make our way into the horseshoe-shaped, dark wood-paneled interior, where tiered seating encircles the thrust stage and the audience sits on wooden benches with small desk-like shelves in front of them that suggest they are part of the official proceedings.  A small section of the audience sits in chairs reserved for the jury and eventually take part in the play itself.  William Dudley's spare and arresting set, lit in stark contrasts by Chris Davey, is dominated by the judicial bench above which hangs ominously the figure of Lady Justice with her scales. Actors use all the entrances in the circumference of the hall, making the audience feel surrounded and immersed in the proceedings.

Christie's play, like all her mysteries, is brilliantly crafted, offering hair -raising twists and turns that keep the viewer on the edge of his seat, and keep the final outcome uncertain until the very last moment.  The cast sustains this mysterious manipulation of the audience, playing characters whose motives and true nature are mostly inscrutable. In an absolutely stunning performance of the chameleon leading character, Leonard Vole, Benjamin Westerby holds his audience in the palm of his hand – first convincing them of his naiveté and innocence and later dashing that faith.  As his wife, Romaine Vole, Katie Bucholz gives an equally nuanced and compelling performance of a woman with many masks.  Stephen Hogan and Paul Ansdell as Leonard Vole's legal defense offer strong performances, as does the rest of the cast, some playing multiple roles.  Despite the fact that Christie's play's is more than seventy-five years old, it still resonates with audiences, as it deeply probes the dark and complicated recesses of the human psyche.

The Father and the Assassin, a new work that opened in September 2023 at the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre – a huge open, indoor amphitheatre. Anupama Chandrasekhar's epic account of India's long march to independence, Gandhi's nonviolent leadership, the bloody events surrounding partition, and Gandhi's assassination is told in sweeping, episodic fashion, periodically pausing to focus on some of the story's central figures.  Some of Chandrasekar's best writing comes in the second act where she finally zeroes in on the fraught relationship between Gandhi and his ultimate killer, Naturam Godse.  The final scenes with their piercing dialogue are compelling and raise chilling moral issues.  Much of the difficulty with the script is its ambitiousness and its attempt to cover so much ground within the confines of a single evening. Director Indhu Rubasingham opts for a staging that is part scene work, part modern dance movement (Lucy Cullingford, Movement Director), and she finds some truly heart-stopping  moments like the Salt March in the narrative.  Set Designer Rajha Shakiry's creates a stunningly bare stage dominated by a symbolic web of unbleached, handspun muslin. Composer Siddhartha Kosta (additional music David Schrubsole) serves to transport the audience India and facilitate the flow of the action. The cast is uniformly excellent with convincing performances by Paul Bazeley as Gandhi, Marc Elliott as Nehru, Aysha Kala as Vimala, and a tour de force as the assassin, Godse, by Hiran Abeysekera. 

For visitors, part of the impact of The Father and the Assassin comes from the breathtaking majesty of the Olivier stage, which despite its 1127 seats, still feels intimate because of the incredible sightlines and by the resources the National Theatre has at its command – from a huge roster of creatives to an impressive, mostly Indian, cast to millions in annual government subsidies - to tell a story as complex and epic as this one.  The sheer boldness of the endeavor, especially for those of us raised in American theatre culture, is quite simply mind -blowing!

The third evening took us again to London's trendy, bustling South Bank to the Bridge Theatre at the South Bank Centre to see Nicholas Hytner's stunningly staged Guys and Dolls.  This completely immersive production makes use of wrap-around seating (in-the-round staging), a series of central platforms for the actors raised and lowered on elevators , and a large open space around where standees become part of the action, filling the "streets of Broadway and cantinas of Havana."  Hytner's direction not only cleverly serves every corner of this house, but he uses the technological elements as part of the choreography, the platforms rising, falling, and merging in dancer-like precision. If the actual dancing is sometimes limited by the space, choreographers Arlene Philips and James Cousins employ creative illusion to make the space seem bigger.  And, indeed, the reduced space actually gives an air of verisimilitude to the New York scenes.  If there is one caveat to Hytner's direction, it is that Hytner seems to miss some of the humor in Guys and Dolls.  The musical's Damon Runyan characters should have a tiny bit of caricature to them – especially in the exaggerated New Yawk accents – not really captured by the British cast - and while the two couples do experience conflict and romance, their stories are meant to pulsate with humor, too.  The audience should be in on the joke of "Adelaide's Lament," while in Hynter's direction, Marisha Wallace sings her broken heart out quite seriously.

Nonetheless, if one is willing to accept this change of tone, there is so much to treasure.  Wallace has a stunning voice and a-larger-than-life personality to play the Hot Box leading lady. Daniel Mays is a sweetly sincere Nathan Detroit; George Ioannides' Sky Masterson a street savvy con man, who acts the musicals best ballads rather than signing them in soaring legit fashion. Celinde Schoenmaker is a strong-willed and more independent Sarah Brown than many, while Cedric Neal brings down the house – several times - as Nicely Nicely Johnson. 

The Frank Loesser score continues to amaze – one hit song after another – and the technical team who coordinates all the moving parts of the show with flawless precision is sublime!  And last, but not least, a word of praise for the large audience of "groundlings" as Shakespeare would have called them.  Not only did they willingly stand for three hours and pay more for the privilege of being close to the action and sometimes a part of it, but they were models of good theatre behavior, following the stage operatives' instructions implicitly and insuring that they in no way impeded the actors or the technicians. Moreover, from all appearances, they were a largely youthful audience – something which American theatres would give anything for!

If Hytner's Guys and Dolls was the height of our musical experience on this trip, Old Friends, the Sondheim revue starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, proved sadly to be a disappointment.  Billed as "A Great Big Broadway Show," it seemed, instead, a pedestrian vehicle for two aging stars supported by a mostly mediocre ensemble. True, there were Sondheim's glorious songs – some forty-two of them, but these seemed strangely diminished with the small (by Broadway standards) fifteen-piece orchestra.  The staging of the all-singing/dancing revue by Matthew Bourne with choreography by Stephen Mear was banal at
best, making some curious choices such as beginning with black formal wear and slowly transitioned into basic costuming.  Salonga's voice is in good health, and she took on some of the more dramatic numbers from Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, for example, but her interpretations seemed superficial.  Seventy-five-year-old Bernadette Peters, on the other hand, made the most of her interpretive skills, but her stage presence and still elegant looks could not compensate for a voice no longer able to meet the demands of the music.  The seventeen-person ensemble rarely impressed, though Jeremy Secomb and Gavin Lee did make some noteworthy contributions.  Cameron Macintosh intends to bring Old Friends to Broadway, and with the Great White Way's love for Sondheim and fond regard for Peters and Salonga, it will be interesting to see how the show fares.

Jamie Lloyd's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard is making headlines at the Savoy Theatre for its radical re-imagining of the musical's concept and casting.  Conceived as a vehicle for Nicole Scherzinger, former Pussycat Doll, Grammy-winning singer, and transplanted from the grandeur of Hollywood's Golden Age to the black and white shadowy realm of New Wave Cinema, Lloyd Webber's production features actors in modern black garb and a live camera crew filming all the stage action and sharing it in real time with the audience by onstage screens – a choice that was disturbingly distracting.   Focusing on the darkest aspects of the musical, Lloyd gives us a story about violent impulses and destructive drives.  And while the results may have some dramatic impact in and of themselves, the concept has little to do with the world of Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.  Norma Desmond, Joe Gillis, and the others belong to the glittering, lush era of Hollywood's grandeur.  To transport them to a grim post-modern world immediately destroys the context.  Scherzinger, as Norma, sings with intensity, but she does not project any of the character's troubled psychology; she generates little empathy, and she simply does not convince that she was once a star of Desmond's magnitude.  Tom Francis, as Joe Gillis, also sings well, though his big number, "Sunset Boulevard" lacks the bitter, tortured intensity it should have, and his overall characterization is one -dimensional.  As Max, David Thaxton is deprived some of his best moments by alterations to the script, while Grace Hodgett Young does her best to convey Betty Schaeffer's sincerity.   

What Jamie Lloyd has inflicted on Sunset Boulevard is akin to what Régie-theater has done to opera for the past half century.  Often the concept is bold, provoking, perhaps even fascinating, but its relevance to the essence of the drama- and the music – is not always valid.  This production is not about a handful of flawed, but deeply human characters caught in a complex psychological web played out against a changing world; rather it has become a cinema verité version of a murder in cold blood.

In contrast, the production of Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay's new musical, Rebecca, based on Daphne DuMaurier's novel, offered a low-tech, completely conventional production.  Produced at the tiny Players Theatre on Villiers Street near Charing Cross, the simplicity of the production forced the audience to focus on the work itself and on the musical and dramatic values. Alas, despite the high potential of Du Maurier's work to furnish an intensely dramatic theatrical experience, this musical version of Rebecca falls short.  Michael Kunze's book, translated from the German by the redoubtable Christopher Hampton, has trouble effectively condensing the intricate novel into some coherent narrative.  The events of the first act happen too quickly and without much believable motivation, and the slow simmering tension that creates the Gothic horror never materializes in the second.  Some of the key characters are curiously altered or deprived of crucial moments: Rebecca's cousin Favell's material is too vaudevillian to make him a serious villain; Ben never actually discovers the lovers together, and I's entrance in Rebecca's ball gown has no impact at all.  Alejandro Bonatto's direction does not mine the chilling menace of Mrs Danvers, or creatively solve the problem of a small ensemble, while Ron Howell's choreography is sophomoric.  The two central roles of I and Maxim de Winter do have some interesting musical exchanges but need more gifted singers than Lauren Jones and Richard Carson.  While the material should be a goldmine for musical writers, this current iteration of the iconic book (and movie) is simply lackluster.

The final theatre evening, however, made up for the inadequacies of the previous two.  The Chichester Festival production of the Gershwins' Crazy for You at the Gillian Lynn Theatre, starring Charlie Stemp, is an old-fashioned singing-dancing extravaganza that serves up a hearty dose of feel-good joy.  Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, this production pulsates with energy and fun, makes light of the goofy plot, and focuses on the sheer thrill of the magnificent score and the exuberant dance numbers.  The glitzy visual production with décor by Beowulf Boritt and lavish costumes by William Ivey Long does its best to dazzle.  Charlie Stemp makes an endearing Bobby Child, and he commands the stage with his virtuosic dancing. Cary Anderson is a charming Polly Baxter and her chemistry with Stemp and their vocal blend is appealing. Tom Edden is an amusing Bela Zangler, just campy enough. The ensemble dances and sings with great flair.  Most of all, the score - the compendium of inimitable Gershwin hits one after the other - leaves the audience breathless.  Crazy for You, however dated and predictable its plot may seem, exudes an irresistible and timeless charm.

London theatregoing is always filled with surprises, and if this year's selections were something of a mixed bag, there was still that sense of exploration and discovery.  And when the list of discoveries included such memorable performances as Witness for the Prosecution, Crazy for You, and Guys and Dolls, the rewards were to be treasured.


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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2023 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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