A LETTER FROM LONDON: Recommended London Theatres; Books Worthy of the Morley Prize

By Ruth Leon
12 Feb 2013

"Mr. Foote's Other Leg"

Books To Consider

It's nearly time again for the annual Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography and I've been on a reading binge of the best of this year's crop of which there are surprisingly many. I haven't read them all yet but two of the best so far are Ian Kelly's "Mr. Foote's Other Leg," about Samuel Foote, largely forgotten now but in his time one of the most famous men in Georgian London, a larger than life one-legged comedy superstar, celebrity impressionist, impresario, playwright and crime writer. I walked around with this book all through the Christmas break, unable to put it down, unwilling to finish it. Ian Kelly has written what is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining books of the year, his lightness of touch disguising the depth and quality of his historical research.

Quite different but equally fascinating is Kate Bassett's biography of the brilliant but troubled Jonathan Miller. Aptly titled "In Two Minds," Miller has ever been unable to make up his mind whether he is a doctor or a theatre and opera director and he has always done both, at each juncture feeling himself in the wrong pigeonhole. One of the original Beyond the Fringe team, Miller went into showbusiness by the accident of Beyond the Fringe's Broadway success but Bassett show how this constant shifting of focus between medicine and opera has informed a life lived at the top of the intellectual community.



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Ivy and Joan By James Hogan, and Julian Slade's Musical Salad Days

There's a tiny new theatre in town, well, hardly a theatre at all, really, but The Balcony at The Print Room in an unlikely part of London, Notting Hill (yes, that Notting Hill), has just opened with two plays by James Hogan. Hogan is better known as a publisher of theatre books than as a playwright but these two short plays, Ivy and Joan, are heart-breakingly poignant sketches of disappointment and make me anxious to see more of the playwright.

Lynne Miller
photo by Nobby Clark

Lynne Miller plays both these two contrasting women with such intelligence and depth that one's heart aches for them. Ivy, a Northern barmaid with no charm and no prospects, has just been sacked after 40 years, in favor of an 18-year old who keeps the top button of her blouse undone. As she waits for the bus which will take her to a faraway town, she rambles to an irritated colleague about her life, often unwittingly funny, often spiteful, often self-righteous, always without self-awareness, until Hogan's skill and Miller's craft slowly bring this unattractive personality into focus as a woman worthy of our sympathy who has lived a lifetime without finding out who she is. The other play, Joan, is about a middle-class woman who yearns for attention from a husband unable to give it to her. Her longing for an outward manifestation of her inner world has actually driven her mad and this clear-eyed portrait of the process of madness is almost unbearably sad.

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Sadness is the last emotion you could associate with the adorable production of Julian Slade's classic '50s musical Salad Days, in glorious revival at Riverside Studios. An enchanting romp through young love with the aid of a magic piano, it is performed by a little opera company, Téte â Téte, who enter into the spirit of innocence and simplicity of the original. The difference between this and other recent revivals is the quality of the singing which is superb.

As the big-screen version of Les Misérables hits these shores and wins Oscars and Golden Globes and Baftas, it's worth mentioning that, without Salad Days, there would be no Les Miz. At the age of eight, as a birthday treat, a little Scottish boy was taken to see the show. So delighted was he with a magic piano that appeared to play itself that he ran down the aisle of the theatre to see how it worked. As luck would have it, the composer Julian Slade was playing the piano in the pit that afternoon and offered to demonstrate the piano for the child and then took him on a backstage tour.

That little boy grew up to be Sir Cameron Mackintosh, perhaps the most successful producer of musicals in the history of the theatre and the man who believed in, and gave birth to, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Mary Poppins. Oh, and Les Misérables.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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