A LETTER FROM LONDON: Howard Davies, Mark Gatiss, Adrian Lester, Ken Stott and Anna Friel Enliven the London Stage

By Ruth Leon
November 28, 2012

This month's report from England looks at productions of Uncle Vanya, Berenice, 55 Days at Hampstead, Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, and explores how cabaret blooms at night in London.



*

Cabaret is glamorous. No, not Cabaret, the Kander & Ebb musical which actually refers to kabaret, a completely different kind of entertainment — political, often incendiary songs and sketches in Berlin between the Wars — but cabaret, grown-up songs sung by grown-up singers in beautiful gowns (that's the women) and tuxedos (that's the men) alone in a spotlight in dark, intimate spaces in the best part of town. In New York we used to have the Oak Room at the Algonquin, the epitome of sophisticated cabarets, where the likes of Karen Akers, Steve Ross, and KT Sullivan held sway, singing the songs of the likes of Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin and, yes, Kander & Ebb, as you'd never heard them before. Now, alas, someone has decided that what New York really needed was not a legendary cabaret room, but another bar. So it's closed — as will be another of the great cabarets, Feinstein's at the Regency. Although there are still a few places for the great cabaret performers to play — 54 Below has opened on West 54th Street — they don't have the historic cachet of the Oak Room.

Nor the glamour, which brings me back to my original point. All is not lost — in fact, for those willing to travel a little further afield for their Irving Berlin and George Gershwin fix, cabaret flourishes. In London. The great American entertainers — Akers, Ross, and Sullivan, among many others — are crossing the Atlantic to appear at a brand new cabaret room redolent of the great days of glamour. The Crazy Coqs is an Art Deco gem right on Piccadilly Circus. It looks like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, only in color — bold designs, red velvet, shiny black floor. And oh, so glamorous and exclusive.

I should at this point break off and admit that I'm not entirely unconnected to this gorgeous place. In fact, I've been asked to corral all the great American singers who no longer have a luxury home on 44th Street. It's the best job I've ever had, the chance to bring the best of American cabaret to London, reigniting the flames of Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward.

And the Crazy Coqs is not alone. London is becoming the new center of cabaret, with nightspots popping up all over the place. One with real history is the Matcham Room. Older cabaret lovers will remember it as The Talk of the Town, London home of Judy Garland and other luminaries. Now it's part of the Hippodrome, a gambling casino right on Leicester Square in the middle of theatreland. Bigger than the Crazy Coqs, with 180 seats, it can house larger bands on its generous stage; I recently saw a wonderful show there featuring Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, and several other singers, all performing his music from The Light in the Piazza and Floyd Collins.

Deep in the bowels of London's newest theatre, the St. James, is a beautiful studio space that reserves its weekends for cabaret now. That fine actor Anne Reid, much beloved here, does a charming evening of song and reminiscences while that wicked duo, Kit and McConnel, entertain with songs and parodies.

Even the Savoy Hotel, which in times past used to be famous for its elegant cabarets and then stopped, is getting into the act with a monthly surprise for its guests, and, at the other end of the elegance scale, the Pheasantry on the King's Road has a dizzying variety of acts, a different one each night, which it serves up with pizza.

The lure of cabaret's simplicity — a world created by one singer alone in a spotlight with a piano and an audience — is great and it's fun to see London emerging at its center.

Adrian Lester in Red Velvet.
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Elsewhere on the Rialto, there's great excitement over Lolita Chakrabarti's new play Red Velvet at the Tricycle. The excitement, admittedly, was initially largely because her husband, Adrian Lester, temporarily back in London and back on-stage from his successful Hollywood career in film and television, is the star. As Ira Aldridge, a black American actor called upon to replace an ailing Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his age in his greatest role, Othello, Lester is pitch-perfect, both as the upstart young Ira or the embittered old Ira, moving beautifully across a stage designed to frame his performance.

Red Velvet, set in 1833, and based on a true story, tells its tale of racism and prejudice simply and well, with Ira's arrogance and supercilious belief in his own talent and the lack of it in others, not endearing him to his fellow actors who include Edmund Kean's son who, until Ira's arrival, intended to take over the role in his father's absence. Aldridge was blowing the wind of change into a London theatre that wasn't nearly ready for it. Today, when it would be unthinkable for a white actor to play Othello, it is worth remembering that there was a time when it was unthinkable for a black actor to play any leading role, especially that of a black man. If Red Velvet doesn't soon make it to the West End and thence to Broadway, I'll be amazed.

It is, in fact, amazing how much classic, or at least, period drama there is around London. Racine's Berenice, that somewhat moth-eaten icon of the French theatrical tradition is at the Donmar Warehouse in another attempt to tell about a man who no longer wants his longtime mistress, a personal tragedy compounded by the fact that she's a Queen of one country (Egypt) and he's the emperor of another (Rome). The truth is, Racine is a terrible bore. Composed, like all his plays, of long soliloquies, Berenice has torrents of words, saying very little except, "Don't leave me," and "I don't want to, but I must." The formalization of the classical form, highlighting the emotional extremes, is actually close to ridiculous despite a delicate performance from Ann-Marie Duff. I found myself thinking of that old Sophie Tucker vaudeville song, "If kisses won't hold the man you love," I mused, "then your tears won't bring him back." If that's what I was thinking in the midst of tragedy, it isn't nearly tragic enough.

There's a perfectly serviceable Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville starring Ken Stott and Anna Friel. If Lindsay Posner's production didn't make me rethink my understanding of this great play, at least it is clear, and if you've never seen Chekhov's masterpiece, this is a good place to start.

In Howard Davies' modern dress production of Howard Brenton's 55 Days at Hampstead, a play about the last days of the late, unlamented King Charles I before he was beheaded, only Charles I, played by the comic actor Mark Gatiss, wears the velvet suit and lace collar of his 17th-century period. I never worked out why. This is actually a fascinating story of a King who believed that, since God had anointed him, he could not be judged by any mortal, and his nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, who knew he alone heard the voice of God. A great many men in suits stand around on the stage disputing how to bring down the King — indistinguishable, no matter what their faction.

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

Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.