Theatre beyond the bubble

30 October 2007

Cambridge can get dull around mid-term, but there are always trains to London! We get the low-down on West-End action from Ian Shuttleworth, theatre critic for The Financial Times…

I was introduced to London theatre on weekend trips down as an undergrad with the woman who later did me the honour of becoming my ex-wife. Mostly we took pot luck at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square, which is still a useful approach. But if it’s specific experiences you’re after…

Well, as regards the single hottest ticket in town, you’re probably out of luck. The Masque Of The Red Death at BAC is sold out for the entire duration of its run until mid-January. It’s just possible that extra performances may be arranged of Punchdrunk’s site-specific production, in which the masked audience wander where they will through the entirety of the former Battersea Town Hall, encountering bits and bobs of various Edgar Allan Poe stories in various chambers, all dressed in phenomenal detail. And tickets are still available for the club nights(!) which follow performances on Fridays and Saturdays. Period evening dress optional, but don’t bring your own cask of amontillado.

Amongst the cognoscenti the Punchdrunk show has pretty much managed to eclipse even the current West End sensation. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dearth, or even death, of straight plays (and in particular newly written ones) in the West End, but the biggest draw at the moment is Macbeth at the Gielgud. They may come to see the former captain of the starship Enterprise, Patrick Stewart, in the title role, but they stay to marvel at his performance. Rupert Goold’s production (first seen at Chichester this past summer) has been called as definitive as the Trevor Nunn/Ian McKellen/Judi Dench RSC version 30-odd years ago; I have my reservations, but Goold’s a Cantab alumnus, so what the hell.

The cream at other major venues includes the National Theatre’s latest Christmas spectacle. They’ve followed up their remarkable adaptations of His Dark Materials and Coram Boy with Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. The former children’s laureate’s novel recounts WW1 from an equine point of view, which isn’t really doable onstage. Instead, they’ve worked with the Handspring company to create what are not so much puppets as life-size horse-shaped machines to interact with the human cast. The International Herald Tribune’s critic has sniffed that this is just another example of Brits’ sentimentality about animals, but then most of the tale is set before the Americans entered the war…

An adaptation of a comic-strip about a City broker may not sound any great shakes, but the stage version of Alex at the Arts is worth a look for its presentation. Only the title character appears onstage, played by Robert Bathurst who last year was so wonderful in Whipping It Up; everybody else appears on animated projections, voiced by Bathurst, with which his fleshly self interacts. The show’s helmsman Phelim McDermott is perhaps the most consistently imaginative and adventurous director in Britain at the moment, with a c.v. that includes last year’s ENO production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and the ’90s hit “junk opera” Shockheaded Peter.

Speaking of which, “Shockheaded Peter done by posh girls” was a succinct description I heard in August of Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, also at BAC though Lord knows how they manage to isolate it from the Poe-pourri all around it. It also blends stage action with animation, faux-Expressionist film sequences and live music to tell a collection of gleefully black cautionary tales in which cats get killed nine times, nice gels are struck by lightning, sailors turn into the devil… you know the sort of thing. The 1927 company won every award going on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; they are deeply disturbed people who should be kept under close observation.

And in a converted chocolate factory in Southwark, the Menier, you can see Samuel West’s wonderful revival of Dealer’s Choice by Patrick Marber, whose poker-for-life metaphor is versatile enough to suggest that this play may have a longer shelf-life than Marber’s greatest hit, Closer. You also get to see Roger Lloyd Pack use his legendary poker face literally for once.

I know better than to speculate on the quality of shows yet to open, such as Hairspray – now in preview at the Shaftesbury, but we reviewers don’t get to see Michael Ball in drag until next week. However, it’s worth noting that Paines Plough have a good deal coming up next month at the Shunt Vaults: A Play, A Pie & A Pint for a tenner, with a week each for four plays including work by David Greig and Rona Munro. And artistic director Roxana Silbert once directed me in Loot at the ADC. Ah, how well I remember (cont. p94)

Ian Shuttleworth is senior theatre critic of the Financial Times, and editor and publisher of Theatre Record magazine.