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Shows across the Pond
London theater is a many-splendored thing.


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Deroy Murdock

London
Beyond its now-decent food, better beer, and hospitable, hilarious residents, one of the joys of visiting Great Britain’s capitol is its wide selection of theatrical offerings. I recently caught four noteworthy dramatic performances during a six-day stay in the English metropolis.

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Like most things British, an American must learn a brand-new vocabulary before delving in. What we call the orchestra section, the British call stalls. A Broadway intermission is an interval here. While food and drink generally are forbidden in American theaters, ushers in London serve small cardboard containers of ice cream — ginger, cookie-crisp, and other flavors — during intervals. Many theatergoers also rush to the lobby bars for strong drinks, which they are encouraged to carry back to their seats.

Theatergoers do not need drinks to satisfy themselves at The 39 Steps, a comedy version of Alfred Hitchcock’s entertaining but very serious suspense thriller of the same name. This play is a triumph of minimalist staging. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Never have so many laughed so much at so little.

The 39 Steps finds a likeable, foppish bachelor named Richard Hannay racing from London to Scotland in search of unsavory folks who have committed a murder and capsized his life of leisure. The situation into which he has stumbled grows darker by the moment. His effort to find the bad guys without tumbling any further into their web provides plenty of tension in a production filled with scores of out-loud laughs.

This play is a joy to watch, both for the unfolding story and the almost-minute elements that director Maria Aitken uses to propel the action. She and movement director Toby Sedgwick audaciously employ shadow puppets, a toy train set, sound effects, a very cinematic score, and even a cameo by Hitchcock himself.

The true minimalism, however, is in the cast. While Charles Edwards charmingly plays the hero, Rachel Pickup deftly portrays about a half-dozen female characters. Most impressive, though, are Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor, who embody the other 140 or so characters in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of John Buchan’s original tale. These two switch from role to role by swapping accents, hats, and costumes with lightning speed. In scene after scene, they breathtakingly transform themselves from one personage to the next, almost imperceptibly, as the action whizzes by.

It’s hard to believe only four people with a handful of basic props could have this much fun, especially with a story that was anything but zany when Hitchcock shot it in 1935.

The 39 Steps is at the Criterion Theater, a well preserved and well-restored Victorian beauty built in 1872. It sits smack dab in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, directly before the magnificent statue of Eros (that’s British for Cupid), ironically, just an arrow’s flight from the Virgin Megastore.

Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Evita has seized the Adelphi Theater on The Strand. It was good to see this beloved musical on stage, although I found it less satisfying than Alan Parker’s superb 1996 motion picture starring Antonio Banderas as Che, a sort of Argentine Average Jose, and Madonna as Eva Duarte Peron, “the greatest social-climber since Cinderella.”

The film meticulously dramatizes how Evita rose from poverty and pumped up her resume by sleeping with ever-more-prominent men, until she met “would-be dictator” Juan Peron. Together, they ruled Argentina and ran it into the ground.

Parker’s film is a free-marketer’s dream come true. It demonstrates the dangers of cults of personality. It shows that power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. It explains how profligate spending and debauched currencies can sink a country. And it does all of this with singing, dancing, and dazzling costumes. Conservatives and libertarians who have avoided this movie — perhaps mistakenly expecting an epic celebration of Argentine socialism — should run out and rent it tonight. Every now and then, our ideas do thrive in Hollywood.

This stage production of Evita accomplishes all of the above, but with far less of the film’s panache and richness.

First, the show feels rushed. The story charges forward at a pace that might baffle someone who is unfamiliar with this true story, or its filmed depiction which followed the musical.

Second, while the broad-shouldered and macho Antonio Banderas carried off the Che role exquisitely on film, Matt Rawle’s physically and emotionally thin stage performance lacks Banderas’s force and gravitas. Madonna excelled on screen, and Elena Rogers has a fine voice and dance-step on stage. She is, in fact, Argentine. By itself, this would be a plus in this role, except that her contrasting presence and Latin accent quietly remind the audience that she is on stage with a bunch of Brits.

Third, several key lines in the film appear on stage, but out of the mouths of different characters. This changes the tone of many scenes, and never for the better.

In the motion picture, for instance, Che seems slyly perceptive when he mocks the Perons as they campaign to get Juan Peron elected president. “How annoying that they have to fight elections for their cause / the inconvenience of having to get a majority / If normal methods of persuasion fail to win them applause / there are other ways of establishing authority.” The mounted police who use swords to disperse a crowd of anti-Peron protesters reveal the brutal muscle behind these beautiful rhymes.

However, when Peron himself (Philip Quast) sings these lyrics on stage, they are not a cynical aside from an observant third party, but a clumsy bit of bravado from a common despot.

Similarly, when Evita wows French crowds at the start of her European “Rainbow Tour,” the film’s Peron (Jonathan Pryce) lovingly sings, “Who would underestimate the actress now?” This is a touching moment of husbandly pride for a wife who appeared in movies before entering politics.

But on stage, Evita herself croons this line, turning it into a jarring flash of self-congratulation.

That said, director Michael Grandage’s energetic cast, their voices and dancing, Rob Ashford’s choreography, and Christopher Oram’s sets all make this show worth seeing. Whether or not you catch Evita on stage, be sure to pick up the superior, market-friendly movie, as well as the soundtrack CD, to learn Tim Rice’s incredibly clever lyrics and marvel at Andrew Lloyd Weber’s phenomenal music.

Tom Stoppard’s new play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, is remarkable in many ways. It’s remarkably long, remarkably dense, and remarkably dull.

Stoppard’s Invention of Love thrilled me on Broadway, as did Part I, and much of the rest, of his Coast of Utopia trilogy now at New York’s Lincoln Center. However, his pen is downright rusty in this dirge on how rock music intermingled with Czech history from 1968’s Prague Spring until Communism’s crash landing on the ash heap of history in 1990.

This show is grossly understaged. The flimsy set is a giant Lazy Susan divided into four “rooms.” This circular contraption sits on a narrow stage and slowly revolves from one scene to the next inside the very cramped and irregularly proportioned Duke of York Theater.

Two of the quadrants of this carousel-like set are supposed to be in Prague, the other two in Cambridge, where a former Czech professor has emigrated. When he did so is blurry, as is his possible clandestine involvement with the former Communist government. As the ugly set goes around and around and around and around and around, I lost track of who was in Prague doing what to whom as one or another character alerted the Marxist-Leninist authorities, or maybe didn’t, before inexplicably materializing in the U.K.

Or was it the other way around? The more confused I became, the less I cared about these people. Eventually, the actors’ histrionic performances became downright grating, even as their characters all morphed into a giant pre-Velvet Revolution mob. Too bad the secret police didn’t whisk them all away.

Perhaps the waiter at the nearby Green Ham and French Horn pub sprinkled some Ambien on my fish and chips before the play. Or maybe Tom Stoppard crafted a soporific fiasco. In either case, I found myself sitting in a seat with no legroom, struggling to keep my eyelids up, and begging that the curtain would crash down long before the Iron Curtain collapsed.

Just before flying home, I caught West London’s longest-running comedy hit, Tony Blair: Live! It is known more commonly as Prime Minister’s Questions.

Every Wednesday at noon when Parliament sits (as the Brits say), Tony Blair stands in the House of Commons and dodges the slings and arrows flung at him by opposition politicians. (He also entertains generally softball questions from his own Labour colleagues.) For 30 minutes, Blair occupies a lectern called the Dispatch Box and usually gives very serious and amazingly detailed answers to these queries. He also often flings incredibly rude answers at his interrogators with tremendous defiance and good humor. If you lack press credentials or cannot line up outside Westminster Palace for a free seat in the Strangers’ Gallery, catch Prime Minister’s Questions on C-Span II live Wednesdays at 7:00 a.m. Eastern time, or on tape Sundays on C-Span at 9:00 p.m. and midnight.

Tory leader David Cameron stood in the packed, ornate Commons chamber and invoked a news story about a freighter whose distressed cargo wound up on a British beach, to the delight of local scavengers.

“Have not this Government now become like the ship stranded off the Devon coast?” Cameron asked with maximum impertinence. “They are washed up and broken up, and they are just scrabbling over the wreckage.”

“I think that that probably sounded better in rehearsal than it did at the Dispatch Box,” Blair replied, to laughter from the Labour Party benches.

Liberal Democrat party leader Menzies Campbell explained that he and his colleagues planned later that day to “set out our proposals to bring the troops home by October.”

Blair zinged back, “For us to set an arbitrary timetable…would send the most disastrous signal to the people whom we are fighting in Iraq. It is a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is deeply irresponsible — which is probably why it is Liberal Democrat policy.” The Labour MPs erupted into loud, derisive hoots, pointed their fingers, and waved officials documents in Campbell’s general direction.

Tory Michael Spicer asked: “Will the European Union take control of our criminal law?”

“No, it will not,” Blair curtly replied, to the chuckles of MPs gathered on green-leather benches in the dark-wood chamber.

Blair is expected to yield No. 10 Downing Street to the grim Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, sometime this summer. There are many profound reasons why this is a pity. But the closing notice on Tony Blair: Live! may be the saddest of all.



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