A ‘WINTER’ TALE

The Almeida Theater seems unstoppable at the moment, and London is all the richer for it. While the Ralph Fiennes “Hamlet” finishes its sellout Hackney Empire run March 30 with a free performance for local residents – tickets went within an hour March 20 – the company’s home base in Islington has opened a heart-stopping new play, Sharman Macdonald’s “The Winter Guest,” unforgettably well-served by an unexpected director, Alan Rickman.

The setting is a coastal village in Scotland one bleak, icy day. The “winter guest” of the title: death, whose presence is felt among each of the four pairings who comprise the cast of characters. The play has no plot, just atmosphere, poignance and humor in abundance: Two elderly women scan the papers for funerals they can attend in an effort to perk up lives spent waiting for buses that rarely arrive; a grandmother rows with her prematurely widowed photographer daughter while her shy grandson is pursued by a feisty teenage girl; two 12-year old boys eagerly await puberty while making risky forays out on to the ice.

The evening proceeds with a confident mixture of the hilarious and the elegiac that marks a quantum leap over Macdonald’s previous plays, “Shades” and “When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout.” It’s a play in which seemingly nothing happens – and yet everything does, leaving an audience attuned to language and nuance stunned by its quiet force.

Beyond an unusual director in Rickman, the play boasts an unusual co-producer in New York financier (and former deputy mayor) Ken Lipper, who has written and co-produced the forthcoming Al Pacino movie, “City Hall.” Lipper came to the Almeida via board member Ed Victor, the London-based American agent, who sent him “The Winter Guest.” Lipper agreed at once to help finance it, although he adds that his attachment to the play is “not a question of money (but) one of attention and love.” He hopes to transfer it to New York within the year, in a staging as close as possible to the London version: “The more we can export it intact, the better it will be.”

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