LONDON – We all know about Hollywood’s annual Christmas glut of movies, but this year the London stage offered up its own surfeit, opening a slew of major productions in the run-up to Christmas.
That surfeit doesn’t even count the inevitable pantomimes that this season included “Macbeth and the Beanstalk” (from the team that brought you “Oedipus the Pantomime,” reported the brochure helpfully). More traditional pantos were everywhere, including “Aladdin” at the Hackney Empire with TV star Dennis Waterman (“Minder”) playing — wait for it — Wishee Washee.
Of the rather more serious lineup, the only “new” work was in fact an instance of Sondheim arcana, “Saturday Night,” from the 1950s (see separate review, page 88) but only now receiving its professional premiere.
Elsewhere, it was revival time, with a seasonal buoyancy always in mind, even if that uplift arrived tempered by asperity in two cases and by a wounding pathos in the third.
The pathos comes in as surefire a hit as the British theater has: the National Theater revival, in the Olivier auditorium through April, of “Peter Pan,” directed by John Caird and adapted from various versions of the J.M. Barrie original by Caird and the NT’s new artistic director, Trevor Nunn.
Why surefire? Because Nunn had a three-season success with the same venture from 1982-4 in his previous home at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where actor Mark Rylance suggested Peter Pan as a Hamlet in embryo — a manboy grappling with his refusal to grow up just as Hamlet must come to terms with both maturity and mortality.
Such complexity is missing from the role’s current inhabitant, Daniel Evans, who flies well but fails to catch “the riddle” (in the words of Alec McCowen’s storyteller) of as celebrated a figure as the British theater knows.
Indeed, Americans familiar with the material only from the perennially revived 1954 Broadway musical may be amazed by the resonances of a play about a perpetual adolescent abandoned by his mother, hostile to both light and age, and yet nonetheless incarnate of “youth and joy.”
It is left to more seasoned supporting players like Jenny Agutter (an unusually warm Mrs. Darling) and Ian McKellen (as both a grandiose Mr. Darling and a hilariously fruity Capt. Hook) to fill in the emotional blanks, with McCowen’s narrator on hand to cap an evening about fairies, flight, and, let us not forget, fear.
There’s resonance to spare, as well as rancor, at the Donmar Warehouse in the classic 1931 American comedy “The Front Page,” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, now receiving its first major London revival since Michael Blakemore’s celebrated National Theater staging, with Denis Quilley, in 1972.
As his productions of “Company” and “The Glass Menagerie,” among others, have shown, English director Sam Mendes is a dab hand with iconic works from the American canon, so it’s a shame that his “Front Page” is missing the same thing as “Peter Pan”: a suitable leading man.
Griff Rhys Jones possesses the lightweight appeal of the undemanding TV comedian that he is, but, at least as seen at the final preview, he’s altogether too bland to play Hildy Johnson, the Herald Examiner reporter who sacrifices matrimony to the altar of a hot story in 1928 Chicago.
While some of England’s finest character actors chomp away around him at Mark Thompson’s evocative set (top honors to Christopher Benjamin, a hilariously bloated presence as the mayor), it’s left to Alun Armstrong’s late arrival as Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, to provide some real juice.
Armstrong refuses to stint on the play’s more politically incorrect notions, which include writing off women as “murderers (and) Borgias” in a last-ditch effort to lure the lovesick Hildy.
And lest the play seem sentimental, with Hildy’s intended Peggy (Rebecca Johnson) saluting Walter as “a peach,” Armstrong closes the play on a conclusively bilious note of bribery and corruption. He also gets a question earlier on to send a chill down any journalist’s spine when Walter barks of a story, “Who the hell’s gonna read the second paragraph?”
There’s bile to spare, too, in “The Government Inspector,” Nikolai Gogol’s bristling 1836 satire of provincial Russia in revival at the Almeida in a Scottish adaptation by John Byrne (“Slab Boys”) and directed by Jonathan Kent.
The play boasts a mammoth opportunity in the central role of Khlestakov, the itinerant con man who dupes an entire community. Eyes flashing, Tom Hollander makes a game, Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque stab at a part at which he’s trying way too frenetically and hard, but then no one should have to compete with co-star Ian McDiarmid as the town’s Lord Provost (and Khlestakov’s chief victim).
Hollander will next be seen as Bosie to Liam Neeson’s Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s forthcoming play “The Judas Kiss,” an Almeida co-production opening in March on the West End.
But for now it’s McDiarmid, an invaluable component of Kent’s earlier “Ivanov,” whose performance is the one this season that must not be missed. Amid the end-of-year cheer, he’s a more-than-welcome malcontent.
Indeed, it’s no digression to point out that in the annual theater quiz Dec. 29 between the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the audience this year that scored the highest points. Watching McDiarmid, one understands why, since it is performances of his caliber at which the audience more than likely wins.