Blighty faces yule blizzard

Roster is London's finest in memory

The London theater’s Christmas tree is piled high at the moment, with more heavyweight, high-profile offerings than the festive season has unwrapped in many a year.

From Stephen Sondheim to Shakespeare, 50 minutes of Caryl Churchill to 90 minutes of Yasmina Reza, the runup to Christmas constitutes London legit’s ripest holiday roster in memory. For once, the prevailing British pantomime (not to mention the occasional “Pinocchio” and “Nutcracker” remounting) isn’t the only game in town amid a climate crammed with activity.

“I think it’s wonderful,” says Ian Rickson, a.d. of the Royal Court, which opened two plays within four days. “It makes the theater sort of fecund — and it’s great that they’re not all Christmasy, razzmatazz things.”

“It’s madness,” says Times of London chief critic Benedict Nightingale, surveying his schedule at a time when serious fare usually slows to a trickle.

“It’s bonkers,” echoes publicist Bridget Thornborrow, who had to schedule an extra matinee Dec. 7 of director Max Stafford-Clark’s new double-bill of plays at the Soho Theater Center due to three conflicting openings the previous night — a new Hampstead Theater play from Shelagh Stephenson (“The Memory of Water,” “An Experiment With an Air Pump”), among them.

Late in 1998, by contrast, the first local recast of “Chicago” offered virtually the only antidote to the typical holiday output repped this year by such limited-run entries as “The Hobbit” (following on from Daryl Hannah in “The Seven Year Itch” at the Queen’s) and the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s popular “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” this time at Sadler’s Wells.

Look elsewhere and one finds new productions from Matthew Warchus, Stephen Daldry, Michael Grandage and Jonathan Kent, to name but a few, in stagings with the potential to stick it out into the New Year — and perhaps well beyond.

That’s certainly the expectation attached to Yasmina Reza’s “Life x 3,” which opened a very brief National Theater engagement — 32 perfs — in the Lyttelton auditorium on Dec. 7, prior to a hoped-for West End transfer at the end of January from “Art” producer David Pugh. The intermissionless play, about a dinner party gone awry, boasts an impressive quartet of thesps in Mark Rylance, Harriet Walter, Oliver Cotton and Imelda Staunton.

Given the presence of director Warchus, who shepherded first “Art” and, in October, “The Unexpected Man” to trans-Atlantic success, “Life x 3” could well beat a comparable westward path.

“I didn’t really expect to love the three plays of hers that I’ve directed equally,” says Warchus of his Paris-based dramatist, “but I do, and also working with her.”

That said, Reza has been less in evidence than usual at the London inaugural of her latest play. The reason: She is starring in its French premiere, which opened early last month at the Theatre Antoine in Paris under the play’s original title, “Trois Versions de la Vie” (Variety, Nov. 27-Dec. 3).

Very much in evidence at previews of his latest local entry has been Sondheim, a London semi-regular. The composer is repped this season at the Donmar Warehouse by the professional London preem of “Merrily We Roll Along,” his 1981 Broadway flop. Opening night is Dec. 11.

Capitalized just shy of $300,000, the Donmar “Merrily” marks the powerhouse venue’s fourth Sondheim go-round, following “Assassins” (with which a.d. Sam Mendes launched his Donmar tenure in 1992), “Company” and “Into the Woods.”

“I think he is just brilliantly suited to the space,” says Mendes of Broadway’s senior composer, 70 last March. “There’s a kaleidoscopic range of possibilities that (Sondheim’s) shows allow in the realm of music theater as opposed to musicals.”

London auds, too, continue to be keen. The advance sale for the three-month-plus run, through March 3, stands a shade above $300,000. The figure is of a piece with past musicals at the same address, with Donmar personnel quick to emphasize that the show, as yet anyway, is by no means sold out.

The director is Michael Grandage, fresh from winning this year’s Evening Standard Theater Award for best director for both “Passion Play” and “As You Like It”; the choreographer, Peter Darling, is the former performer responsible for Jamie Bell’s exhilarating leaps on screen in “Billy Elliot.”

“It’s not a dance piece for dancers,” Darling, 36, remarks of “Merrily.” “It’s very much a piece for singer-actors who can move. My starting point was to take something of Sondheim’s stylized naturalism and try and convert some of that into dance.”

Well cast

All that remains is for its youthful cast to shake the virus plaguing two of the three principals during previews, several of which went south in a theater sans understudies. As of Dec. 7 2-1/2 perfs (the Dec. 5 show ceased midway when leading lady Samantha Spiro’s voice gave out).

Meanwhile, Churchill’s “Far Away” has been doubling up. Running less than an hour, Churchill’s second collaboration with director Daldry is playing two shows daily through its final perf, Dec. 22. The stand in the Court’s tiny 60-seat Jerwood Theater Upstairs went clean some time ago, with the exception of a latenight charity gala Dec. 16 costing some $180 a pop. (The play does three perfs that day.)

Tickets are easier to come by for the Court’s mainstage effort, “I Just Stopped By to See the Man” (see review page TK), which opened Dec. 4 to mixed reviews but consistent raves for its visiting American lead, Tommy Hollis (who segues from Stephen Jeffreys’ play to the imminent Broadway musicalization of “Tom Sawyer”).

Thanks Yanks!

Hollis joins Don McManus, of Stephenson’s “Ancient Lights,” as nonstar Yanks currently enlivening the London theater. Both men are in Britain on Equity exchanges — Hollis with Art Malik, who repeated his West End performance in the San Francisco production of Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink,” and McManus with Janie Dee, currently Off Broadway in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Comic Potential.”

“Ancient Lights” opened Dec. 6 at northwest London’s Hampstead Theater, while Islington’s tony Almeida is in previews with Jonathan Kent’s production of “The Tempest,” starring Ian McDiarmid and bowing Dec. 14.

Not to be outdone, a third north London hub, the Tricycle, is going the marathon route. Produced in conjunction with the Oxford Stage Co., Billy Roche’s “Wexford Trilogy” revives three plays from the 50-year-old Irishman — “A Handful of Stars,” “Poor Beast in the Rain,” and “Belfry” — previously seen in London between 1988 and 1993. The daylong press openings were Dec. 9 and 10 for a limited run through Feb. 4.

That leaves two West End curiosities a league apart.

On target

Dec. 5 saw the London preem at the Haymarket of writer and now actor Jeffrey Archer’s stage debut in his own play “The Accused.” The withering overnight reviews — “To describe Lord Archer’s acting as wooden would be to insult even the humblest piece of furniture,” scoffed the Evening Standard — weren’t worrying producer Lee Menzies one bit.

“We knew they’d stick the knife in, (but) audiences enjoy it,” says Menzies, anticipating a lucrative 12-week run through March 3. “We’re in good heart, and we’re taking a lot of money.”

The $420,000 courtroom drama asks theatergoers to vote nightly on the Archer character’s guilt. The opening night tally saw 333 judgments of guilty, with 254 (at the premiere, presumably Tory party grandees) protesting his innocence. (Abstentions, incidentally, are permissible in the 880-seat house.)

Says Menzies: “We’ve gotten our voting system right without any pregnant chads. So, listen, if we had run your election in Florida, you’d have a president.”

Meanwhile, a murder mystery in which the audience has voted with its feet for over 48 years, i.e. Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” celebrates its 20,000th perf on Dec. 16 — “Our first 20,000,” deadpans producer Stephen Waley-Cohen.

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