LONDON — For a while, it seemed, one couldn’t move for American work. No, I’m not talking the non-event of “On an Average Day,” the Kyle MacLachlan-Woody Harrelson starrer marking the latest influx of Hollywood celebrities to the West End. Or even the Gwynnie-vs-Madge parlor game that kept the British tabloids tattling for much of May and June.
A substantial American presence has been in evidence on London stages all over town this summer. From New York’s downtown darlings Kiki and Herb to the vibrant one-night-only Ado Annie of Klea Blackhurst, from a rare sighting of a once-scandalous Wallace Shawn play to a deeply silly San Francisco import (an idiotic faux-happening called Euphor!um), the Yanks have been thoroughly represented on stage if not always off — and that’s before one factors in Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth in her London stage debut.
No less established an English phenomenon than the BBC Proms gave itself over Aug. 17 to an evening of Richard Rodgers, with Yale grad David Charles Abell conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra in his Proms debut. The first half featured such rarities as the “Symphonic Scenario” from “Victory at Sea,” an epic TV doc 50 years old this year. But it was a heavily abbreviated concert version of “Oklahoma!” that probably accounted for the sellout audience of 6,000 people, 1,500 of whom stood throughout in the best tradition of the Royal Albert Hall’s annual summertime event.
The cast coupled well-known locals (Maureen Lipman as a thin-voiced Aunt Eller, the part she played in “Oklahoma!’s” 1998 National Theater revival) with well-liked visitors (Brent Barrett, taking the night off from the since-closed “Kiss Me, Kate” to offer a lustily sung Curly). But it was Blackhurst’s delicious Ado Annie that proved the evening’s abiding delight, the onetime Merman impersonator triumphing in a part that — let’s face it — can in the wrong hands be pretty tiresome. Equal parts imp and vamp, Blackhurst stopped just short of blowing the Albert Hall roof off, mindful that this was an ensemble occasion, not an exercise in ego.
Someday, maybe Kiki and Herb will get their own slot at the Proms. Until then, London has been able to enjoy the Obie-winning duo of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman for an extended engagement at the Soho Theater. To be honest, the sellout audience with whom I saw the show seemed bemused, to put it mildly, by a take-no-prisoners evening that managed to be macabre, grotesque and moving in turn. The “Rent” references (perhaps inevitably) fell flat, but it’s hard to see how anyone could miss the verbal byplay citing an aural affinity between anthrax and Anne Frank, not to mention the wildest rendition imaginable of “One Tin Soldier.”
Watching Kiki achieve near-total meltdown while Herb played away in his stockinged feet, the parameters of London cabaret looked as if they were being pushed to a fresh extreme: The Donmar’s divas were never like this. (New Yorkers can next catch the pair Sept. 6 at the Knitting Factory in lower Manhattan: two performances only.)
Across the Thames, a disconcertingly thin house joined me for Joseph Hill-Gibbins’ audacious Battersea Arts Center revival of “A Thought in Three Parts,” the production marking a rare chance to see the scabrous 1977 play from Shawn that caused a local furore in its day. A quarter-century on, one can understand why, and not only because the triptych’s nudity quotient is high even by today’s liberated standards. Far more unnerving are the spasms of anger that surge up when least expected — in between, for instance, masturbation contests for the men and the occasional awestruck “gee whiz” and “wowee” from one of the women (Charlotte Lucas’ hugely watchable Judy).
“Gee whiz” doesn’t begin to describe the prevailing affect of a play (New York producer Robyn Goodman played Judy in the original London cast) that seems to anticipate fully so much Shawn to come. It’s long been Shawn’s way to smile while the scalpel gets applied: “A Thought in Three Parts” anatomizes the white heat of desire turned sexless and cold, and Hill-Gibbins and his cast did it disturbingly, and proud.