‘Walk’ stepping out

LONDON — They’re re-“doing the Lambeth walk.”

That jaunty lyrical snatch could be heard nightly on both sides of the Atlantic for much of the late 1980s, courtesy of the decade’s unlikeliest Brit musical bonanza: “Me and My Girl,” a slice of class-bound custard pie that ran eight years and won both an Olivier and a Tony for leading man Robert Lindsay.

Here it comes again, sans Lindsay, in a new £2.7 million ($4.4 million) West End incarnation, with choreographer Stephen Mear and director Rachel Kavanaugh inheriting the tasks filled nearly two decades ago by Tony winner Gillian Gregory and the late Mike Ockrent. Peter McKintosh, who did the recent Ralph Fiennes “Brand,” will design.

Show will open May 11 at the New London Theater, the home for several decades to “Cats,” following previews from April 29. The top ticket will be £50 ($82), more and more the local musical norm. (One or two shows are costlier.)

No casting has yet been announced, but producer Alex Armitage, chief exec of London’s Noel Gay Organisation, says, “This is a show that creates stars rather than has stars in it.” In London it did, when a then-unknown Emma Thompson was the distaff lead in 1985. It was Thompson’s Cambridge contemporary, Stephen Fry, who led the rewrites on a 1937 musical mainstay’s inevitably musty script.

On Broadway, proven Tony winner Jim Dale was Lindsay’s replacement, though Dale was in turn replaced by James Brennan, who was promoted from within the company.

Armitage is the son of the 1985 version’s original producer, Richard Armitage, who died in 1987. Does a London revival 19 years on make business sense? Armitage fils gives an anatomical reply: “I have a very thin arm because the ticket agents are chewing it off.”


A legit exchange program

While New York was gearing up for a notably busy theatrical fall, a 28-year-old Englishwoman spent September in Manhattan, shepherding into being phase two of “Old Vic New Voices: U.S./U.K. Exchange.” The ambitious scheme, pioneered by Cambridge grad Kate Pakenham under the auspices of London’s Old Vic Theater, is intended to widen awareness of British playwrights in America and the same in reverse.

Does that need doing, one might ask, mindful of an Off Broadway season now hosting Jez Butterworth and Rona Munro, among the post-Pinter/Stoppard/Frayn generation? Absolutely, says Pakenham, a onetime TV docu director who wants to give a leg up to those dramatists from one country who have yet to have a professional production in the other: “We’re trying to break down boundaries, to make that flow of traffic easier.”

To that end, four British scribes received New York readings last month: Gary Owen (“The Drowned World”), Simon Stephens (“Port”), Torben Betts (“A Listening Heaven”) and Richard Bean (“The Mentalists”). Each reading was co-produced with an Off Broadway venue — Primary Stages, the Atlantic, the Vineyard and the New Group, respectively. None of these dramatists, it should be pointed out, is exactly a household name in London, though Bean’s “Under the Whaleback” at the Royal Court remains one of this year’s major plays.

Last fall, four American writers came to London on the same initiative (Keith Bunin and Keith Glover among them), while a second quartet is due, Pakenham says, no later than January. The two-way exchange to date has cost $70,000, but a fundraising goal of $200,000 has been set for an extended program next year, to include a full Southwark Playhouse production at the end of February of an American play and possibly a (separate) U.S. co-production. A prize is possible, too, that would allow the winning U.K. writer to enjoy a U.S. residency.

“Old Vic New Voices” in time will become a proper arm of incoming Old Vic a.d. Kevin Spacey‘s as-yet-embryonic regime. What more appropriate scheme could there be for a London theater soon to be programmed by a Yank?

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