Reality hits center stage

TV auds help cast 'Joseph,' 'Grease'

It’s tuner time in London again. After an unprecedented six weeks of previews, “The Lord of the Rings” is about to open, but its competition has suddenly come into focus.

On June 9, TV auds voted on rival terrestrial channels BBC1 and ITV1 to cast leads in revivals of both “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Grease.”

Twenty-five-year-old Lee Mead, who quit an understudy role in “The Phantom of the Opera” to be in the BBC’s “Any Dream Will Do,” will don the multicolored garment from July 6 at the Adelphi Theater ahead of a July 17 opening.

Winners of “Grease Is the Word,” 19-year-old theater school student Danny Bayne and 24-year-old performer Susan McFadden, will begin previews of producer David Ian‘s “Grease” revival at the Piccadilly from July 25, opening Aug. 8, the same month Ian’s similarly cast Broadway revival bows.

Although the “Grease” skein was less popular (its viewing figures averaged 2 million fewer than “Any Dream”), the production already has been bullish about its box office advance of £6 million ($11.8 million). The “Joseph” camp, meanwhile, is maintaining the traditional London silence on sales.

Little but mighty

Away from such brouhaha, the legit scene has been proving that bigger is not necessarily better. London’s smallest houses have been showcasing work of pulse-quickening quality.

Edmund White‘s tense two-hander “Terre Haute” played an all-too-brief run at the 99-seat Trafalgar Studios. Although sprung from a real-life exchange of letters between Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, White turns expectation on its head with his fictionalized portrait of a meeting between “James,” a writer, and “Harrison,” a bomber.

In one of the sharpest exchanges between the two men jockeying for position, James argues that intelligence is about being able to see things in context — “to see everything from the longshot of tragedy to the close-up of comedy.” “Terre Haute” touches on both. Instead of being the expected (and wearisome) docudrama, it turns out to be a gripping study of trust and truth.

White was indelibly helped by two perfectly balanced performances from Peter Eyre and 2006 RADA graduate Arthur Darvill. Eyre’s exquisitely judged James not only echoed Vidal’s supreme self-confidence, it also captured White’s trademark debonair manner. As both narrator and interrogator, Eyre’s control was all the more arresting for being so softly spoken.

His precision was balanced by Darvill, who suggested true danger without ever displaying boiling rage or resorting to shouting. Armed with a flawless American accent, Darvill staked a serious claim for debut of the year. George Perrin‘s scrupulously clear-eyed production deserves a future life.

Explosive in a wholly different way is Hampstead Theater’s “Taking Care of Baby.”Despite a less-than-felicitous title for a play apparently about a woman who may have killed her children, Dennis Kelly‘s piece is actually an exhilaratingly intelligent slap in the face to verbatim theater.

Purporting to be “the unvarnished truth,” verbatim theater is usually nothing of the sort. Every choice, every edit of “real-life” testimony is an act of directorial bias, its context and presentation influencing the viewer.

Kelly’s command of structure and Anthony Clark‘s scrupulous production fit hand in glove. A flawless cast, notably Abigail Davies, Ellie Haddington and Nick Sidi, present “true” testimony from a case history that slowly turns contradictory and is gradually revealed to be subject to extreme doubt. The standard list of society’s woes — sound-bite politics, media power, consumer culture, etc. — are given an entirely fresh twist.

Kelly manages to pull the rug out from beneath the audience while still holding them in thrall. Interested as much in form as content, he is fast becoming one of the U.K.’s most exciting playwrights.

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