London stages a big comeback

Sparse spring gives way to full skeds, full houses in West End

When the American director Jack O’Brien arrived in England early in April to begin rehearsals for his National Theater debut, the London theater scene at large, he says, “seemed pretty dead, frankly — uncharacteristically so.”

And now? “It’s unbelievable,” says the “Hairspray” helmer, whose production of “His Girl Friday” opens June 5 at the NT. “There’s a ton going on.”

That’s one way of pointing up the astonishing about-face wrought in London over the past six or seven weeks, during which time a moribund theater climate has turned itself around via a series of high-profile openings and sold-out hits, often of unlikely plays.

Albert Camus an audience-pleaser? He seems to be over at the Donmar, where a.d. Michael Grandage’s acclaimed production of “Caligula” is playing to 90%-plus attendance.

In other words, we can forget the none-too-challenging likes of “Mum’s the Word” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” and admit to the fold two starry Ibsens, an auteur-driven Pirandello and even “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

The Lindsay Posner-directed Mamet revival has turned into one of those phenomena that producers especially love: a show derided by many of the press and yet playing to full houses nightly.

The 80-minute play, says lead producer Mark Rubinstein, is “doing business like I’ve never seen a show do business before,” regularly selling out the 780-seat Comedy — a notoriously tricky venue to fill to capacity because it has more than 100 partial-view seats.

For the box office stampede, not to mention nightly ticket touts, credit a starry cast headed by “Friends” star Matthew Perry, alongside U.K. expatriate Minnie Driver, with an assist from another notable visitor from America, Hank Azaria. There is also the name value of Mamet, the American dramatist who has always been something of a U.K. favorite.

“It’s a lovely combination,” says Rubinstein, “all adding up to a great package.” The advance has remained constant at the £1.25 million ($2 million) mark, with Rubinstein hopeful that the £330,000 ($538,000) production will double-recoup by the time the limited 13-week run finishes Aug. 2.

The figures are music to the ears of a producer who recalls the naysayers’ verdict early on. “A lot of people felt it was a great cast but that there was not a lot of profit” to be made, especially since Rubinstein would have to bring over from the U.S. and then house three of the play’s four performers. (Kelly Reilly, who plays Deborah to Driver’s Joan, is the cast’s only London resident.)

The reviews have run the gamut from the Sunday Times’ John Peter, who called the play “a treat,” to a fiery notice from the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh: “Producers should stop palming us off with third-rate plays that they believe can be decorated with any youngish, film-starry Americans.”

But Mamet’s play, in this instance, says Rubinstein, “didn’t need reviews.” And anyway, he says, “you can’t do anything” about them.

Following the Mamet by six days on the West End was the May 20 opening at Wyndham’s of Pirandello’s “Absolutely! (perhaps),” an elaborate exercise in truth-telling (or not) that must represent one of the less likely West End entries in recent years. In this case, the drawing card for the $620,000 production is the combination of director Franco Zeffirelli and his longtime leading lady, Joan Plowright, here cast as the survivor of an Italian earthquake who may or may not have gone insane.

Pirandello with a cast of 16 is hardly standard West End fare at a time when even the likes of the dramatist’s far better-known “Six Characters in Search of an Author” these days tends to land in London venues like the Young Vic.

But some terrific early reviews for Martin Sherman’s new English-language version of the Italian source (the Times’ Benedict Nightingale gave the evening four stars out of five) will help draw an audience that, for once, is being talked up to rather than patronized. Lead producer Sonia Friedman is planning a 14-week run in what is Plowright’s first London play in almost as many years.

As of June 12, Pirandello’s neighbor at the Albery — the two theaters span London’s own equivalent to Shubert Alley — will be Ibsen, who suddenly is everywhere this spring. (“Ghosts,” directed by Ingmar Bergman, emerged briefly last month as part of the Barbican’s International Theater fest.)

June 18 sees the actual opening of co-producer Duncan C. Weldon’s $490,000 mounting of “The Master Builder,” directed by Anthony Page and starring Patrick Stewart in his first above-the-title West End role, if one discounts his brief appearance here a few years back in “A Christmas Carol,” Stewart’s seasonal solo annuity.

This time, Stewart will be climbing one particular Ibsen mountain while Ralph Fiennes in “Brand,” opening June 4 at the Haymarket after a lengthy Stratford run off-limits to the crix (a tryout in everything but name), climbs yet another.

“The more good things you have on,” says Weldon, speaking from his home in France, “the better it is; it makes a theatrical atmosphere.” That’s even if, as Weldon deadpans, “Ibsen must be turning in his grave: He’s not getting any royalties.” “Master Builder” runs through Aug. 23.

And it was Ibsen to whom the Almeida turned when reopening its Islington doors after 15 months and a $12.4 million refit. With Trevor Nunn making his Almeida debut in his first production after 5½ years running the National, Ibsen’s “Lady From the Sea” has found Natasha Richardson inheriting the role of Ellida Wangel played in New York and London during the 1970s by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave.

Close your eyes, indeed, and you could swear you were hearing Mama Redgrave, even if those eyes, once reopened, find the Almeida space every bit as cozy and sexy as it was before.

The result: Raves, mostly, following the May 15 press night, and a show that has sold out its entire run at a rebuilt venue that prompted as much curiosity from Almeida faithfuls as the play itself.

But no discussion of London’s renewed buzz would be complete without the National, where new a.d. Nicholas Hytner in less than two months has produced three sellouts: a new northern Irish play in “Scenes From the Big Picture,” a wildly original musical in “Jerry Springer — The Opera” and a scintillating reappraisal of Shakespeare in his own production of “Henry V.”

The explosion on the South Bank has spread a sense of excitement across the city’s legit landscape.

“We all benefit,” says “Perversity” producer Rubinstein. “If people go to the theater and have a good time, they’re more inclined to go out and see another show.”

Nonetheless, O’Brien says, with regard to the charge that can be clearly felt at the National alone, “How refreshing, how wonderful, how noble, how enlivening that so much of this climate is being contained in this particular building.”

Jon Thoday, co-producer of “Jerry Springer,” which has just announced its second NT extension (another 24 performances through Sept. 30), wastes no time in praising Hytner. “To do things differently and succeed is really hard.”

But Hytner has done it, and seems to be daring a recently somnolent London theater to follow suit. “Once more unto the breach,” indeed!

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