Theater Royal restored in England

'The Giant,' 'War Horse' fight on

Despite the mouthwatering prospects on offer in London’s fall season — Simon McBurney’s new Complicite show “A Disappearing Number” at the Barbican; Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris directing “War Horse” at the National; John Light and Roger Allam battling it out as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in “The Giant” by Antony Sher at Hampstead — the most beautiful opening of the season will be out of town.

“Black-Ey’d Susan,” a largely forgotten nautical swashbuckler from 1829 by Douglas Jerrold, will re-open the exquisitely restored Theater Royal in the ancient town of Bury St. Edmunds near Cambridge Sept. 10. It will be helmed by the theater’s a.d., Colin Blumenau.

Built in 1819 by William Wilkins, architect of London’s imposing National Gallery, the country’s only surviving Regency theater is, quite simply, a jewel box. It’s a gorgeously painted, thrillingly intimate, 350-seat version of something like the Royal Opera House with tiny boxes curving around the auditorium to meet the proscenium arch on either side. Stand on the ideally proportioned stage, and you can reach out and almost touch everyone in the house.

The up-close-and-personal style this encourages will banish academic notions of pre-20th century acting being all hammy melodramatics in vast spaces built for spectacle.

After a two-year closure and a £5.1 million ($10.3 million) renovation, the theater will do more than just show actors off to best advantage. “Black-Ey’d Susan” calls for a 19th-century wave machine comprised of a set of undulating, corkscrew-like rollers. If that sounds outmoded, bear in mind that designer Richard Hudson used a variant on that same item for the stampede in “The Lion King.”

London’s Trafalgar Studio 1, part of the old Whitehall Theater, may seat just 13 more people but it’s still doing unusually strong business with its latest incumbent, “Elling.”

Adapted by Simon Bent from a Norwegian novel and cult movie (Oscar-nommed for foreign language film), it boasts TV favorite John Simm giving a spry, meticulous perf in the title role as an agoraphobic obsessive-compulsive who makes the “The Odd Couple’s” Felix Unger look like a slob.

Indeed, most of the comedy derives from crabby but endearing interplay between two mismatched roommates. Psychologically damaged, madly fastidious Elling is trying to survive alongside fellow ex-asylum inmate, the sex-obsessed but benign-to-the-point-of-bovine Kjell (beaming Adrian Bower).

Their performances ensure the laughs keep coming, but as the outside world impinges upon their relationship (i.e., the entire second half) both adaptation and production falter. Director Paul Miller‘s handling of the increasingly contrived and unconvincing plot grows slack.

The notion of two engaging no-hopers making it against all the odds is charming, but the emotions the play aims for are unearned by the writing, and sentimental in the extreme. Producers Howard Panter, David Parfitt, Finola Dwyer and Tulchin/Bartner Prods. are believed to be looking to take the show to the U.S. Before they do, they might consider reworking the underwritten female characters.

Prominent women can be found on the other side of town at the Apollo Victoria, where “Wicked” hits its first anniversary Sept. 7 on something of a high.

With an average weekly take of $1.1 million, the tuner has grossed more than $56.4 million and clocked more than 800,000 theatergoers.

It has consistently been one of the two highest-grossing shows in the West End, often occupying the top slot. For the week ending Dec. 30, with tickets ranging between $30-$121 — London doesn’t operate a “premier seats” system — “Wicked” took $1.8 mil, the highest weekly gross in West End history.

Undeniably, those figures are partly attributable to the theater’s 2,292-seat capacity, a scale rivaled only by the marginally smaller London Palladium (home to “The Sound of Music”) and Dominion (“We Will Rock You”). Nonetheless, it’s a rare achievement in a town famous for giving short shrift to imported U.S. megahits.

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