London Theatre – II

More quick impressions of shows I saw on my most recent trip to London, continued from part one. Please excuse my crankiness. I’m discussing these in the order I saw them, and this was a bad stretch

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare remains the greatest English-language playwright of all time [1], and the Globe in London is one of the world’s greatest playhouses. [2] But … As You Like It is among my least favorite of his plays, and seasons at the Globe tend to be pretty hit or miss, depending on the artistic director who has great license to shape the esthetic of the productions. [3] AYLI was always going to be a tough sell for me. This production, with the exception of Touchstone, was disappointing.

Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams

This was fascinating because despite the atmospheric set and phenomenal acting talent on stage (Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad, Clive Owen from everything), it fell completely flat for me, and I think that’s down to the script. An essay included in the program that Williams wrote about his time as an ex-pat in Mexico that inspired the play captured the mood he was trying to evoke in Night of the Iguana so much more than the play itself that I’d love to see someone stage that instead.

Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein (book) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) [4]

I’m not a fan, generally, of musicals. Too often they prioritize the musical numbers over everything else, or sprinkle them in randomly for a burst of energy. Nothing irks me more than watching the story grind to a halt while some irrelevant side character takes the stage for an extended song and dance routine.

Fiddler is one of those rare counter-examples where the songs are constantly revealing character, advancing the narrative and reinforcing the theme. [5, 6] The story itself is neatly structured around the marriages of Tevye’s three oldest daughters, each in turn forcing him to reevaluate the significance of tradition in a rapidly changing world. [7], and maintains an air of hope in the face of tragedy. One of the best shows of this trip. [8]

A Very Expensive Poison by Lucy Prebble

The very expensive poison of the title is a particularly nasty isotope of polonium, 210Po, with a half-life of just 138 days. [9] The play is based on the book of the same name, itself based on the true story of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of the Russian FSB, who, after receiving political asylum in the United Kingdom was poisoned with polonium-210, allegedly on the orders of Vladimir Putin.

I wasn’t familiar with the case going in, and I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how the play fares as an adaptation, or even as an accurate reporting of events, but I found it smart and darkly comic, very much in the vein of a Coen brothers film, with its mix of personal tragedy, bumbling criminals and the brilliant inclusion of Putin as a fourth wall-breaking character who seizes control of the narrative just before the intermission and attempts to dissuade the audience from returning for the second half.

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare

The relationship between the young Prince Hal and the unsavory Falstaff is so engaging and unstuffy that it renders the first part of Henry IV one of Shakespeare’s most delightful and accessible history plays—so straightforward it’s practically self-working and almost impossible to screw up. And therein lies the trap.

With so little effort required to make the script accessible for audiences, directors are tempted to elevate the material with some invention of their own, to the play’s detriment. [10] Henry IV, Part One is by far the most readable of Shakespeare’s histories, but I have yet to see a great production of it. This particular incarnation at the Globe fails to break the curse. [11]

Henry IV, Part Two by William Shakespeare

Part Two is often dismissed as the inferior sequel to the classic that is Part One, but it has a great arcs for Hal, Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice and a phenomenal cast of comic supporting roles in Pistol, Mistress Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mischievous Page and Falstaff’s unfortunate army recruits—Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble and Bullcalf. In many ways, I prefer it to Part One. [12] Unfortunately, I was so disappointed by the Globe’s production of Part One that I abandoned my ticket for Part Two. Maybe it was brilliant. The writing certainly is. As for the rest, I’ll never know.

Still to come:  Roald Dahl’s Matilda (as, yikes, another musical), redemption for the Globe in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a modern adaptation of Peer Gynt, that Harry Potter play, Groan Ups from Mischief Theatre Company and Ian McKellen being charming AF.


1. Although possibly over-represented in production and English lit classes?

2. The groundling tickets at the Globe are probably the best value in theatre anywhere. Just $5 gets you access to the yard where, if you’re early enough, you can get right up to the stage, within spitting distance (literally) of the actors.

3. I’m not going to wade into the specifics because it would be a long, ranty (possibly unfair) tangent. Except to say—if your personal politics creep into your production, you’re no longer making art, you’re printing bumper stickers. 

4. Based on the stories of Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem.

5. Spoiler for next week: Matilda does not succeed in this nearly as well.

6. For what it’s worth, I have the same complaint about a lot of modern action films. If the extended fight scenes or chase sequences are not revealing character and advancing the narrative, they bore me and the movie bores me. Which is to say, it’s not a musical thing—it’s a failure of storytelling thing.

7. A structure Downton Abbey seems to have borrowed wholesale.

8. In the top five, probably, though I’m not ranking them. I leave that sort of thing to R. Kevin Garcia Doyle.

9. Polonium fun facts: 210Po emits 5,000 times more alpha particles per second than the equivalent weight of radium, and is 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. Here’s the money quote from Wikipedia: “One gram of 210Po could thus in theory poison 20 million people, of whom 10 million would die.” (emphasis added)

10. I realize how hypocritical this sounds as I’m known for my experimental productions of Shakespeare. I have a truly marvelous refutation of this notion which this footnote is too small to contain …

11. My grumbles with this production are much along the same lines as those of As You Like It, with the exception of the stage combat which was a special disappointment. I only stuck around for the second half to watch the epic fight between Hotspur and Hal … which was anything but. The actors fought an air battle with long knives at a distance of fifteen to twenty feet with no real sense of threat or danger, as if the director wanted to minimize the violence of the scene (mission accomplished). 

12. I’m probably biased because I’ve directed Part Two, but not Part One.

5 thoughts on “London Theatre – II

  1. I am a musical theatre fanatic, and the songs are never sung just because- there is always a reason, and the same applies to the dance. It might seem as if they are randomly bursting into song- but in reality not true. Just saying


  2. Hi Meg – I see from your page that “fanatic” is, if anything, an understatement. You’re absolutely right, about better musicals. The songs are motivated and continue the story. But not all musicals are great, and when they fail, an unmotivated song is the thing that irks me most. For someone like you that loves musicals, that’s probably an easy flaw to overlook – just as I tend to overlook unmotivated or overlong action scenes in my favorite movies.


  3. Even as a musical theatre fanatic, there are still musicals that I do not like.

    It irks me when I get called a “fake” musical theatre fan: I was called that when I confessed that I am not interested in Hamilton. Well, this entire blog sure proves that wrong

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wouldn’t dream of calling you a “fake” musical theatre fan. As you say, your blog is evidence of your passion. And I’ll admit that even as a musical theatre “hater,” there are musicals I love: Secret Garden, Chess, Mama Mia!, Chicago, Singing in the Rain and Man of La Mancha.


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