London Theatre – III

Final installment of quick takes on London theatre shows. At last, the good stuff! [1]

Matilda adapted by Dennis Kelly

Another musical. Fortunately the songs are few and far between because, with one exception, they add little to the proceedings but some vocal and visual energy. The script is adapted from a short children’s novel by Roald Dahl and generally improves on it. [2] The comic characters are sharper, the plot is neater, but most important is the running subplot of Matilda telling a story of her own invention to the librarian. Not only does that story pay off beautifully in the second half, but the storytelling gives the audience a chance to spend more time with Matilda in the first half, making her a much more sympathetic character. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Merry Wives is the first Shakespeare play I ever performed in, so it holds a special place in my heart. [3] It’s also, I believe, Shakespeare’s funniest script, beating out audience favorites Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Comedy and Midsummer are “supposed” be funny and so a lot of humor is often imposed on them, to greater or lesser success. The comedy in Merry Wives emerges effortlessly from character. [4] After the disappointment of previous Globe shows this season, I was pleasantly surprised by this more straightforward production. 

The actor playing Falstaff was phenomenal, playing against type by abandoning the typical bombast of the character for an almost laconic delivery that was absolutely commanding.

Peter Gynt adapted by David Hare

The one stinker in the batch, which perhaps isn’t fair to this production. Everyone involved did a brilliant job—the lead actor was charismatic as hell, the script sparkled, and the set was a sort of Wonderland-busybox replete with trapdoors and transformations. I just didn’t connect with the story which was episodic and allegorical and boasted a running time over three and half hours.

Stephanie was beat from flying in that morning, and the gentleman sitting next to me was wearing so much cologne that, no exaggeration, my eyes were watering. [5] We fled at intermission. [6] On a different day under different circumstances, this might have been worth sticking around for the end, but I’m not sure it would have changed my opinion.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two by Jack Thorne

J. K. Rowling has stated that this two-part play is the official eighth volume of the Harry Potter saga, though Harry himself barely figures into it. I remember reading the script when it was first released and being intrigued by the premise [7] but ultimately underwhelmed by the story. On stage, however, the story comes to life in a way that’s surprisingly moving.

This is also the most adult take on the Potterverse and deals with a couple of my personal bugaboos head-on: the freaking Time-Turner, and the problem of one of the four houses being dedicated to evil. Rowling says Slytherin represents “ambition,” not evil but she sure doesn’t present it that way in the first seven volumes. Cursed Child presents a more balanced version of the house.

This is a must see for Harry Potter fans but a bit long [8] and lacking resonance for anyone who isn’t familiar with the books or films.

Groan Ups by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields

The latest show from Mischief Theatre, the twisted minds behind The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. We were lucky to catch this as it had just opened a week prior.

The early reviews have been pretty ungenerous. You should ignore them. They’re evaluating Groan Ups like a conventional play and finding the characters cliche and the dialog lacking, criticisms which are not inaccurate but missing the point. Mischief Theatre succeeds on execution more than substance. They bring an incredible energy and infectious glee to all their shows. 

Groan Ups is more heavily character and plot based than their other shows, so the first half is a bit slower-paced, establishing relationships and stories that pay off explosively in the second half. One of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.

Ian McKellen on Stage by Ian McKellen [9]

Sir Ian has been touring the UK with this show as a fundraiser for theatres across the country. The show divides neatly into two halves, the first hour or so being reminiscences of his early life and his work on The Lord of The Rings. The second half delves into his work on various and several productions of Shakespeare. He has a quip or anecdote for nearly every play. [10] 

The first half was brilliant. Sir Ian was effortlessly personal in a hall that seats 700-plus, prompting many audience members to answer back when he asked rhetorical questions. He even brought someone onstage to wield Glamdring, Gandalf’s sword, which Peter Jackson gifted to Sir Ian at the end of filming.

The second half was, I’m sorry to say, tedious. The device of having the audience call out the next play might work for a dozen but wears out its welcome well before 37. He also performed monologues from a few of the plays, which mostly didn’t work for me. Just to be clear, this is an extreme minority opinion. Sir Ian is one of the most accomplished actors of our age, and the rest of the audience was enthralled. I myself love his film work, and, as I say, the first half of this show. But no matter how powerful the language or talented the actor, Shakespeare requires context and that was lacking in these soliloquies. [11]

Well worth it for the first half alone, and even the second half contained some real gems.


1. Stephanie joined me for this stretch, so I saved some of the surefire shows—Merry Wives, Harry Potter, Groan Ups—for her arrival. And she was the one that discovered the Ian McKellen show on our final night in London.

2. The book strikes me as one that you have to encounter as a child to love, which I did not (encounter nor love). But I was sufficiently impressed with the story of the musical that I sought out the novel after and read it. Generally people have a preference for the first version of a story they experience, but I don’t believe reading the book would have inspired me to see the musical.

3. The late Terence Knapp generously cast me as Abraham Slender despite my total lack of experience, and my love of Shakespeare stems from that production.

4. Shakespeare does get his comedy schtick on with some of the accents, though. Here’s a line from the allegedly French Dr. Caius: “give-a this letter to Sir Hugh; by gar, it is a shallenge: I will cut his troat in dee park.” This particular production underplayed the accents, in my opinion, missing out on some of the fun and at least one accent-related pun (Sir Hugh’s “peace is the sword”).

5. Even with my hand over my nose and mouth like a gas mask, I was in real discomfort, on par with the worst vog I’ve experienced.

6. Note to directors and playwrights—if you make me sit for more than 90 minutes without an intermission, I will hate you. 

7. Minor SPOILER for Cursed Child—Albus Snape Potter, the middle child of Harry and Ginny, gets sorted into Slytherin, evoking much angst in father and son alike. Worse, his best friend is Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpio. 

8. Six hours! I generally start to grumble when a show goes over two and a half hours. Granted it’s divided into parts with time for dinner in between, but it’s an all-day commitment. Worth it, though, and doesn’t feel overlong at all. 

9. Sir Ian was a member of the founding company of the National Theatre of England. The late Terence Knapp, the UH professor who cast me in my first Shakespeare play, was also a founding member, alongside other notable members: Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, Joan Plowright, Lynn Redgrave and Maggie Smith.

10. The notable exception being Troilus and Cressida, of which he quipped, “I have nothing to say about this play.”

11. I have much more to say on this topic, but that’s for another time. 

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