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London Theatre Reviews

Michael Gambon in Henry IV Parts One and Two at the Olivier Theatre in 2005/ Ph: Tristam Kenton



Matt Wolf looks back on 32 years reviewing the best the West End has to offer for London Theatre News.

Where has the time gone? That query is an inadequately synoptic response to the 32-plus years that have passed since the first issue of London Theatre News, back when I was still (comparatively) green in London and actors like Ian Charleson and Michael Gambon were in their prime. For the very first issue of LTN in Sept 1988, I reviewed Charleson, sadly lost to us since then from AIDS, as the best Brick imaginable in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof under the direction of a second much-missed talent, the quietly mighty Howard Davies. Gambon, in turn, led a Michael Blakemore-directed UncleVanya that brought a sterling cast together in a commercial production of Chekhov, the mere thought of which seemed astonishing to my New York way of mind where mainstream Broadway productions of the Russian master can be counted on one hand. That Vanya, it’s worth remembering, boasted a Sonya in a young Imelda Staunton full of a questing purity that isn’t easily forgotten, no matter how many other defining performances (as Momma Rose and Martha, for starters) this wondrous actress has given between then and now.

My most recent – and can it really be last? – reviews for LTN assessed the latest offerings from two of our senior dramatists. Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt – its West End run cut short by COVID – represented a summary statement from an octogenarian playwright saving till late in his career that dictum often reserved for playwrights who are starting out: Write from the self. In this case, the profound homage to his Jewish origins that the play represents wouldn’t have been possible to the embryonic Stoppard who emerged on the scene in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern AreDead on the Edinburgh fringe. Simply put, it took time for Stoppard’s ancestry to reveal itself to him, a self-reckoning mirrored to entirely different results by David Hare’s Beat the Devil, a solo play premiered in between England’s two lockdowns in which the author passed the baton to none other than Ralph Fiennes, here tasked with playing the 73-year-old Hare as he recounts a direct and bruising experience of the virus.

Stoppard and Hare seem in some way like an apt double-act on which to go out at LTN, not necessarily due to these plays themselves but to the theatrical highs the two writers have made possible along the way. I think I’m correct when I say that I saw Hare’s magnificent Racing Demon something like six times in all (including once on Broadway at Lincoln Center). As it happens, I find myself voicing more often than one might wish the cataclysmic question of a seismically moving play's final moments, “Is everything loss?” as voiced by a south London cleric named Lionel Espy to whom the great Oliver Ford Davies brought a grace under pressure that was overwhelming to behold. Stoppard’s Arcadia opened in April 1993 and announced itself as the sort of unarguable classic one encounters maybe once a decade. I’ve seen many fine productions of that play since its premiere, with some remarkable performances (including the author’s own son Ed as a moving Valentine on the West End in 2009), but no pairing is ever likely to match the heat generated by Emma Fielding and Rufus Sewell as the director Trevor Nunn’s first Thomasina and Septimus: the querulous teenage prodigy and her quietly smitten tutor who is in turn driven to ruinous grief by the thunderclap of loss.

Both those plays premiered at that ongoing powerhouse, the National, and I soon learned the importance of venue within the British theatrical ecology. Often asked to pick a favourite London playhouse, I can only respond in classically equivocal fashion that it depends on the play – and the day. There’s nowhere quite like the Royal Court for allowing words to refresh the psyche, whether they be the competing monologues of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, which was scorchingly revived at this address in a production headed by the legendary Donal McCann, or Jez Butterworth, whose Court premiere of Jerusalem careered toward the audience with a headlong fury I’ve rarely seen equalled. Word has it that the play’s indelible star, Mark Rylance, is keen to revisit the part of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, which is almost as life-enhancing a prospect as the development of a vaccine.

But one could never for a second discount the likes of the Donmar or the Almeida, smallish Off West End playhouses that consistently punch above their weight and have long possessed a glamour disproportionate to their size. (Writing a book about Sam Mendes’ momentous tenure at the Donmar remains one of my happiest, if also most hectic, memories.) The Young Vic has long given voice to comers old and new, whether catapulting Ivo van Hove towards a broader public with his tumultuous revival of A View from the Bridge or doing brilliantly by such defining Black American playwrights as Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brothers Size) or Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview). And though Kevin Spacey’s name these days is largely expunged from discussion, it would be unfair not to pay obeisance in passing to an Old Vic leadership during which he hosted two definitive revivals, both directed by that building’s current leader, Matthew Warchus: that David Mamet study in machismo, Speed-the-Plow, with Spacey in career-best form opposite Jeff Goldblum, and Alan Ayckbourn’s sublime triptych The Norman Conquests complete with a once-in-a-lifetime cast headed by a splendidly shaggy-haired Stephn Mangan.

To savour the British theatre is to clock talent over time, copious examples of which begin somewhat at random with a young Jude Law appearing at the Barbican’s Pit auditorium in a Greek rarity called Ion in 1994 only for the same actor some 17 years later to take bold command of the Donmar’s bracing revival of Anna Christie, having not incidentally become a film star along the way. I’ve watched as the extraordinary Simon Russell Beale has segued effortlessly from classics to new plays and musicals and become a Sir and seen Adrian Lester juggle with ease a spectrum of work embracing Sondheim and Shakespeare and a contemporary play, Red Velvet, about acting Shakespeare and written by Lester’s own hugely gifted wife, Lolita Chakrabarti. Simon McBurney, Rory Kinnear, and Helen McCrory invigorate every time they step on a stage, as they will surely continue to do, even as it’s hard to think of a British theatre that can no longer boast regular appearances from those great Dames, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. One looks back in awe at Anthony Hopkins pre-Silence of the Lambs on reptilian fire in Pravda and Daniel Craig pre-James Bond in a two-hander opposite Michael Gambon called A Number that was one of many Court premieres to set its author Caryl Churchill, now 82, very much apart: when it comes to sheer audacity of vision, Churchill to this day remains a maverick without peer.

Dench’s National Theatre Cleopatra for the titanic theatrical presence that was Peter Hall and Smith’s recent solo play about Goebbels' stenographer, Brunhilde Pomsel, A German Life, are embedded for keeps on my mental hard drive, as is the director Dominic Cooke’s searing National revival of Ma Rainey’s BlackBottom, which, to my amazement, managed to better the same play’s Broadway premiere. Can we not have the roaring talent that is O-T Fagbenle back on a London stage, and soon? And Sondheim, dear Sondheim, retains pride of place in the British consciousness and in mine as well, whether one thinks back on Julia McKenzie’s yearning, wounded Sally on the West End in 1987 in Follies or, some decades later, the amazing Rosalie Craig ensuring that a female Bobbie in Company was no gimmick but an inevitable part of that 1970 musical’s adaptability and evolution.  “Never look back,” we’re advised during an especially plaintive moment in Follies,but what else can critics of live performance do? It’s been a joy of joys to help record some of these performances in London Theatre News across the decades, and rest assured that the appetite for chronicling, at least on my part, is far from over yet.