With so many Brits nominated for Tony Awards this year, American theatergoers might ask themselves what’s happening. The answer is that London keeps sending some of its best plays to New York and beyond—watch out for Blackbird at DC’s Studio Theatre next season. And the transatlantic crossing is mutual: Broadway musicals have almost overtaken London’s West End.
While in London recently, I succumbed to two guilty pleasures—Jersey Boys and Dirty Dancing. The former is a jukebox musical (also currently on Broadway) that tells the story of the American pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But make no mistake, London’s Jersey Boys has got the accent down—not to mention the lyrics, the beat, and the syncopated movements.
The stage version of Dirty Dancing is true to the movie—word for word, dance for dance. What makes the live performance loads of fun is the London audiences. They’re wild, they’re crazy, they’re loud, and they have no intention of keeping their thoughts to themselves. “I haven’t had many women,” says the male lead (played in the movie by Patrick Swayze). “Liar!” yelled a woman from the balcony.
The mood is somber at Marguerite, set in Paris before, during, and after World War II. It’s a sophisticated musical by the team who created Les Misérables. The title character—played by Ruthie Henshall with great style and an exquisite voice—befriends a few Nazis as she rides to the top of Paris’s prewar social scene. But once the war is over and the political and economic climate has changed drastically, she’s reviled.
There will be a new twist on Charles Dickens this December when the always-popular musical Oliver! returns to the London stage.
The best place to go for drama is the Royal National Theatre (nationaltheatre.org.uk) on London’s South Bank. Afterlife, the newest play by Michael Frayn, author of Democracy and Noises Off, has just opened. It’s set in Austria in 1938, a time of dramatic change witnessed through the eyes of theater impresario Max Reinhardt. Another world premiere, beginning in late July, is Her Naked Skin, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s drama about London’s suffragette movement in 1913.
While not all of the National’s plays are wonderful, the productions—sets, costumes, visual effects—are usually faultless. Coming up is . . . Some Trace of Her, a multimedia performance based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
Along with the National, my favorite theater for nonmusical plays is the Donmar Warehouse (donmarwarehouse.com). Its intimate space and high standards often mean that demand for tickets can exceed supply. In the fall, though, while still producing shows at its tiny Covent Garden theater, the Donmar is taking over Wyndhams Theatre, a much larger space, for what promises to be a very exciting season. It starts in September with a new version of Chekhov’s Ivanov written by Tom Stoppard and starring Kenneth Branagh; that will be followed by Derek Jacobi in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, and Jude Law (directed by Branagh) in Hamlet. Tickets, $20 and up, can be ordered through the Web site, donmarwestend.com.
GETTING TICKETS TO LONDON SHOWS
I recommend the Web site officiallondontheatre.co.uk. Go to “London Shows A-Z,” then sort by genre, age suitability, or the name of the show and you’ll end up with everything you need. Buying tickets over the Internet or phone with a credit card isn’t a problem for London theaters—it’s done all the time.
You can also slide over to the TKTS link to see what’s available at the half-price booth in Leicester Square. When visiting the booth in person, be sure to go to the pavilion in the middle of Leicester Square, via Newton Gate, across from the Hampshire Hotel. Don’t be fooled by one of the storefronts that claim to sell “discount” tickets but are in fact “touts”—brokers selling tickets at a considerable markup. The TKTS booth is open Monday through Saturday 10 to 7 and Sunday noon to around 3. It accepts cash, American Express, and Visa. The “booking fee”—i.e., service charge—is about $5.
One-stop shoppers who don’t want to bother with the minutiae of ticket buying or who prefer to pay in dollars rather than pounds might want to use the services of Keith Prowse, a ticket agency (800-669-8687; keithprowse.com). There is, of course, a markup ($12 per ticket, plus a delivery fee of $3 to $7). The seats aren’t always in the best locations but are certainly good enough.
To Brolly or Not to Brolly?
For a list of what’s on not just at theaters but also at museums, galleries, and nightclubs as well as places to stay and to eat, nothing comes close to the all-knowing visitbritain.com. It even gives you the weather.