London is my favorite place on the planet, not least because it’s where I can OD on theater. This time, I had to book way in advance to be sure of tickets to the two plays the RSC has mounted adapting Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels. These shows were at the end of my week in London and the subject of Part 2 of this subject, so there were a couple of other nights to fill in the meantime.
On my first night, I was dismayed to find that Richard III with Martin Freeman was sold out. For those not familiar with London theatre practices, a small number of tickets are held aside for purchase on the day of the performance but only in person, usually in cash. These typically are offered starting around 10 am and disappear in a matter of minutes. The only other chance for a seat is to “queue for returns”, which means that anyone holding a ticket but unable to use it can contact the box office, who will resell the seat. No refunds, but it seems much more civilized than having people clogging up the sidewalk in front of the theatre trying to sell off extra tickets. I hadn’t been in town for the 10am thing, hadn’t even been aware of the play and didn’t feel like taking a chance on a return, mostly because the theatre where the play was being done is a really small one. London, like New York, is awash with musicals, a genre I’m not especially fond of (not sure why; that’s just the way it is). The National didn’t have anything unmissable going, either, so I decided to walk around the West End to see what I might find. No opera, no ballet. Hmmm.
In the end, I opted for Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, mostly because I remembered a similar play in NY years ago that Dad had gotten a big kick out of. Also, John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory’s Girl) was in this show and I figured if he was in it, it would be enjoyable. Weelll… not so much. On the plus side, the stagecraft was clever and the actors’ timing was impeccable, broad movements kept perfectly in sync with sound effects. On the (big) minus side, this was too too much British music hall slapstick, nudge-nudge, wink-wink for my taste. Sinclair played the always suffering, stiff-upper-lip Jeeves. The rest of the audience was truly enjoying the performance (complete with scenes requiring male characters to cross-dress). I suspect many in the house remembered similar shows from childhood – likely accounting for the extension of the run. I was not among these enthusiastic playgoers and I must admit to doing something I don’t recall ever having done in my life. I left at the interval! Sorry, John. Fry and Laurie were not, as I recall, ever as uncomfortably dopey as this. A tiny reward for my premature departure – saw Tim Pigott-Smith (best remembered as the nasty officer from Jewel in the Crown and currently the voice of Viking River Cruises) walking along the street, possibly coming from rehearsal for King Charles III, a play that hadn’t opened yet. Don’t know. Didn’t ask. Didn’t say hello, just a moment of recognition. This took care of Friday.
On Saturday, I got a recommendation for a show I really did enjoy – Epstein, the Man Who Made the Beatles. Just two actors, one set and a thoughtful look at the guy who arguably changed pop music forever and perhaps offering some clues as to how the Beatles’ music and lyrics tapped into Brian’s own yearnings, at a time when his sexual orientation kept him thoroughly closeted. Those longings may have been the key to the whole phenomenon. The entire play presents just one night late in Epstein’s life, after the Beatles stopped playing live and his involvement with them declined. Brian’s apartment, all white walls, sleek furniture and modern decorative touches shows a control of environment that Epstein felt less and less at the point in his life that this fictional encounter is set.
Andrew Lancel, as Brian Epstein looked similar enough that video projections of real footage mixed with ‘faked’ stuff didn’t jar. At one point, Brian falls into sudden rage; the contrast between a man mastering his emotions and someone whose demeanor changed so drastically and quickly was stark and believable, the air of comfortable assurance in the flat vanishing and the space becomes oppressively claustrophobic. One other point – I’m sure I’ve seen Lancel before but program credits didn’t ring any bells. A terrific performance.
Will Finlason’s character stepped outside the fourth wall to speak to the audience, both at the start and end of the play. He was identified only as ‘This Boy’. He presents himself to Brian as a young (post-Beatles) lad from Liverpool who thinks the full story of the Beatles’ success must include Epstein’s own role and genius. Brian has brought him home hoping for sex and that electric undercurrent pops up throughout the play. This Boy is blond, slightly angelic – Brian’s idea of the perfect rent boy? Will was definitely watchable and gave an endearing rendition of Baby It’s You, complete with guitar. (No mention that the song was written by Burt Bacharach; lighten up!)
By the second half remembering, or thinking you knew, how Brian fitted in (or didn’t) with the Beatles tribe and how he ended up, increased awareness of the story hurtling to its conclusion; an awful, gathering cloud of sorrow. Most of the audience looked to be one age group – they/we came of age with the Beatles and Brian. Not a whole lot of Beatles music until one scene near the end; just enough to take you down memory (or Penny) lane and maybe leave you there for just a moment before the sound fades and you’re back in the present of the flat. Other groups Brian managed came in for mention, like Gerry and the Pacemakers.
I’m still searching for the playscript. Foyle’s (in its spiffy, spacious new Charing Cross location) didn’t have it, the bookshop at the National Theatre on the South Bank is temporarily gone during current redevelopment and the website for NYC’s Drama Bookshop came up empty. Rats.
At least the Epstein play left me sure I’d seen some very good theatre – a good vibe to get me through the rest of the weekend. Gary, the guide for a walking tour (post to come) I went on earlier in the day, gave me the tip. Thanks, Gary! You wouldn’t happen to know where I could lay my hands on the printed play, do you?
See Part 2 for my thoughts on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.