Cincinnati CityBeat's guide to current London theatrical productions

Theater critic Rick Pender reports back after seeing three excellent, invigorating shows during a summer vacation abroad.

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click to enlarge Aidan Turner in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" - PHOTO: Johan Persson
PHOTO: Johan Persson
Aidan Turner in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore"

Headed back from a summer vacation in France, I took a side trip to London to see three unique theater productions.

London’s Gay Pride weekend made for a crowded arrival at my hotel near Trafalgar Square. My first show, at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, three miles north of the hotel, required a cab ride. Dinner at a cozy Vietnamese diner preceded the performance of Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal. The Almeida is a 325-seat venue reminiscent of Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, refurbished for comparable expense and with similar style to ETC’s recent physical upgrade.

The production of a modernized version of the American writer’s 1928 script was about a docile young woman backed into an unhappy marriage. She eventually snaps and murders her husband.

The opening scene was attention-grabbing: a dozen stenographers rhythmically clacking away at typewriters, seated in isolation in pools of light, complaining about work and gossiping about their missing co-worker. Played by Emily Berrington, the young stenographer shows up late and is scorned by her colleagues: She’s having an affair with the boss. He presses her into marriage, and then forces her to have an unwanted child. We leapfrog chronologically across time and locales, witnessing her sensational trial. (The story is based on an actual murder trial.)

Fine performances by several actors kept this production engaging, especially Berrington and Denise Black as her stern, grasping mother. Director Natalie Abrahami gave the show a hurtling pace from office to house to hotel to hospital to bar to courtroom to prison as the young woman’s life spirals out of control. Quick darkness ended each scene, then a jarring bar of harsh fluorescent light, splitting and separating to cinematically reveal the next moment.

Two days later, at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End theater district, I watched The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a revival of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy from 2001. He’s the Irish playwright of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman and several other horrific tales of domestic violence from the late 1990s. More recently he has written and directed several noteworthy films: In Bruges (2008) and the recent Academy Award-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Inishmore featured darkly handsome Aidan Turner (familiar to PBS Masterpiece fans as the title character in Poldark) playing Padraic, the madly violent leader of an IRA splinter group who’s too volatile for the “regular” terrorists. Informed that the only being he truly loved, a black cat named Wee Thomas, has been killed on a highway, he roars back to Inishmore to ferret out and punish the guilty parties. Following an eye-popping array of wince-inducing torture and an unbelievable amount of bloodshed, the show is capped off with a very funny last-minute “nevermind” twist.

Especially good in addition to Turner were Denis Conway as Padraic’s fearful, befuddled father and Chris Walley as a hapless young neighbor who tries to pass off another cat covered with black shoe polish as Wee Thomas. This searingly memorable show evoked both shocked gasps and awkwardly bewildered laughter from the audience.

My theater tour concluded at the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, on the north bank of the Thames, for a spirited rendition of As You Like It. Bench-seating on three levels was sold out, so I was a “groundling,” standing for the nearly three-hour afternoon performance of Shakespeare’s woodland romantic comedy on the traditional open-air stage.

New artistic director Michelle Terry is also a respected actor. This production and one of Hamlet in revolving repertory are the first under her tenure. She’s playing Hamlet as well as a small role in As You Like It. Apparently her regime has encouraged more collaborative work by the actors; this production didn’t have a directorial concept so much as a company of “gender-blind, race-blind, disability-blind” actors, as characterized by Terry.

The roles of Orlando and Rosalind were gender-switched, with petite, spritely and feisty Bettrys Jones as Orlando and lanky Jack Laskey as the demure Rosalind. The story is about the latter dressing as a man for much of the tale, while the former pines for the “lady” he met after a wrestling match. Nadia Nadarajah, a deaf actress, expressively and engagingly signed her performance as Rosalind’s confidante Celia.

The three plays were a fine, brief sampling of London theater.

Contact Rick Pender:                    [email protected]

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