Nick Cave and Patti Smith move the London summer rock-festival season into top gear. Opera Holland Park starts its season with its first “La Traviata” in a decade. Brian Friel’s “Translations” opens at the National Theatre. These are just some highlights of performing arts in the British capital this week.
The format of these weekly short capsule previews is to list newly opening and one-time shows; others highly recommended, and those near the end of their run. We also continue to review the best and most noteworthy in depth and separately.
At Opera Holland Park, through June 23.
If you have never been to Opera Holland Park, then go. Even if opera is not your thing, the atmosphere on a fine summer evening is beautiful. The season opener is the opera’s first production of Verdi’s masterpiece in 10 years.
At Olivier, National Theatre, previews from May 22, press night May 30 and running through August 11.
To his admirers, the late Irish writer Brian Friel is as good as some of the greatest playwrights such as Harold Pinter. This play is a clever take on cultural imperialism. British officials are on a visit to a tiny rural community. The mission is to Anglicize Irish names. For example, Baile Beag, meaning small town, becomes Ballybeg. The locals are less than thrilled. Colin Morgan and Ciaran Hinds star. A Blouin Artinfo review can be found here.
At Sadler’s Wells, through June 9.
Akram Khan says that this will be his final show as a dancer. We may hope he continues as a choreographer at least. This performance is a breath-taking way to bow out anyway. The dance is a tribute to those who died in World War I, which of course ended 100 years ago.
At Southwark Playhouse, through June 23.
If asked to name a musical performed on roller skates, many people would say “Starlight Express.” The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical about a real-life train set is not the only show that uses the trick though. So it is good to see a revival of Kander and Ebb’s rival musical story. It follows the familiar plot idea of a venue, in this case a much-loved but shabby roller rink, about to be torn down by the developers. Think of the plot of “Rock of Ages” done with much better music. Then things really get rolling.
At Underbelly Festival Southbank, through July 14.
After Circus Abyssinia’s lively "Ethiopian Dreams" show, the Underbelly Festival showcases more Edinburgh Fringe Festival stars. Expect more gravity-defying stunts, done this time to Latin music. A Blouin Artinfo review will follow.
Various venues, Friday May 25 through July 22.
The London International Festival of Theatre returns, with shows at the Barbican, Royal Court, Southbank Centre, Lyric Hammersmith and many more. Some of the most innovative are walking tours performed at secret locations. There is also South African singing, Singapore opera and 1,500 pigeons who take off at sunset with LEDs attached to their bodies.
All Points East
Victoria Park, May 25 to June 3.
The first real big music festival of the summer in London is a new one. Victoria Park has lost Lovebox, which moves to Gunnersbury, and Field Day, which moves to Herne Hill (see below). It now has this All Points East event with stars including Björk and The xx. In between the main music days there was a free-entry midweek program of events. The lineup for this weekend includes Catfish and the Bottlemen (June 1), The National, The War on Drugs, Future Islands and Cat Power (June 2) and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Patti Smith, St. Vincent, Courtney Barnett and the Psychedelic Furs (June3).
At Brockwell Park, through June 2
This new incarnation of the festival continues with a cooler-than-thou lineup led by Erykah Badu in her only U.K. performance of 2018. Nils Frahm, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Loyle Carner, Princess Nokia and more also take part.
SJM and DHP Present...
At Royal Albert Hall, June 1-7
It’s a busy week for rock music at the Royal Albert Hall. Echo and the Bunnymen play June 1 as part of a U.K. tour. Another show for 1980s music fans follows on June 5 as The The stage the band’s first British show in 16 years. On June 7, the Artic Monkeys showcase some of the tunes from their new album “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” in aid of the charity War Child U.K.
At Trafalgar Studios; previews from May 18, press night June 4, through August 18.
The range of roles played by Orlando Bloom continues to broaden after his time in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies plus “Pirates of the Caribbean.” This time he is Detective Joe Cooper, a policeman who is also an efficient contract killer. This Tracey Letts play originally started on the stage before being filmed with the tagline: “a totally twisted, deep-friend Texas redneck trailer park murder story.” The cast may need to work on their accents. A Blouin Artinfo review will follow.
LAST CHANCE TO SEE
“All Or Nothing”
At Ambassadors Theatre though June 2.
The musical celebrates Mod culture of the 1960s East End via the band The Small Faces. It’s not as fun as the Kinks “Sunny Afternoon” musical — which has hit after hit — and the linking dialogue is clunky. It has its moments though. The band’s finest songs include “Itchycoo Park,” “Lazy Sunday,” “All or Nothing,” and “Tin Soldier.”
At Arcola Theatre, through June 2.
Theater drama from the time of Shakespeare on is often about words over actions, and speeches are king. This work is an aberration. The characters have plenty to say in soliloquies aimed at the audience, not addressed to each other. This stage version makes more sense than on the radio, where it was first heard, though Mike Bartlett always intended it for the theater. This is definitely worth seeing for fans of Bartlett, whose hits include “My Child,” “Cock,” “Bull” and “Doctor Foster.”
At London Coliseum, from April 26, opens May 1, through June 2 only
Last year, the Coliseum did a short run of “Bat Out of Hell” leading to the show’s permanent return to London. Now we have “Chess” at the Coliseum for a short run from April through June. Whether this leads to more remains to be seen, but this is the first major West End revival for “Chess” in 30 years. The stars this time include Michael Ball, Alexandra Burke — who is given a new song for her role — and Murray Head. The music of course is by Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. This is spectacular and topical, both with its comments on US and Russian Cold-War relations and coming as ABBA reunites. The big-lunged cast does a fine job and “I Know Him So Well” remains the standout. Ultimately the musical has been getting mixed reviews, but it’s certainly worth seeing once at least to file under “been there, done that.”
At Old Vic, through Saturday June 6.
The title is apt. Here we have two moody protagonists from the world of music, both with their own ego issues and other problems. One is a middle-aged star, Bernard, who has a comeback thanks to young singer-songwriter Cat. Ben Chaplin and Seana Kerslake take on the roles of an odd couple having to work together while battling through lawyers on who should take the most credit.
ALSO WORTH SEEING
At Trafalgar Studios, through June 9.
Katy Brand’s debut play has a lot of things to say about sex, sexuality, womanhood, drink, motherhood and more. Of the trio of women, Anita Dobson is especially impressive. In this show there is a lot of a talking, as the trio drink and chat before a wedding, and little dramatic action.
Shakespeare’s Globe, through August 26
Purists have long been carping against casting directors changing sex, race or age of characters in classic plays. The politically-correct changes sometimes make little sense: black parents cast with white children or old people playing youngsters. These revisions can also work, as with all-female “Julius Caesar” or female King Lears. Gender swapping as was normal in the Bard’s time, with boys often playing girls. Now we have Michelle Terry bravely assuming the central role in “Hamlet” as she takes on the part of Artistic Director at The Globe. One wishes it well, though many would say that the Globe is best with Shakespeare plays done as authentically possible.
At Wyndham’s Theatre, previews from May 4, opens May 15, through July 28.
Mark Rothko had a fascination with color, as we all know. Apart from the burgundy and brown of the Seagram works, he also liked psychedelic yellow — then in his later years, dull graphite. London audiences may recall the obsessed artist in “The Fast Show” TV comedy with his aversion to black. Here we are into red, in more ways than one, courtesy of John Logan’s drama starring Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch and staged by the Michael Grandage’s company.
“Effigies of Wickedness”
At Gate Theatre, previews from May 3, press night May 14, through June 9.
This work sits between play, opera and musical – more like cabaret really. Which is not surprising because it is an ingenious reincarnation of the sexy Weimar clubs, with their subversive songs that were banned by the Nazis. The wicked work is a production with English National Opera directed by Ellen McDougal.
At Phoenix Theatre, Covent Garden, through October 6.
Not quite a new opening of course. This is the 1997 production of the Kander and Ebb 1975 musical that is back in London after a tour. Basically it has been going strong for decades. Now Cuba Gooding Jr is Billy Flynn. The show has dance, song, a breathless murderous plot, lots of girls in fishnets and guys in hats. It’s not quite as hot as it was, but if you haven’t seen it – do give it a go. Gooding is especially impressive.
At Victoria Palace Theatre, booking through December 15, 2018.
The first thing to say is “Hamilton” is a huge Broadway hit, with plenty of political relevance even now, and even with unofficial Off-Broadway spin-offs such as “Spamilton” for those who can’t get to see the real thing. The second thing to say is that this rap musical is a superb show. Third, it’s not easy to get tickets and, if you do, expect tight ID checks, with original card and government photo ID needed. But it is worth it. The British production works well.
“An Ideal Husband”
At Vaudeville Theatre, previews from April 20, opens May 3, through July 14.
Oscar Wilde’s comedy gets a nice twist in this production by starring a real-life father and son: Edward and Freddie Fox. The play is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s finest and might have had more initial success had he not been arrested for gross indecency during its opening run. It is studded with Wildean epigrams such as “to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” and “morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.”
“Strictly Ballroom – The Musical”
At Piccadilly Theatre, from March 29, opens April 24 through July 21.
Like “Bat Out of Hell,” this is a very strange musical with a weird plot and many bizarre scenes. It is also a Romeo-and-Juliet type story of star-crossed lovers. It is based on Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Strictly Ballroom.” Will Young does most of the big singing in a role written especially for him. The bizarre collection of songs seems assembled randomly with no purpose but just to entertain: sometimes that is all that is needed.
At Lyttelton, National Theatre, through June 16.
At the time of his death in 1991, Roddy Ackland was a well-enough-known and prolific playwright, not as highly rated as his friend Terrence Rattigan. “The Pink Room” in 1952 was a large-cast play - a satire set in a private club at the heart of seedy Soho in 1945. It was a flop and nearly brought Ackland’s career to a halt. Ackland tried rewriting it as “Absolute Hell” in 1987. After his death, the National Theatre staged the new version and it has gradually gained a reputation as a little-known classic. Here is another NT production– not starring Judi Dench this time but Kate Fleetwood, who was at the NT last year in the moving “Ugly Lies the Bone.”
“Bat Out of Hell: The Musical”
At Dominion Theatre, London, from April 2, opening April 19, open-ended run.
The Meat Loaf musical is back in town for a long run after sell-out dates last year in a short period at the London Coliseum. The songs are as over-the-top as possible and the plot is crazy. As a piece of fun spectacle it is hard to beat. Review of its previous incarnation here and interview with the stars here.
“Tina: The Musical (The Tina Turner Musical)”
At Aldwych Theatre, March 21, opens April 17; through June 17.
With rock musical bios still doing well over the last few years – Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Queen, the Kinks, ABBA, Carole King and many more – a work covering Tina Turner’s life makes perfect sense. This London production is the world premiere. The girl from Nutbush, her strained marriage, her fight against prejudice and abuse all sit with songs such as “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Proud Mary,” “The Best,” “River Deep Mountain High” and “Better Be Good To Me.” Turner is played by Adrienne Warren.
“The Moderate Soprano”
At Duke of York’s, though June 30.
This is a David Hare transfer from the Hampstead Theatre, increasingly an incubator of plays that move into town. The play gently draws out the story of the founding of Glyndebourne by country-house owner John Christie and his young soprano wife. It is about as English as cucumber sandwiches with high tea by the croquet lawn, or indeed Glyndebourne itself.
At the Noel Coward, from March 31 through June 16.
All change at the Coward, which has moved from the All-American “Girl From The North Country” to “Quiz” (to be followed by “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”) James Graham’s “Quiz” looks at the TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” through the trial of Major Charles Ingram, who was accused of cheating his way to the top prize with a coughing accomplice in the audience. The play also examines other TV quiz shows as part of the build-up. Its London transfer comes after premiering at the Minerva, Chichester. The play was extensively rewritten based on the out-of-town feedback and is now something of a must-see.
At Theatre Royal Drury Lane, booking extended through December 1, 2018.
Another Broadway blockbuster. “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” dream along with “Lullaby of Broadway,” hope along with “We’re In The Money,” and hum along with “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Dorothy Brock has been played by Sheena Easton and more recently Lulu, who is back on the West End stage after 30 years.
Click on the slideshow for images of some of the shows
Founder Louise Blouin