LONDON — The title is “Old Friends” — ideal for a show that feels like one. With Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga as the marquee attractions, producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Matthew Bourne walk down a boffo, bittersweet memory lane with some of Stephen Sondheim’s most beloved numbers: “Send in the Clowns,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “I’m Still Here” among them.
Yes, it’s another Sondheim revue, a genre for which Mackintosh can claim some progenitor’s credit: In 1976, he produced “Side by Side by Sondheim” in London’s West End with Ned Sherrin narrating and Millicent Martin, David Kernan and Julia McKenzie performing the songbook. I was there for that exuberant showcase, and here in the Gielgud Theatre for this new one, which is very much in the same vein — although now, augmented by a cast of 19 and excellent contributions from British stage stars such as Joanna Riding, Janie Dee, Gavin Lee and Bonnie Langford.
Peters singing “Send in the Clowns” makes even stiff upper lips quiver, and Salonga disappears utterly into Mrs. Lovett for an exhilarating “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd,” assisted by the booming basso of Jeremy Secomb. Doubtless this vivacious evening will be headed for our shores sometime soon; it ends in London on Jan. 6. In the meantime, I found myself communing with old friends, if you will, on other stages all over London, a renewal of my love for dramatic artistry in a country of everlasting theatrical passion.
The reacquaintances included star actresses: Harriet Walter, perfectly cast as the embittered matriarch in the Federico García Lorca tragedy “The House of Bernarda Alba,” at the National Theatre, and Penelope Wilton, playing a mischievous queen mum opposite Luke Evans in the new and veddy English upper-crust comedy in the West End, “Backstairs Billy.”
I’ve already written about the marvelous movie-centric makeover that director Jamie Lloyd has engineered with Nicole Scherzinger in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” Fresh, too, is the approach generated at Menier Chocolate Factory for, yup, Sondheim again, in Matthew White’s solidly staged revival of “Pacific Overtures,” a 1976 musical that ingeniously recounts the hard power of 19th-century Western imperialism, using 20th-century show tunes.
I admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to another encounter with “The House of Bernarda Alba,” Lorca’s merciless portrait of a family of women, yoked by suffocating misogyny in the Spain of 1936. Boy, were my misgivings unnecessary. Playwright-screenwriter Alice Birch has composed a superheated adaptation that’s anything but sere. On Merle Hensel’s towering, three-story set, with monochromatic pea-green walls and furnishings, director Rebecca Frecknall — soon to be represented on Broadway by “Cabaret” with Eddie Redmayne and Gayle Rankin — builds the tension as if Bernarda’s house were wired with dynamite.
The play’s percussive force, though, is terrifyingly implosive. Bernarda’s daughters — played with variegated levels of rage by Lizzie Annis, Pearl Chanda, Rosalind Eleazar, Isis Hainsworth and Eliot Salt — chafe under their mother’s spiteful vigilance. Lorca was executed by fascist forces shortly after he finished writing this drama, an allegory for the oppression of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. In Walter’s sensational portrayal of the matriarch, we experience the misguided cruelty of a village elder who knows no maternal gear other than total control. It’s a taste, too, of the Spain that Lorca was up against.
Wilton perfects another type of control in “Backstairs Billy”: a mastery of timing. Watching her hold court in scenery designer Christopher Oram’s rendering of the Garden Room at Clarence House, where Queen Elizabeth II’s mother lived out her days, should be a mandatory stop for anyone seeking a primer on delivering a piquant quip.
The humor is of the dry, royal sort, typified by the likes of Helena Bonham Carter playing Princess Margaret on “The Crown.” Here, playwright Marcelo Dos Santos and director Michael Grandage pay their appreciative respects to William Tallon, the queen mum’s longtime footman who earned the nickname that gives the play its title. Evans gives a magnetic account of Billy, a gay man who, in less tolerant days, pushed the buttoned-up boundaries. But the special joy is Wilton, best known as caustic Maggie Smith’s punching bag on “Downton Abbey.” Onstage at the Duke of York’s Theatre, no plummy riposte gets the better of her.
The Sondheim love fest continues unabated on both sides of the Atlantic. On Tuesday, the hit revival of Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” announced an extension at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre until July 7. A day earlier, London’s Menier Chocolate Factory marked an official opening for its revival of Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Pacific Overtures.”
The production in Menier’s intimate South Bank theater is skillfully directed by Matthew White, on Paul Farnsworth’s lovely set of sliding sculptural metal screens. The story of Japan’s coerced emergence from international isolation by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 is told in this wildly original musical from the Japanese point of view. It is customary for the cast to be of Asian descent, and here, White also recasts women in some of the roles (all in the original Broadway production were played by men). The Shogun, for example, is portrayed by an impressive Saori Oda, who also assays the Madam in the comedy number “Welcome to Kanagawa.”
I missed another brilliant comic song, “Chrysanthemum Tea,” that was cut from the show, according to Weidman’s program note, because “its wit relies on a tone and style which had more to do with the familiar tropes of mid-century American musical comedy than it did with the tone we were attempting to maintain for Japan before Perry’s arrival.”
One worries about too much tone policing. Nevertheless, the musical still holds up grandly, particularly in interludes such as “Please Hello,” a grand musical tour of the hegemony of the superpowers that forcibly dragged Japan into the global marketplace. It also excels thanks to the smashing work of Takuro Ohno as the once-hidebound samurai who falls in love with the West and sings about it wonderfully in “A Bowler Hat.”
It was with White’s production, also featuring splendid work by Jon Chew, as the Reciter, and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as Manjiro, that my theater journey ended. But the attraction for me is so elemental that it won’t be long before I find myself saying again, “please hello.”
Old Friends, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, devised by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Matthew Bourne. Choreography, Stephen Mear; original orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; musical arrangements, Stephen Metcalfe; musical supervision, Stephen Brooker. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 6 at Gielgud Theatre, London. sondheimoldfriends.com.
The House of Bernarda Alba, by Alice Birch, after Federico García Lorca. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Set and costumes, Merle Hensel; lighting, Lee Curran; music, Isobel Waller-Bridge; sound, Peter Rice. With Lizzie Annis, Pearl Chanda, Bryony Hannah, Rosalind Eleazar, Isis Hainsworth. About 2 hours 15 minutes. At National Theatre. nationaltheatre.org.uk.
Backstairs Billy, by Marcelo Dos Santos. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set, Christopher Oram; costumes, Oram and Tom Rand; lighting, Ryan Day; music and sound, Adam Cork. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Jan. 27 at Duke of York’s Theatre. michaelgrandagecompany.com.
Pacific Overtures, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman with additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Matthew White. Set, Paul Farnsworth; costumes, Ayako Maeda; lighting, Paul Pyant; choreography, Ashley Nottingham; musical direction, Paul Bogaev. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 24 at Menier Chocolate Factory. menierchocolatefactory.com.