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Trouble at the National

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Trouble at the National

It matters little when measured against the real crises—storms, floods, train crashes, and fuel blockades—plaguing the U.K., but conflict at the Royal National Theatre can certainly be added to the long list of Britain's current woes. Criticism of director Trevor Nunn's artistic policy ("too many crowd-pleasers") began last spring, but in recent weeks, administrative problems have come to light, and these have led to strongly-worded attacks on Nunn and calls for his resignation. Those problems in brief: 1. Nunn was forced to deputize on absentee director Tim Supple's production of Romeo and Juliet. The opening was delayed. The reviews were poor. 2. Nunn was forced to deputize on "unwell" director Conal Morrison's production of Peer Gynt. This opening, delayed by three weeks, is now scheduled for Nov. 13. 3. Nunn has cancelled the National's Christmas show, Alice in Wonderland, and replaced it with a brought-in production of Singin' in the Rain, which already played the theatre earlier this year. He has also postponed a new staging of The Playboy of the Western World.

On Nov. 1, Nunn announced that his current acting company will be disbanded in January. It was formed only four months ago. "We have a box office imperative to meet," said a theatre spokesman, "and, sadly, we are not meeting it." There are rumors that the National could be as much as £1,000,000 in debt. This is denied by acting finance director Anthony Blackstock. "It is not a well-informed figure," he claims. It is now clear, however, that the National's financial position is not healthy. In August, the previous finance director, Lew Hodges, was escorted from the building by security guards.

The picture that is emerging is of a great director unable to administrate and unwilling to delegate. "The first person to agree would be Trevor Nunn," admitted executive director Genista McIntosh in a BBC television interview. There has been difficulty, she added, in attracting young associate directors. There is every indication that this storm is not going to blow over, and that it may develop into the kind of hurricane that nearly destroyed the Royal Opera House.

West End's Dog Days

For most of the summer, the West End has been like a millpond—nothing has moved. Lumbering dinosaurs like Phantom, Cats, and Starlight Express were joined by tedious new musicals that endured terrible reviews and still play to acres of empty seats, but will not close. At least one is known to be running as a tax loss. There has also been much xenophobic criticism of the number of shows—old war-horses and movie adaptations—dragged out as vehicles for Hollywood stars. The press battered the latest, The Seven Year Itch, with Daryl Hannah, at the Queen's. "A terrible play," groaned the Independent and, comparing it to others, added, "Theatreland is like a cross between a mortuary and the Street of Shame." The sole exception is Madame Melville, with Macaulay Culkin, at the Vaudeville. Critics were skeptical about this comeback by a troubled child star, but completely won over by a delightful performance in a delightful play.

Now, as winter approaches, the West End logjam is beginning to break up. The first of the musical failures to go was Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which closed at the Playhouse on Nov. 4. Immediately afterwards, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended months of speculation by admitting that Whistle Down the Wind will end its run at the Aldwych on Jan. 6. He has no doubt decided to concentrate his energies on his new show, The Beautiful Game, which received generally encouraging notices when it opened at the Cambridge on Sept. 26. Inspired, perhaps, by the minimalism of Chicago, which soldiers on at the Adelphi, Lloyd Webber has gone back to basics for this story of a soccer team torn apart by religious intolerance in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1969. The simple tale is done on a bare stage—with no special effects! A football ballet, choreographed by Meryl Tankard, is a particularly fine piece of theatre. Theoretically, the show is cheap enough to run for years. Even so, the Really Useful Group has begun an advertising blitz surprisingly early.

Over Here

Treat of the year: Road to Heaven, performed by the Young@Heart Chorus, from Northampton, Mass., whose members range in age from 68 to 88. The sight of seniors singing The Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" had cynical critics in ecstasy. The show, part of the London International Festival of Theatre, played the Lyric Hammersmith in West London...American Melanie May Po was one of six finalists in BBC Radio 2's first Voice of Musical Theatre competition, held at the New Theatre, Cardiff. Winner was 19-year-old Laura-Michelle Kelly, currently appearing in Whistle Down the Wind...Farrah Fawcett opens in Michael T. Folie's The Adjustment at the newly reopened Arts Theatre in early 2001...Calista Flockhart will make her West End stage debut in an as yet unidentified "American classic," scheduled for the Savoy next summer.

Briefly

British Equity decided to reveal that it expelled SAG strike-breaking Elizabeth Hurley way back in 1998 "because we hadn't had any subs [that's Brit for "dues"] from her since 1995"...British researchers, who fed data into a new piece of computer software, concluded that Shakespeare's last play, King Henry VIII, was the sole work of the Bard. (Even the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations credits the work to Shakespeare and actor John Fletcher)...Sadler's Wells Theatre, which reopened in 1998 after a £36,000,000 face-lift paid for by the National Lottery, has denied a tabloid claim that it is on the brink of bankruptcy. On Oct. 19, in an out of court settlement, the theatre paid "approximately half" the £1,000,000-plus sought by an electrical contractor. Outstanding claims made against the Wells are said to total more than £10,000,000.

The 1931 Westminster Theatre is almost certain to be demolished now that Westminster City councilors have approved a planning application for a new development. Paul Scofield made his debut here in 1940 in Desire Under the Elms. Recently, the theatre has been open only sporadically for Fringe productions...While the prestigious Almeida Theatre in Islington, North London, is rebuilt, productions will be staged in a former bus station in nearby King's Cross. The first, Frank Wedekind's Lulu, starring Anna Friel in the title role, opens in March.

Finally

"I didn't know they don't have to score. There is an inherent problem in any game where you don't have to score points." - Samuel L. Jackson, filming in Liverpool, doesn't like soccer.

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