Stuck for something to do on a Saturday in London? After The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard's National Theatre trilogy reviewed in the last "London Calling," another of Britain's playwright knights, Alan Ayckbourn, now offers another opportunity to while away an entire Saturday with his Damsels in Distress trilogy that has opened at the Duchess Theatre.
While Sir Tom's plays were separate but sequential plays about 19th-century Russian revolutionary thought, Sir Alan offers three completely distinct plays, all of which happen to be set in the same swanky riverside apartment, and populated by different characters (four women, three men) who are played by the same versatile actors in each play.
Thematically, they're united only by the fact that each play features women in various states of physical or emotional crisis, hence the umbrella title, Damsels in Distress. In RolePlay (easily the best of the three plays), a couple are preparing for the arrival of their respective parents when a gangster's moll literally drops in from the apartment above as she tries to escape her minder's clutches. She then proceeds to wreck havoc on the important dinner party that follows. In the somewhat bleak GamePlan, a woman who once used to run offices is now forced to clean them to make a living, while her 16-year-old daughter turns to prostitution to help her mother out financially. And in FlatSpin, a young would-be actress finds herself unwittingly embroiled in a drug bust when she freelances as an apartment caretaker.
While only RolePlay strikes me as the kind of classic Ayckbourn comedy that leaves one at once weak with laughter and deep in recognition of the foibles of its very human characters, the joy of seeing all three plays lies in watching this superb though unknown acting ensemble assume such a range of different roles. In the process, this company—who did these plays together first at the Stephen Joseph Theatre that Ayckbourn runs in the seaside town of Scarborough in Yorkshire last year—knocks the socks off most of their starrier West End counterparts.
Among the names to watch out for in the future: the astonishing Alison Pargeter goes hilariously from streetwise moll to insecure actress and then geeky schoolgirl in a series of turns that would, individually, make her career, but now must surely make her a star. Not since Lia Williams was first spied in Ayckbourn's The Revengers' Comedies has there been such an extraordinary new comic discovery.
Robert Austin, Saskia Butler, and Bill Champion also stand out in all three plays, but RolePlay is all but stolen by an utterly hilarious performance from Jacqueline King as the sozzled mother of the host, who can only be relied upon to say the wrong, if most truthful, thing.
While these star-making performances come from unknowns in the West End, Jerry Hall—world famous as a lanky model and former wife of Mick Jagger—is starring in Benchmark, a new play at New End Theatre, a 70-seater fringe venue in North London's Hampstead. And not filling them, either. Only 20 people were in the audience for the Sunday matinee I saw, thus demolishing the effectiveness of celebrity casting in a stroke.
Not that the show deserved a bigger house. But Hall remains both radiant and ravishing, her mane of blonde hair cascading over her shoulders and the kind of limbs that only the floor stops from going on forever, as someone once said of another long-legged actress. And she has certainly gained in assurance as an actress, too, since her last appearances on a London stage dressed (and briefly undressed) as Mrs. Robinson in the West End production of The Graduate, where she took over from Kathleen Turner.
But if, like me, you found The Graduate dramatically wanting and a challenge for anyone to animate, let alone a performer as inexperienced as Ms. Hall, that play was King Lear next to the feeble concoction that serves as her vehicle this time, which is really much ado about nothing. Hall plays a sometime movie star called Sugar Moran, who has summoned two of her ex-husbands to a park bench reunion. None of the characters in Bud Shrake and Michael Rudman's play are very convincingly drawn, and it is slackly directed by Rudman, too. It's unimaginable that this is the same director who once piloted Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway.
Equally dismal in its own way is 125th Street at the Shaftesbury Theatre, a new British-originated musical. Perfunctorily set at Harlem's Apollo Theatre to justify that title, it is really little more than a karaoke show of '60s pop hits, and comes from the same duo who brought us the dire (but very long-running, at least over here) Buddy—director Rob Bettinson and writer Alan Janes (who co-wrote what passes as a script here with Bettinson).
This scrappy show, lazily thrown together with the cheapest of sets and the cheesiest of scripts, offers more than audience participation. It actually invites members of the audience up on the stage to sing whatever they wish (as long as the pianist can pick out the tune), at which point it abandons all hope of maintaining context or credibility.
Next to George C. Wolfe's slick paean to the Apollo in Harlem Song, currently running at that hallowed address, this is an insult as well as an outrage. Yet I must record, too, that the audience went absolutely wild at the end, standing to hoot and holler and cheer and whistle, with some of them dancing in the aisles and almost all of them clapping along. Why on earth are they embracing it so fondly? Partly, it's a question of familiarity breeding content. This is another in the burgeoning genre of jukebox shows that strings together songs you already know to supposedly guarantee a lively night out. But you could have an equally lively (and considerably cheaper) one in if you just spin a '60s collection on your CD player at home.
Finally, one of the little-mentioned treats at the National Theatre is its weekly series of pre-performance platform shows, in which actors, writers, and directors currently associated with productions there and elsewhere take to the stage to answer questions about their lives and careers, and in the process provide the public with the kind of private glimpse of a public personality that is usually only available to journalists who are writing profiles. At the recent platform given by Judi Dench in a sold-out Olivier Theatre, done in the midst of rehearsals for her next West End appearance opposite Maggie Smith in David Hare's new play, The Breath of Life, opening at the Haymarket next month, she called it "the hardest thing I've ever done." Though it's been commonly assumed that this will be the first time she and Dame Maggie have appeared on stage together, she corrected this, saying that they were in the same 1958 company for productions of As You Like It and The Double Dealer. She also said that a future life for the play, such as a Broadway run, would very much depend on whether they enjoyed doing it this time. Asked about her last West End role, in a revival of Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family, she replied that she and the cast "had a lot of fun, but I'm not sure whether the audience did," going on to call it "a rum old play." Aside from her well-known refusal to read a script before accepting a role, she also revealed her failure to see all the films she appears in. She told the audience she has yet to see either The Shipping News or Chocolat.