Notes on My Theatergoing in London
by John Stoltenberg
My four days in London last weekend offered time slots to see six plays—four evenings and two matinees. My strategy was to seek intriguing, fresh writing in a mix of West End, Off West End, and Fringe productions. After poking around to learn what would be playing during my stay, I picked the following six shows (ranked in order of how much I admired them, from least to most).
The Spoils: This vehicle was written for himself by Jesse Eisenberg, who stars. It had a run in New York before transferring to the Trafalgar Studio. My husband was keen to see it, I’ve always liked Eisenberg’s work in film, and I lucked out and got us into the sold-out last show of the run. Eisenberg gives a fascinating and disturbing performance in the role of a disturbed, privileged, massively un-self-aware millennial. Really, the guy is so racist, sexist, and all-around boorish that it’s a wonder the other characters, all age-mate friends, stick around with him for the full two acts. The script vainly tries to redeem Eisenberg’s unpleasant-if-clever character with a cheesy sentimental ending, which I found unpersuasive. And on reflection I could not fathom Eisenberg’s point in writing the play to begin with—except possibly to show off his bag of tics.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery: This one was a typically British out-and-out farce, from a creative team whose comedic franchise includes two other hits currently on the boards, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It’s the sort of tourist-crowd-pleasing lite entertainment I ordinarily would not expend a show slot on, but this one caught my eye because the titular theft caper takes place in my hometown, Minneapolis. Large portions of the play were indeed gut-bustingly hilarious (as a sign outside the Criterion Theater touted). But overall this was never an experience that would stay with me. Plus the Minneapolis angle turned out to be completely peripheral. The actors’ diction was not remotely Minnesotan; and curiously a skyline in the set purporting to be Minneapolis showed the city’s singular landmark Foshay Tower with a 9/11-ish twin.
The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor: I discovered this lyrical gay-themed autobiographical gem by Simon Blow playing on the Fringe at the Old Red Lion Theatre, one of London’s unique pub venues. Downstairs the place was packed with blokes rowdily watching a Sunday afternoon sporting match, their pints in hand; and upstairs was a quiet intimate black box where if you sat in the front row you would just about be in the sex scenes. There were more people in the cast than in the audience (though the previous night had sold out), but that didn’t matter one whit. It was an enthralling, idiosyncratic script extremely well directed and performed.
The Truth: This West End hit caught my eye when I read that Studio had slated the hot young French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father for next season—and wow, what a smart and crafty writer he is, in a terrific translation by Christopher Hampton. The four-character play turns on marital infidelity, a theatrical trope I usually find a yawn, but Zeller’s dazzling iteration had me laughing at its surprises and insights and gasping at its audacity from start to finish. Note to Studio Artistic Director David Muse: After The Father, please bring this one to DC next.
They Drink It in the Congo: I didn’t yet understand the title when I read the promo blurb about this new play by Adam Brace, which I caught in its second preview at the Almeida Theatre. It’s about liberal do-gooders in London trying to do something about the inhuman calamity that is the Congo, by putting on a festival to create media buzz. Conflicts arise between the festival organizers and the Congolese ex-pats they paternalistically try to enlist. The play is sprawling, with lots of characters and scene segues, snappy/witty dialog, and a brutal depiction of rape as a weapon of war. The piece reminded me in form and purpose of Mosaic’s epic play about Rwanda. The three-hour production was suspended at intermission, due to an actor’s injury, so I got a refund and a free drink at the bar but saw only half the play staged. I then bought and read the script to find out what happens and was knocked out by the scope, pace, and precision of the writing. I would see this work in its entirety in a heartbeat. (Not sure how well it would land in the States, however; a lot of unfamiliar political and cultural stuff flies by fast for American ears. I had to Google to find out what Londoners would likely know the title referred to: a juice drink called Umbongo whose bouncy, unfactual ad jingle goes “They drink it in the Congo.”)
Rotterdam: Okay, this new play by Jon Brittain blew me away. Loved it. I figured I’d find it interesting; its sex/gender/identity/love theme was right up my alley. But I had no idea how absolutely entertaining and brilliant it would be. It’s about a woman who’s reluctant to come out to her parents, and the person she has believed for seven years to be her lesbian lover—but who reveals to her he wants to live as the man he has always known himself to be. This was another script I bought and read, and every riveting page confirmed my impression that this is breakthrough work about gender identity and fluidity and the most insightful portrayal of a trans character I’ve yet to see on stage. Note #2 to David Muse: Rotterdam closes August 27. You still have time to scout it.