“What are you going to do in London?” asked the driver of the classic big black London cab who delivered me from Paddington Station to my B&B in Notting Hill.
“Go to the theater,” I told her – yes, her. “Ah!” she answered with a knowing nod, as if to say that was nothing out of the ordinary in this city. I already had tickets to three shows and hopes of squeezing in a fourth. For the record:
Opening night of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” at the Donmar Warehouse was less of an Event than it might have been in New York, even though the Donmar would qualify as Off Broadway rather than On; there was no hooplah, no celebrities in evidence, and if the critics were there that night, they were dressed down like electron-stained wretches everywhere. Giorgio (David Thaxton) was clearly the center of this production, though he had not yet nailed his climactic moment; Elena Roger sang Fosca with a thin, light voice that soudned slightly at odds with the extreme passion at the character’s core.
Alan Bennett’s “Habit of Art” at the National – in which a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden serves as the play within a play that uses its own theatricality to make broader points about artists and art – made a fine afternoon’s entertainment, especially from a second-row seat that cost 10 pounds under the sponsorship of Travelex. I am sorry, though, to have missed the first cast, which included Richard Griffiths as Auden and Frances de le Tour as the stage manager.
I made my maiden voyage to the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark to see its chamber setting of “Aspects of Love,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that has been my secret vice for some years now, possibly because it felt so true to life at the time of its deservedly ill-fated Broadway run in 1990. (I do wish I’d paid more attention to the line “A love affair is not a lifetime,” but I was too busy licking my wounds from one of my own at the time.) Overall, the show is better than it was; moving the original opening number to the first-act curtain spot is a huge improvement, but it’s still essentially a story about bed-hopping by mostly tiresome characters. At least, having seen the Menier’s home space, I now understand its staging of “A Little Night Music” that is now playing on Broadway.
And yes, I did make it back from an interview in Ipswich in time for one more opening night: Michael Gambon’s in “Krapp’s Last Tape” – the best thing I saw in London, as I suspected all along it might be. It was striking how little the script calls for this master of his craft to speak onstage rather than on “tape,” but the opportunity to watch him work with his face and body is priceless.
In my spare time, I went undercover and took the backstage tour of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. While in the Royal Ballet studios, I heard a page for Tamara Rojo, a dancer I probably should have arranged to interview, had I been thinking faster, for the book project that took me to London in the first place. The next week, the Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director, Reid Anderson, told me he, too, had been in the Royal Ballet studios that very day, coaching the dancers in John Cranko’s “Onegin”; by the night it opened, I was already on my way to Stuttgart to interview him. Small world, isn’t it?