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This summer's theatre in London

Published:Sunday | July 17, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Marquee for Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. - Photo by Laura Tanna

Laura Tanna, Contributor

On June 19 I saw the performance of a lifetime, Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic, only the second night's performance and he was magnificent! Every word of Shakespeare fell from his lips as though he were speaking everyday English - nothing stilted, nothing artificial - so natural that the staging with modern clothes seemed appropriate.

Though there was nothing natural about the turn of his leg. How on earth did he manage to appear so twisted, hobbling at angles for an entire performance? And the ending - I won't spoil it for you by telling, but it is spectacular. How long this actor can maintain the physicality of the role as it is staged is anyone's guess. But my advice to you is to see Richard III at the Old Vic Theatre in South London as soon as you can. Moviegoers will recognise Spacey from his film roles in The Usual Suspects, for which he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor and American Beauty, for which he won an Oscar as Best Actor. Since 2003, he has been artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company to the delight of all who experience the company's terrific productions.

What's more, this production, directed by Sam Mendes, gives a lie to the belief that English roles can't be played by other ethnicities. Two black British actors made news last month announcing they were leaving to work in the United States because of how difficult it is to be cast in non-black roles in the UK, yet in Richard III Nigeria-born actor Chuk Iwuji, cast as the Duke of Buckingham, is totally convincing as the malevolent Richard's accomplice in his dastardly climb to power. Iwuji's career is a story of how talent will triumph. Studying economics at Yale in the States, he got a part in a university play and when the head of drama saw his performance, offered Iwuji an acting scholarship and the rest is history. This production ends September 10. If you don't get to London before then, look for it opening in New York in January 2012.

Our next three plays, musicals all, took us on a tour of demonstrably different cultures, each theatre absolutely packed with enthusiastic supporters, some obviously return regulars. My favourite was Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward Theatre. I'd already seen it in Las Vegas where the singing was better but I'd still tell you to see this production which tells the true story of working class fellows from New Jersey who became one of America's singing sensations as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. This musical weaves their hit songs Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Oh What A Night, etc. into a gripping storyline of their rise to fame, fortune and varying degrees of personal success or failure. The musical is all the more powerful for those emotionally invested in these songs as adolescents - Rag Doll took me right back to my first summer romance - but the music and story of Jersey Boys appeals to a new generation as evidenced by simultaneous performances in many cities. So if you miss it in London, you can see it in New York.

The most questionable musical for a Jamaican theatre aficionado would be Pricilla Queen of the Desert playing at the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue until at least January 7, 2012. A raunchy tribute to gay culture with a flamboyant set and even more flamboyant performers, the poignant storyline, of a gay club performer who discovers he has a son and sets out across the desert in a bus with two friends to meet the boy, is subsumed in a blaze of familiar song and dance numbers, some exceedingly erotic.

Audience touched

I Will Survive, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Shake Your Groove Thing and so on had the audience on their feet clapping and dancing. Especially touching was the fading drag queen who has her moments of tenderness. Many Jamaicans would find this production shocking, but the audience was packed with same-sex couples, tourists and a contingent of Australians where this musical was first created.

Australia also gave birth to The Merchants of Bollywood, making a return to the Peacock Theatre, with a colourful set and spiritual theme honouring the original film industry in Bombay, and a granddaughter's search for her destiny, as a Bollywood choreographer or keeper of the ancestral temple to Shiva in the deserts of Rajasthan. With one or two too many Bollywood dance numbers for my taste, this was a huge hit with the many families of Indo-Pakistani heritage - from toddlers to grandparents - who loved this production. Unfortunately for you, it closed July 3 but another musical which promises to be stunning is Fela!, opening 20 July until August 28 at the Sadler's Wells in Islington. Based on the life of Nigerian musician, composer and pioneer of Afrobeat music, Fela Kuti, this musical about an extraordinarily talented artist and human rights political activist features the jazz, funk and African rhythms which have catapulted Fela to international fame. I'm devastated that I'll miss this, but hope you can get there.

Wondering if old-fashioned British theatre is dead? No way. We caught Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, set near an air base in 1941 during World War II, starring Sienna Miller and a superb cast. This was a brilliant play, but alas for you, it closed June 11. But if you think theatre takes place only on the stage in London, then you should have been there the same day when our taxi by Trafalgar Square was suddenly enveloped in the NAKED BIKE RIDE! I kid you not! Some 50 cyclists, stark naked, penises open to the breeze, pulled up at the stoplight beside us with nary a policeman in sight. Apparently, it was a demonstration starting at Hyde Park Corner to protest against oil dependency, the car culture, the vulnerability of bicyclists and the need to protect the environment. I'm here to say it was not a pretty sight but you can't say London in the summer isn't multi-cultural and highly eccentric.