The U.K. Way: A Week of London Theater

From rebelling tots to rocking Shakespeare

It’s a legitimately bold show—to the extent that you wonder whether or not it could ever be staged in New York, especially at a venue with the National’s prominence. By offering so few varying viewpoints, it confronts Islam with a mirror of its own narrow-mindedness. It also asks a largely left-leaning audience to take a stand as to where they’ll draw the line against moral relativism. Unfortunately, this ethical steadfastness forces a tonal sameness. Can We Talk plays out so intensely and so unceasingly that there’s little opportunity for dramatic arcs. The ultimate effect is battering rather than needling. Does DV8 really want to start a conversation, or simply quash opposing views?

Conversely, it seemed everyone wanted to talk about The Recruiting Officer, Josie Rourke’s triumphant debut as the new artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. As she followed heavyweights Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage, speculation was rife as to whether Rourke, the former director of the Bush Theatre, could fill those very sizeable boots. Yes, she can. And the trousers, braided jackets, and plumed hats, too. For her first effort, she picked George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy about two rival recruiting officers (a profession Farquhar himself practiced) sent to enroll the young men of Shrewsbury. With candles and rough hewn boards, she transforms the Donmar into a Restoration playhouse, albeit with fewer prostitutes.

Rourke has succeeded in some very clever casting, particularly regarding the male actors. She manages to wrangle the immense comic talents of both Mackenzie Crook (recently seen in Jerusalem), as the scheming secretary Kite, and Mark Gatiss (of the BBC’s Sherlock), as the foppish Captain Brazen, without having either upstage the other. And audiences should doff their caps to Tobias Menzies, known to New York audiences from The History Boys, in the lead role of Captain Plume. Rourke manages to make the tedious scenes funny, the stock bits fresh, the sexual politics startling, and largely through the use of music, imbues the whole with a melancholy beneath the bawdry, no less unexpected than it is welcome.

A pleasingly very loose Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Keith Pattison
A pleasingly very loose Midsummer Night's Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith.
The Recruiting Officer reveals that the Donmar has recruited a good new artistic director.
Johann Persson
The Recruiting Officer reveals that the Donmar has recruited a good new artistic director.

Historians place The Recruiting Officer as the first documented play ever performed in New York. Perhaps some clever producers will arrange for it to have another showing. Producers have already agreed to bring Matilda, the riotous adaptation of Roald Dahl’s kiddie revenge tale to Broadway next spring. Now running in the West End, scripted by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by the actor and comedy songwriter Tim Minchin, it concerns a bookish five-year-old girl (a rotating cast of four young actresses) who uses psychic powers to get even with her neglectful parents and abusive headmistress. This headmistress, Miss Truchbull, is played by the astonishing Bertie Carvel, a handsome young man who metamorphoses into a gorgon with a weightlifters’ shoulders and an eerily feminine voice. As musicals about telekinetics go, Matilda can kick Carrie up and down the playground.

Directed by Matthew Warchus, the show relies on a cast of both adults and children, some of them much tinier than their Billy Elliot peers. Like Billy Elliot, this is a musical about a child that should appeal to theatergoers of any age. It’s much sillier than Billy, though strangely just as likely to wring tears. In a song late in the play, the children push themselves on playground swings as they sing “When I Grow Up,” a wistful tune about how maturity will bring strength, bravery, knowledge, and the chance to “eat sweets every day.” (Let’s hope no one tells these mini thesps that it usually doesn’t work out that way.) Matilda is smart about children—their abilities, their anxieties, their gross-out humor. And Warchus is smart about his kiddie cast, letting them ham it up in the way children will before corralling them into disciplined dance numbers.

Early in the first act, Matilda offers an anthem in support of tot rebellion. Our heroine sings, “We're told we have to do what we're told, but surely/Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” Surely she’s right, but sometimes, in London, in New York, and particularly in the case of Matilda, you can content yourself with merely being very, very good.

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