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London Theater on my Mind


As global audiences gather to see Helen Mirren in a filmed National Theater production of Phaedra, I miss the real thing. I want to be at the National Theater in London, watching and listening to extraordinary actors live, onstage. I want to leaf through new British literature at its bookshop, stroll through lobbies entertained by pianists and violinists, and queue up for fabulous ice creams at intermission.

Every year, I go to London to get my theater fix. It's relatively easy for me because for 25 years now, I have hosted a London theater tour over the New Year's holiday. My small group of fellow theater lovers in tow, I hit six shows in eight days, and it never seems too much. Not with the sorts of shows that London theaters have been mounting for as long as I can remember.

As far back as the 1986-87 season, my group and I saw the original production of The Phantom of the Opera, and, over the years, of Miss Saigon, The Madness of George III, Sunset Boulevard and Stephen Daldry's terrific revival of An Inspector Calls. More recently, we saw the first incarnations of Mamma Mia!, The History Boys, Frost/Nixon, Rock' n' Roll, and Billy Elliot The Musical.

One after another of these shows cross the Atlantic, landing on Broadway and, often, Los Angeles and elsewhere. But they never seem quite the same to me. Times Square is too crowded, and the Music Center complex isn't crowded enough. I long to walk along the Thames a little before heading into the National Theater, or to amble through Covent Garden before turning into the Donmar Warehouse. I want to enjoy the newest writing from David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett right away, with the original cast, in its first staging. Ditto whatever new dance theater piece has just been crafted by Matthew Bourne.

This December, for instance, I've already booked the upcoming Donmar Warehouse production of screenwriter John Logan's new play, Red, which stars Alfred Molina as artist Mark Rothko. To keep up with the latest wrinkle in London musicals, I'll be in the audience for the popular Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, based on the film. And, at the National, I'm looking forward to Nation, based on Terry Pratchett's recent novel. Following such successes as His Dark Materials, Coram Boy and War Horse, Nation continues the National's efforts to transform fantasy and adventure novels into engrossing theater, this time adapting Pratchett's tale of two teens building a new world after a tsunami.

Should all go according to plan, Nation would be the third National Theater production later bound for the world's movie houses. But I don't intend to wait for that. In just a few months, I'll be London-bound once again, ready and eager for theatrical alchemy -- as it happens.