THE BLOG
11/21/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

First Nighter: In London With "Strangers on a Train," "Arturo Ui," "Barking in Essex"

London--Perhaps it has everything to do with what you choose to see, but right now in London there's a strong sense of déjà vu--a sizable helping of of everything old is new again. I've already reported on the revival of the Jez Butterworth's 1995 Mojo, the transfer of James Jones's 1951 novel From Here to Eternity to the stage (a first, but still...) and Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, a first-time West End staging of P. G. Wodehouse's most famous characters, who've been around for close to a century.
Also never on stage before but present now is Strangers on a Train. The 1950 Patricia Highsmith first novel was bought by Alfred Hitchcock--keeping his name out of it--for a stingy $7500 and then liberally tinkered with, mostly for purposes of remaining within the Hollywood code limits.
The movie--which stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker as men who meet by chance and get into an ill-fated discussion about swapping murders--is considered a classic now, although Highsmith's tale is far more cynical than Hitchcock allowed.
For that reason a reviewer might hope that Craig Warner, who adapted the novel for this go at the Gielgud, would have been content to revert to the tough-minded, downbeat author's plot. Not so. Warner has taken his own liberties and come up with an impossibly histrionic storyline that, yes, has psychopath Bruno (Jack Huston) murdering the wife of architect Guy (Laurence Fox) and Guy killing Bruno's rich father--according to the fantasy Highsmith has the pair spin on the fateful train ride.
But then Warner goes off on credulity-straining tangents of his own. In particular, he introduces a revenge that Bruno takes on Guy and pregnant second wife Anne (Miranda Raison) that amounts to some far-fetched developments audiences aren't going to accept easily.
Though Huston is admirable at playing Bruno's persistently disorienting charm, Fox--so good as Inspector Lewis's sidekick in the television series--is at sea in this role. More disappointing is that neither actor is able to invest the men's weird link with the sexual overtones and undertones called for. Among the other cast members, inconsistently directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, only supporting players Tim Ahern, Nick Malinowski and Christian McKay pull their weight. Imogen Stubbs as Bruno's doting mum Elsie is surprisingly overwrought while she and Fox as Guy play out a situation that foreshadows the disturbing mother-son bond in Hitchcock's Psycho.
What's outstanding about the production and perhaps the reason to see it despite the failings is the look and sound of it. Done in black, white and grey, this means that Tim Goodchild's fascinating and appropriate merry-go-round-like set, Dona Granata's evocative costumes, Tim Lutkin's slasher lighting, Peter Wilms's hard-hitting projections (with huge locomotive bearing down on the audience) add up to a grand film-noir tribute.
Avgoustos Psillas uses jagged, anxiety-provoking Hitchcockian music (is it lifted from various films the master unleashed?) as well as Frank Sinatra singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" and Johnny Mathis intoning "Chances" are. Presumably, the famous songs have been chosen for the comment their titles make on the proceedings.
That the songs are decidedly late '50s-early '60s, however, with Stubbs wearing a '40s snood, thereby fudging the time frame is only a minor set-back in a larger disappointing context.
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Henry Goodman plays the title character in Bertolt Brecht's 1941 satire, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, but he's really enacting the playwright's version of Adolf Hitler, and as with everything Goodman does, he's sensational at it.
The series of mean vignettes that comprise the play, brought to the Duchess from Chichester, are perhaps more repetitiously one-note than a patron would like. Nevertheless, Brecht's frequent lifting from Shakespeare's histories and tragedies to make his point about the inevitable abuse of power by those who single-mindedly seek it--and who might have been stopped in the process--has its indisputable effect.
As with The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, Brecht sets the jeremiad in America, in Al Capone's Chicago. Director Jonathan Church adds to George Tabori's translation, as tweaked by Alistair Beaton, with a honky-tonk band playing and singing Jazz Age songs.
Goodman's Arturo Ui begins as a bent little man spouting malapropisms, who, once the acting coach he employs (Keith Baxter) improves his walk and talk, steadily turns into a suave menace. It's a masterful performance, supported well by Michael Feast, William Gaunt, David Sturzaker, Joe McGann, Colin Stinton, Lizzy McInnerny and several others as the Goebbels, Goering and others of this unrelentingly angry portrait.
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The only new play I've seen is Clive Exton's last, Barking in Essex, at Wyndham's, a brittle, occasionally funny look at an obscenely monied but ignorant family that loses its suspicious bankroll by the second act, where it also loses whatever dramatic pull it had and indelicately falls apart. The hugely popular Lee Evans does has best mugging, along with beloved Sheila Hancock, Keeley Hawes, Karl Johnson and Allegra Tennyson on Simon Higlett's hilarious first-act here's-the-nouveau-riche-set set, but all their efforts--and that includes director Harry Burton's--are really to no ultimate avail.