THE BLOG
03/05/2013 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

First Nighter: Rowan Atkinson, Helen Mirren, Terrific Others Occupy London-Theater Hot Seats

London -- Due to one of those odd coincidences, theater at the moment seems to be about chairs. Rowan Atkinson sits in a relatively comfy one throughout the flawless revival of Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms, at Wyndham's.

Unwinding in the faculty room of a Cambridge language school, the play is a piercing character study of the title figure, who has chosen, a colleague observes, "not to let the world impinge." on him. Despite a series of disturbing incidents affecting every one of his colleagues, Quartermaine maintains his distracted equanimity -- frequently responding to whatever occurs with a sunny "terrific."

Atkinson's decision to take on the role is bold, since his reputation rests on his playing almost anything but someone as relentlessly passive as Quartermaine. Undoubtedly hoping his audience (wide in this country) won't be confused by the lack of Atkinson-like laughs Quartermaine elicits, the resourceful actor depicts this woefully sad sack without resorting to a single wink at the patrons. It's a thoroughly remarkable and appropriately self-effacing performance.

The supporting players -- reliable Richard Eyre directs -- are smartly cast, with each receiving at least one spotlighted scene. They all rise to the occasions in Gray's skillfully heart-breaking blend of comedy and tragedy.
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The focal chair in This House, the extremely involving play about politics, at the National's Olivier (moved up from the much smaller Cottesloe), is the ornamental one claimed by the speaker of the House of Commons. Not that he (Andrew Havill, Gilles Taylor split the role over the two acts) remains glued to his seat. Nevertheless, there the famed chair stays, often lighted for abiding significance.

Most of the action on stage unfolds in two areas representing the enclaves where the Tory and Labor whips wield, as playwright James Graham wants to demonstrate, ineffable power. These aggressive men and one woman pull every acceptable trick they can -- as well as every unacceptable trick they can get away with -- to hold on to the house majority.

Although the names Harold Wilson and Edward Heath are dropped briefly, most of the MPs whom Graham mentions through his whip-smart (pun intended, of course) dialogue are referred to by their constituencies. MP Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is known here as Finchley.

The effect from start to finish -- with non-stop hustle -- is Graham's way of focusing blinding attention on often hot-headed, often cold-as-ice individuals whose names the British public don't ever know but who, Graham insists, are the true government deciders. Director Jeremy Herrin and the large, expert cast make certain the point isn't missed.
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Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) perches straight-backed in a period chair during The Audience, at the Gielgud, written by Peter Morgan (who wrote Mirren's The Queen flick). Facing her in a matching period chair are sequentially but not chronologically several of the 12 prime ministers who have served her and her kingdom.

Because I saw the play -- received with the same enthusiasm as is This House -- a week before its official opening with understudies (it bows tonight, March 5), I'm ethically obligated not to review it, but the sight of those ever-present chairs is too tempting to resist citing. Also, since I reviewed Harold Pinter's Old Times in a previous blog, I won't go on about it, other than to say that the upstage club chair in which Rufus Sewell spends a good deal of the 80-minute stage time -- and in which he looks terminally perplexed at the fade-out -- is again a significant part of the set.
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Keep in mind, though, other recommended works in a notably above-par season don't hinge on chairs, although Simon Stephens's Port, at the National's Lyttelton, begins and ends with its protagonist in the front seat of a parked car. She's 14-year-old Racheal Keats (the multi-faceted Kate O'Flynn), who's growing up in northeast England's Stockport.

And not growing up easily. Over the course of two acts, she quarrels with her mom (Liz White) and 6-year-old brother Billy (Mike Noble), has a teen-age romance with Danny Miller (Calum Callaghan) and is generally, not atypically troubled. In act two, Racheal is 26 and married to abusive husband Kevin Brake (Jack Deam), whom she leaves with intentions of possibly going after now-married Danny.

Port, then, is a traditional look at a young woman's journey to herself, and is sensitively directed by Marianne Elliott. This is the same Marianne Elliott, who directed the same Simon Stephen's National Theatre hit (adapted from the Mark Haddon novel), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, now transferred to the West End's Apollo, is undoubtedly the most theatrical production in town. Okay, it is, along with Warhorse, which Elliott also directed and with which it shares the theme of a young man obsessively driven towards a single, elusive goal.

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In the Donmar Warehouse revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells (with Patrick Marber tweaks), no chair has pride of place. That goes to Amy Morgan, playing title character Rose Trelawny with every ounce of charm required.

Trelawny -- the pride of the Wells (that's Sadler's Well) -- quits the company to marry young upper-classman Arthur Gower (Joshua Silver). She quickly encounters trouble crossing social strata and is soon back with the troupe but without her former élan.

Pinero was knocking the British class system--as so many English playwrights do, no matter what the time-frame. He comes out in favor of the accepting thespians. He surely has little sympathy for their supposed wealthy betters, as represented by Arthur's tyrannical dad, Sir William (Ron Cook in another of his always strong outings). Joe ("Atonement," "Anna Karenina") Wright, making a stage debut, nicely directs the fine cast.

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Antony Sher, as Wilhelm Voigt who becomes the eponymous (real-life) character in The Captain of Kopenick, at the National's Olivier, has no time to sit. He's the ne'er-do-well in Carl Zuckermayer's 1930 swipe (Ron Hutchinson's music-oriented adaptation) at German docility during Adolf Hitler's rise. When masquerading as the dictatorial officer, Voigt/Kopenick serves as the theme's agent. Sher, who never misses his actor's targets whatever he does, roundly hits the bull's-eye in a florid Adrian Noble production that boasts many effective Brechtian moments.

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