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Aisle View From London: Two Smashingly Good Plays

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With two discretionary nights available in London, I asked my favorite expatriot "what's good?" He sent me off to two plays that I very much enjoyed but surely would not have found on my own.

My first playstop was at the Tricycle Theatre for Moira Buffini's Handbagged. This 235-seat house might be described as something akin to New York's Vineyard. What I found was a packed and expectant theatre within a scruffy village arts center, comingling with an adventurous cinema and a lively bar with food.

(There was also an adjacent private room with additional tables that was cordoned off and protected by serious black-suited security men with curly-wired earpieces. Back home I would easily identify them as Secret Service men, except we were in suburban London and they all looked Chinese. Better not to ask.)

If the title Handbagged sounds enigmatic, let me assure you it's not. The four women in the cast sport big black handbags, which are part of their persona and serve as both protection and defense. The characters are called Q (Marion Bailey), Liz (Clare Holman), T (Stella Gonet) and Mags (Fenella Woolgar). That's right; Ms. Buffini's conceit is to give us double views of the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher. Two Elizabeths and two Margarets -- one set middle aged, the other older -- recount their histories, battle it out with each other, and frequently battle it out with their own selves. All in the name of dizzying comedy, contemporary history and political satire.

All four actresses are deft, with the elders afforded more freedom to say what they think which results in funnier material. Ms. Bailey as the older Queen is a special delight, her smile morphing into a perpetual glare of disdain as she snaps "I never said that!" or sometimes "I never said that -- but should have." Buffini further gives us two male actors, Neet Mohan and Jeff Rawle, who play everyone else in sometimes frenetic succession.

As for the title, I suppose Handbagged corresponds to sandbagged. The four ladies are defined by their pearls, broaches and those ever-present black bags, which are not flung about like cudgels but at any moment could be. Buffini upstages these handbags by giving Nancy Reagan a bright red one. Reagan is played by Mr. Mohan, pressed unwillingly into service -- there are no other women in the cast -- and resplendent in red dress, red shoes and red earrings. With no wig and naturally hairy legs, this is a dazzlingly funny First Lady matched by Mr. Rawle as the oblivious President stumbling about telling Russian jokes. Rawle also does a cameo as an even more oblivious Prince Phillip cooking barbecue at Balmoral.

Director Indhu Rubasingham -- working on a spare thrust stage backed with an off-white trellis, two chairs and a tea cart -- keeps everything at high pitch. The whole thing is exceedingly, deftly daffy but at the same time pointed and intelligent.

Handbagged, which remains at the Tricycle through November 16, looks like a potential candidate for a West End transfer. The surfeit of late 20th century English history makes it a drop top-heavy for younger audiences; Ms. Buffini acknowledges this by having Mohan occasionally step out of character to amusingly annotate the text. All that history makes Handbagged less likely for American audiences, other than those who delight in sharp political satire. Let us hope that the folks at 59E59's Brits Off Broadway series brings it to us, lock, stock and handbag.

*

I walked into Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride unfamiliar with the play, unaware that it was a revival of a 2008 Olivier Award-winner and oblivious of the fact that it has already been produced in New York. What I found was a striking and provocative piece, intriguingly written, creatively directed and sensitively performed by a cast of four.

Oliver (Harry Hadden-Paton) is a children's book author, circa 1958, who writes of "secret gardens in London" where there is "the possibility of running completely wild." Sylvia (Hayley Atwell), an ex-actress who is illustrating Oliver's book, senses an unexplainable repressive undercurrent in her husband Philip (Al Weaver) and arranges for the two men to meet. The on-stage chemistry is immediately electric, leading to a conflicted affair after which Philip rejects Oliver and voluntarily undergoes aversion therapy.

At the same time, it is fifty years later; Campbell jumps the years back and forth between the two eras. Oliver, a writer of gay fiction, has been left by his live-in lover Philip (who is repelled by the former's uncontrollable promiscuity). Oliver's best friend Sylvia, an actress, attempts to piece Oliver's life together and bring Philip back. Three subsidiary but critical characters are effectively played by Mathew Horne.

Ms. Campbell's play engrosses the audience from start to finish, making points and contrasting them as the interspersed scenes and the fifty-year span move on. The focus centers not on Oliver (which seems the most active role) but on Sylvia, who can be considered the conscience of the piece; the pivotal scene comes when the 1958 Sylvia sensitively confronts Oliver about his affair with her husband. Ms. Atwell is shatteringly good, and she is matched by Hadden-Paton. Campbell provides her actors with a number of stunning speeches, including a crushing one about an uncle with AIDS, touchingly delivered by Horne.

Discovering that The Pride was produced in New York (in 2010, by MCC in an off-Broadway production directed by Joe Mantello), I looked back at some of the dismissive reviews. Clearly, I saw a very different play. This production of The Pride -- remounted by the original director Jamie Lloyd, at Trafalgar Studios -- is staggeringly good.

*

My final London stop was at the Shaftesbury, to see the newest musical epic in town. From Here to Eternity -- based on the best-selling novel by James Jones and the 1953 film version which won eight Oscars and featured Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr embracing in the sand as the foaming Pacific washed over them -- has been turned, in a manner of speaking, into a musical. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics and coproduced, working with new-to-the-West End composer Stuart Brayson, librettist Bill Oakes and director Tamara Harvey.

The performance started at 7:33; at 10:00 they sang a big number called "From Here to Eternity"; and at 10:06 someone said "Remember this date, December 6, 1941." Immediately after which the bombs started to fall on Pearl Harbor, thanks to the guy in the video projection booth. The show opened on October 23, and let's just say that the locals have dubbed it "From Here to November."