London -- If you're heading this way with theatergoing in mind, here's a short list of what's on offer in the next couple of months:
Versailles: June 28, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of World War I beginning. It's a century since Serbian dissident Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and the English are preparing for what won't, of course, be a celebration. At the National Portrait Gallery, a devastating exhibit called "The Great War in Portraits" has opened and is drawing crowds. At the Donmar Warehouse, Peter Gill has written and directed what's instantly the most interesting play on view here. It concerns not the outbreak of the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It unfolds in the 1919 aftermath when various countries, all with conflicting motives gathered in Paris to cobble together the Versailles Treaty. Acts one and three of the drama take place in Kent, in the Rawlinson drawing room, presided over by Edith Rawlinson (Francesca Annis). Her son Leonard (Gwilym Lee) is about to head for the Continent as a treaty adjunct, while daughter Mabel (Tamla Kari) can't decide whether to marry returning veteran Hugh Skidmore (Josh O'Connor). In both acts, others turn up to debate all sides of the issue at length, touching, among other matters, on racism and anti-Semitism. In the second act, Leonard is seen not only toiling at his Paris desk but also confronting the ghost of Gerald Chater (Tom Hughes), who's been killed in battle and is the other half of Leonard's pre-war romantic liaison. Versailles may not be a great play -- the schematic discussions do run on -- but it is beautifully played and, more to the point, important as a smart comment on why the war to end all wars didn't.
A Taste of Honey: The precocious play Shelagh Delaney wrote when she was 19 is the happy object of a revival in the National's Lyttelton. This is not to say that the mother-daughter friction unflinchingly examined is frothy as a day in the country. The drama, set in 1958-9 ("Nature Boy" is at the chart tops), is the opposite. All that 40-ish Helen (Lesley Sharp) has to show for a life wasted on abusive men is 16-year-old daughter Josephine (Kate O'Flynn). She even abandons Jo in the dingy flat they've found in order to marry alcoholic Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly). Jo, thinking she's in love with Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a black sailor, gives herself to him and then when pregnant has only gay Geoffrey (Harry Hepple) to care for her. These squalid but not entirely loveless lives are played out on a Hildegard Bechtler set that threatens to swallow the play. Thanks to the writing, the terrific acting and Bijan Sheibani's direction, it can't.
The Full Monty: The first thing to understand about this extremely entertaining enterprise at the Noel Coward is that it isn't the 2000 musical adaptation of the 1997 movie. The story, adapted here by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Daniel Evans, is the same. A group of jobless men in Sheffield, England, where the steelworks have closed, decide to put on a one-night strip show. Led by Gaz (Kenny Doughty), whose major concern is maintaining partial custody of his 9-year-old-son Nathan (Harry Gilby, Louis Healy, Jack Hollington alternate in the role), the gang faces opposition by the venue owner as well as their own fears. One of the most worrisome is body image, a male problem rarely addressed on stage -- and even more rarely as amusingly as it is here. The one man eager to flaunt his manhood is gay Guy (Kieran O'Brien). Whereas the out-of-work miners of Billy Elliot remain serious, the Full Monty lads keep it light-hearted. Incidentally, they strip to Randy Newman's "You Can Keep Your Hat On."
The Duck House: There are always entries here the wags insist are too British to travel. The cheap, yet hilarious farce at the Vaudeville is one where the wags are right. It's written by Dan Patterson and Colin Swash and is about the Parliament expense account scandals that appropriated local headlines a few years back. In this spin on the situation, M. P. Robert Houston (the very funny Ben Miller) is about to jump party lines from Labor to Tory and must be vetted by David Cameron deputy Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd). It so happens that Houston and wife Felicity (Nancy Carroll) have billed just about everything they own to the government. The complications that arise as they try to hide their sins are cleverly worked out by the writers and put in non-stop motion by director Terry Johnson. No one will be surprised to learn that the sado-masochistic follies enjoyed by some upper-class Englishman come into play here.
1984: In a year when Edward Snowden places the snooping NSA in the spotlight, George Orwell's novel -- in which the "Big Brother is Watching You" warning is prominent -- seems as prescient as it ever was. Maybe more so. Now the famous work is an Almeida Theatre, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse production at the Almeida as adapted by Headlong's Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. Using projections with expertise (as so many productions do these days), Icke and Macmillan have shaped an elegant and frightening production. On the other hand, they've taken several liberties with the plot about a man called Winston (Mark Arends) fighting to retain his individuality. The result may be more confusing than they intend it to be. Surely, they don't intend it to be confusing at all. The ending, which won't be described, isn't something that Orwell, the author as well of Down and Out in London and Paris, would easily recognize. Were he to have seen it, he might have felt downer and outer than ever.
The Weir: Conor McPherson's bar play, at Wyndham's, is in good hands. It's directed grittily by Josie Rourke, the current Donmar Warehouse artistic director (from where the enterprise has moved). It's acted just as grittily by Brian Cox, Peter McDonald, Ardal O'Hanlon, Risteárd Cooper and Dervla Kirwan. They're the five gathered in a humble Irish pub when telling scary stories becomes the order of the night. Tempers flare and friendships fray, until newcomer Valerie (KIrwan) recounts her story of a deceased daughter she feels is still communicating with her. The dramatics may be low-key, as often they are with McPherson, but what he does connects, all the same.
The Bodyguard: It's a stage transfer of the 1992 Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner flick about a diva under threat from a letter-writing stalker and the man hired to protect her. Forced on each other, the two fall in love, of course, although love doesn't necessarily find a way. The score consists of Houston clicks only. Indeed, it's rare when the leading man in a musical doesn't sing. Tristan Gemmill -- but for one joke karaoke scene -- is that rarity. The Bodyguard has been running for some time on those Top 40 Houston hotties and certainly not on the so-so libretto. At the moment Beverley Knight plays Rachel Marron, but I saw Joelle Moses in the role, and she's vocal dynamite. A word to the wise: Stay for the entire curtain call. It's the knockout that much of the rest of the show isn't.