Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

Theatre: from New England to England and Back

by Shera Cohen

My eyes see the eye of horse staring back at me. The animal's face is depicted on a small button with safety pin attached to the back. The words: War Horse, New London Theatre. I will save this pin…probably forever. It will constantly remind me of my theatre trip to London, highlighted by experiencing the outstanding drama "War Horse." More on this later.

From L to R
Lauren Grossman & Shera Cohen
Our journey lasted 10 days, and I was determined to see at least five plays in the eight "real days" we were there - omitting day #1 for jet lag and day #10 for the three hour wait at the airport. "We" includes my friend of 30 years and former Bravo Newspaper partner Lauren, who lives in Arizona and loves theatre as much as I do.

I am a planner, almost down to the hour. I soon realized that my schedule was a ridiculous goal to stick to in London; a huge city that I had never been to. Naively, I allocated two hours per museum (I spent five hours in each), a tour of Buckingham Palace (not a chance, President Obama was there and the Queen was otherwise occupied), and a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon (never even got there). Readers of my past "On the Road" articles may remember my passion for Shakespeare. But all was certainly not lost, because I stuck to the theatre portion of the plan as much as possible, making The Globe a priority.

Shakespeare's Globe ("As You Like It," "Much Ado About Nothing")
I had spent many years attending a slew of fabulous performances at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires that I had to finally see the real thing - The Globe in London. No, the Bard did not actually set foot in this exact building, but if he had I am sure he would have said something like, "I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it." Oh, wait, he did say that.

Even the journey to the Globe was memorable. Taking the double decker bus, we alighted at St. Paul's Cathedral. What an amazing bus stop! Unfortunately, there was no time to go inside, only time to hear the throng of the church bells as we walked the footbridge to the theatre. The Globe is an open-air venue, for which we purchased seats. One third of the audience, however, chooses to stand in the center of the building directly in front of the stage. They are nearly "in" the play, not "at" a play. I am sure the pleasure of becoming a groundling (like those of the 1500's) was fun, but standing is something that I have given up.

Fortunately, two of Shakespeare's best and funniest comedies were on the bill during our week - "As You Like It" and "Much Ado About Nothing." Experiencing Shakespeare's plays at his own theatre was truly wonderful. Needless to say, the productions were funny, colorful, musical, engaging, accessible - perfect. But, more than "just" the plays, the camaraderie of audience members of all ages and sizes enjoying each other's joy was exciting to watch and participate in.

But you don't "get" Shakespeare, you say. Sure you do. You just don't know it…yet. Interestingly, the Globe has offered a course called "Shakespeare for the Terrified."

"Blood Brothers"
This play has had (and still has) a long run in London; nearly 20 years now. And, yet, it is not often performed in the U.S. Having seen it once, and knowing its London roots, "Brothers" made it to my must-see theatre plan. We were not disappointed, even though Lauren isn't as keen on musicals as I am.

I think we were the only adults in the audience, as the theatre filled to the brim with high schoolers. This was a very serious play, and dealing with kids was not our plan. They will talk through the entire thing, text, tweet, etc. Wrong. These British kids undoubtedly learned theatre etiquette. Good for them and their teachers! The teens were enthralled at the drama and taken into the story of a mother and her twins, separated at birth. The tale began at its end, yet there were many surprises, and so developed the plot. The trio was the "star" along with an ever-present and ominous narrator or soothsayer. Indeed, the cast were all acting and singing pros.

On first look, the Phoenix Theatre's façade, stage, and seats might imply a low budget production of, perhaps, a mediocre play. Don't let the cover fool you. Floating and sliding sets were swift, as was the action. Oftentimes, actors took dual roles. With a spattering of humor, "Brothers" was a solid production of a dark drama.

"One Man, Two Guvnors"
When in Rome…etc. In our case, we were in London to see "One Man, Two Guvnors," a bawdy British comedy. Hmmm, isn't that redundant? Hadn't I seen this play before? The plot and the characters were familiar, although not the London settings or accents. Ah, ha. The comedy was not British at all, but a rewrite and update of "The Servant of Two Masters" penned centuries ago by an Italian. No worries, whoever wrote it then or recently (actually, this was a world premier by Richard Bean), "Guvs" charmed the audience at the National Theatre.

James Corden (Francis Henshall)
and Suzie Toase (Dolly)
Photo by Johan Persson
Lead actor James Corden (today's Benny Hill) performed with an ensemble cast. Corden's greedy buffoon character jumped into two jobs at once, unwittingly realizing that was not the brightest way to earn a living. The physical humor was top-notch along with timing that you could set Big Ben by. While never salacious, it seemed at times embarrassing to laugh at predictable pratfalls and fake fights. We couldn't help ourselves but roar with the rest of those in the full house.

"Guvs" was billed as a fast-paced comedy about sex, food, and money, with characters moving furiously through doors and mistaking each other for someone else. Throw in a quartet of young musicians (who weren't even part of the play) pre-show, during scene changes, and at intermission, and the experience was different from theatre in New England, and that was just fine with me.

British laughter is contagious and American audiences can "catch" them as the live play is broadcast, beginning September 15th. Check

And…I received a tour of the National Theatre (really three theatres under one giant roof). There's so much to say, and I will, in a separate article.

"Flare Path"
When Lauren went to dinner with British friends, I preferred to reach my quota of five plays. What were my options for nearby theatres? I had never heard of "Flare Path."  I went to the half-price booth to learn that it was sold out. I was not to be thwarted in my mission. I'm in theatre, so I know that sold out does not really mean sold out. There are always single tickets somewhere.

I walked to the Theatre Royal (proud that I only got lost twice). Yes, a seat for me! Of course, I thought to myself in a cocky manner. I arrived with 30 seconds to spare. The hall, stairs, and stage were black. I felt my way to any seat in the nearest row - the back row of the third balcony. I had forgotten the primary reason why I never get the cheap seats as vertigo set in. "Just sit, back against the chair, don't move, don't even attempt to get out of the seat, relax, breath," I repeated, as I paid no attention whatsoever to the first five minutes of the play.

Okay, back to "Flare Path," to the 1940s in England during WWII. This was a good evening at the theatre with a well-acted, plot-driven story on an excellently designed set. I cared about some characters, others not so much. It was definitely worth the walk, the dizziness, and the price. London theatre prices are far less than in New York. Would I see the play again? No. However, I can "see" it morphing into an excellent movie if that was its fate.

"War Horse"
Joey (Rogers/Wilton/Forbes), Patrick Robinson
Kavallerie Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, Sarah Mardel - Emilie,
and Topthorn (Harper/Angell/Goodridge)
Photo by Simon Annand

New London Theatre, home of "Cats" for 21 of its 38 years, was a relatively small venue with a long and deep stage with seating in a semi-circle. It was the perfect home for larger animals as well - horses, specifically war horses.

The story could be described with a broad stroke as "a boy and his horse." Yes, there was that, but much more. This was theatre with a capital "T" for theatricality as it utilized every visual, oral, and aural means to depict drama. While the playbill listed a huge cast, at least half of the actors were not seen by the audience. Well, they were and they weren't. That is to say, the unseen actors portrayed horse-size puppets. The Handspring Puppet Company, from South Africa, created magnificent full horses that cantered, galloped, stampeded, and died onstage.

Topthorn (puppet) and Joey (puppet)
Photo by Simon Annand
Three actors operated/became main character Joey as a foal. Joey aged, became larger, and another three actors depicted the animal. At the same time, the boy and the audience fell in love with Joey. Yes, we saw the legs of actors in the torso and rear of this creation (made of wood, steel, and fabric), and one actor manipulated the horse's head. There was no pretending that real people/actors made Joey a horse. The magic was that within about 30 seconds of seeing the ever-present actors, they became invisible, as the audience was oblivious to their work. Wow, true theatre!

Set during WWI in Europe, the drama's focus was as much from the point of view of these war horses as from the characters. Music onstage and in the background added to the full force of the war and the era. Overhead film projection of war scenes periodically flashed, seamlessly blending into the action on the stage.

Surprisingly, London audiences do not give standing ovations. Lauren and I were about to jump out of our seats at the play's conclusion, but we would have been embarrassed and alone. This was a tough crowd.

And, what do you know, we saw six plays instead of five. Way to go! Go again, I must.