Crossing the great divide
Theatre - Sheridan Morley on two plays about cultural contrasts and one shambolic musical
Suddenly, there is a new, multicultural audience at the National Theatre. Attracted by an artistic sensibility entirely different from that of the new director Nicholas Hytner's two predecessors (Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre), they are there because a terrific grant from Travelex makes their tickets an easy £10 rather than a whopping £40.
With this, Hytner's third production, it is clear that a pattern is emerging. So far, we have seen a youthful black Henry V unmistakeably embroiled in the Iraq war; a satire on our confessional culture with Jerry Springer: the opera; and now Elmina's Kitchen, a play about the real but hidden life of our cities and the moral bankruptcy of consumer society.
Kwame Kwei-Armah's play is set in a Hackney family restaurant. Deli, the owner, is trying to keep his kid in college, to greet his brother when he returns from jail, to honour his mother's memory, to transform his greasy spoon into a smart West Indian fast-food shop, and to keep the Yardies out. It turns out that he fails on every score, but it is Kwei-Armah's skill to maintain a glimmer of hope throughout.
Angus Jackson's clever production is performed by a talented cast that moves effortlessly between Caribbean dialect and East End cockney.
Tamsin Oglesby's new play, US and Them, at the Hampstead, has some good jokes, inventive one-liners, fine invective, and a few original wisecracks on the transatlantic divide. For some idea of style and character, think Life x 3 crossed with The Graduate. Two intellectually superior church mice, Martin and his linguist wife, Charlotte (a Cambridge First, we are told), arrive in NYC to raise money for Martin's latest invention, a remote-controlled lawnmower called The Sheep. At a restaurant, they meet a rich businessman, Ed, and his do-gooding wife, Lori; the couples become friends simply because the two women share a maiden name. Their children, a noisy girl and a silent boy, proceed to fall in love in that maddeningly tidy way characters in plays with a thesis but no plot tend to.
There follow two and a half hours of cheap jokes and cliches about national stereotypes: the Americans are crass and superficial, the Brits are condescending. Parents patronise their children, the children tolerate their parents.US and Them is intended to be a satire on the different values of two peoples divided, as Churchill pointed out, by a common language. But, while these two couples and their respective teenagers are miles apart, they would be equally so if they were, say, two American or British couples from such different economic and social backgrounds.
As they plodded through every transatlantic roadblock - historical, emotional, political, parental and, above all, fiscal - I longed for just one character, even the waiter, who wasn't a symbol of the failed Special Relationship. Better news in the performances, however. Harriet Walter camps it up as the daft matron, while Siobhan Redmond is happily over the top as the hyper intellectual slumming with the colonials. As her husband Martin, the reliable Hugh Bonneville helpfully flaunts his class at the overbearing Yank with attitude Matthew Marsh, instantly familiar from a million television villains.
Their characters may be underwritten, but a fine cast plays them for all they're worth. Which isn't very much.
The problem with the musical of Voltaire's Candide is always the same. It remains a musical in pro-gress and the backstage team is always more distinguished than the team on-stage. An amazing collection of lyricists (including Lillian Hellman, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Caird, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself, and Stephen Sondheim) have all tried to get this vast, sprawling musical into some kind of shape.
The new touring version by The Opera Group unwisely aims to satirise what is already a satire. The resulting shambles can be laid at the stage door of the new director, John Fulljames, and a company of singers who seem to have been told that acting is much the same as mugging.
Elmina's Kitchen is at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 25 August
US and Them is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301) until 5 July
Candide is at the Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire SK17 (0845 127 2190) on Tuesday 8, Sunday 13 and Friday 18 July
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