Not long ago, the London stage was a New York theatergoer's idea of paradise. Shakespeare, Chekhov, new dramatists, reigning stars, and fresh faces: London had them all, at a fraction of American ticket prices. Now that the dollar languishes at 50 pence, London's top tickets (anywhere between $50 and $100) are hardly the steal they used to be. The classical division of the National Theatre has pretty much closed up shop, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, long a presence, has pretty much retreated to headquarters in Stratford-upon-Avon. Even so, London remains irresistible, as much for sneak previews of what is coming our way as for exotica New York may never see.
Go when you like, you'll always be missing something. The first week in January, the acclaimed revival of Michael Frayn's early farce "Donkeys' Years" had just closed, as had Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" starring Kevin Spacey, which transfers to Broadway in late March. And the charismatic Fiona Shaw, collaborating with her soul-mate director Deborah Warner, was rehearsing Beckett's "Happy Days."
Next month, the song-and-dance star Robert Lindsay (a Tony winner 20 years ago for "Me and My Girl") channels Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer," by John Osborne, first of the angry young men. Around the same time, Peter Shaffer's "Equus" returns. Daniel Radcliffe, the celluloid Harry Potter, plays the troubled teen who streaks naked through the English countryside, gouging out the eyes of hapless horses. The Falstaffian Richard Griffiths, late of "The History Boys," appears as his ambivalent therapist.
The revelation these days is "Waves," an experimental production at the Cottesloe, the black-box space in the National Theatre's South Bank complex. The brochure advertises "a work devised by Katie Mitchell and the company from the text of Virginia Woolf's novel ‘The Waves,'" which reads like the recipe for tedious disaster. The novel, after all, takes place chiefly in its characters' heads, and what little narrative there is serves mostly as pretext for fleeting impressions that fuse sights and sounds.
But it takes the breath away. Under Ms. Mitchell's magical direction, eight actors, four musicians, and a camera crew transform Woolf's streams of consciousness into a real-time radio play and complementary silent movie. On a bare, darkened stage an actress shuffles in a little tray of pebbles; onscreen, the toes of her shoes appear in close-up; somewhere else, someone is fabricating the sound effects, while another person delivers the narration. Contrived as it seems, the process unfolds with an intense, dreamlike clarity, patterns dissolving even as they come into being, like the waves of the sea itself.
In stark contrast, "The Seafarer," a new play written and directed by Conor McPherson (also at the Cottesloe), goes about its business in a rowdy, realistic mode. How realistic? Judge by the program insert acknowledging the donors of the linoleum floor "from the house of the late Gladys and Ted Nield of Holywell, North Wales." Yet deviltry is afoot. On the coast of Ireland north of Dublin, four old buddies settle in with a mysterious stranger for a long Christmas Eve of poker and poteen. Before morning, a soul will be lost or won: a twice-told tale made new by a master and enacted by a quintet of pros who know every trick in the book.
New Yorkers put to sleep last spring by Mr. McPherson's interminable "Shining City" are in for a brisk awakening. Between the squabbles and the shenanigans, there's never a dull moment. Best of all is a still interlude late in the night. Under the canopy of a twinkling stellar wasteland, the latter-day Satan mesmerizes his prey, evoking damnation with the bone-weary, resentful lyricism of Mephostophilis in Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," hitherto the most eloquent fallen angel of the English stage.
Even as the Lincoln Center Theater traverses Tom Stoppard's trilogy "The Coast of Utopia," which opened in London in 2002, the playwright's more recent "Rock 'n' Roll" (2006) winds up its London run. Though "Utopia" is set in the 19th century and "Rock 'n' Roll" in the late 20th, the works play like movements in an unfolding symphony. "Rock 'n' Roll" continues to navigate the shoals between pet theories and the lives of real people. The focus is on a Cambridge professor who preaches hard-line Marxism from the safety of his ivory tower and on a former student from Prague, whose political consciousness is bound to the fortunes of banned Czech rockers. Beneath the glittering intellectual surface, the passions run deep.
David Hare — currently represented on Broadway by the premiere production of "The Vertical Hour," an abortive play of ideas — is back in the West End with a revival of "Amy's View" (1997), in which the ideas belong to characters possessed of enigmatic inner lives. In Richard Eyre's original production, Judi Dench stole the show as Esme, a feisty, fiercely articulate actress descending gradually to the bedrock of her art as her chaotic personal life strips her of all else. Felicity Kendal lends the character a gentler, more feminine cast, yet preserves her flinty intelligence. And if the dowdy physical production is a disappointment, Peter Hall's revival raises the characters orbiting Esme into the third dimension.
Two big hits — both Broadwaybound — proved disappointing. Due stateside in May, "Coram Boy" (adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin's novel) is a faux-Dickensian Gothic nightmare. A false Good Samaritan in 18th-century Gloucester relieves unwed mothers of babies born in secret, promising — for a price — to deliver them to the haven of a foundling hospital in London. The infants wind up six feet under; guess where the money goes. Intermittently stupendous stagecraft (a hanging! a drowning at sea!) fails to redeem a script that is pure formula and acting many notches below caricature. The young women cast as boy sopranos (don't ask) are the worst offenders.
"Billy Elliot," with forgettable songs by Elton John, is the one about the miner's son who falls hard for ballet. At curtain calls, everyone in sight sooner or later slips into a tutu. For several minutes, delirious pandemonium reigns. Billy's big dance solos are likewise explosive. But the emotional fuel throughout the show is more rage than dreams. Overall, it's a downer. Hard-nosed and truthful it may be, in its way — but like Billy, you just want out. When Grandma sings how she hated Gramps, she's not kidding. And the dialogue is Mamet-raw. Billy is expected on Broadway in autumn 2008. Will he have cleaned up his act? And what will be left of him if he does?