The best musical theatre (and theatres) in London

Peter Grimes at the London Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Regular readers of this column will know what a fervent fan I am of the Union Theatre and its powerhouse productions of musicals. It is one of the most resourceful spaces in London, and I love its combination of introducing new talent as well as revealing old ones anew.

Just last week I caught the current production of The World Goes Round there, a revue devoted to the songs of Kander and Ebb, that had a cast comprising both. While five young dancers – all of them making their London professional debuts – provided variously decorative and illustrative Fosse-esque colour to Kirk Jameson's staging, choreographed by Sam Spencer Lane, a solid core of five West End regulars handled the essential vocal duties.

And while the youngest of those principals was Lisa Stokke – who originated the role of Sophie in the original London production of Mamma Mia! back in 1999, and I've since loved in The Baker's Wife a couple of years ago also here at the Union – it was terrific to see a more mature cast of veterans around them.

I've been seeing Simon Green in the West End since at least 1984, when he starred in a production of The Boy Friend that transferred from the Old Vic to the West End's Albery, and where I subsequently saw him in the original London production of The March of the Falsettos in 1987. He has turned up frequently over the years in shows by Sondheim (from the original London productions of Follies and Passion to the Menier's Sunday in the Park with George) and most recently last year in Titanic at Southwark Playhouse.

Ditto Gareth Snook, whose credits have ranged from the original London production of The Hired Man back in 1984 to Kander and Ebb's The Rink and Sam Mendes's London premiere of Assassins and revival of Company.

A few months ago I interviewed John Kander, who is now 86, at his townhouse in New York, and thanks to the wonders of Twitter had only just been talking to Snook before I did so. I was able to remember him to Kander, and he remembered him very fondly indeed!

So it was rather delightful to see him performing again in a revue devoted to Kander's fantastic repertoire.  This stylish, polished revue beautifully illustrated how Kander's alluring melodies are always perfectly matched by Ebb's clever, witty lyrics; each is a self-contained miracle of storytelling.

The same, of course, is always true of Sondheim, and by coincidence London is also currently showcasing a revue of his work, too, in Putting it Together at the St James Theatre. This is sheer musical theatre heaven: Sondheim stripped back to its essence. And there isn't a a more classy, beautifully blended musical theatre cast than this one.

Janie Dee sets the tone: she's a supreme interpretative singer, ideally matched by mellow David Bedella, full-voiced Damian Humbley, delightful Caroline Sheen and the athletic Daniel Crossley, who whips up a storm of movement, style and polish.

I'm not sure I could make a claim for the St James being one of the best theatres in London – I'm still terrified by the steepest rake I've ever seen in a theatre this side of Edinburgh's Traverse – but Putting it Together certainly fits there very snugly indeed. (I'm also a big fan of its downstairs cabaret studio space, which has fast become one of my favourite spots in town).

But by contrast to the far shabbier charms of the Union (and its still unbeatable coffee!), no theatre fills me with more of a sense of occasion – and excitement – than the London Coliseum. Ever since this grandest of all London theatres was so gloriously refurbished between 2000 and 2004, it has been the most beautiful musical house in London. In the 1950s, it was part of the stable of theatres that regularly staged musicals; since 1968, of course, it has been the home of English National Opera, after moving there from Sadler's Wells and initially retaining its name Sadler's Wells Opera.

The last show it did at Sadler's Wells was Britten's Peter Grimes; last night, David Alden's 2009 production of the same opera returned to the Coli and I caught it for the first time. My colleague Michael Coveney makes a far better case for the production's brilliance than I can begin to attempt, so I will simply steer you to his blog on Whatsonstage.com here. Michael dubs it "incontestably the best piece of musical theatre currently on offer in London" and it is indeed essential viewing.