Mark Shenton’s week: Theatrical synchronicity is all around us

The cast of Seventeen at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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This time last week I was remarking on the coincidence of seeing the Almeida Theatre’s new Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at London’s Old Vic Theatre on consecutive nights.

These things aren’t necessarily planned, but it’s remarkable how shows that are somehow linked come in pairs or even threes. No sooner has the National Theatre staged the amazing Lost Without Words – that sends actors in their 70s and 80s on to a stage without a script – than the Lyric Hammersmith opens Seventeen, which features veteran actors playing teenagers. As Tim Bano points out in his review for The Stage: “Matthew Whittet’s play expands the conversation about casting, alongside colour and gender, to include age as well. It looks at a group of 17-year-olds on their last day of school, getting drunk in a park and waiting to watch the sunrise. But the performers are not 17 – far from it, in fact. They are all ‘veteran’ stage actors.” Or, as Dominic Cavendish less gallantly put it in the Daily Telegraph, they’re actors “entering the twilight of their careers and, though it sounds callous to say it, the endgame of their lives”.

Meanwhile, straight after The Girls put a group of middle-aged women on stage in a plot about a community project, the West End has seen a revival of the 1980s hit comedy Stepping Out, in which a group of mostly women (and one man) join forces to tap their troubles away at a weekly community tap dance class. And no sooner has Stepping Out opened than the West End is limbering up for a revival of another 1980s hit, 42nd Street, which is also all about tap dancing.

We’ve just had Edward Albee’s first great masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (originally premiered in 1962) triumphantly return to the West End, and we’re about to have his late career masterpiece The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? (first premiered exactly 40 years after Virginia Woolf in 2002) return to London.

One more coincidence: while Christopher Wheeldon choreographed a new full-length stage ballet version of The Winter’s Tale in 2014, English National Opera has just offered the world premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s new operatic version of the same play. I caught the last performance last week. Great art seems to come in pairs.

Rare Sondheim

There’s hardly any such thing as ‘rare’ Stephen Sondheim nowadays. Even problematic flop shows such as Anyone Can Whistle come around fairly regularly (most recently at London’s Union Theatre in a production I didn’t see), while the songs from all his scores inevitably pop up in cabaret and recordings. But last week I saw a genuinely rare Sondheim, The Frogs – originally premiered in a production staged in a Yale University swimming pool in 1974, whose cast famously featured a youthful Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.

I actually have seen it once before, when it received its British premiere in a community opera production, again in a swimming pool, in Brentford in west London. But last week saw the UK premiere of a revised version of the show created for Broadway’s Lincoln Centre Theatre in 2004 by Nathan Lane (who also starred in it) and Susan Stroman (who directed and choreographed it).

Lane had developed it after doing a concert version of it at the Library of Congress in 2000 to celebrate Sondheim’s 70th birthday. As he tells it: “In one of the shot scenes between songs I improvised a line for Dionysos and Steve asked me where it came from and I said: ‘I made it up’ and he said: ‘Burt would have liked that, it was funny and in his style.'”

Thus encouraged, Lane sought permission to rewrite the book and do a new version, for which Sondheim provided some new songs. The result was premiered on Broadway to what may be tactfully called mixed reviews. As Lane again explains in a programme note: “And it upset and annoyed many people, which would have definitely pleased Aristophanes. Often during the curtain call I was booed or given the finger – and that was just my immediate family. But seriously – many people were also entertained and moved. Not quite as many, but many. And that’s showbiz, folks.”

Until now. And Lane was actually in the audience himself when I saw it last week. As a massive Sondheim fan, it’s not every day you get to hear Sondheim songs you’ve genuinely never heard before.