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Michael Coveney: Christmas crackers and other decorations

By • West End

Michael Billington said that a December opening of Ibsen's The Wild Duck signalled a season of Christmas quackers. He should, of course, be ashamed of himself, but the phrase comes to mind as I steel myself for  a matinee tomorrow of Ibsen's forgotten early play - there are loads of them - Love's Comedy, at the Orange Tree. 
 
Love's Comedy is as generally ignored as Aleksei Arbuzov's The Promise, so vigorously revived this week in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios - the coffin, I call it - but both plays turn up on drama school schedules quite frequently.

Going to the smart and sassy West End revival of Spamalot last night reminded me that, as Advent approaches, time is running out once more for serious drama as panto looms. Who's in the mood for rare Ibsen or forgotten Russian classics?

The answer is: everyone. I love pantomime, but I know full well that the theatre-going public is more than capable of taking the tinsel and glitter in its stride with the meat and potatoes;we always eat turkey before the  mince pies.

But I do feel for Martin Crimp, whose unappetisingly titled In the Republic of Happiness at the Royal Court clashes with the resurrection of Lily Savage (courtesy of Paul O'Grady) at the O2 Centre. It's a sad and regrettable fact of life that the audiences for both these shows do not, by the widest stretch of the imagination, overlap.

Like one or two fellow critics - not all that many, though - I shall make determined efforts to see both shows anyway, Crimp and Lily, while silently regretting that they aren't working together on the same project. How many other clashes are looming?

Michael Boyd's farewell RSC production of Boris Godunov (a title famously scrambled in the days of overnight telephone reviewing as Doris Godunov) opens in Stratford-upon-Avon on the same evening as Stephen Sondheim's already restored 1981 musical "failure" (which ended his association with producer Hal Prince) Merrily We Roll Along, with George Furth's book based on the Broadway play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Early rumours are that Sondheim himself, who is hanging out in London this week, is in raptures over Maria Friedman's production in  preview. We shall see, or maybe we won't, if high seriousness gets the better of the critics and they run off to Warwickshire with Doris.

There's a ridiculous pile-up of openings in the first week of December, starting with the all-women version of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse (how can that possibly be a good idea, apart from sexual politics?), Hello, Dolly! starring Janie Dee (is that weird, or inspired, casting?) at the Leicester Curve, The Bodyguard starring Heather Headley (do London audiences know who she is?; let me warn you, she's absolutely fantastic) - and word on that show is good, too, despite director Thea Sharrock telling the Guardian that she hated the film - and a new play, Old Money, starring Maureen Lipman and Tracy-Ann Oberman, directed by Terry Johnson, at the Hampstead Theatre.

There will be an almighty battle for attention between the new Arabian Nights at the resurgent Tricycle in  Kilburn and the new Hackney Empire panto, Dick Whittington, with Joanna Riding flashing her meaty thighs once more as the eponymous Dick.

Pantos will open with the usual alarming regularity around  the country in the second week of December - they are, in effect, the British theatre's life-line - but there is the most almighty bust-up on the Tuesday before Christmas, probably the last night of the year critics are prepared to venture on the streets (unless of course they want to see Salad Days again at the Riverside Studios; yes, please) before the country shuts down for ten days.

I can only list, and wonder at, the alternatives available, on Tuesday 18 December, or Turkey Tuesday as we now call it: Brian Conley and Lesley Joseph in Robinson Crusoe at the Birmingam Hippodrome - I seek out the lesser done panto titles with a relish; the return of the year's greatest production, Complicite's Master and Margarita at the Barbican; Cinderella at the best new theatre of the year, the St James; and Slava's Snow Show at the Festival Hall.

Ah, Slava. I thought his snow flurry was tendentious, manipulative rubbish when I saw it at the Edinburgh Festival years ago, but Simon Callow is on record as saying it's the greatest theatrical event of his life, and he's seen a few.    

Pantomime, even Slava's Snow Show, does change people's lives. And that's what is so marvellous about it. The spirit moves you, and me, as does the song sheet descending in Spamalot last night at the Playhouse for a valedictory chorus of "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life..." de-doo, de-doo, de-doo-de-doo-de-doo...


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