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Changing the Landscape

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A few of us lingered by London Bridge tube station the other night after the opening of Smash! at the Menier Chocolate Factory. We were contemplating the Shard, as it's known, the remarkable, and controversial, new skyscraper going up next to Guy's Hospital.

Like the London Eye, the Shard is rapidly becoming an unavoidable landmark, wherever you are in the city. It proved a looming eyesore behind the never unattractive (especially when illuminated) Tower of London en route to Wilton's Music Hall on Saturday night.

And as I jog over kite top on Parliament Hill Fields, it eclipses the noble Dome of St Paul's, instantly claiming its place as the tallest building in that dramatic landscape, taller than either Canary Wharf or the Post Office Tower. 

It's strange how buildings impose themselves on our consciousness, just as a new arrival in the theatre can make an overnight impression then, a few weeks later, seem like a permanent fixture. Or so it seems.

You could say, for instance, that Sasha Regan has suddenly burst on the scene as a director finding a brand new way of doing Gilbert and Sullivan. Iolanthe, which has just moved from Regan's Union Theatre base in Southwark into Wilton's, is as joyously and irresistibly innovative as her earlier The Pirates of Penzance.

But it's twelve years now since she founded the Union in a derelict paper warehouse and started beavering away unnoticed and unheralded. She has been patient, committed, hard-working  - and even found time to raise a family -- and now I think she's coming into her kingdom, at least in terms of achievement and recognition.

Meanwhile, Adam Spreadbury-Maher's rise to some sort of modest prominence at the Cock Tavern, and now the King's Head, where he is programming the Little Opera House season (Mark Ravenhill's Monteverdi re-write, The Coronation of Poppea, opens tomorrow night), has been chaotic and meteoric, culminating in the surprise Olivier award for La boheme.

I see an interetsing contrast in these two "new" directors on the fringe. It's noticeable that Regan's Iolanthe avoids all the obvious traps of camp excess in doing the Gilbert and Sullivan, and retains throughout a purity of sentiment and lightness of touch that is the major part of the show's appeal.

The Cock's production of the Tennessee Williams world premiere, A Cavalier for Milday, on the other hand, is quite happy, in Gene David Kirk's production, to bump up the screaming camp element and play the two elderly ladies as a couple of low rent drag queens.
I've no great objection to this, and I quite enjoyed the performances. But how much more moving the play might have been had the faintly misogynist sexual disgust at the ladies' after dark activities been tempered with an admission of their grace, beauty and allure. 

There's a slightly sordid air of private club self-indulgence about the Williams play, and only an all-embracing delight and freshness about Iolanthe. Both productions are worth seeing, though, and important additions to the London theatrical landscape. One thing's for sure: the Union and the Cock are here to stay. For the moment, anyway.



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