Michael Coveney: St James Theatre offers food for thought
This happened because I'd asked the students to have a look at the reviews over the past few days for Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville and Lucy Kirkwood's NSFW at the Royal Court. They had seen neither show but were able to analyse priorities and prejudices after a close reading of the critics; this was encouraging as, like most students, they don't actually read newspapers at all.
Turns out they don't even read newspapers on-line. But they did know about the world of Lucy Kirkwood's lads and glamour magazines, and one of them launched into a fantastic broadside against the celebrity culture in recalling the case of Jade Goody, the Big Brother contestant who became famous merely for being on reality television and then dying of cancer.
None of the reviews had pumped any of them up about the Ken Stott Uncle Vanya, which is how I sort of feel about it, too. But I'd stolen a march on my seminar group by having seen the brilliant Russian production of the same play that opened at the Noel Coward on Monday night.
And that, of course, has entered my five-star ring of elite shows in 2012 - others on a very short list include The Changeling and Three Sisters, both at the Young Vic, Druid's Tom Murphy trilogy at Hampstead, and Cillian Murphy in Misterman in the Lyttelton.
Pushing them close at the top of the four-star bracket are Simon Russell Beale and Nicholas Hytner for the NT Timon of Athens, Robert Wilson in Krapp's Last Tape at the Enniskillen Beckett Festival, the Pina Bausch season at Sadler's Wells, Rachael Stirling in Mike Bartlett's stripped down, suburban Medea, Complicite's The Master and Margerita (returning to the Barbican for Christmas) and Calixto Bieito's extraordinary philosophical Shakespearean poem Forests (playing at the Barbican this week).
I shouldn't think any of those, bar possibly the Timon, will figure in the awards lists, but that's not the point. Awards rightly reflect some sort of consensus, and are designed not to big up the most extraordinary and innovative in our theatre, but the least bad and fairly good.
At least on one point everyone will be agreed: it's been a poor year for new musicals, and everyone will vote for Singin' in the Rain, or Sweeney Todd, though I much preferred the Union's little Call Me Madam to either of them. I fear that Daddy Long Legs at the St James will not deter judging panels, or on-line voters, for too long, sweet and charming though it is.
Nor will it benefit from the Wicked-style cult syndrome, even though it's based on a famous novel and can claim four famous film versions, notably the Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron musical with a score by Johnny Mercer. John Caird's efficient production has two good, more than competent, performers in Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock, but they're not remotely box office.
Daddy Long Legs opens officially tonight, so the reviews will appear tomorrow. Its opening coincides with the new Alan Bennett play, People, at the National Theatre, which stars Frances de la Tour and apparently takes a good old satirical pop at the National Trust, though the actual content of the piece is under wraps and the play not yet published by Faber.
So coming back into town from Roehampton at tea-time yesterday, I needed a quiet spot to catch up with emails and messages and a place to eat. No problem there on either count, as Victoria is rich in cafes and pubs with quiet corners and, if you're feeling particularly grand (which I wasn't, for once), the lounge of the Goring Hotel.
An early dinner afforded the opportunity of trying the St James Theatre's brasserie at the top of the marble staircase. I don't really "do" theatre restaurants, mainly because there aren't many, and most of them are no good. But the St James has a very decent menu, and a good value two-course pre-show dinner. A salmon salad and confit of duck with cabbage and chestnuts was just the job.
The brasserie is a nice room, with big windows, photos of Hollywood stars, proper tablecloths and friendly service. One iffy thing about the St James, a theatre which I think I shall grow to like quite a lot, is the cloakroom, two floors down and causing a mighty gridlock last night with a crowd of suits and poshos partying in the adjacent studio space.
Still, the outing is all part of the show, and the St James offers a good outing, on the whole. Incidentally, the studio has a cabaret programme headed this Saturday by Peter Straker doing his Jacques Brel programme: if you've not seen it, believe me, it's not to be missed.