LONDON -- As Sunday's reviews of shows featuring Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy pointed out, stars burn bright on the London stage. But taking into account the other shows I and Sharon Eberson saw on last month's Post-Gazette theater tour, you could also discern a sort of theme: the death of empire.
Perhaps that's inevitable. The British Empire (on which the sun once never set) has been sick, dying or dead for a century, no matter how it lives on in history, memoir and art. But it also lives on as essential theme and background, even when by implication only.
Exhibit A includes "The Audience," in which those shudders of decline inform the career of the current queen (Dame Helen). Even more to the point is Alan Bennett's contemporary comedy of a noble family and its great estate in terminal decline, "People." Imperial decline is well along in "Quartermaine's Terms," set in the early 1960s; it's even underway as Alice Liddell (Dame Judi) meets Peter Davies (Ben Whishaw) between the world wars in "Peter and Alice"; and there are premonitory cracks in the facade as early as the decline of Oscar Wilde in "The Judas Kiss," set in 1895-97.
Exhibit B would be two continental parallels, that of Germany slouching noisily toward fascism in "The Captain From Kopenick" (set in 1910) and of old Paris succumbing to international post-World War II capitalism in "Dear World." You might even shoehorn in "Great Expectations," written at the peak of Victorian confidence, when the rot had already begun.
OK, not everything fits, witness "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (the best prospect for Broadway) and "Matilda" (which is already there). As to "Macbeth," I guess that's when the British empire began, both in the Middle Ages and again when it found its bard in Shakespeare.
The contrast is stunning: a gorgeous soaring baroque hall, complete with Van Dyke-like portraits, and two shabby women living amid clutter and rubble. Such is the set up for Alan Bennett's modestly named "People," directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre's picture-frame Lyttelton Theatre.
It turns out they're the inheritors of this ducal pile. But this isn't just a tale of aristocrats brought low, because Dorothy (the redoubtable Frances de la Tour) is not dotty but sharp, a principled holdout, refusing to cash in by selling to the National Trust or some dodgy scheme for the privileged. Nor will she and her half-sister yield to the sister who's high in the Church of England.
"Decay is a kind of progress," Dorothy observes. But then she's sweet-talked by a sleazy producer, and we watch a porno film being made (with obstructions to keep us from seeing the best of it) while Dorothy dons the couture gowns of her unconventional youth. Henry VIII's rosary comes into it, too, and we feel the layers of history, art, religion and scandal in every object.
The porno scene is somewhat over the top, alien to Mr. Bennett's dry wit, but the whole is rich with his sharp observation and tongue. The title? Well, the "people" (among whom Mr. Bennett certainly counts himself) do win, don't they? But what do they lose in the process?
'The Judas Kiss'
Like many, I've been undecided to what extent Rupert Everett is a real actor or just a very pretty face, but in playing the tragic unrepentant Oscar Wilde he settles the issue on the side of acting. David Hare's 15-year-old play about Wilde -- originally played by Liam Neeson -- and his serial betrayals by the contemptible Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie, played by Freddie Fox) is a playground for Mr. Everett's languorous indulgence and surprisingly tragic weight.
The story takes place in 1895 London, at the moment when Wilde could flee to the continent but chooses instead a principled (or indolent?) sacrifice, and 1897 Naples, where, broken by prison, he's enthroned in seedy digs to be betrayed by Bosie again.
Oddly, it all begins with two nude heterosexual servants making love on Wilde's bed, but mainly it's Bosie's Italian rent-boy who parades around naked. The play is richer in its language: Mr. Hare has invented most of his aphoristic dialogue, borrowing (he says) only a few snippets from Wilde.
But wit and nudity are only dressing: At heart, this is a passion play. Oscar knows he can't beat massed British hypocrisy, so his defeat is really self-sacrifice, like the biblical parallel of the title.
'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'
"People" may be too British for Broadway, but "Curious Incident" should make it, no matter how complex it is. Indeed, that's the point, to represent the inner world of the supremely logical Christopher, the 15-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, whose world view the play stages.
Adapted by Simon Stephens from the prize-winning and hugely successful novel by Mark Haddon, it is extraordinarily successful in taking you inside an entirely different point of view, seeing the world as geometry and wilderness. Christopher's journey to London in Act 2 could be "The Odyssey," it's so fraught with peril.
Although now in the West End, this show, too, started at the National Theatre, showing the generative power of public financing. The acting isn't all top notch, but the play is. We'll be seeing it here.
Has there ever been a better evocation of the comic awfulness of small paper cuts than Simon Gray's 1981 "Quartermaine's Terms"? -- except in other dark comedies by Mr. Gray and, come to think, many a similar comedy by Alan Ayckbourn.
The setting is the teacher's lounge in a scruffy School of English for Foreigners, set in Cambridge so the staff can more acutely feel how marginal they are. All the vicissitudes of life march across this tiny field, while in the middle, eerily disengaged, term after term, sits the hapless St. John Quartermaine. That he's played by Rowan Atkinson, better known as the frantic Mr. Bean, increases his painful passivity, moving this melancholy comedy to the very edge of tragedy.
Richard Eyre directs, evidence of the seriousness of the endeavor, and the wonderful Conleth Hill anchors a strong supporting cast.
'The Captain From Kopenick'
Carl Zuckmeyer's cautionary tale about the German love of order was written in 1930 on the eve of one war but set in 1910 on the eve of another. Now still set in 1910 and newly adapted by Ron Hutchinson, it feels perfectly contemporary, filling the National Theatre's grand Olivier Theatre with both comedy and foreboding.
At the heart is the trickster played by Antony Sher. Think of him as Chaplin's Little Barber ("The Great Dictator") but with more edge. This is no goofy Danny Kaye in the similar "The Inspector General": Here, he has real revolutionary ideas.
Even though the play's ideas include duty, freedom, urban alienation and the urge to conform, it is indeed a comedy, and director Adrian Noble spreads it all over (and up and down) the Olivier's grand stage.
American musicals aren't what I usually see in London, but this version of Giraudoux's "The Madwoman of Chaillot" by Jerry Herman (music, lyrics) and Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee (book) is a rare sighting. And the real attraction was Betty Buckley in the lead. The show is sweet in that mid-century Gallic way, with a lovely score and plenty of up-to-date relevance (greed destroying the planet), but it was all about Ms. Buckley, who gave a glowing performance of wit and verve.
Marginal, with every trick of its staging borrowed from "Nicholas Nickleby" and other, better stage versions of the ever-dramatic Charles Dickens.
The bad guys have all the fun, don't they? Never is that more evident than in "Matilda," an adaptation of the book from the macabre mind of Roald Dahl. The marvelous David Leonard barely suppresses his manliness as Miss Trunchbull, an uber-female version of the mustache-twirling villain. She despises the schoolchildren in her charge and gleefully employs a torture device known as the chokey.
But she's about to meet her match in Matilda Wormwood. The exceptionally bright Matilda is stuck with despicable parents who are disgusted to have a 5-year-old who loves to read books ("Crime and Punishment," anyone?). At school, she is noticed right away by the sweet insecure Miss Honey, who has endured family woes of her own. Change is afoot as Matilda begins to work her magic at school and the local library.
Tim Minchin's music isn't quite as memorable as his clever lyrics, but the show flows apace through Rob Howell's fetching sets and picks up when the nasty Wormwoods or Miss Trunchbull are on the scene. There are no throwaways in the cast, including the hilarious dance instructor and the mischievous boy who winds up in Miss Trunchbull's crosshairs. The kids were uniformly good, but all the child roles are multicast, so it's hard to single out anyone.
The show opens this week on Broadway. So it's worth noting that this a dark tale with some nasty adults, but one of the joys is watching rapt youngsters in the audience being entertained by talented children their own age.
-- Sharon Eberson
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.