Dispatch from London: Priscilla, Kiera and Rothko


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Not unusually cold weather, rare snowfalls or the continuing recession seem to thwart arts audiences here. On a recent trip, I found that galleries at London’s major museums were so full it was difficult to get close to the artworks. Similarly, I noticed few empty seats at the National Theatre, West End theaters or anywhere else.

At the out-of-the way, rundown yet historic Wilton’s Music Hall in Grace’s Alley, crowds of people waited in the brutal cold for admission or possible ticket returns to the sold-out limited run of actress Fiona Shaw’s performances of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land” that closed Jan. 10. Across town, nothing could be more different than the wildly extravagant “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” an over-the-top musical version of the hit Australian film that one London theater critic said made “Mamma Mia!” look like Chekhov.


Despite its top ticket price of 65 pounds (about $110), “Priscilla” is booking seats until mid-October at the Palace Theatre, where audiences are on their feet through curtain calls. Audiences are also paying as much as 50 pounds (about $85) to see Keira Knightley’s West End debut in an updated English version of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” — which includes a throw-away line about the ticket price.

Critical opinion of Knightley’s performance has been mixed, but the show is one of several sold-out shows rumored to be bound for New York. The National Theatre’s production of “The Pitmen Painters,’ the inspiring tale of miners-turned-painters from “Billy Elliot” playwright Lee Hall, is expected at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Broadway venue in the fall. Also being talked about is ‘Red,’ playwright-screenwriter John Logan’s engrossing study of artist Mark Rothko, played by Alfred Molina, at the Donmar Warehouse. I don’t imagine there are plans to move David Hare’s illuminating new National Theatre play, “The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis,” given its cast of more than two dozen actors.

I was sorry to leave London before the West End transfer opening this month of “Enron,” Lucy Prebble’s well-received play with music and dance about the energy company’s scandal and demise several years ago. Then again, I’ll soon have another opportunity, since that show is already also booked for Broadway, opening April 27 and following the trail of London hits that have wended their way across the Atlantic in recent years.

Waiting in the wings here is perhaps the biggest theatrical juggernaut of them all — another Lloyd Webber musical about that famous Paris Opera House phantom. Due in March is Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies,” his sequel to the eternally popular “The Phantom of the Opera,” which itself is still playing on the West End. Already announced is not just the show’s world premiere March 9 in the West End but its Broadway opening in November and Australian opening next year.

-- Barbara Isenberg