Ronald Harwood worked with Donald Wolfit for five years, and though The Dresser at Duke of York’s Theatre is not about Wolfit, Harwood acknowledges that the play clearly draws on that experience.
Wolfit was the last of the great virtuoso actor-managers, who infamously surrounded himself with inferior actors so that he could shine all the more. He was never afraid to ham it up and upstage everybody. His greatest role was King Lear. Ronald Harwood concentrates on the relationship with his devoted dresser and the parallels between them and Lear and the Fool. Ken Stott is magnificent as a spent force and I have not seen Reece Shearsmith do better: camp, waspish and, finally, deeply moving.
Kemp Powers’s One Night in Miami at Donmar Warehouse is set on the night Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and became world heavyweight champion. Clay (Sope Dirisu), who is about to announce to the world that he has converted to Islam, is joined by three of his best friends: the activist Malcolm X (Francois Battiste), the American football star Jim Brown (David Ajala) and the great soul singer Sam Cooke (Arinze Kene). The meeting did take place but what is said is fiction. This gives Powers an opportunity to express four different views on racism and what it means to be black in a white society. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the excellent cast have an engaging combativeness.
Once again director Thom Southerland achieves miracles in Charing Cross Theatre’s tiny, cramped space, with a clever and highly enjoyable revival of the American musical Ragtime. The story is based on EL Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel, a turn-of-the-century epic covering the years 1895 to 1915. The novel traces the lives of three interlocking families: rich Protestant whites, poor Jewish immigrants and blacks from Harlem. The storylines, which both celebrate and criticise America, have a strong social conscience and become a heartfelt plea for justice for both blacks and whites. There is a strong ensemble of actors who are also musicians. The songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens carry a terrific emotional punch.
At the National Theatre, Bryony Kimmings and Brian Kobel’s A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, a musical with a score by Tom Parkinson, aims to confront cancer in a positive way and without the usual clichés. Cancer might seem to be an unlikely subject for a musical. But why should it be? Think of consumption in the 19th century and the huge popularity of La Traviata and La Bohème. But unfortunately, Kimmings, uncertain how to conclude, resorts to group therapy.
At the Almeida, Ella Hickson’s Oil takes the audience on an epic journey from 1889 to an apocalyptic future in 2051. What do we do when the oil runs out? It’s a good question; but the rapport between a mother (Annie-Marie Duff) and her stroppy daughter (Yolanda Kettle) is so turbulent it needs all the oil its troubled waters can get.
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