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Talented actresses, young and old, headline in London theatre hits!

Audrey Kupferberg, seated at a desk in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg

London theatre may not be having an all-time great season, but there are musicals and plays well worth citing. I just spent two and a half weeks indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, seeing live productions in London’s West End and Bankside.

Women of a certain age currently are standouts in plays. In all cases, they are actresses I have seen often on British TV shows, so it was especially rewarding to experience them on stage.

Anne Reid has been acting on British TV since the 1950s. She was on The Benny Hill Show, Coronation Street, and The Adventures of Robin Hood back then. More recently, American audiences have enjoyed seeing her as Derek Jacobi’s wife in Last Tango in Halifax, and as wealthy Lady Denham on Sanditon.

At age 87, Anne Reid is playing the title role in Jordan Harrison’s sci-fi, or more tellingly, futuristic, drama, Marjorie Prime. Reid plays an elderly widow with an extraordinary companion. Before long, the audience learns that the man who shares her life is a clone of her husband. Things become more complicated as the plot unravels. Throughout, Reid is on point. In one scene she needs to keep perfectly still for several minutes because the main action mid-stage does not involve her. She manages to hold the position, including a tilted neck, with such precision. Reid, an example of the fine training given actors in Britain, is a RADA graduate and has won major awards. She continues to be one of television’s popular character actresses.

Marjorie Prime is playing through May 6 at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is a very unusual venue to visit. It’s a pre-Victorian factory, built in 1816, redone but the original atmosphere is not disturbed. The chocolate manufactured there was for pharmaceutical purposes.

Frances Barber, now in her mid-sixties, is starring in a comedy called The Unfriend at The Criterion Theatre. The story revolves around her character, a pushy American tourist with a very shady past who rearranges the lives of a British family whom she insists upon visiting! The lights went up at the play’s end and the audience went wild for Barber. She played her oddball character to the hilt, and the audience lapped up every eccentricity!

As Anne Reid has done, Barber has played in television, classic theatre, and modern works. Barber has guested in Poirot, Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie’s Marple, and more recently in Whitstable Pearl and The Chelsea Detective. Both Reid and Barber have had parts in the popular Dr. Who series.

Interestingly, The Criterion Theatre is the only theatre in London still standing in Piccadilly Circus. An underground venue, it opened in 1874. It’s a treat to walk around one of London’s beautiful Victorian theatre houses.

Among the younger female actors, Janet McTeer is playing in a modern loose interpretation of Phaedra at the National Theatre. Sheridan Smith is appearing in the wonderful one-woman show Shirley Valentine. Meanwhile, Beverley Knight, winner of this year’s Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, and Sharon Rose in the title role, are shaking the walls of the Old Vic in the new musical Sylvia, an inventive take on the suffragist family of Pankhurst women in which the Pankhursts are played by performers of color. The music is exciting, if a bit monotonous in part, and the energy is explosive.

Seeing these and other shows in London... It’s a highly recommended form of leisure and distraction!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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