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Beatlemania, Syal’s Bollywood Shakespeare: London Stage

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'Let It Be'
John Brosnan and Michael Gagliano in "Let It Be" at the Prince of Wales Theatre. The double-cast show is a tribute concert of the Beatles' greatest hits. Photographer: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

Oct. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Vintage filmed scenes of teenage girls gasping, crying and keeling over are screened during the live Beatles show “Let It Be” in London.

Then the cameras switch to us, the real-life theater audience. We find ourselves sedately staring at our wrinkles and bald patches. Funnily enough, nobody is fainting.

The unintentionally comic contrast is almost worth the price of the ticket alone. If you have a barbed sense of humor, that is.

“Let It Be” is billed as a “spectacular theatrical concert” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles. It offers the audience a proficient tribute band of moptop looky-likies who deliver the famous numbers.

There’s no story, no script, nada. Just the songs, some screened background information, and some synthetic wigs which look about as flexible as permafrost.

If it were touring a circuit of provincial music clubs, it would go down a storm. In a traditional proscenium theater in the West End, it feels strangely out of joint.

When we’re invited to stand up, join in, or clap along, memories of squirming uncomfortably as a child at audience participation sequences are called to mind. How much better to be standing hugger-mugger, crowded before the stage in a club.

That said, the music still works its magic. Classics like “Twist and Shout,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Hey Jude” and the rest provoke the usual admiration, and for many people that may well be enough reason to go.

Costume Change

Another reason, albeit a slight one, is to see one of the filmed inserts screened during costume changes.

Someone has put together a sequence of four or five atrociously wonderful TV adverts from the 1960s, including one for some synthetic shoes which look like they’d turn your feet into rotting fungus in about two seconds.

It made me think of the performers’ scalps under their oddly immobile plastic wigs.

Or perhaps the advert is really a sly comment on the synthetic nature of the show itself, which is fundamentally a vivified version of the waxworks in Madame Tussauds.

There are two casts. I saw James Fox as Paul, Stephen Hill as George, and Gordon Elsmore as Ringo. Michael Gagliano made a particularly effective John, and even recycled a few of Lennon’s gags.

They’re all able musicians, they work hard, and the songs are great. It still wasn’t quite enough to Please Please Me.

Rating: ***.

Much Ado

In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” there are musical numbers, jokes and dances. There’s romance and a lavish wedding. An “honor” killing is threatened.

It has the same ingredients, in fact, as most Bollywood movies. So the Royal Shakespeare Company’s idea to give the play an Indian makeover is an attractive one.

Its production, set in modern Delhi and played by a cast of British-Indian actors, is now at the Noel Coward Theatre. The principal attraction is the performance of actor and writer Meera Syal as the quick-witted, spiky heroine Beatrice.

She’s a delight, for her comic timing and her subtlety. She finishes some of her statements with a Hindustani rising “hyah” -- somewhere between a question-sound and a put-down -- and on Thursday it always got a big laugh from Indian members of the audience.

Marriage Fear

“You were born in a merry hour,” says Don Pedro (Shiv Grewal) to her.

“No, sure, my lord, my mother cried,” replies Beatrice, and for a second tears tremble in Syal’s eyes. In a moment we learn everything we need to about Beatrice’s fear of marriage, her memories of her mother, and her vulnerability.

Nobody else in the cast paints their characters with such a varied palette of gesture or emotion. Paul Bhattacharjee is Beatrice’s sparring partner Benedick: Some of his jokes hit the mark, others are mistimed. Madhav Sharma plays the authority figure Leonato with an old-fashioned fruity delivery which is enjoyable though not exactly subtle.

Tom Piper’s set creates the courtyard of a large Delhi home, complete with attractive grilles and balconies. Director Iqbal Khan keeps the narrative clear and the pace lively, even if his sense of what makes for comedy is as variable as his leading man’s. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not.

The one non-variable is Syal, who generates energy every time she walks on stage. Rating: ***.

“Let It Be” is at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, W1D 6AS. Information: http://www.letitbelondon.com or +44-844-482-5110.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is at the Noel Coward Theatre, 85-88 St. Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4AU. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5136

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Robert Heller on rock music and John Mariani on wine.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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