LONDON — Few actors could stare down mortality better than Simon Russell Beale in “Bach & Sons,” a problematic new play at the Bridge Theater that benefits from a piercing central performance.
Telling of the often testy relationship between the composer Johann Sebastian Bach and two of his 20 children, both sons who were musicians as well, the writer Nina Raine has come up with a research-heavy play that could be described as “Amadeus” lite. Like that play, Peter Shaffer’s celebrated take on Mozart, “Bach & Sons” features extended discussions of the nature of mediocrity, and also leans toward the scatological. Amid an expletive-heavy script, one character makes a passing reference to “a turd in the tureen.”
Nicholas Hytner’s production boasts an evocative design from Vicki Mortimer, with cascading keyboards hanging above the stage; as in “Amadeus,” the dialogue often cuts off to make way for excerpts from the composer’s output.
Over time, Bach Sr. loses his sight and cedes ground to his son Carl (a vivid Samuel Blenkin), whom the father derides as musically “efficient” — a decided slight from a visionary who likes his art messier and more inspiring. Yet all Carl wants is simply to be loved. (Another son, Wilhelm, is played by Douggie McMeekin as an artistic prodigy doomed to failure.)
The family chat consists largely of extolling the power of music, when you can’t help but feel that, really, they would have gotten on with making it. A climactic discourse on dissonance reminded me of Georges Seurat’s quest for harmony in the musical “Sunday in the Park With George,” to cite a more moving depiction of the creative process than “Bach & Sons,” with its boilerplate pronouncements about the value of art.
Even so, Beale commands attention as the aging and worn Bach fades away. The composer’s canon, we’re told, can be characterized as a meditation on “the variety of grief,” and Beale communicates a man who has lived that grief himself: The actor cuts against the sentimentality of the writing to catch directly at the heart.
“You can’t go on living and living and living,” says a character at the start of Nick Payne’s “Constellations” — and so it’s not altogether surprising when this 70-minute play turns toward confronting death in its second half.
Payne’s one-act two-hander was first seen at the Royal Court in 2012 before transferring to the West End and then Broadway. The elegant staging from the director Michael Longhurst is now being revived at the Vaudeville Theater through Sept. 12, with the designer Tom Scutt’s buoyant cloudscape of balloons intact.
This time, there are four casts rotating across the run, and London theatergoers have so far had the opportunity to see two of them. (Among those still to come is a gay coupling that will feature the TV and stage name Russell Tovey.) The changing players reveal wildly contrasting takes on a tricky if accessible text in which events, large and small, are replayed with different outcomes, in accordance with Payne’s interest in the existence of a “multiverse.” That notion of alternate worlds coexisting alongside ours fuels a play that explores the infinite variability of life’s every moment, except the final one, which is always death.
Peter Capaldi and Zoe Wanamaker, the oldest duo of the four, are also the more actorly of the two seen so far: You feel Wanamaker, especially, standing outside her character, Marianne, a Cambridge brainiac who holds forth on quantum mechanics and string theory. The parts don’t feel like a natural fit for either performer, though Capaldi, a onetime Doctor Who on TV, compensates with an abundance of charm.
A much younger company brings together Sheila Atim (who won an Olivier for her role in “Girl From the North Country”) and Ivanno Jeremiah, who have a visceral connection onstage. Jeremiah is immediately likable as Roland, a beekeeper who meets Marianne at a barbecue and engages with her in a strange conversation about licking your elbow — to be honest, such exchanges work much better with the younger cast.
And when Marianne confronts her possibly foreshortened life, the astonishing Atim communicates the gravitas of the situation even as Payne’s play makes clear that her fate can be rewritten with a happier ending in a parallel universe. These two are so good that, on a fourth viewing of the play, I felt as if I were seeing “Constellations” afresh: Atim and Jeremiah replay familiar material so it seems new — a virtue in a play that makes so much of repetition.
If “Constellations” is late in raising the specter that its leading woman will die too soon, we know from the start that this is what will happen to the heroine of “Last Easter,” the 2004 play by Bryony Lavery at the intimate Orange Tree Theater through Aug. 7. (The show will be livestreamed on the theater’s website on July 22 and 23.) The director Tinuke Craig’s nimble production finds surprising levels of comedy in this story of June (the excellent Naana Agyei-Ampadu), a lighting designer with terminal cancer who goes on a pilgrimage with three friends to Lourdes, France, because — well, why not? Maybe a miracle will happen.
June, it seems, is especially fond of the painter Caravaggio, and the first act veers away from anything maudlin toward lessons in art history one minute, a jaunty snatch or two from the song “Easter Parade” the next. The tone is unexpectedly breezy, and the camaraderie between June and her pals, also theater practitioners, is nicely done. These friendships keep June’s spirits buoyant, even as her body starts to let her down.
Yet after the intermission, as June’s condition worsens, the writing turns more self-conscious. June’s devoted buddy Gash (Peter Caulfield) twice calls out “cliché alert,” and several events are described as “undramatic,” an unusual choice of adjective for a dramatist. (The quartet also includes the character of a heavy-drinking actress who soon wears out her welcome, both as written and performed.)
The imminence of death seems to defy this gifted writer, who goes for the sort of deathbed scene that has been seen onstage and in movies many times over. Whatever the reason for “Last Easter’s” prosaic closing scenes, they share with “Constellations” a sense that mortality comes best in good company.
Bach & Sons. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Bridge Theater, through Sept. 11.
Constellations. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Vaudeville Theater, through Sept. 12.
Last Easter. Directed by Tinuke Craig. Orange Tree Theater, through Aug. 7.
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