There’s a long and glittering history of traffic between the West End and Broadway. In a recent lavish exchange of gifts, London finally got The Book of Mormon and New York was introduced to the delights of Matilda the Musical, which promptly snaffled five Tony Awards from 13 nominations.
One of Matilda’swinners on Sunday night was British playwright Dennis Kelly, who picked up Best Book of a Musical. In 2006, with the US premiere of his play After the End, Kelly became one of a growing number of British writers whose work got an early hearing in New York via the Brits Off Broadway season, an annual theatre festival hosted by 59E59 Theaters.
Now in its tenth year, Brits Off Broadway has featured such stars as two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, Ewen Bremner and Celia Imrie, and has staged the US premieres of work by Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne and, in this year’s Cornelius, JB Priestley.
One of the many things that makes 59E59 and Brits Off Broadway special is the product. Like oenophiles scouring the vineyards of Italy for that extra-special flagon of vino, the team at 59E59 regularly travel to the UK to cherry-pick the best of British from across the nation.
I’ve seen three plays from this year’s festival, each hailing from a different part of the country: Dan Gordon’s The Boat Factory, from Northern Ireland; Mike Bartlett’s new sizzler, Bull, which flew over from Sheffield; and, from London’s Finborough Theatre, Cornelius, a rediscovered pre-war number from JB Priestley.
They’re all excellent and, taken together, hint at the great range British theatre has to offer. The Boat Factory is a witty two-hander that tells the real-life story of the Belfast shipyards that produced the Titanic and the Olympic. Its light-hearted comedy couldn’t be further from Bull, which was an hour of fantastically unpleasant office workers being unforgivably horrid to each other, all staged in a boxing ring.
Cornelius, meanwhile, reintroduces the world to a lost classic from the writer of An Inspector Calls. Director Sam Yates’ elegant staging and excellent performances from the cast represent to New Yorkers a more traditional view of Britain, perhaps, but one that looks to be well-balanced by the naughty onslaught of Dirty Great Love Story, which opens this week.
Led by British-born executive producer Peter Tear MBE, the Brits Off Broadway festival is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the transatlantic cultural relationship. In theatre, this exchange programme is also exemplified by companies such as George Heslin’s Origin Theatre, which premieres new work by European writers and is currently offering the site-specific piece Stop the Tempo downtown.
There’s also, of course, the presence on Broadway of superstars like James Corden, who won a Tony last year for One Man, Two Guvnors, and Alan Cumming, whose one-man (and presumably exhausting) Macbeth has done tremendously well in recent months. Shakespeare famously wrote that “all the world’s a stage”; it certainly seems that way for British talent!