Letter from London: Murder, scandal and Shakespeare for holidays

LONDON — December usually serves up a surfeit of sweet, and sometimes sickly, theatrical fare. Scrooge, sugarplums and fake snow — it's the tinsel-bedecked season of Dickensian adaptations, reworked fairy tales and pantomime, with its cross-dressing, crude humor and D-list celebrity guest appearances. This year, though, London can justifiably celebrate its own little Christmas miracle. The festive menu is unseasonably appetizing, with theaters bursting with mouthwatering goodies that you can sink your teeth into without worrying about cavities.

The most hotly anticipated show of the season — though it may not prove the easiest to stomach — is the world premiere of the new musical "American Psycho" at the Almeida Theatre (almeida.co.uk). With a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa ("Glee," "Big Love") and music and lyrics by David Sheik ("Spring Awakening"), the show is based on the blackly comic satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis, controversial for its sequences of extreme, sadistic and frequently sexual violence. Staging such material presents obvious moral and technical challenges; it's intriguing to imagine how they might be tackled by Rupert Goold, a director notorious for his audacity and inventiveness.

And if that weren't enough to get you salivating, the lead role of the monstrous Patrick Bateman — a grotesque and ambiguous antihero who may be as much deluded fantasist as twisted yuppie serial killer — is played by Matt Smith, who makes his exit as TV's "Doctor Who" in the year's climactic special episode. Put this one at the top of your Christmas list. Tickets for all available performances are sold out, but more will be released early next month. Opening night is Dec. 12.

Those who don't like their meat quite so strong might prefer a spot of political scandal. Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, "Stephen Ward," opens Dec. 19 in the West End at the Aldwych Theatre (stephenwardthemusical.com). The book is by Christopher Hampton, author of, among others, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "Tales From Hollywood." The lyrics come courtesy of Don Black, who, alongside Hampton, previously collaborated with Lloyd Webber on "Sunset Boulevard." The show centers on the Profumo Affair, which saw call girl and sometime model Christine Keeler bedding both British Secretary of State for War John Profumo and an alleged Soviet spy; Stephen Ward was the society doctor who introduced Keeler to Profumo. Direction is by the distinguished Richard Eyre and choreography by the reliably dynamic Stephen Mear — so there's a good chance this could be a more stimulating effort than Lloyd Webber's last show, the regrettable "Phantom" sequel "Love Never Dies" (memorably dubbed "Paint Never Dries" by online wags).

Possibly supplying more substance to chew on, "Protest Song" opens the same night in the National Theatre's experimental space The Shed (nationaltheatre.org.uk). Tim Price's new monologue, based on a true story, is about the Occupy movement and stars Rhys Ifans ("Neverland," "Notting Hill," "Mr. Nice") as a homeless man caught up in the protests outside St Paul's Cathedral. Ifans has an intensely powerful, volatile onstage presence; it's well worth grabbing this opportunity to watch him in action in an intimate setting.

There's some high-quality Shakespeare to enjoy too. Joining Jude Law in "Henry V," which opens at the Noel Coward Theatre in early December (michaelgrandagecompany.com), David Tennant (Matt Smith's "Doctor Who" predecessor) brings his critically acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company "Richard II" to the capital from Stratford-upon-Avon (barbican.org.uk/theatre), opening Dec. 12. And at the Donmar Warehouse (donmarwarehouse.com), artistic director Josie Rourke presents "Coriolanus," the Roman tragedy of politics and war, with Tom Hiddleston in the title role and a cast that also includes Mark Gatiss, co-creator of TV's "Sherlock" and writer-performer in the cult comedy "The League of Gentlemen." Rourke, one of the UK's most astute theatrical talents, has a proven talent for galvanizing lesser-known classic texts; this promises to be a dynamic take on one of Shakespeare's more infrequently performed works.

Still got room for more? "Fortune's Fool," opening at the Old Vic on Dec. 19, should satisfy even the heartiest theatrical appetite. Adapted from the weighty novel by Turgenev, it's a dense and powerful 19th-century family drama that takes place over 24 highly charged hours. It was last produced on Broadway in 2002, when it won Tonys for its two stars, Alan Bates and Frank Langella. This new production, helmed by Lucy Bailey — a director with great visual flair — marks the work's first West End appearance.

And there are, of course, already some tempting dishes on the table — among them, Ian Rickson's revival of "Mojo," Jez Butterworth's 1995 drama of dark deeds and masculinity in crisis in '50s Soho clubland, playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre (mojotheplay.com); Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson's rich, beautiful and occasionally bonkers new musical "The Light Princess" at the National, with an extraordinary, gravity-defying performance from Rosalie Craig (nationaltheatre.org.uk); and for those who didn't catch it stateside, Susan Stroman's production of the dazzling, provocative musical "The Scottsboro Boys" is at the Young Vic until Dec. 21 (youngvic.org). All in all, it's a festive feast that should leave hungry theatergoers feeling well and truly stuffed. And with any luck, the only turkey we'll be faced with this Christmas will be the one that comes with cranberry sauce.


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