First Nighter: London Glowing Thanks to Daniel Radcliffe and Playwrights James Baldwin, Alan Ayckbourn, Lucy Kirkwood

Daniel Radcliffe is out to prove something, and he's doing a bang-up job of it. Set for life as the #1 Harry Potter alumnus, he could undoubtedly make a career of movie romcoms. He absolutely refuses, and now after giving his all--and showing it, too--in Equus, singing and dancing on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he's taken on the physically punishing eponymous role in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh's hilarious, heart-shattering 1997 dramedy.
Holding his left hand to his chest. favoring his skewed right leg and speaking in an Irish brogue (Radcliffe's father was from County Cork), he's Cripple Billy Craven, the orphaned boy--raised by two "aunties," Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Gillian Hanna)--who hears that movie-maker Robert Flaherty has arrived on nearby Aran and is looking for local people for his Man of Aran cast.
Mocked all his life for his afflictions and convinced his parents drowned attempting to get away from him, Cripple Billy sets his sights on joining the production--as well as keeping his other sights on courting foul-mouthed temptress Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene), an impossible goal, as he sees it.
McDonagh's genius when he was writing plays--he's come up with only one since he declared he'd had it with playwriting--was taking common perceptions of the Irish and playing them up to a fare-thee-well. So, the comedy amid the tragedy in his works--this one no less than the other and maybe more so--is fall-off-your-seat funny. Not only Aunties Kate and Eileen get yuks bantering, but regular guffaw-inducers in the country store where Kate and Eileen sell mostly canned peas include Helen's sweets-fixated brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill) and, most of all, Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), who trades local news for goods.
Michael Grandage, who has yet to direct a less-than-superb mounting, keeps all his players at the top of their form, but it's Radcliffe, the instant movie superstar, who commands the stage as a lost boy who only wishes he could become a faraway Hollywood somebody. Perhaps his most commendable facet is--as it was on the New York stage--that he eagerly embraces his status as an ensemble performer.
Although new work is available here in London if you search hard enough, the abundance of revivals is remarkable. Even more remarkable is their high quality, and none more notable than Rufus Norris's revival--as in revival meeting--of The Amen Corner, James Baldwin's first play and arguably the best thing he ever wrote in a career marked by any number of hard-nosed accomplishments.
The setting is 1953 Harlem. Upstairs on Ian MacNeil's Catfish Row-influenced set is a meeting hall presided over by Margaret Alexander (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and, downstairs is the humble Alexander household, where Margaret lives with sister Odessa (Sharon D. Clarke), son David (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and is unexpectedly hostess to seven-years-disappeared trombone-playing husband Luke (Lucian Msamati).
Baldwin's concern is the heart-rending discrepancy between the hellfire that Margaret preaches upstairs and the dissension developing downstairs when Luke comes home to be forgiven and understood and Margaret sees no hope for him in his refusal to accept the come-to-Jesus life. Trouble intensifies when jealous, meddling congregation members Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble), Sister Boxer (Jacqueline Boatswain) and Brother Boxer (Donovan F. Blackwood) decide Margaret's compromised home life proves she's an unfit leader, and Margaret has to come to grips with the implications.
The Amen Corner is a hard-hitting sermon of its own and enhanced by gospel music sung often by the cast members and the London Community Gospel Choir under the Reverend Bazil Meade's hand. It's no lie to call the sound heavenly--from the opening small-church beginning onward. Nevertheless, Baldwin's views on Americans blacks fleeing to religion as a sanctuary from their repression in a white society is no celestial matter. He's got an entirely different take on uplift, and it's as devastating as anything he ever propounded in his fiercest essays.
A 1960's revival with a completely different purpose is Relatively Speaking at Wyndham's. Alan Ayckbourn, who's written umpteen comedies, has specialized in delightful wind-up toys, and never more than this treat.
Rarely, if ever, has anyone spun such cotton-candy fun from mistaken identity and misinterpretation--and that goes for William Shakespeare and the rest of the merry band. Greg (Max Bennett) is convinced that new girlfriend and likely bride Ginny (Kara Tointon) has another pursuer. What else could those large slippers found under her bed mean?
Planning to get her parents' approval, he follows her to The Willows, Bucks (from Buckinghamshire), where she says she's going but has refused to take him. Arriving before she does, he has no idea that the bickering couple in residence, Sheila (Felicity Kendal) and Philip (Jonathan Coy), aren't Ginny's folks but that Philip is the older man and employer with whom Ginny is trying to sever romantic relations once and for all.
The resulting heaps of misunderstandings are enough to choke a horse--with on-lookers left only to marvel at how deftly Ayckbourn extends his convolutions. There's also a lot to marvel at in the players, under Lindsay Posner's ultra-confident directing. The younger Tointon and Bennett match veterans Kendal, whose perplexed but kindly Sheila is endlessly comical, and Coy, whose red-faced outbursts are equally risible. The Relatively Speaking ins-and-outs may fade from memory the minute patrons leave the theater, but only curmudgeons could balk at such good fun to be had while inside.
And at last a new play--one worth the wait: Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, just closing at the Almeida but transferring soon to the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre.
A single image triggers the tough-minded political thriller in which photographer Joe Schofield (Stephen Campbell Moore) becomes convinced the man defying tanks in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising picture is still alive. To assist him in locating the presumed assassinated hero, he enlists friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), whereupon the pair embark on a dangerous journey.
Though Kirkwood's dramaturgy sometimes becomes more confusing than needs be, it repays the attention given to Lyndsey Turner's taut direction, Es Devlin's set, which looks like a large, revolving Rachel Whiteread cube--with electrifying videos by Finn Ross projected on it. The title, compounding "China" and "America," also conjures the notion of chimeras--an idea Kirkwood is twisting with bitter irony.