Britons exit Broadway, stage not right

Theatre luminaries Sir Patrick Stewart, Joanna Lumley and Mark Rylance retreat from the Great White Way

Amid the lights of New York's legendary Broadway, British names have always shone brightly, from Shakespearean actors such as Sir Patrick Stewart to Hollywood stars such as Jude Law. But that glow dimmed this weekend as three plays with high-profile British connections prepared to close sooner than expected.

Stewart, who was in David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, was among the casualties, as were Mark Rylance, who won a Tony Award for his performance in Boeing Boeing on Broadway two years ago, and Joanna Lumley.

Luke-warm reviews for Elling, a play about two released mental patients in Norway, means the production will close today, one week after its official opening. Elling's failure is a blow to the reputation of its producers, Howard Panter, described as the most powerful man in British theatre, and Bill Kenwright, a leading West End theatre producer. Elling took just $145,000 (£93,000) in eight performances last week.

A Life in the Theatre, which played to a half-empty house last week, also closes today, instead of running until January, while La Bête, which starred Rylance and Lumley, will close on 9 January after managing barely 100 performances.

The triple disappointment for home-grown talent brings a stellar run for British actors to an abrupt halt. This summer, Catherine Zeta-Jones won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her role in A Little Night Music, while Douglas Hodge scooped best actor in a musical for his role in La Cage aux Folles. Two acclaimed London theatres were also honoured, with the Donmar Warehouse taking an award for its Broadway transfer of Red and the Menier Chocolate Factory for its transfer of La Cage.

The surprise closures prompted critics to question whether British good fortune was running out on Broadway. Charles Isherwood, of The New York Times, said yesterday: "The mania for automatically fast-tracking anything that was successful in London could wane if they keep bringing over plays like Elling that won't logically work."

David Benedict, the London critic for the magazine Variety, said: "There was a misconception that if it was British it would guarantee success." But he qualified the suggestion that British actors had fallen out of favour. "I think [the closures are] an accident of timing. La Bête was going to play a limited season anyway.... And A Life in the Theatre is not a terribly good play."

Several British plays and actors are still doing well on Broadway, including Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters. And Sally Hawkins, who starred in Made in Dagenham, won a standing ovation for her Broadway debut in George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession. The next big test will come when Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's West End hit, transfers early next year.

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