Stars Shine on London’s Stage. But Who Wants Stars These Days?

Posted June 15, 2018 1:47 a.m. EDT

LONDON — Suddenly, it seems, the London stage is wreathed in stardust. Laura Linney is here for a blink-and-you’ll-miss it run, lending her luminosity to the solo outing “My Name Is Lucy Barton.” Across town, Orlando Bloom and Alfred Molina are upping the wattage of two other dramas: Molina in the return of a gripping two-hander, “Red,” and Bloom comfortably adapting to the Southern Gothic environs of “Killer Joe.”

Well, wasn’t it ever thus? Not exactly. London’s biggest nonmusical success in recent years, and the winner of six Tony Awards last Sunday, was “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Jack Thorne’s play boasts a global brand and doesn’t need big names.

Its West End iteration, at the Palace Theater, just welcomed a third cast, which represents the sort of success more often found in musicals, where a well-known title offers sufficient attraction. (Most people going to “The Phantom of the Opera” these days surely have no idea who is playing the title role.)

An added issue in London is the gradual disappearance of a generation of actors — now in their 70s and 80s — who once defined the city’s stage and could be relied on to return there, even as they found a wider audience on-screen. That explains the excitement about the West End opening next month of Ian McKellen in “King Lear.” McKellen, at 79, remains one of the increasingly few actors of his vintage who still tread the boards at a time when many colleagues (Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith) have given up the theater. Another star returning to her stage roots is Glenda Jackson, 82, who just won her first Tony.

But the most lauded play of the past season here, Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman,” which is scheduled to open in New York in October, fielded three casts during its London run — a testament to the title being the box-office draw, as opposed to a specific individual.

That isn’t the case with “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” although Elizabeth Strout’s novel is certainly much admired. Just two years after its publication, the book has been refashioned by Scottish writer Rona Munro for London’s newest playhouse, the Bridge. The main draw is the opportunity for audiences to experience the radiance of Linney. (The production runs through June 23.)

As she steps onto Bob Crowley’s appropriately clinical set — the location is a hospital room, which Linney paces, battling life’s abrasions — the audience leans into her every word. On opening night, the ovation at the curtain call seemed more heartfelt than usual.

You could argue, though, that Linney’s generous spirit is at odds with the piece itself. “My Name Is Lucy Barton” asks us to believe that the title character comes to grief with her husband, her children and, most especially, her mother, whose unbidden presence at the stricken Lucy’s bedside kick-starts a narrative that is a study in survival, ending with the triumph of a fiercely won present over a grievous past. (Linney shifts at various points between Lucy’s questing voice and that of her reproachful mother.)

“We only have one story” to tell, Lucy says, but “My Name Is Lucy Barton” fires off in more directions than necessary. AIDS and 9/11 both play their part in Lucy’s unfolding recollections, as if to up the dramatic stakes. (The character also gets not one but two health scares while in the hospital, neither of them serious.) But these piecemeal nods to larger social and political issues don’t explain how such an openhearted character has found herself so alone; we are left to fill in the gaps for ourselves.

Directed by Richard Eyre with a keen-eyed compassion that complements his star, the play stares loss in the face. As Lucy comes into her own as an independent woman, Linney tracks this burgeoning sense of self with an empathy that crosses the footlights. (I wasn’t alone in tearing up at the end.) That in itself is something to behold.

So is the ease with which screen star Orlando Bloom inhabits the shadowy if pulpy realm of “Killer Joe,” the Tracy Letts play from 1993 that has brought Bloom back to the London stage for the first time since 2007. (The production runs at Trafalgar Studios through Aug. 18.)

In the intervening quarter-century, Letts has written far better, less sensational plays, including the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County.” Reveling in the same American trailer trash milieu that it reviles, “Killer Joe” now looks both overwritten and overeager to shock. (Devotees of onstage nudity will be pleased, including by Bloom, whose personal trainer should get a shout-out in the program.)

There’s no denying the swagger brought to the play by its leading man, playing a Texas contract killer with a husky-voiced insouciance and pitch-perfect accent. Not all his colleagues in the director Simon Evans’ all-British ensemble are able to rein themselves in as the play moves toward its macabre conclusion, but Bloom connects to the part of Killer Joe Cooper without any condescension. Let’s hope it’s not 11 years before his next West End turn.

It’s been the better part of nine years since Molina first played the painter Mark Rothko in “Red” at the Donmar Warehouse, after which Michael Grandage’s impassioned production was scooped up for an immediate transfer to Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards. The play and its bravura leading player are back through July 28 in a larger theater, Wyndham’s, which Molina and his gracious co-star, Alfred Enoch, fill to bursting with their testy, teasing discourse on the ravages and rewards of art.

Packing more fury than I recall the first time out, Molina brings a sad-eyed splendor to his remorseless portrait of an iconic painter surrendering to a blackness of the soul. “I’m here to stop your heart,” he roars at his fictional assistant, Ken (Enoch, a first-rate newcomer to the play), and so Molina does: The man is every inch a star.

Here’s a welcome reminder of the kind of high-definition performance that seems to be vanishing lately. The play’s the thing, but it’s nice when the player is, too.

My Name Is Lucy Barton. Directed by Richard Eyre. Bridge Theater, through June 23.

Killer Joe. Directed by Simon Evans. Trafalgar Studios, through Aug. 18.

Red. Directed by Michael Grandage. Wyndham’s Theater, through July 28.