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Pop / Rock 16/05/2002

Madonna's Star Power Illuminates London Debut Of Up For Grabs

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LONDON, UK (Wyndhams Theatre Website) - Ovations are normally reserved for the end of a theatrical performance, not the beginning. But then, Madonna has never been one to hold much with convention.

Making her West End debut Monday (May 13) night in Up for Grabs at London's Wyndhams Theatre, she appeared onstage wearing black wide-legged pants, a short, cream trench coat tightly belted, and high stilettos. As she moved to center stage, she raised her head and smiled, bringing the house down before she'd even uttered a word.

And why not? Mrs. Guy Ritchie, or Madge, as the papers have dubbed her over here, is a genuine superstar, and it's not too often that fans can see someone of her stature up close and personal. It's also not often that fans can see the 43-year-old Madonna naked, in the figurative sense of the word. The evening's performance took place in a small, intimate theater (holding just under 700 people), and there were no back-up singers, no amps or backing tapes or eye-catching costumes. Just Madonna, lithe and supremely fit, acting on a stage for the first time in 13 years.

Written by Australian playwright David Williamson, Up for Grabs is a dark comedy that broke box office records when it opened in Sydney, Australia, in February 2001, and it seems poised for similar success in London. The plot focuses on Madonna's art dealer character Loren and her desperate attempts to manipulate a bidding war for a Jackson Pollock painting. Along the way, she does whatever it takes to make the sale, which includes a lesbian kissing scene, a humorous exchange with a rather large strap-on dildo, and the kind of deal-with-the-devil verbal rationalizations that would have made Dr. Faustus proud.

Tickets for the first night of the previews were not made available to the media (the show officially opens on May 23 for a 10-week, sold-out run), but the fans were certainly out in force. Many of them had queued for hours in the rain to try and get a ticket, and The Times on Tuesday (May 14) reported that scalpers and some Internet outlets were charging more than $700 for a seat.

Of course, comments weren't all positive, with several people observing how small her voice sounded. Still, overall consensus was that she improved as she grew more confident in the second half, and the strength of Williamson's material and a strong ensemble cast helped soften the critical gaze.

Scenes changed quickly from one to the next via a system of sliding stages and backlit projections, all framed by sleek, silver scaffolding. The overall effect was clean and kept the attention focused on the actors, particularly Tom Irwin (you might remember him as the dad in My So Called Life) as Loren's husband Gerry, and the marvelous Sian Thomas, a veteran stage actress in the role of a tautly wound corporate art buyer.

Until Monday, there had been some doubts about whether the play would go on at all. The debut night was already several days' late (thanks to technical problems with the intricate stage design), and the play's producers made the unprecedented decision to cancel matinee performances to accommodate Madonna's recording commitments.

Still, for an initial airing, this was heady, impressive stuff. Even if her voice didn't quite match her larger-than-life image, Madonna's star power was undeniable. And as London struggles to rebound from the impact on its tourism industry in the wake of Sept. 11, a little star power certainly goes a long way.

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