LONDON — As proof that you can’t keep a good couple down, along comes “Lungs” at the Old Vic Theater to put center stage a screen pairing whose wattage shines even more brightly when experienced live. Claire Foy and Matt Smith came to attention together as the young royals of the blockbuster TV series “The Crown.” Their current stage assignment, smartly directed by Matthew Warchus and on view through Nov. 9, finds them in distinctly unregal street clothes, in a 90-minute two-hander from Duncan Macmillan that was first seen in 2011. Their characters, far from being known the world over, aren’t even named.
Playing an impassioned young couple whom we follow through decisive moments in their lives (some joyful, others not), the pair lend shape and dimension to a work that might seem piecemeal in lesser hands. Ms. Foy has the grabbier role as one of those talkative folks who can’t experience a feeling without placing it under a microscope for examination; Smith is a comparatively relaxed, reflective presence, without whom Ms. Foy would have no sounding board.
Ms. Foy has scarcely opened her mouth before she is pondering the prospect of parenthood in a grim world in which “thoughtless people are multiplying like rats.” The discussion ricochets this way and that to encompass matters of fidelity and evil, career options and the couple’s own parents, before moving jaggedly forward in time to a poignant conclusion.
Words spilling out of her, Ms. Foy sustains a daunting level of energy while maintaining sympathy for this often-tearful woman and her exposed nerve ends; Smith, as a musician who goes corporate, offers a study in patience, but never saintly. (Far from it, in fact, as we discover.) During the curtain call, the two dance together in a shared adrenaline rush that speaks to the delight they clearly take in each other’s company. Let’s have more of them, please, in whatever medium they choose.
Even as “Lungs” leaves you to ponder where its irresistible cast might join forces again, a veteran actor has returned to the stage to remind audiences of his lifelong commitment to the theater: the medium where this two-time Oscar nominee began his career and to which he regularly returns.
I’m referring, of course, to Ian McKellen, who turned 80 this year and, on the evidence of “Ian McKellen on Stage,” will be with us for a while yet.
This one-man show, at the Harold Pinter Theater through Jan. 5, finds the actor busily recapping for the better part of three hours the personal and professional journey that has led to his current renown, with career-making turns in “The Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” film franchises and with two films, “The Good Liar” and “Cats,” opening any minute now. He starts by directly invoking his screen incarnation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf, signature sword at the ready, saving the heavier lifting required by Shakespeare until after the intermission.
His ever-expanding list of credits would mean nothing, he makes clear, without his work as a gay activist, and McKellen is at his most affecting charting the kind of personal growth for which you don’t win trophies.
Directed by his onetime partner and longtime friend, Sean Mathias, McKellen is a jolly raconteur who engages as readily with the audience as he does with Shakespeare. Calling on the audience to help by calling out titles, he makes a point of meticulously name-checking every Shakespeare play, some more valued than others. (He’s not a great fan, evidently, of “Troilus and Cressida.”)
This London engagement was preceded by a tour of Britain, proceeds from which went entirely to charity, and McKellen took advantage of a recent trip to New York to perform the show for one night only on Broadway.
The result feels like a gesture of giving back, one that fires up the performer from within. After a recent matinee, McKellen could be seen rattling a bucket in the theater foyer for further donations from the audience, whom he clearly loved. Such affection, you feel, is more than reciprocated.
An entertainer’s rapport with the public can be transgressed, though: That is the topic of the actor-comedian Richard Gadd’s startling self-penned solo play, “Baby Reindeer,” at the Bush Theater through Nov. 9. Directed by Jon Brittain with a hurtling ferocity, the play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, chronicles the real-life takeover of Gadd’s daily existence by a stalker whom the Scottish performer names only as “Martha.” By the end of an uninterrupted 70 minutes, you may feel as if this (unseen) source of more than 40,000 emails and 350 hours of voicemail has chipped away at your well-being as well.
Gadd artfully widens his focus to include a level of self-inquiry that must be difficult to perform: “Martha’s” gradual takeover of his life has an effect on his own relationships that leaves him wondering where he can turn for comfort. The police are less than helpful, accepting this predator’s view of her actions as “knockabout fun” and even suggesting, at one point, that Gadd apologize to her.
And though Gadd has a restraining order against “Martha,” he voices the possibility that his tormentor may be sitting among us. In which case, you could forgive playgoers for looking a touch fretful as they left. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing this magnetic performer a safe journey home.
Lungs. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Old Vic, through Nov. 9.
Ian McKellen On Stage. Directed by Sean Mathias. Harold Pinter Theater, through Jan. 5.
Baby Reindeer. Directed by Jon Brittain. Bush Theater, through Nov. 9.