Looking Back: The 2001 Theatre Year in ReviewDate: 24 December 2001
As voting continues in the Whatsonstage.com Awards for the best and worst of London theatre 2001, contributing editor Mark Shenton reflects on his own eclectic, occasionally electrifying, year in the stalls.
In 2000, Jeffrey Archer was standing accused in a theatre, and judged terrible by the critics, for his play The Accused; in 2001, he's been judged a perjurer by an Old Bailey jury and is spending the holidays in jail. If only life and art were always so simple, so parallel and so just.
Unfortunately, both are usually much more complicated - and less entertaining. The events of 11 September have changed our lives, quite possibly forever. In theatreland, its impact is far more wide-reaching than the closure of a clutch of poorly performing West End musicals that weren't doing too well before the terrorist attacks anyway.
Drama into Crisis
The theatre world - fond of turning its own dramas into the stuff of crisis - has rallied behind London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and not only secured valuable publicity but also a direct subsidy for the West End. In a year that has seen the ticket price for musicals hit £40 and for plays £37.50, the discount tickets initiative that resulted underlines how overpriced a night out in theatreland usually is.
It was also a year in which several of London's most important artistic directors announced their departures, which will take effect, one by one, over the next 18 months. Trevor Nunn at the National, Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid at the Almeida, Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse and Jenny Topper at Hampstead are all set to go. The only replacement so far named is Nicholas Hytner for the National.
Meanwhile, the RSC's Adrian Noble announced his intention to relinquish the company's already truncated hold over its Barbican base in London - and also to overhaul the Stratford operation, possibly including the demolition of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Theatre of the Year
The Almeida and Hackney Empire closed for refurbishment, while Stratford East's magical Theatre Royal re-opened for business after a four-year closure. The relocated Almeida created the new performance space of the year in a temporary home at King's Cross and, after a disappointing start with Lulu, went on to produce some of the year's most electrifying work there. Its production of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, now transferred to off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre, was - in my opinion - the year's single most exciting theatrical event.
This dramatic riposte to the art installation work of Tracey Emin proved both hideously compelling and morbidly fascinating. And the dazzling quartet of actors - Rachel Weisz, Paul Rudd, Gretchen Moll and Frederick Weller - performed it with a visceral urgency. Their high-definition performances were matched later in the year by the Almeida's revival of Brian Friel's The Faith Healer, with Ian McDiarmid, unrecognisably brilliant in a trio that also included the superb Ken Stott and Geraldine James. Performances aside, no theatre explores the possibilities of design more richly than the Almeida - this year, Paul Brown's set of Platonov stunned even those who are used to being stunned here.
Best New Plays
A number of the year's other memorable new plays hailed from north London's Hampstead Theatre. It premiered Alistair Beaton's Feelgood (in a production that transferred to the Garrick), Philip Osment's Buried Alive and Jonathan Harvey's Out in the Open, as well as importing Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends from off-Broadway.
The Royal Court's important contributions included Kevin Elyot's Mouth to Mouth (subsequently at the Albery) and the British premiere of Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl, featuring devastatingly acute performances by, respectively, Lindsay Duncan and Katrin Cartlidge, both of which vie for my vote for best actress of the year. Ian Rickson, who wins my vote for director of the year, directed both.
Meanwhile, the National imported all-too-brief runs of August Wilson's superb Jitney and Robert Lepage's latest one-man play, The Far Side of the Moon, and premiered Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy (now set to reappear at the West End's Gielgud. New playwrights at the terrific Soho Theatre included Chris Chibnall, whose Kiss Me Like You Mean It classifies him as one of the year's most promising writers; and in the West End, Simon Gray's Japes was a disturbingly fine portrait of the relationship of two brothers, with Jasper Britton giving my favourite performance by an actor this year.
On the comedy front, Ray Cooney's Caught in the Net showed this old-timer farceur in fine fettle, as is the amazing Eric Sykes in it. But Cooney's comic achievement was eclipsed at year's end by The Right Size's The Play What I Wrote, providing the year's funniest evening.
Best New Musicals
The Bridewell proved to be about the only place to be this year for new musicals, with Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again and Robert Jason Brown's Songs for a New World, both originally seen off-Broadway, providing the year's richest new musical voices. Clive Paget's productions also featured several of the year's strongest performances, including Golda Rushuevel (in both) and Craig Purnell (in the latter).
The 1960s compilation musical Shout!, at the ever-invaluable cabaret-sized Jermyn Street Theatre, was also a treat; and Last Song of the Nightingale, a musical play about Judy Garland at Hampstead's New End Theatre, featured an impressive performance by Tracie Bennett. At year's close, The Dreaming, a National Youth Music Theatre adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream by composer Howard Goodall and lyricist Charles Hart, proved to be the year's best new British musical by a mile at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio.
The West End's typically dismal catalogue of new musicals was only redeemed by the flawed but occasionally fabulous Closer to Heaven, which at least took a few risks at the Arts Theatre, not least with Frances Barber's outrageous starring performance.
Nothing succeeds like the already tried, tested and true, which are duly doing the strongest business at the moment. Howard Davies' smoothly assured re-run of Private Lives gives huge pleasure, not least for a finely tuned quartet of performances from Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan with Emma Fielding and Adam Godley hilarious as their new spouses. An all-star Shaftesbury Avenue Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is elevated by Ned Beatty, Frances O'Connor and Gemma Jones, but almost enervated by Brendan Fraser.
A series of terrific Donmar Warehouse revivals also featured some amazing performances: Ben Daniels and Phil Davis in Tales from Hollywood, Andy Serkis and Catherine McCormack in A Lie of the Mind, Penelope Wilton in The Little Foxes and Roger Allam in Privates on Parade. Also of note: young director Laurie Sansom and his brilliant designer Jessica Curtis startlingly contemporary take on JB Priestley's 1932 Dangerous Corner at the Garrick, via Leeds; and David Lan's tremendous rediscovery of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, with American actress Novella Nelson, which was the treat of the summer at the Young Vic. The autumn treat was the arrival of a Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate at the Victoria Palace, complete with four dazzling American performers.
Disappointments of the Year
For me, top of 2001's disappointments were the two National Theatre musicals. My Fair Lady saw Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle giving fewer performances on the South Bank than her understudies, and then leaving the West End transfer several months early. And the current South Pacific was revived in a wrongheaded production where war replaced romance as the overriding theme. And elsewhere, even Judi Dench, leading a cast of British theatrical royalty in The Royal Family, couldn't bring a clammy, hammy 1920s Broadway comedy to life at the Haymarket.
And as for out-and-out turkeys, Joan Collins in Ken Ludwig's comedy Over the Moon was, without a doubt, the least funny; while amongst several contenders for cringe-worthy musicals was the risible Beatles revue, All You Need Is Love.