Was 1999 really an annus horribilis for British theatre? The doom and gloom merchants would have us believe so. As we ended the year there were dark mutterings in the popular press about the parlous state of the industry: of playhouses under threat, the dearth of quality new writing (signalled by the absent Evening Standard gong for Best New Drama), and of the bleak prognosis for regional rep proffered by the Theatres Trust.
For all the gloomy retrospection, though, there were a number of reasons to feel sanguine about the health of our stages as we looked back on the year. On many occasions theatre managed to overcome its reputation as the sick man of the entertainment business, and turn up some real gems.
True, on the musical theatre front, a number of blockbuster shows pulled out the troops, and there was a proliferation of that worrying sub-species, the rock revival musical. But on the plus side, we bagged the theatrical 'event' of the year in The Lion King and two of the best new British shows in years, A Saint She Ain't and Spend, Spend, Spend.
With the builders still in at The Royal Court the torch for new drama was passed to other playhouses, notably The Ambassadors in the West End (now rebadged as the 'New Ambassadors'). Under the aegis of Sonia Friedman this revamped stage placed an emphasis on short seasons and the work of young, edgy playwrights, like Mark Ravenhill and Simon Bennett (whose exploration of petty crime,Drummers, was universally applauded in September). The Almeida Theatre gave us Edna O'Brien's latest and Klaus Maria Brandauer, in Speer, plus the promise of exciting 2000, when a new Pinter and a Neil LaButepremiere will be unveiled. That old new writer Alan Ayckbourn, deserves a mention too, for showing he¹d lost none of his sparkle with his 53rd play, Comic Potential.
Outside London, the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh proved, yet again, to be the standard bearer of new writing, bringing us Liz Lochhead's bitter-sweet comedy Perfect Days and Linda McLean's One Good Beating.
Elsewhere in the regions the standard of work could be as high as anything on Shaftesbury Avenue. The West Yorkshire Playhouse created a splash with Singin' in the Rain, and a lauded production of The Seagull, which starred émigré thespian Ian McKellan. Up in Watford, the Palace Theatre picked up Simon Gray¹s The Late Middle Classes after being snubbed by the West End. And The Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, rebuilt after the 1996 bombing, shone with Peer Gynt and Nude with a Violin.
As well as Manchester, the Coward centenary was celebrated in London and Chichester with a revival of a handful of the master's most popular shows. These weren't always shown to best advantage, as Declan Donnellan's quirky Hay Fever demonstrated. The work of Samuel Beckett, too, was celebrated in style with The Gate, Dublin's festival transferring to The Barbican in September.
Perhaps boosted by the Oscar-laden film of Shakespeare in Love, the Bard proved to be as popular a draw as ever. Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford and The Tempest at the West Yorkshire Playhouse opened to mixed reviews. But The RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Volpone received a big tick from the critics. Possibly the best-received production of the year, though, was Gregory Doran¹s at the Swan Theatre in November, praised in one newspaper as 'the best Macbeth since Trevor Nunn's a quarter of a century ago'.
Speaking of Mr Nunn, the mighty RNT blossomed under his steady helmsmanship in 1999. Even if you weren't sure about Candide, you'd doubtless have been won over by Gregory Hersov's gritty revival of Look Back in Anger (featuring a petulant Michael Sheen) or John Caird's elegant Money. The formation of a new repertory company at the start of the year, also augured well for the future, with talents such as Simon Russell Beale and Roger Allam aboard.
Other reasons to be cheerful were Stephen Dillane's portrayal of the egocentric playwright in The Real Thing, and (a personal favourite) the satirical revue, Forbidden Broadway, which squeezed itself into the Jermyn Street Theatre in March. Plus the fact that the cash-strapped King¹s Head managed to hold off the bailiffs, Richmond¹s Orange Tree Theatre re-opened after being dark for 5 months, and the Hampstead Theatre announced the go-ahead for a shiny new auditorium.
Clearly there is much here to be optimistic about. Far from gasping for breath, theatre in 1999 showed it was a popular activity, surviving in style. Theatre folk and audiences alike should draw strength from that as we enter the new millennium.
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