Comings & goings

Madonna came and Cats (as well as Starlight Express and Buddy) went; The Mousetrap turned 50 and refuses to go anywhere; We Will Rock You got panned and turned into a hit; The Full Monty got raves and flopped after less than nine months. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith - appearing onstage together for the first time in over 40 years - sold out their entire Haymarket run (now extended to March 2003) without a single press ad being placed. They could have read the phone book and still sold out; as it is, they performed one of the year's best new plays, David Hare's rich and surprising The Breath of Life, to aching perfection.

Adrian Noble took the money from directing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and decided to do a runner from the RSC (to be succeeded by Michael Boyd), but not before leaving it disastrously homeless in London after withdrawing from the Barbican and helping to send the company further into the red (with a deficit of nearly £2.5 million). Now dependent on the kindness of strangers in the cutthroat West End after an under-attended summer season at an expensively converted Roundhouse in Camden, the RSC's current Gielgud Theatre season is produced by Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt; without whom, these acclaimed Stratford productions wouldn't have been seen in London.

Going out with a big-budget bang

Meanwhile, the National actually registered a modest surplus, though Trevor Nunn - another artistic director serving time before being replaced this April by Nicholas Hytner - is going out with what is likely to prove an expensive bang, colonising the largest Olivier Theatre single-handedly from the summer onwards where he staged the massive Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (with the year's best designs by William Dudley), and which is now being followed by his productions of Anything Goes and Love's Labour's Lost.

Nunn also took over the Lyttelton for a vastly overblown staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Glenn Close as a seriously miscast Blanche DuBois; and before that, authorised that theatre's hugely expensive temporary dismantling to become the supposedly more intimate, but in fact grossly uncomfortable, home to five productions in the Transformation season of new work. This initiative, which also included eight play premieres in a new 100-seat studio space carved out of the Lyttelton circle foyer, was undoubtedly ambitious, but nothing got much of a run and there was only one out-and-out critical success in Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words.

Emotionally charged

Far better new work was displayed in the NT Cottesloe, where Anita Dobson gave what I consider to be the performance of the year by any actor in Bryony Lavery's chillingly reasoned and reasonable Frozen. As a mother who, confronting her child's murderer, finds release in forgiveness, she was emotionally charged and shattering. Another Cottesloe triumph, Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton - which told the fascinating story of the young Vincent van Gogh's sojourn in London and subsequently transferred to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre - saw Clare Higgins quietly devastating as the landlady he woos, then wounds, with young Dutch actor Jochum ten Haaf offering an uncanny physical resemblance to the painter.

Yet again at the Cottesloe, Katie Mitchell's rare revival of Chekhov's Ivanov was one of the year's most beautifully measured classical renderings, with Owen Teale (replacing the originally announced Paul Rhys) wonderful in the title role. To lose one actor (Rhys) may have been a misfortune. To have gone on to lose four more proved that the Cottesloe (which until then looked like it was on course to earn the title of Theatre of the Year) had a rare run of carelessness.

The week before previews were to begin for Mappa Mundi, star Ian Holm withdrew, and an already short run was curtailed while Alun Armstrong rehearsed to take over. The day before the press night for the current production of Christopher Hampton's The Talking Cure starring Ralph Fiennes, his now sadly mourned co-star James Hazeldine was taken ill and forced to withdraw. After two brief recasts - first Bill Paterson, then John Carlisle - both got cold feet, the part is now being played by multi-tasking fellow cast member Dominic Rowan.

Theatre of the Year

With nothing but good fortune, the Theatre of the Year had to be Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse, with Sam Mendes' final season at the helm including his own farewell productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night that offered the year's best acting ensemble. As well as Simon Russell Beale (Vanya/Molvolio) and Emily Watson (Sonya/Viola), the company included Helen McCrory, announcing an early bid for future stardom, (Yelena/Olivia) and David Bradley, offering two of the year's best-observed cameos (the Professor/Sir Andrew Aguecheek).

This double bill was preceded by the Donmar's American Imports season, of which two transferred to the West End (Jesus Hopped the A Train and Lobby Hero), one was co-produced with New York's Public Theatre to which it transferred and is now headed to Broadway (Take Me Out) and one featured Gwyneth Paltrow (Proof). I wasn't too taken with any of these plays, but all were given considered and occasionally galvanising productions.

Then, in the Donmar's hitherto annual (but this year apparently final) Divas cabaret season, Philip Quast planted a serious stake to being what I consider the world's best musical leading man. Keep your Michaels Crawford and Ball or even Broadway's Brian Stokes Mitchell; no one else combines the emotional integrity that Quast invests into his performance with such a powerful voice. Michael Grandage has now taken over from Mendes as Donmar artistic director, and his opening production, a revival of Noel Coward's The Vortex, continues his own and this theatre's vivid reclamations of underrated classics.

Two more major addresses also have big changes on the way. Hampstead Theatre finally shut the 'temporary' shed it has operated in for nearly 40 years (after reviving one of its biggest hits from the past, Abigail's Party, now transferred to the New Ambassadors) and will re-open in a gleaming new theatre in February, London's first stand-alone, purpose-built producing theatre to be opened since the National in 1976. After the first season in its new home, artistic director Jenny Topper will leave Hampstead and be replaced by Anthony Clark. In early spring, the Almeida will also return to its refurbished Islington home; but without the artistic directors, Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, who put it on the map. Instead, former RSC associate Michael Attenborough will be in charge.

Hollywood stars

If the backstages of London's theatres were busy, on stage they were also making the news as a seemingly endless roll-call of Hollywood stars lined up to take their bows. As well as the already mentioned Madonna, Glenn Close and Gwyneth Paltrow, there was also Gillian Anderson, Matt Damon, Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan; not to mention all those relatives of the famous rotating through This Is Our Youth, including Casey Affleck (Ben's brother), Summer Phoenix (the late River's sister), Colin Hanks (Tom's son) and Kieran Culkin (Macaulay's brother).

The stars weren't, however, only from America: Macbeth saw the stage returns of Sean Bean and Samantha Bond (still at the Albery), Doctor Faustus had Brit-Packer Jude Law; mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson played mother and daughter in Lady Windermere's Fan; Mrs Warren's Profession starred Brenda Blethyn (still at the Strand) and Caryl Churchill's chilling and brief A Number saw Michael Gambon encountering several of his genetically cloned sons, all played by Daniel Craig.

The Royal Court, where A Number premiered, was also responsible for several more of the year's most provocative new plays, not least: Peter Gill's moving study of rural gay life in 1960s Yorkshire, The York Realist (superbly played by Lloyd Owen and Richard Coyle); Jez Butterworth's strange tale of Fenland folk, The Night Heron (with a terrific performance by Jessica Stevenson as the strangest of them); and the darkly hilarious Anthony Neilson play, The Lying Kind.

New musicals

A good year for new musicals saw London's first fully Asian cast and influenced spectacle Bombay Dreams bringing Bollywood to the stage in a riot of colour and great songs, while Boy George's partly autobiographical Taboo featured a different kind of local colour.

Following the example of Mamma Mia, old Madness songs were wrapped into an ingenious new setting by Tim Firth for Our House, and old Queen songs were feebly showcased by Ben Elton in We Will Rock You.

For Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the star was the car; while the Broadway transfer of The Full Monty brought an Americanised version of another British film hit back home. Also from Broadway, Elaine Stritch's solo show at the Old Vic was a thrilling tour-de-force and the dance-musical hybrid Contact arrived with the sexiest cast and choreography in town.

Many of the above productions have been nominated in’s 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Awards. Voting continues until 31 January 2003.