This was the year of the new artistic directors: from the top of the theatrical food chain, the triumphant National and the beleaguered Royal Shakespeare Company, to the refurbished Almeida and entirely re-built Hampstead, as well as Bristol Old Vic, Chichester Festival Theatre, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, there have been new hands in charge this year.

In my 2002 annual review, it was the Donmar Warehouse that got my vote for Theatre of the Year. But, despite a strong first year at the helm for artistic director Michael Grandage (facing the toughest act on the London stage of succeeding Sam Mendes), the Donmar has been eclipsed by a simply astonishing run of hits at the National Theatre (pictured).

Top honours

The National's success has already been underscored by the fact that it took three of the top honours at November's Evening Standard Drama Awards, for Best Musical (Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's Jerry Springer - the Opera), Best Play (Michael Frayn's Democracy) and Most Promising Playwright (Kwame Kwei-Armah for Elmina's Kitchen), as well as its whopping, record-breaking 40 nominations in this year's Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards. Who knows what riches will follow with the Critics' Circle and Olivier judges?

In fact, the National has been riding high all year, not just since Nicholas Hynter took over in April. Before he left, Trevor Nunn directed a cross-cast repertory double-bill that paired Cole Porter's sea-faring 1930s musical Anything Goes (that then set sail triumphantly for the West End, where it re-opened in October at Drury Lane) and Shakespeare's rustic comedy Love's Labour's Lost. (Since departing the National, Nunn has kept busy with brilliant productions of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea for the Almeida and the current Young Vic adaptation of David Almond's children's story Skellig).

Also making reappearances from Nunn's regime, Moira Buffini's Dinner (first seen in the temporary Loft installed in the Lyttelton circle foyer for last year's Transformation season) transferred to Wyndham's and Matthew Bourne's Laurence Olivier Award-winning dance drama Play Without Words (another Transformation original) returned this Christmas, while Roger Michell's production of Honour saw Eileen Atkins give the female performance of the year, as she turned incandescent with pain, rage and dignity as a wife spurned after 32 years of marriage.

But for all that success, Hytner has set the National on an even bigger roll, with the scabrous, fabulous Jerry Springer - the Opera boldly heralding the end of years of safe Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter revivals. Arguably the most adventurous, groundbreaking new musical since the 1979 Broadway premiere of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (which has, coincidentally, just been revived at no less than the Royal Opera House), Jerry Springer transferred in November to the West End's Cambridge Theatre, where the opening night saw the most surreal sight of the year when the real-life Jerry appeared at the curtain call with not just his onstage self (the uncanny look-a-like Michael Brandon) but also the entire chorus of doppelgangers. Further commercial transfers have been secured for David Leveaux's athletic revival of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers (to the Piccadilly) and, coming up, Frayn's Democracy (to Wyndham's, where it opens in April).

Triple challenge

Between them, Jerry Springer, Jumpers and Democracy neatly exemplify Hytner's triple challenge of presenting bold new musicals, smart revivals and exciting new plays. There have other stunning examples of all three, with such fine drama premieres as Owen McCafferty's Scenes from the Big Picture (superbly staged by Peter Gill), Martin McDonagh's disturbing latest, The Pillowman (excellently acted by a cast that includes Jim Broadbent and David Tennant), and Kwei-Armah's heartfelt slice of violent London streetlife, Elmina's Kitchen; and revelatory revivals like Katie Mitchell's production of Three Sisters and Howard Davies' majestic staging of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra with Helen Mirren and Eve Best in startling form as a mother and daughter undone by jealousy and contempt.

However, Hytner's boldest and most significant initiative has perhaps been not so much in his programming as in his pricing. In the inaugural six-month Travelex £10 season, two-thirds of the seats for four productions in the NT's largest theatre, the Olivier, were offered at £10 each, the remaining third selling at a top price of just £25. With a diverse and high-profile repertoire - comprising Hytner's own magnificent, modern staging of Henry V (in which Adrian Lester played king), Zoe Wanamaker and Alex Jennings in His Girl Friday, Kenneth Branagh in an emotionally as well as physically naked performance in the title role of David Mamet's Edmond and a starkly gripping Richard Jones production of Von Horvath's European classic Tales from the Vienna Woods - audiences were not short-changed, either.

(Hall and Jones went on to make their marks in other productions elsewhere, respectively with a brilliant A Midsummer Night's Dream for the all-male Propeller Company, and a wonderfully evocative, environmentally-set Hobson's Choice, relocated and updated to contemporary Asian Salford, at the Young Vic.)

High-definition performances

The Donmar Warehouse, too, has had a truly terrific year, particularly in offering a set of high-definition, high-impact performances that included Michael Sheen, absolutely astonishing as Caligula (for which he won the Evening Standard Best Actor Award); Rhys Ifans in the comic turn of the year in a hilarious updating of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist; Tom Hollander, brilliantly bitter in John Osborne's autobiographical The Hotel in Amsterdam; and now the masterful trio of Richard Coyle, Keilly Reilly and Helen Baxendale in Patrick Marber's Strindberg re-write, After Miss Julie.

The RSC, by comparison, barely registered in London. After the tail end of its Olivier Award-winning Jacobean season at the Gielgud, its West End appearances were confined to a disappointing season at the Old Vic (curtailed three weeks early) for Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and at the Haymarket, Ibsen's rarely seen Brand, starring Ralph Fiennes. Elsewhere, there was a severely misguided stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children at the company's previous permanent home, the Barbican; and, perhaps symbolically given the RSC's continuing itinerant status in the capital, a collaboration with Cardboard Citizens', a company who work with the homeless, on a production of Pericles in a warehouse off the Old Kent Road.

(The RSC's 2003 Stratford season looked like it was going to bypass the capital entirely, until a late intervention saw commercial producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt offer to bring Gregory Doran's double bill of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed to the West End's Queen's Theatre in January. New artistic director Michael Boyd may be further righting the listing ship, if it's not already too late, with the return of Judi Dench to the company in Doran's All's Well That Ends Well that's just opened at Stratford and comes to the Gielgud in February.)

Hampstead Theatre and the Almeida were both welcomed back; the first, entirely rebuilt (at a cost of £15.7 million), the second extensively refurbished (£7.6m). Though both now have new artistic directors, too, in Anthony Clark and Michael Attenborough, they are yet to make their mark. Hampstead in particular is finding it hard to fill a theatre nearly double the size of its old one, and has now appealed to Arts Council England for rescue (See News, 18 Dec 2003). Small wonder it needed rescuing: three of the worst shows of the year originated here. The re-opening production, How to Behave, saw the audience propelled on an interactive guided walk through the new building before Station House Opera performed an entirely pointless installation on its stage; and two terrible new plays, Clare McIntyre's The Maths Tutor and Stephen Lowe's Revelations, were the worst of a mostly bad lot that followed.

In a specially reconfigured Royal Court, Roy Williams' challenging Fallout was superbly directed by artistic director Ian Rickson and marked by a wonderful turn from Lennie James, who returns to the theatre next year as a playwright. Rona Munro's Iron, which began the Court year by transferring from Edinburgh's Traverse, had bleakly brilliant performances from Sandy McDade and Louise Ludgate as the year's other most riveting mother-daughter relationship alongside that in Mourning Becomes Electra.

Stars & rock stars

The West End, meanwhile, saw the arrival of stars like Kristin Scott Thomas (in the year's other Three Sisters), Matthew Perry, Minnie Driver and Hank Azaria (in the year's other Mamet revival, Sexual Perversity in Chicago), Patrick Stewart (in Ibsen's The Master Builder), Joan Plowright (in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Pirandello's Absolutely! (perhaps)), Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour (in Strindberg's Dance of Death), Tom Courtenay (in the touching Philip Larkin bio-play, Pretending to Be Me from Leeds), Derek Jacobi (as Prospero in an Old Vic Tempest from Sheffield), Janie Dee, Hugo Speer and Aden Gillett (in Betrayal), Rupert Graves, Prunella Scales, Rachael Stirling and Samantha Bond (in A Woman of No Importance), Denise Van Outen (in the return of the Lloyd Webber/Don Black solo song cycle, Tell Me on a Sunday), Irish funnyman Ardal O'Hanlon (the best of the bad job that was See You Next Tuesday), another sometime stand-up turned actor Alan Davies (in Auntie and Me), Warren Mitchell (in The Price) and, in separate one-person show appearances, husband and wife Lenny Henry (So Much Things to Say) and Dawn French (My Brilliant Divorce).

There was also rock star Rod Stewart, albeit in spirit only, in Tonight's the Night the latest catalogue musical to fold existing songs into a new storyline, which some wags quickly redubbed We Will Rod You (since Ben Elton was also behind the Queen musical of a similar title), though, given the new top ticket price that it established for weekends (£55), maybe We Will Rob You would have been even more appropriate. From New York, there was the belated (and all-too-brief) arrival of the wonderful Ahrens and Flaherty musical Ragtime, with Maria Friedman and Graham Bickley leading a superb cast, and the prompter transfer of Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Amanda Holden thoroughly marvellous in the lead) on the musicals front, as well as The Bomb-itty of Errors and Shakespeare's R&J on the bard front.

Fly-by-night

Two other West End offerings departed as quickly as they arrived. Michael Barrymore made an ill-advised (and worse-prepared) entry with a solo show at Wyndham's, then fled midweek after just three performances and deservedly dire reviews. And the witless, charmless and tuneless musical Money to Burn closed, unusually, between the matinee and evening shows on the Saturday just two days after its press roasting.

Though more resilient, there were poor re-runs for Stephen Poliakoff's play of urban ennui, Sweet Panic, first seen at Hampstead in 1996 but now looking woefully exposed on the bigger stage of the Duke of York's despite the game efforts of Victoria Hamilton and Jane Horrocks, and Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, badly miscast at the Playhouse with Jared Harris and Polly Walker lacking the allure of their predecessors Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan.

There was better news at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Shared Experience's distillation of Jean Rhys' life and work, After Mrs Rochester, rivetingly brought to life in Polly Teale's production by a cast that included Diana Quick and Madeleine Potter as different versions of the novelist, and deservedly moved to the West End's Duke of York's; and at Dalston's ever-enterprising Arcola, where Come Out, Eli, a documentary verbatim play about the Hackney siege of last Christmas, pioneered a fascinating new theatrical technique.

Show of the year

Best of all this year, and my vote for show of the year, hasn't been seen in the West End or on the Fringe for any sustained season at all. Dave Gorman's latest show, Googlewhack Adventure, has gone on from the Edinburgh Fringe to play only brief engagements. But Gorman's account of his obsessive global search to create a links between people with websites that contain a 'googlewhack' (something that happens when two unrelated words are entered into Google and return a link to a single site) provides the most involving and ferocious narrative stories I've heard all year.

Christmas crackers

Finally, a couple of things to be sure to put in your theatre-loving friends' Christmas stockings this year - or indeed your own. The UK theatre book of the year has to be Richard Eyre's intimate and revealing diary of his decade at the helm of the National Theatre, entitled National Service (Bloomsbury, £18.99 - click here to purchase a signed copy through Whatsonstage.com), is shot through with revelation, gossip and insight into the man as well as the pressures, triumphs and failures of running such an important theatre.

And, from the US, Ted Chapin's Everything Was Possible (published by Knopf) - an amazing personal account of the birth of the Sondheim musical Follies from someone who was actually there as an assistant on the original production - takes you right to the heart and heartbreak, not to mention art and craft, of putting on a show. This wasn't just any show, of course, but what has turned out to be a modern classic. Essential reading.


Many of the above productions have been nominated in Whatsonstage.com's 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Awards.
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