If the summer of 2004 was a season most notable for a series of fast-fading flops in the West End (not to mention one lingering one, Beautiful and Damned) that heralded something of a crisis of confidence there, then the autumn and winter has seen it bounce spectacularly back, galvanised in particular by the arrival of “The Big Three” musicals, all of them substantial hits.

And if 2003 was a year when new blood came in to lead several of our most important producing theatres, including the National, Royal Shakespeare Company, Almeida, Donmar Warehouse and Hampstead Theatres in London (plus Bristol Old Vic, Chichester Festival Theatre and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum regionally), this year the new artistic directors have had the opportunity to consolidate their positions and it’s now time to take stock of how they’re doing. There’s also a new kid with his head on the artistic policy block – Kevin Spacey has taken over the direction of the Old Vic Theatre.

An American assault

Spacey’s not the only American in town to seek to stake a claim to reviving the fortunes of the theatre here: from the famous to the unknown, the year has seen performers like Christian Slater, Holly Hunter, Gillian Anderson, Nathan Lane, Julia Stiles, Aaron Eckhart, Luke Perry, Alyson Hannigan, Molly Ringwald, Michael Landes, David Soul, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Lauren Ambrose, M Emmett Walsh, Elizabeth Franz, Katie Finneran, Matthew Lillard, Alicia Witt, Claudia Shear, Kevin Chamberlin, Bob Stillman, Angela Christian and Jill Paice launching a veritable assault on the London theatre, in vehicles from smash hits like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Slater at the Gielgud) to outright flops like Fuddy Meers (Finneran and Lillard at the Arts).

Fuddy Meers - which was the inauspicious launch for Scamp, a new company set up by Sam Mendes and his former Donmar Warehouse executive producer Caro Newling - was just one of a succession of high-profile new productions that speedily collapsed in the West End in the spring and early summer. Michael Hastings’ Calico (starring Imelda Staunton, now riding high on her multiple award nominations for the film Vera Drake), Simon Gray’s The Holy Terror (with Simon Callow), Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence and revivals of The Rattle of a Simple Man and Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, all ran for less than a month each.

None of these, with the exception of Fuddy Meers, were entirely bad, but there just weren’t the audiences for them. As producer Sonia Friedman remarked to me at the time, “This is a very competitive environment, and in order to stand out here, you’ve got to have that unique selling point. It can be a hit transfer; it can be a star actor; it can be a title play from a great playwright. What it can’t seem to be is just a good piece of theatre without anything around it.”

Vanity producing

Possibly the most spectacular flop of the summer, however, was one that had everything possible around it except being a good piece of theatre: in a woefully misguided example of vanity producing, Trevor Nunn directed his actress wife Imogen Stubbs’ first play, We Happy Few, on Shaftesbury Avenue. Only an unhappy few bothered to see it this feeble effort, despite a cast that was led by Juliet Stevenson and also included Marcia Warren and Kate O'Mara, with the luxury casting even extending to a design team that included Nunn’s former Les Mis collaborators John Napier (sets) and David Hersey (lighting).

Nunn, however, at least had a better year elsewhere, with an Old Vic directed Hamlet (before Spacey’s arrival there) that propelled the play into a world of hurtling modernity and momentum, with the 23-year-old Ben Wishaw offering a broodingly vivid performance in the title role that was unmatched by two more Hamlet’s that arrived in town this year, Michael Maloney (as part of the Barbican’s BITE season, directed by Yukio Ninagawa) and Toby Stephens (in an RSC production that inaugurated a long-overdue West End residency for the company at the Albery Theatre).

Nunn was also reunited with Andrew Lloyd Webber – whose shows Cats, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard he had also directed – to stage the first of the autumn ‘Big Three’ musicals, The Woman in White, that took over from another Nunn production, Les Miserables, at the Palace, with the two shows intriguingly based on literary sources that were originally written just a year apart in 1861 and 1860 respectively. Les Mis, meanwhile, controversially became Less Mis on its move to the Queen’s Theatre down the road, with the size of the orchestra halved and supplemented by the Sinfonia electronic orchestral system.

Electronic future

The Woman in White also pointed a way to an electronic future with a set by William Dudley that mainly comprised of moving screen projections, but Lloyd Webber was back in blazing melodic form with his best score since The Phantom of the Opera. This was thrillingly put across by a cast led by Maria Friedman and also featuring Michael Crawford, in his first London role since playing the Phantom and doing his big number with a rodent for the second time in his career after the short-lived 1979 musical Flowers for Algernon.

Before the arrival of the next big hit, The Producers, there were two wonderfully misfiring musical flops to set it perfectly in context. Former radio DJ Mike Read’s musical biography of Oscar Wilde walked straight into the record books, opening and closing on the same October night at the Shaw, while Murderous Instincts managed to run at the Savoy for nine nights, a tally that was just one higher than the number of directors it reportedly got through – though it finally opened without one being credited at all!

Its putative star Nichola McAuliffe, an actress who did a brief stint as a theatre critic on the Daily Mail in the summer, regularly rushed into print to hilariously document its tortuous production process that included one director, having failed to secure the proper work permit, decamping to Paris, where he continued to be in touch with the rest of the creative team by phone. While actors are sometimes derogatorily accused of ‘phoning in’ their performances, this must be one of the first occasions ever when a director has literally phoned his staging in. As for McAuliffe, her return to acting rather than reviewing proved to be a wise move: by being in it, she was at least spared having to see it.

Backstage chaos

These failures made it all the more piquant that a show all about trying to succeed in the producing business by creating a flop musical should hit it big next. But The Producers, a Broadway valentine to the backstage chaos of making musicals, brought its own backstage crisis with it to add to the irony of its eventual success. Jaws film actor Richard Dreyfuss, originally announced to play the role of Max Bialystock, made jaws drop by telling TV chat show audiences not to bother to see the show before Christmas as he just wasn’t ready, and departed from the production soon after, just a week before previews were due to begin.

That particular adversity turned into thrilling triumph when Nathan Lane, who created the role of Max Bialystock on Broadway three and a half years ago, dramatically stepped into the breach. He reunited with Lee Evans (following their on-screen appearance together in the 1997’s Mouse Hunt) to offer the year’s best double act, without even a single preview being lost. But a question mark remains over whether any British actor will ever (dare to) replace Lane, especially after Lane’s first Broadway successor, British actor Henry Goodman, was so ignominiously fired there after just three weeks in the role. For now, the producers of The Producers have announced that another American actor, Brad Oscar, who replaced Goodman on Broadway, will step into the role from 10 January.

And then there was the third of the ‘Big Three’, Mary Poppins, taking flight at the Prince Edward Theatre under the joint auspices of co-conceiver Cameron Mackintosh and Disney, exactly 40 years after the latter’s film version of the PL Travers stories made the flying nanny an internationally iconic figure. Putting the spectacle into spectacular, Richard Eyre’s production (co-directed with choreographer Matthew Bourne and featuring sets by Bob Crowley, new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and a book by Julian Fellowes) also locates the emotional ache at the heart of this story of a dysfunctional family that, like the one in Peter Pan, are eventually healed by the arrival of a flying stranger in their midst.

Authentic heart

But another British-created musical, The Big Life (premiered at Stratford East and returning there in February, hopefully en route to the West End), had an even bigger, more truthful and authentic heart on a much more modest budget, as it told of the true experiences of Caribbean immigrants arriving in the UK in the 1950s. Smaller was beautiful, too, for Grand Hotel, a 1989 Broadway musical hauntingly revived at the Donmar Warehouse by artistic director Michael Grandage as one of the year’s most resonant shows, featuring the year’s most moving performance, too, from Daniel Evans as a dying Jewish book-keeper in late 1920s Berlin who checks into the hotel for one last fling before he checks out of life.

I was far less taken by the revisionist reduction of another Broadway classic, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1979 Sweeney Todd, featuring a cast of just nine actor-singer-musicians. Instead of offering a triple threat in each discipline, the multi-tasking casting seemed to me to be thrice-deprived, and short-changed its audience at the Trafalgar Studios (a new studio theatre steeply and uncomfortably carved out of the Whitehall Theatre) on just about every score, not least Sondheim’s usually majestic score. At £36 for the best seats, you got less of this show than you’ve ever seen or heard before.

Truly accessible

By refreshing comparison, the National’s revival of another Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, delivered the musical in all its convoluted hilarity for just £10, as part of the second annual six-month Travelex £10 season at the NT Olivier (with the top third of the seats going for a bit more at £25, but even that’s still half the price of most West End musicals nowadays).

The bargain-basement ticket pricing continues to represent artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s most publicly successful intervention to make the National truly accessible to all, but two of the plays seen with the £10 tag also saw the building not just at the cutting edge of our theatrical life but also at the centre of our national life, too. David Hare brought his highly critical examinations of the state of our railways since privatisation (The Permanent Way, co-produced with Out Of Joint, first at the Cottesloe and then, as part of an expanded £10 season, in the Lyttelton) and the circumstances that took America and Britain to wage war on Iraq (Stuff Happens).

While The Permanent Way was directed with a shattering intensity by Max Stafford-Clark (who also staged an urgently contemporary Macbeth, re-located to an African dictatorship, at the Arcola that returns to Wilton’s Music Hall in January), Stuff Happens was directed by Hytner, who was also responsible for staging the National’s biggest hit of the year when he was reunited with playwright Alan Bennett for The History Boys, a poignantly funny new play about the values of education, superbly acted by a cast that included Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Other highlights at the National included Katie Mitchell’s extraordinary staging of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Declan Donnellan’s furiously funny production of a neglected Russian comedy The Mandate, a revival of Sam Shepard’s ferocious family drama Buried Child directed by Shepard expert Matthew Warchus, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s beautifully acted new play The Night Season and Antony Sher’s haunting solo show about an Auschwitz survivor, Primo (transferring to Hampstead Theatre in February), all of which helped to consolidate Hytner’s new South Bank regime. (We’ll pass discreetly over Howard Davies’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac).

Psychologically disturbing

At the Almeida, Michael Attenborough also consolidated his position, debuting two of the year’s most significant and psychologically disturbing new plays, both of them interestingly about sexual disturbances within families and both also transferred to the West End. The British premiere of Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (with Jonathan Pryce as a man who falls in love with one, much to the understandable consternation of his wife, gay teenage son and best friend) moved to the Apollo, and a stunning stage adaptation of the Danish film Festen (now at the Lyric) was not only my play and production of the year, but also one of the single most shattering events of my theatregoing lifetime, directed with astonishing emotional and physical precision by Rufus Norris.

Just for balance, the Almeida also offered three of the year’s dullest entries. Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Pysche and Peter Whelan’s The Earthly Paradise both sent spectators to sleep, including Rhys Ifans who made the best unscripted intervention of the year in the latter when he awoke suddenly with a loud snort in the middle of Act One (See The Goss, 25 Nov 2004). And Attenborough made a serious personal misjudgement, directing the Almeida’s first-ever musical in an ill-judged version of the Graham Greene story Brighton Rock that his father Richard was celebrated for on film.

At the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage concentrated on programming revivals, and scored impressively with boldly conceptualised new productions of Pinter’s Old Times (directed by Roger Michell), Euripides’ Hecuba (Jonahan Kent) and Grandage’s own aforementioned production of Grand Hotel. The Royal Shakespeare Company, now under Michael Boyd, came back to the West End with a sell-out All's Well That Ends Well featuring Judi Dench, and is now in the midst of restaging its Tragedies season at the Albery. In January, it will also transfer three of its Spanish Golden Age plays to the Playhouse.

Seriously floundering

Of last year’s new artistic directors, only Anthony Clark at Hampstead seems to be seriously floundering, with a long, enforced summer closure on either side of mostly poor local work by Hanif Kureishi, Alistair Beaton, Crispin Whittell and Nick Stafford only interrupted by two slightly better imports from New York of plays by Dael Orlandersmith (Yellowman) and a Pulitzer-Prize winning entry from Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics). But then Kevin Spacey didn’t get off to the best of starts, either, this year with his opening show at the Old Vic, a new Dutch play called Cloaca that he also directed, but with Ian McKellen now as a panto dame and Spacey himself appearing in the next two plays, it’s commercial prospects are at least more assured.

The best of the new plays beyond the National and Almeida came instead from the ever-reliable Royal Court (still run by Ian Rickson), particularly for fine acting in them, including Rebecca Gilman’s The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (featuring Gillian Anderson), Conor McPherson’s Shining City (with Stanley Townsend), Joe Penhall’s Dumb Show (Douglas Hodge, Rupert Graves, Anna Maxwell-Martin) and Kevin Elyot’s Forty Winks (Dominic Rowan, Anastasia Hille).

Bricks, mortar & critics

On the bricks and mortar front, the Bridewell Theatre sadly shut its doors, but the London Coliseum, Hackney Empire and the West End’s Prince of Wales were all lavishly restored (thanks to Lottery money in the case of the first two and Cameron Mackintosh’s personal largesse in the second, plus an additional restoration fee contribution levied on the ticket prices). Wimbledon Theatre opened its doors again under new management, and Sir Peter Hall previewed the still-unfinished Rose of Kingston that he will run once the building work has hopefully been completed next year. The Menier Chocolate Factory, a superb new fringe theatre (with an ace restaurant attached), put itself firmly on the map with a transfer to the West End’s Arts Theatre of its summer hit, Fully Committed that it imported from off-Broadway with Mark Setlock recreating his dazzling solo turn.

Finally, Neil Bartlett has left the Lyric Hammersmith after a decade-long tenure in which he reinvented the place, and two valuable critical voices lost their regular outlets, with Michael Coveney’s sudden departure from the Daily Mail and Robert Gore-Langton’s from the Daily Express.

Many of the above productions have been nominated in
Whatsonstage.com's 2004/5 Theatregoers' Choice Awards.
Voting continues until 31 January 2005.