If 2004 saw the West End musical getting a new lease of life with The Woman in White and Mary Poppins (respectively now already transferred to Broadway and heading there next October), and the arrival of The Producers from New York, then this year has been the year when Billy Elliot swept all before it.

But it wasn’t the only cause for celebration: another British musical, The Big Life, more modestly transferred from Stratford East’s Theatre Royal (where it was first seen in 2004) to become the first-ever indigenously created black British musical about local people to open on Shaftesbury Avenue; while the nearly simultaneous arrival of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina's Kitchen was the first play by a living black British-born author to open in the West End, too.

History being made

History was also made when Harold Pinter became the first British playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in October, just days after celebrating his 75th birthday. Peter Hall (represented in the West End this year by his productions of Whose Life is it Anyway? and the current You Never Can Tell) and Stephen Sondheim (whose Sunday in the Park with George has been stunningly revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory) also both turned 75.

And in July, the Royal Court opened a play, Talking to Terrorists, that tried to get inside the minds of terrorists, just a few days before London suffered its own catastrophic attacks from extremists who, by blowing themselves up, put themselves beyond the reach of conversation. But the play got us talking.

Cheers: My personal best of 2005

  • Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace) - The latest film to stage musical transfer did something remarkable: it preserved all the principal creative team from the 2000 film, including director Stephen Daldry. screenwriter Lee Hall and the indispensable choreographer Peter Darling, newly joined by composer Elton John, and a cast led by a rotating trio of stunning child actors in the title role, to become the West End hit of the year.

  • Mammals (Bush Theatre) - Actress turned debutante playwright Amelia Bullmore wrote the year’s toughest and most thoughtful family drama, that now heads out on a national tour from 20 January.

  • Harvest (Royal Court) - Following a British farming family across the passage of 91 years doesn’t sound like the most promising subject for a play, but Richard Bean’s drama was passionate and heartfelt.

  • Mary Stuart (Donmar Warehouse, now transferred to the Apollo) - Who would have thought that a 300-year-old German play by Schiller could be this year’s most urgent contemporary political thriller? Or that Schiller would prove to be a Shaftesbury Avenue box office bonanza not once but twice, with the earlier transfer of Don Carlos to the Gielgud? Between them, these two productions featured some of the best performances of the year, too: Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter as opposing monarchs in Mary Stuart, Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle as estranged father and son in Don Carlos.

  • Death of a Salesman (Lyric Theatre) - The return of Arthur Miller’s still-thrilling play in a stunning staging from Broadway turned out to be a fitting memorial to the passing of a great man, and saw Brian Dennehy reprise his monumental performance as Willy Loman opposite Clare Higgins as his heartbreaking wife.

    Other causes for celebration

    There were many other reasons to cheer this year. At the National, there was the long-overdue arrival of a new Mike Leigh play, Two Thousand Years (now set to tour in the New Year before returning to the larger Lyttelton); Michael Gambon as Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV, as part of the ongoing Travelex £10 season (now confirmed to continue for the next three years); the dazzling Olivier-directing debut of designer-turned-director Melly Still with Coram Boy; the extraordinary rediscovery of Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community, and Simon Stephens’ beautiful new play, On the Shore of the Wide World, co-produced with Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

    The Donmar Warehouse also ended the year with a strong Ibsen showing by reviving The Wild Duck, and before that had Simon Russell Beale giving the male acting performance of the year in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. Working in the West End, the Donmar co-produced a revival of Guys and Dolls that starred Ewan McGregor and Broadway’s Jane Krakowski, now replaced by Nigel Harman and Sarah Lancashire.

    The Gate snapped at the Donmar’s heels, though, in providing an even more adventurous repertoire that included Daniel Kramer’s stunning revival of the 1960s counter-culture musical Hair, updated for the new millennium, and artistic director Thea Sharrock’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, starring Paterson Joseph in an amazingly designed arena by Richard Hudson.

    But the small theatre that made the biggest leap in terms of profile and appeal is Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory, whose repertoire included a provocative new writing season co-produced with Paines Plough, the Off-Broadway musical Tick Tick Boom! and the excellent What We Did to Weinstein?. It has now capped off an indispensable year with an astonishing production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George that finally reconciles the musical’s two disparate acts into a unified whole. It also features the year’s best musical performance from Daniel Evans.

    Jeers: My personal worst of 2005

  • Behind the Iron Mask (Duchess Theatre) - It posted closing notices just two days after it opened, but should it ever have opened?
  • The Countess (Criterion Theatre) - Grim stage adaptation of a classic book from New York.
  • Immodesty Blaize and Walter's Burlesque! (Arts Theatre) - Feeble burlesque show that lacked just about everything.
  • Sex Addict (Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs) - Turning the theatre quite literally into a knocking shop, Tim Fountain went online nightly to find a partner in front of a paying audience.
  • Romance (Almeida) - David Mamet’s latest, laugh-free ‘farce’, directed by Lindsay Posner, who also staged the Almeida’s current production of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac that I found equally unfunny, though many of my colleagues, it is only fair to say, had a better time.


    In addition to Arthur Miller, who died in February, aged 89, Sheila Gish, Olivier Award winning actress, died in March, aged 62; British playwright and frequent Kneehigh collaborator Nick Darke died in June, aged 56; Dan Crawford, founding father of the King's Head and London pub theatre, died in July, also 62; William Hootkins, the American actor who starred as Hitchcock in Hitchcock Blonde at the Royal Court and in the West End, died in October, aged 58; and August Wilson, America's foremost contemporary black playwright, died in October, aged 60. All died of cancer. We also bade farewell to veteran actor John Mills, aged 97, in April; Mills’ wife, the playwright and novelist Mary Hayley Bell, aged 91, in December; veteran playwright Christopher Fry, 97, in July, and director Clifford Williams, aged 78, in August.

    Mark Rylance presided over his final season as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, which he has run for its first decade. He’s succeeded by Dominic Dromgoole. The triumvirate of artistic directors at Chichester Festival Theatre – Steven Pimlott, Ruth McKenzie and Martin Duncan - resigned, and will be replaced by Birmingham Rep's Jonathan Church.

    Michael Crawford departed from The Woman in White prematurely, never to return. Paul Rhys withdrew from the Barbican's Julius Caesar before rehearsals, and from the National's Paul during previews. Jerry Hall made her West End musical debut in High Society, but her run was short-lived when she withdrew owing to illness.

    The Reduced Shakespeare Company finally closed at the Criterion after a run of nearly ten years. The Arts Theatre – a small but influential theatre in the heart of the West End, near Leicester Square, where they once played – also closed its doors indefinitely in July, and may face demolition.

    …And entrances

    Amongst the notable contingent of US movie and television actors gracing the West End this year were Kim Cattrall in Whose Life is it Anyway?, Brooke Shields in Chicago, David Schwimmer in Some Girl(s), Val Kilmer in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rob Lowe in A Few Good Men and Kevin Spacey, doing triple duty at his home theatre, the Old Vic, in National Anthems, The Philadelphia Story and Richard II.

    Nimax Theatres (formed by Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer) became a new West End theatre owner when they took over control of four West End houses, the Apollo, Lyric, Duchess and Garrick, from Really Useful Theatres. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber became sole owner of the remaining RUT musical venues, including the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and London Palladium, when he bought out venture capital partners Bridgepoint.

    The Sound Theatre, a new studio space in the heart of the West End, opened in Wardour Street (though it has already changed management). Trafalgar Studios (formerly the Whitehall) finally added studio 2, which opened for business in November. The extensively refurbished Strand Theatre re-opened as the Novello, with the RSC taking up residence.

    Actor Samuel West was appointed artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, following in Michael Grandage’s footsteps. David Farr took over from Neil Bartlett as artistic director at Lyric Hammersmith; and Rupert Goold was appointed head of Oxford Stage Company, replacing the Globe-bound Dominic Dromgoole. Rosemary Squire became president of the Society of London Theatres.

    Many of the above productions have been nominated in
    Whatsonstage.com's 2005/6 Theatregoers' Choice Awards.
    Voting continues until 31 January 2006.