Reality bites

The search for first-time playwrights and new West End stars was taken into the realms of reality television in 2006, and there was only one winner: Connie Fisher, who landed the role of Maria in The Sound of Music. In The Play’s the Thing, Channel 4’s new playwright quest, the producer Sonia Friedman and her fellow judges, agent Mel Kenyon and actor Neil Pearson, whittled down 2,000 scripts to a final three and finally chose – or rather, Sonia Friedman chose; her fellows demurred, preferring another play – Kate Betts’ On the Third Day. It was pretty dreadful, but Friedman threw designer Mark Thompson and a big budget at it.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? was a much better programme, partly because a performance audition is far more suited to this format than a writing one, but chiefly because there was a serious professional back-up to the process. All the finalists worked at ‘Maria School’ each week before delivering a finished “number” that was seriously and constructively criticised by the judges, notably Andrew Lloyd Webber, who grew in confidence with each broadcast.

The tacky low point came when a girl sang a heartfelt plea of a song and was told that she did not have to go down on her knees every time she auditioned for David Ian (co-producer of The Sound of Music and a wannabe Simon Cowell among the judges) – “but it helps”. Connie Fisher, although obviously the safest bet as Maria, was not my preferred contestant, and it’s heartening to see that some of the others – the Romanian beauty, the blonde Irish siren and the Marti Webb-like Manchester girl – have made professional headway already.

Major milestones

In a year of significant anniversaries, no event was more touching or more appropriate than Harold Pinter’s valedictory performance in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp's Last Tape in the Royal Court’s studio theatre. Pinter’s growling, wheelchair-bound performance in a dark room invaded by memories and a pile of old scripts capped a superb year at the Royal Court, where the English Stage Company was celebrating its golden jubilee.

The centenary of Beckett’s birth was also honoured in Michael Gambon’s brief and wordless performance in Eh Joe, writhing in anguish and regret for half an hour while admonished by the recorded voice of Penelope Wilton. The National Youth Theatre, too, completed an impressive half century, and on 8 October, Les Miserables was officially 21 years old. Producer Cameron Mackintosh was in nostalgic mood, re-naming one of his West End theatres, the Albery, as the Noël Coward on the day that Coward’s constant friend and lover, Graham Payn, was memorialised in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. Like the re-named Novello, the temporary London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in a five-year deal with Sir Cameron, the Coward has been magnificently refurbished, as has the Young Vic.

The Royal Court’s programme under departing artistic director Ian Rickson (who will be succeeded by RSC associate Dominic Cooke) was the best of his seven-year tenure. A series of readings recalled many English Stage Company highlights and on the anniversary to the day of the first performance of Look Back in Anger (8 May 1956), David Tennant, BBC TV’s new Doctor Who, led an electrifying semi-staged performance as Jimmy Porter.

Critical shortlists

In his first play for the Court, Tom Stoppard produced probably his most personal and accessible play to date, Rock 'n' Roll, which told of political awakening in the Prague Spring to the accompaniment of the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and Rufus Sewell threw down a marker as the year’s best actor in the lead. The first night was attended by Stoppard’s dedicatee, Vaclav Havel, the play’s political hero, and he led a standing ovation – a Royal Court first? – from the centre of the stalls. The other top Court plays were Simon Stephens’ Motortown, a coruscating modern Woyzeck in which a British soldier (sensational Daniel Mays) returned to Barking, Essex, from serving in Iraq to find himself at odds with himself, girlfriend and “civilisation;” and Terry Johnson’s Piano/Forte, an exhilarating comedy of bitterness and ghostly recrimination expressly written for sultry Kelly Reilly and piano-playing Alicia Witt.

Rock 'n' Roll was in my top five shows of the year. The others were See How They Run, Philip King’s hilarious war-time farce in which Jo Stone-Fewings, Nancy Carroll, Julie Legrand and Tim Pigott-Smith were faultlessly funny under Douglas Hodge’s direction; Michael Grandage’s sensually Latinate revival of Evita, the best score (and lyrics) on the West End stage bar only Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess; Ian Talbot’s delicious revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in Regent’s Park, with Rachel Jerram scoring best newcomer points as Polly while Summer Strallen’s Maisie danced up a storm and stole the show; and Caroline, or Change at the National, a landmark new musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori that was hauntingly, beautifully performed under George C Wolfe’s direction, Tonya Pinkins making a sensational London debut.

Multitudinous musicals

In a year of multitudinous musicals, I shall also remember the great singing of Idina Menzel and Helen Dallimore, and the outstanding performance of Miriam Margolyes, in Wicked; the impassioned integrity of Daniel Evans, and the witty designs, in Sunday in the Park with George; the relaxed insouciance of Tim Curry and the full-on power surge of Hannah Waddingham in the sophomoric joke-fest that is Spamalot; and many sequences in the unjustly reviled Sinatra, as well as Ian McKellen’s lovely remark about the star of Dirty Dancing: “I don’t know whether I want to dance like Josef Brown, or dance with Josef Brown.” Daddy Cool was a pleasant surprise; and Rufus Norris’ Cabaret revival was brilliant.

The National had three great revivals: The Voysey Inheritance (Nancy Carroll shining again), The Life of Galileo (Simon Russell Beale in lucidly brilliant form) and The Alchemist (Russell Beale partnering Alex Jennings on a dream ticket of conniving duplicity); and two of the very best plays of the year – JT Roger’s The Overwhelming about the Rwandan genocide, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer in which a boozy basement Christmas for sad losers was redeemed by the brilliant acting of Jim Norton, Conleth Hill, Karl Johnson and Ron Cook.

Acting highlights

While the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hugely ambitious Complete Works festival transformed Stratford-upon-Avon all year, the company’s best work in London was The Crucible with Iain Glen giving a tremendous performance. Glen and Rufus Sewell were leading the best actor field until Kevin Spacey came along in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Old Vic and tore us to shreds in that last great scene with Eve Best.

Other acting highlights were Amanda Harris bespectacled, wonderfully funny Celia in the RSC’s As You Like It; Juliette Lewis and Martin Henderson perfectly cast in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love; Samantha Bond and David Haig, an unalloyed treat in Michael Frayn’s Donkeys' Years; Derek Jacobi, scorchingly unsentimental as the blind barrister in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father which transferred from the Donmar Warehouse; and, also moving on to Shaftesbury Avenue from the Donmar, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan’s debut stage play (what a year for him, with The Queen in the cinema and, perhaps best of all, Longford on television!)

Alan Cumming returned to London to lead Daniel Kramer’s striking revival of Martin Sherman’s Bent (with notable newcomer Chris New); Judi Dench ran nearly amok on the word “winsomely” in an otherwise so-so Hay Fever; Rosamund Pike confounded all expectations of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke; and there was an hour or so of pure ensemble joy in Avenue Q before it tailed off.

The Almeida did more than justice to another forgotten Tennessee Williams, Period of Adjustment, and honoured Sam Shepard, too, with The Late Henry Moss. Undervalued playwright of the year was Mark Ravenhill, whose The Cut starring a beautifully restrained Ian McKellen at the Donmar was a stunning parable of state control, and whose pool (no water) – invariably dismissed as play (no drama) – was a compelling collaboration with Frantic Assembly on the oddness of “making it” ahead of your peers and the lurid, metaphorical revenge they might take.

Many of the above productions have been nominated in's 2006/7 Theatregoers' Choice Awards.
Voting continues until 31 January 2007.