It was the best of years; it was the worst of years. There was Hairspray and there was Rent Remixed. There was Pinter’s The Hothouse at the National and there was Pinter’s People at the Haymarket. There was Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, and there was Otway’s The Soldiers’ Fortune at the Young Vic. There was Anne-Marie Duff in Saint Joan and there was Oliver Ford Davies in Saint Joan (and in The Soldiers’ Fortune too).

Plays vs musicals

Thomas Otway’s Restoration comedy is a proven masterpiece, but the trick of performance is very hard in that genre, as Jonathan Kent found out in his much more successful, though slightly desperate, revival of The Country Wife at the Haymarket. Nothing was as desperate as Desperately Seeking Susan, though, an easy winner in the most superfluous musical of the year category.

The Haymarket initiative of a permanent company under the direction of Kent was a significant riposte to the critical bleating all year about the preponderance of musicals. I don’t understand this. The only thing wrong about two dozen musicals at any one time is the unlikelihood of the market being able to support them all. But who is going to police West End producers? And where will 20 new plays, brave experimental productions and classic revivals be found at any one time to fill the other 20 theatres?

At the National, that’s where, and at the Almeida, the Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Court, BAC and the Lyric Hammersmith. There’s no shortage of challenging new work for audiences to see and critics to discuss. The West End is a money machine for The Lord of the Rings, Dirty Dancing and revivals of Grease and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The television audition programmes for Grease and Joseph yielded a couple of performing seals for the first and the genuinely likeable Lee Mead for the second.

The West End also came up trumps with Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre, a strong revival of Fiddler on the Roof at the Savoy starring Henry Goodman, and a feisty new prison musical Bad Girls which did not enjoy the success it deserved at the Garrick. The Drowsy Chaperone had its admirers at the Novello, and it was good to see and hear Elaine Paige again, even if she was slightly miscast as the overpowering diva.

Big names

Another failure, regrettably, was Adrian Noble’s revival of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean starring Antony Sher. But Sher made a superb comeback, with his playwright’s hat on, at year’s end with The Giant, a drama about the contest between Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci for the commission to carve the David statue, at Hampstead Theatre. Billie Piper was a genuine breath of fresh air in Christopher Hampton’s Treats, though you wonder if her career path will allow her back to the stage. She has a lot to offer.

Revivals of David Storey’s In Celebration with Orlando Bloom and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross with Jonathan Pryce and Aidan Gillen were more dutiful than electrifying. And Christian Slater in Swimming with Sharks only showed up the superiority of the Mamet as a play about men behaving badly – and indeed of the original Sharks film in which Kevin Spacey gave one of his incandescent early screen performances.

In my mind, none were as compelling as Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque at the Haymarket, a brilliantly cast production by Anthony Page that featured Maggie Smith as an angel of death in the second act in a household riven with grief and anxiety as the party host’s wife expires painfully off-stage. London just wasn’t in the mood for this and Dame Maggie suffered one of the very few flops in her illustrious career.

Spacey’s Old Vic settled down comfortably, first with Robert Lindsay in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, Peter Gill’s meticulous revival of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight with Rosamund Pike and Kenneth Cranham, and then with Samuel Adamson’s stage version, directed by Tom Cairns, of Pedro Almodóvar’s great film All About My Mother. Again, the screen-to-stage process did not flatter the theatre, though the show included remarkable performances from Diana Rigg as the lesbian actress and Mark Gatiss as the declamatory transsexual.

Gilt-edged hits

The gilt-edged West End productions were Matthew Warchus’ surprise restoration of the 1960s farce Boeing-Boeing (with brilliant performances from Mark Rylance, Roger Allam and Frances de la Tour as an arthritically bored and slovenly housekeeper); Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths in Thea Sharrock’s classy revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus; Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in Rupert Goold’s shattering Eastern European Macbeth; and David Suchet as a cunning cardinal in The Last Confession.

And at year’s end, Ian McKellen led the Royal Shakespeare Company back into London as King Lear and (sharing the role with William Gaunt) Sorin in The Seagull in Trevor Nunn’s productions at the New London. Nicholas Hytner’s National was on fire with brilliant productions of Beckett (Fiona Shaw in Happy Days), Gorky (Phil Davis, Ruth Wilson and Rory Kinnear in Philistines), Rafta Rafta (Ayub Khan-Dhin’s relocation of Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time to the Asian community in Bolton), and George Etherege (The Man of Mode with Nancy Carroll, Tom Hardy and another scene-stealing performance from Rory Kinnear). And, last but not least at the NT, the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse was an unmitigated triumph; the horse sculptures the design highlight of the year.

The Royal Court was the theatre of the year, though, with provocative revivals of Ionesco and Max Frisch, and stunning discoveries coming through its Young Writers Programme: Bola Agbaje’s Gone Too Far!, Alexandra Wood’s The Eleventh Capital and Polly Stenham’s That Face. Names to watch, talent to relish.


FIVE TO REMEMBER

  • Hairspray at the Shaftesbury - Leanne Jones became a happy-to-be-fat new star and Michael Ball and Mel Smith sang a duet like Flanagan and Allen
  • Joe Guy at Soho - Rich and pertinent moral fable by Roy Williams of a black footballer finding and losing his way
  • Parade at the Donmar Warehouse - Seriously good new musical by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry based on a real-life miscarriage of justice in the Deep South
  • The Man of Mode at the National - Brilliant update of Restoration comedy with knock-out performances by Tom Hardy, Rory Kinnear and Nancy Carroll
  • War Horse at the National - Equine skeletons provided the most moving design of the year in Michael Morpurgo’s transformed tale about a boy and his horse

    FIVE TO FORGET

  • A Matter of Life and Death at the National - A cliché-ridden reduction of a great British movie
  • Kismet at the London Coliseum - Strictly for people with a thing about pink and/or Michael Ball. As in the new ENO Aida, the atmosphere of village hall dramatics was wondrously prevalent. Something new? Something Borodin
  • Pinter's People at the Haymarket - Unfunny comedians in a selection of Pinter sketches that misfired like a bad joke session with Jonathan Ross
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles at the Duchess - The success of The 39 Steps suckered a second doomed attempt at fringe theatre folly
  • Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death at BAC - Like being stuck in a heritage museum with bad actors. Now, where shall I stick that white mask? (Admittedly, I seem to be in the minority on this one.) A longer version of this article appears in the December / January issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe!


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