Good plays vs bad musicals

David Hare’s Gethsemane at the National was easily my best play of the year, though you’d never know that from reading most of the reviews. Tamsin Greig made her second London stage appearance of the year as the Home Secretary, following on from another study in glossy maternity and troubled parenthood, her “wealth management” executive in God of Carnage, a brilliant West End comedy by Yazmina Reza translated by Christopher Hampton.

The fatuous idea that good plays were being pushed out of the West End by bad musicals took another series of knocks with the arrivals of Neil LaBute’s brilliant Fat Pig, a black comedy of friendship and obesity; Joanna Murray-Smith’s The Female of the Species, in which Eileen Atkins played another maternally incompetent high-flyer as loosely modelled on Germaine Greer as Greig’s politician was on Tessa Jowell; and Chekhov’s Ivanov heralding the Donmar West End season at Wyndham’s.

Donmar domination

Kenneth Branagh led a superb company in Michael Grandage’s production of Ivanov in a new version by Tom Stoppard, while back at the Donmar Warehouse base, the year gleamed with a succession of great shows: Sean Holmes’ incandescent revival of Arthur Miller’s The Man Who Had All the Luck; Peter Gill’s beautiful growing-up play in working-class Cardiff, Small Change; a stunning new look at Enid Bagnold’s last West End hurrah, The Chalk Garden, with notable performances by Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack; Elena Roger knocking ’em dead in Piaf (and later at the Vaudeville); and a blistering revival of Strindberg’s Creditors, directed by Alan Rickman.

In a poor year for musicals, the Menier’s La Cage aux Folles stood out and proud when it transferred to the Playhouse, with Douglas Hodge’s Albin crowned drag queen of the West End, while Zorro with, music by the Gipsy Kings, was at least lively and Eurobeat an hilarious send up/improvement on the Eurovision Song Contest. Jersey Boys was the best-written jukebox musical since Mamma Mia!, and I had a sneaking affection for Never Forget, the Take That back catalogue show at the Savoy.

But Gone With the Wind and Peter Pan, El Musical were as bad as musical theatre gets, and Imagine This wasn’t much better. The ambitious but flawed Marguerite, with music by Michel Legrand, signalled the end of Jonathan Kent’s three-show season at the Haymarket. A mixed artistic success, the season’s high marks for bravery – the revival of Edward Bond’s The Sea seemed overblown, but a great play all the same – were not reflected in a disappointing box office performance.

West End gems, NT misfires

On the credit side, the West End made room for Catherine Tate in David Eldridge’s beautifully constructed triptych Under the Blue Sky; Michael Gambon, David Bradley, David Walliams and Nick Dunning in Rupert Goold’s Gate Dublin revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man\'s Land; Felicity Kendal in Noël Coward’s The Vortex; Josh Hartnett and Adam Godley in Rain Man; Sean Holmes’ rumbustious Treasure Island starring Keith Allen, and the most inventive show outside of Robert LePage’s magnificent nine-hour epic at the Barbican, Lipsynch; Kneehigh’s film-into-play-into-vaudeville version of Coward’s Brief Encounter, with Naomi Frederick perfect as a sublimely submerged Celia Johnson.

In contrast, the National had its worst year since Nicholas Hytner took over, big names Tony Harrison and Michael Frayn firing duds in Fram (about a Norwegian Arctic explorer) and Afterlife (about the great director Max Reinhardt). Redemption was almost at hand with Howard Brenton’s slightly plodding Never So Good with Jeremy Irons as legendary Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, Simon Stephens’ compelling “road movie” Harper Regan starring Lesley Sharp, and the suffragette play Her Naked Skin with Lesley Manville and Jemima Rooper. But Vanessa Redgrave, emotionally transparent and gloriously riveting, repeated her Broadway success in Joan Didion’s solo show about bereavement and grieving in David Hare’s meticulous but resonant staging of The Year of Magical Thinking. And Ralph Fiennes, Clare Higgins and Alan Howard in the Jonathan Kent-directed Oedipus delivered one of the best performances of a Greek tragedy I have ever seen.

Historic RSC resurgence

The Royal Shakespeare Company was triumphant with Michael Boyd’s eight-play Histories sequence at the Roundhouse, and in Stratford-upon-Avon David Tennant overrode the crass and ignorant objections to the RSC casting Doctor Who as Hamlet with a pulverising, charismatic performance as the melancholy Dane in Gregory Doran’s exciting production; he completed the old one-two with an admired Berowne in a pretty-looking Love\'s Labour\'s Lost.

London’s summer Shakespeare was the domain of Dominic Dromgoole’s resurgent Globe, with David Calder as a marvelous King Lear and Christopher Luscombe directing an irresistible Merry Wives. I loved Stephen Adly Giurgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Almeida, the 50th anniversary revival of Pinter’s The Birthday Party at the Lyric Hammersmith, and the Kevin Spacey-Jeff Goldblum double act in Speed-the-Plow at the Old Vic. The Old Vic was then stunningly reconfigured for Matthew Warchus’ magnificent in-the-round revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests trilogy.

I also greatly admired Piranha Heights by Philip Ridley at Soho Theatre, and salute the emergence of new American voice Tarell Alvin McCraney with his double of The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water at the Young Vic, and Wig Out! at the Royal Court, where Christopher Shinn’s dramatically static Now or Later was, in my opinion, the most overrated play of the year.

A longer version of this article appears in the December/January issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!

Many of the above productions have been nominated in the 2008/9 Theatregoers\' Choice Awards.
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