From the cultural Olympiad to a late surge of blockbuster musicals, 2012 has been a year rich in theatrical variety. Here, Whatsonstage.com chief critic Michael Coveney looks back at some key moments.

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Battle of the blockbusters

The end of the year was taken up with a straight contest between two big musicals that were never going to join the pantheon: Thea Sharrock's re-invention of The Bodyguard movie with Heather Headley as Whitney Houston and Lloyd Owen as Kevin Costner; and Judy Craymer's Mamma Mia! sequel, Viva Forever!

Both shows had great finales and offered audiences serious opportunities for dancing in the aisles. But neither really had the courage of its convictions. The Bodyguard stuck too close to the film and had to resort to cutting plot corners, clumsy use of video and photographic blow-ups, while Viva Forever! was a pallid echo of Mamma Mia! with far inferior songs, a terrible plot-less book and a take on the X-Factor television phenomenon that surprisingly lacked bite in Jennifer Saunders' script.

Our musical theatre was better served by the UK premiere of Marvin Hamlisch and John Guare's Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola, Trevor Nunn's affectionate revival of Kiss Me, Kate at Chichester and the Old Vic, Maria Friedman's glorious production of Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and the arena theatre revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Olympic achievements

In the year of the Olympics, few things matched the imaginative splendour of all four opening and closing ceremonies masterminded by Stephen Daldry, with great input from Danny Boyle, Jenny Sealey of Graeae and lighting maestro Patrick Woodroffe.

The Cultural Olympiad had started four years ago after the Beijing games, and Ruth Mackenzie took over the reins for the last part of it, London 2012, between June and September.

Rowan Atkinson performing during the Olympics Opening Ceremony

So, supporting the London International Festival of Theatre, LIFT, London 2012 offered the eight-hour reading of Gatz in a drastically reconfigured Noël Coward, as well as the astounding Pina Bausch season at the Barbican and Sadler's Wells, Calixto Bieito's Forests at the Birmingham Old Rep and the Barbican, Cate Blanchett (one of the great performances of the year) in Botho Strauss' Big and Small at the Barbican and Juliette Binoche in an underrated, stylish French Mademoiselle Julie also at the Barbican.

As the Barbican also had Simon McBurney's daredevil staging for Complicité of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, it probably shaded the Young Vic as the theatre of the year. The Young Vic, though, is my favourite venue, and excelled itself again with Benedict Andrews' updated Three Sisters, Joe Hill-Gibbins' blood and jelly The Changeling, Miriam Buether's exquisite and ingenious, story-telling design for Wild Swans (also part of London 2012) and Hattie Morahan in the endlessly revolving A Doll's House.

Shakespeare in the spotlight

London 2012 also supported the World Shakespeare Festival, within which the Globe's astonishing Globe to Globe season - 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages - was something very special. The audience changed every night to hear their own Shakespeare: Albanians for Henry VI Part 2, Mexicans for Henry IV Part 1, French for Much Ado, Lithuanians for Hamlet, Sudanese for Cymbeline.

Mark Rylance led the Globe itself into the West End, revisiting the Apollo, scene of his Jerusalem triumph, and reprising his gorgeous Olivia in Twelfth Night (though Paul Chahidi as Maria ran him close, with Stephen Fry's Malvolio hobbling home a long way after) which he doubled with his compelling, childish, un-satanic Richard III. The Globe, by rights, shouldn't be working indoors, but these productions were fresh, beautifully costumed, utterly un-gimmicky.

All this Bardic babel drowned out the RSC, who offered an unconvincing trilogy of "shipwreck" plays - The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest (Jonathan Slinger was fine as Prospero and Malvolio) in Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Roundhouse - before artistic director elect Gregory Doran came to the rescue with a wonderfully powerful all-black Julius Caesar.

Not to be outdone, Josie Rourke responded, in the course of a really excellent, freshly conceived opening season at the Donmar Warehouse, with an all-girl Julius Caesar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with Harriet Walter an outstanding Brutus. Rourke completely broke the Michael Grandage mould with superb revivals of Robert Holman (Making Noise Quietly) and Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!), as well as The Recruiting Officer, Dürrenmatt's The Physicists and Racine's Berenice in a new translation by Alan Hollinghurst.

New directions

Grandage himself, meanwhile was hatching his own company plans in the West End, getting off to a flying start with Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade led by Simon Russell Beale. This was a cut above such other West End offerings as What the Butler Saw, The Sunshine Boys (an unlikely pairing of Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito, directed by Thea Sharrock), Noël Coward's Volcano (with Jenny Seagrove) and Rob Brydon making a good fist of a West End debut in A Chorus of Disapproval.

The latter was directed, not very well, by Trevor Nunn, who then made the strange decision to stage Beckett's radio play, All That Fall, in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. Eileen Atkins was magnificent, script in hand, but fully cognisant of the lines, while Michael Gambon tagged along and the others sat awkwardly at the side of the stage. The piece, as it happens, was "seen" to much better effect at the first ever Samuel Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland: the train which looms through the piece was represented in a sound and light show with actors' unseen voices behind the audience, who were seated in rocking chairs decorated in skulls.

There was more "contrast and compare" with Chekhov this year, as four Uncle Vanya's came along at once: the best English one was at the little Print Room, with Iain Glen and William Houston, followed by Roger Allam in the title role at Chichester's Minerva and Ken Stott leading a semi-starry but emotionally under-nourished company at the Vaudeville.

They were all eclipsed (decimated, actually) by an import from the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow which played for a week only at the Noël Coward. This was Chekhov without either reverence or frills, with a stunning Yelena, traditional Expressionistic Russian staging (in contrast to Stanislavskyan "Method" Anglo-style) and above all a real "theatricality."

West End winners & Stephens soars

Best of the traditional West End fare was David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Anthony Page, and David Grindley's return to Jonathan Lewis' Our Boys, with Laurence Fox in swaggering form. But the fringe was coming up trumps with re-discovered recent British (and Irish) plays: Charles Dyer's Mother Adam at Jermyn Street, Hugh Leonard's A Life and J B Priestley's Cornelius at the Finborough, with great performances, respectively, from Linda Marlowe and Jasper Britton, Hugh Ross and Alan Cox.

Best of all, Hampstead hosted Druid's Tom Murphy trilogy, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, an event which established beyond doubt the playwright's eminence, his right to be as critically revered as Friel. Hampstead came good twice more, with a terrific stage version of Chariots of Fire (which moved on to the Gielgud) and Howard Brenton's riveting 55 Days, most skilfully directed by Howard Davies and starring Mark Gatiss as Charles I and Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell.

Sean Holmes at the Lyric, Hammersmith, presented an important Edward Bond season, a glorious early O'Neill, Desire Under the Elms (with Denise Gough and Finbar Lynch), and a brutally controversial Simon Stephens, Three Kingdoms, which dealt rather too lasciviously for my taste with an underground murder trawl through vice dens and the sex trafficking industry.

Stephens was the playwright of the year, with five other credits to his name: a mis-fired courtroom response to Ubu Roi, The Trials of Ubu, at Hampstead; a double-bill at Salisbury; Morning at the Traverse; the Young Vic A Doll's House in a quicksilver translation; and his brilliant adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the National.

The latter boasted a superb lead performance by Luke Treadaway in Marianne Elliott's fine production, designed with mathematical precision and floor-level lighting by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable. Equally good, in another exceptional year for the NT, was director Rupert Goold and writer Lucy Prebble coming up trumps after Enron with The Effect, Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill (an RSC Richard III earlier in the year) as volunteers on a drugs research programme administered by Anastasia Hille's unstable testing doctor.

National newbies

Nadia Fall made an impressive NT debut with her highly enjoyable production of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, prophetic and prescient about the National Health Service, Russell Beale was superb as Timon of Athens in a Hytner production that re-launched the tricky play for a celebrity-obsessed, banking and sponsorship age (like the arena Jesus Christ, it made poignant metaphorical use of the Occupy London campaign outside St Paul's Cathedral), James Graham's This House was a spicy 1970s political entertainment in the House of Commons (the Cottesloe changed into the debating chamber), Fiona Shaw was passionately irresistible as a Renaissance artist in Venice in Howard Barker's superb Scenes from an Execution (another NT play having a go at the sponsors), and the year ended in an Alan Bennett fest, first in his sharp and satirical look at how we preserve our historic buildings in People, and a pair of shorts made of recycled material, Hymn and Cocktails Sticks, with Alex Jennings as a beautifully finessed simulacrum of the inimitable Bennett himself.

People was my play of the year until Martin Crimp trumped it with his unexpectedly stylish, witty and unnervingly experimental In the Republic of Happiness at the Royal Court. The Royal Court's year started with Nick Payne's Constellations and just carried on with wonderful new plays: David Eldridge's In Basildon, Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love, the Young Writers Programme (Hayley Squires' Vera Vera Vera possibly the pick), Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, Jez Butterworth's The River, Caryl Churchill's Love and Information.

Elsewhere, Michael Attenborough bowed out at the Almeida with a fine King Lear from Jonathan Pryce, Indhu Rubasingham made a promising start with Red Velvet (Adrian Lester as the 19th century American actor Ira Aldridge) at the Tricycle and the Menier ended strongly with a terrific Charley's Aunt and the Sondheim.

And let's hear it for some outstanding solo shows, too: Linda Marlowe in Miss Havisham's Expectations (on the Edinburgh Festival fringe) was a highly inventive riposte to Simon Callow's persuasive appropriations; Lisa Dwan was a desperate, murderous single mother in Beside the Sea on the South Bank; Cillian Murphy acted up a storm, and right through one, in Enda Walsh's Misterman at the NT; Idina Menzel knocked us flat for a week at the Apollo; and at last I caught Tim Crouch's I, Malvolio, an imaginatively moving and funny aftermath to his exit ("I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you") in Twelfth Night.

Michael Coveney will pick his 'ones to watch in 2013' for us in early January.


Many of the above productions have been nominated in the
2013 Whatsonstage.com Awards, covering the 2012 theatregoing year.
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