Michael Coveney: 2015 was the year of the triple whammy

WhatsOnStage critic Michael Coveney rounds up some of his best shows of 2015

In The Heights, Bend It Like Beckham and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
In The Heights, Bend It Like Beckham and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

It was the year of the triple whammy: David Hare’s early Chekhovs in Chichester, Greeks at the Almeida (The Bakkai with Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel easily the pick of them), D H Lawrence at the National (Husbands & Sons was not an ideal squash-up of three great plays) and even three knock-out musicals: the underrated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the bold and brilliant Bend It Like Beckham and (moving from Southwark to King’s Cross) the irresistible Latino fiesta In the Heights.

A scene from Bend it Like Beckham, which premiere next month
A scene from Bend it Like Beckham
© Ellie Kurtz

And I can also give you three best new plays, three best actors and three best actresses. The plays were Martin McDonagh‘s deliriously funny black period piece about the death of capital punishment, Hangmen; Anthony Horowitz’s Dinner with Saddam at the Menier Chocolate Factory, an Iraqi farce of terror along Ray Cooney lines; and Claire van Kampen’s simply gorgeous Farinelli and the King starring her husband Mark Rylance.

These were pushed hard by another triple of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, about the cultural roots of Glyndebourne; and two National plays, Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House (flaying the liberal conscience in a sourly nostalgic showbiz reunion) and Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion (comical realities of lower league football).

Actors? Try Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, also at the NT, in Simon Godwin’s superbly edited take on Shaw’s Man and Superman; Charles Edwards as an ironically self-knowing Richard II at the Globe; and Kenneth Cranham, giving the performance of a lifetime, in Christopher Hampton’s beautiful translation of The Father, which described a significant arc from the Theatre Royal, Bath, to the Tricycle, Kilburn, and Wyndham’s in the West End.

Denise Gough (Emma)
Denise Gough (Emma) in People, Places and Things
© Johan Persson

And there were superb counterblasts from Denise Gough as the addled, angry actress in Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things (NT), Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, another feisty performer, in Funny Girl at the Menier (moving to the Savoy in April) and the matchless Judi Dench as Paulina in The Winter's Tale at the Garrick, subsuming the time and place shifting chorus in a performance of glowing fire and critical wit, as if blessing the season, and Kenneth Branagh‘s new ensemble adventure, at the outset.

It was also the year, of course, of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet, an event that lived up to the hype in Hamlet himself – alive, alert, interesting, beautifully spoken – if not in Lyndsey Turner‘s unevenly cast and acted production, though I loved palatial Elsinore being laid waste in rubble as a mark of the invasion. And the Donmar Warehouse caught something of the public mood in Steve Waters’s The Temple, with Simon Russell Beale as an anxiety-ridden cleric at St Paul’s during Occupy London; and in James Graham’s The Vote, set in a South London polling booth on Election Day and transmitted live on More4 (where it looked scrappy).

Live-streaming theatre remains a hot issue: on the one hand, it’s democratic and obviously "a good thing"; on the other, it negates the whole point of theatre, which is specific to those actors and audiences in the same room, sharing the same oxygen and physical confinement. The best theatre is simply theatre. You have to be there, sorry.

And my three best productions of the year, two by Richard Jones, weren’t live-streamed at all: Jones’s stripped back, nauseatingly normal version of Kafka’s The Trial at the Young Vic, an individual interpretation (graced by Rory Kinnear and Sian Thomas) fit to set beside those of Orson Welles and Steven Berkoff; Jones’s simply breath-taking staging of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic (designed by Stewart Laing with amazing lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin); and the joyous revival of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in Regent’s Park which I enjoyed as much as Gypsy with Imelda Staunton at the Savoy.

Maxine Peake (the Skriker), Laura Elsworthy (Josie), Juma Sharkah (Lily)
Maxine Peake (the Skriker), Laura Elsworthy (Josie), Juma Sharkah (Lily)
© Jonathan Keenan

Triple-decker, high concept joy, too, at our two major international festivals: Edinburgh had Simon McBurney’s The Encounter (don’t miss at the Barbican in February), Enda Walsh’s haunting opera The Last Hotel, and David Greig’s lucid, and ludic, compression of Alasdair Gray’s mammoth Lanark; while Manchester premiered the intriguing (Damon Albarn’s best theatre music to date, though the production’s imperfections don’t seem to have been sorted at the National) and Wayne McGregor’s sumptuous Tree of Codes, with Maxine Peake revealing Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker as a modern medieval masterpiece.