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Looking Back: The 2010 Theatre Year in Review

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As voting continues in the Whatsonstage.com Awards for the best of the year, our chief critic Michael Coveney recounts his own theatre highlights of 2010.

In a year of momentous landmarks, it was the centenary of the London Palladium (though not much of a celebration), the 80th birthday of both Stephen Sondheim and Peter Hall, the 40th anniversary of the Young Vic, which had another wonderful year, and the 25th of Les Misérables, which reprised at both the Barbican and the O2 Centre.

There was a big musical theatre stand-off between Legally Blonde at the Savoy and Love Never Dies 50 yards across the road at the Adelphi: the first was pink, fluffy and fun, with a knock-out performance by Sheridan Smith and terrific design and choreography; the second was moody, poignant and melodramatic, with one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best ever scores and a series of running repairs to trying to combat negative critical reaction affecting its global fortunes.

Happy birthday, Stephen

Stephen Sondheim was honoured with a special concert at the BBC Promenade Concerts; an intense Donmar Warehouse revival of Passion starring Elena Roger as the lovelorn cripple; an exciting version of Into the Woods in the Open Air, Regent’s Park; and a little jewel of a revival of Anyone Can Whistle at the Jermyn Street Theatre. And Sondheim’s collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat, with glorious running commentary and anecdotage, was the theatre book of the year (pressed hard by Simon Callow’s collected journalism, My Life in Pieces).

The Broadway import of Hair was a rush of nostalgia, and the Young Vic reminded us again what a great composer Galt McDermot is with its community theatre staging of The Human Comedy, a British première. The Menier Chocolate Factory followed its delicious pairing of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine (in which Meera Syal was spellbindingly good as Shirley) with a definitive second look at Lloyd Webber’s insinuating chamber musical Aspects of Love by its first director, Trevor Nunn.

Nunn also directed one of the very few original new plays in the West End, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ epic Birdsong, with Ben Barnes ideal casting as the tragic hero. I didn’t much like Douglas Carter Bean’s The Little Dog Laughed, but Tamsin Greig was a blast as a killer bitch agent. The outstanding West End play revivals were Richard Eyre’s of Private Lives (Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen) and Howard Davies’ of All My Sons (Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet). When We Are Married was bouncy but disjointed, Michael Gambon over-inventive in Krapp’s Last Tape, and Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles sedately suave and soignée in Peter Hall’s sober-sided account of Sheridan’s The Rivals.

National (& international) successes

Simon Russell Beale followed his hilarious puffed-up pigeon of Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance at the National (with Fiona Shaw as Lady Gay Spanker) with a sleazy thriller writer in Ira Levin’s sub-Sleuthy Deathtrap, oppositeGlee star Jonathan Goff as his protégé and nemesis. I preferred the application of high pressure skill by Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl in Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

The National had another magnificent year, artistic director Nicholas Hytner setting the pace with London Assurance and Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet, a genuinely exciting political production. But two of his associates completed great doubles, too: Howard Davies with Bulgakhov’s The White Guard and J T RogersBlood and Gifts; and Marianne Elliott with brilliant, five-star revivals of Middleton’s Women Beware Women (Harriet Walter as the murderous Livia) and Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The Afro-beat show Fela! was a mixed blessing (tediously repetitive music) but Thea Sharrock’s revelatory revival of Terence Rattigan’s second, “lost” play, After the Dance, stunned audiences with its picture of hedonistic blow-out among the Bright Young Things on the brink of the Second World War; an outstanding company was led by Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll. Bush director Josie Rourke then made an auspicious NT debut with Men Should Weep, a fine ensemble production of a working-class Glaswegian Marxist classic.

Faces of 2010, top: Stephen Sondheim, Rory Kinnear, Sheridan Smith, Ramin Karimloo;
Bottom: Derek Jacobi, Tracie Bennett, David Suchet, Alfie Boe

Boxing and the Bard

The Royal Shakespeare Company was only a vague presence in London, though David Greig’s Dunsinane, a witty and well acted sequel to Macbeth, at Hampstead Theatre was unfairly forgotten, and the Roundhouse season kicked off spectacularly with Rupert Goold’s exciting Romeo and Juliet. Goold’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London in the National’s Cottesloe was one of several “environmental” productions that gave new writing a serious boost; another was Sacha Wares’ staging of Roy Williams’ boxing fable, Sucker Punch, for which designer Miriam Buether transformed the Royal Court into a boxing hall, though the National Theatre of Scotland’s Beautiful Burnout by Bryony Lavery went one better by taking over a real fight venue, York Hall in Bethnal Green, when it came to London.

The Royal Court had another outstanding year, Laura Wade’s Posh and Bruce NorrisClybourne Park easily comparable with the previous year’s Enron and Jerusalem. The Donmar was in fighting fettle, too, with the underrated Serenading Louie by Lanford Wilson and the intriguing revival of the late Simon Gray’s autobiographical The Late Middle Classes. Derek Jacobi’s King Lear was a bit prissy for me, but he slayed them in the aisles all right; as did Tracie Bennett in her acclaimed Judy Garland turn in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow at the Trafalgar Studios.

Honourable mentions

No round-up can ignore several more usual suspects: the Young Vic, with blistering revivals of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Glass Menagerie; the Almeida, with a great Measure for Measure directed by Michael Attenborough (Anna Maxwell Martin as Isabella, Rory Kinnear as Angelo) and Lyn Nottage’s Ruined directed by Indhu Rubasingham, who also masterminded the Women, Power and Politics short play cycle at the Tricycle; and the Globe, where Lucy Bailey imaginatively restored old-fashioned hokum to Macbeth, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was a great companion piece to Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII, and Roger Allam ran majestically riot as Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV.

Yes, Prime Minister and Howard Goodall’s musical version of Love Story both came into town from the Chichester Festival Theatre, while the Old Vic continued to consolidate with notable revivals of two comedy classics: Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (directed by Anna Mackmin) in which Hattie Morahan and Toby Stephens were exceptionally fine and sexy; and Noel Coward’s Design For Living (directed by Anthony Page) in which Lisa Dillon, Andrew Scott and Tom Burke proved that style has not yet gone out of fashion.

Many of the above productions have been nominated in the
2011 Whatsonstage.com Awards, covering the 2010 theatregoing year.


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