Another end-of-year; another round-up. And here’s mine, partial, prejudiced and highly subjective. For, after all, living in London as I do, and as ever for us London theatre critics/reviewers (what is the difference? Answers on a postcard please!), we’re spoilt for choice.
Too much of everything – great and small, fringe and national subsidised goliath, shoebox and `immersive’ (this year’s favourite thespian word though in truth, immersive theatre has been around for eons, known as `promenade’ or `site specific’ in former years…and while we’re at it, another `beef’ to get off my chest: why have directors and their teams become known as `creatives’? Are actors no longer regarded as `creative’?) – anyway, impossible to cover it all.
I have my special interests, like everyone else. I can’t say much, for example, about musicals having seen too few of them excepting Southwark Playhouse’s very fine Grand Hotel – just the latest in a long line of gold-plated shows produced by that talented duo of Thom Southerland and Danielle Tarento.
Keep an eye out in 2016 for more of same, kicking off with Grey Gardens from Jan 2.
But on to what pleased me more than appalled me; there are a few of the latter which should probably remain anonymous. Suffice to say that I do detect a bit of a generational chasm beginning to open up in some quarters, the more unexpected in one venue which has been one of my favourite haunts for the past several years and which still managed to thrill and excite me with visionary aplomb in its smaller studio productions.
It’s also traditional for self-appointed cultural commentators to wrap up a year by detecting some kind of emerging pattern. Well, again, I can’t say that any dominant theme emerged from the multitudinous variety of shows I saw – so wonderfully rich in subject, style, resources and ambition.
Text – a good story – will, nearly always, win out with me, if told with sensitivity, commitment, clarity, imagination and surprise. Having said that, one of the joys for me was discovering Shoreditch Town Hall this year where the ever-inventive dreamthinkspeak produced Absent, a fabulous site-specific installation (call it `immersive’ if you wish!) re-imagining the town hall as a hotel circa 1950s, using video, a hall of mirrors, Alice-in-Wonderland time-shifting motifs, exquisite miniature craftsmanship and culminating in a `destroyed’ ballroom. Magnificent return to form of a company we see too rarely.
Another much younger company using multi-media techniques, Idle Motion, also caught my eye with their Shooting the Light, a wondrous rediscovery of Robert Capa’s forgotten photojournalist partner, Gerda Taro. Watch out for more of Idle Motion in 2016.
Elsewhere, Soho Theatre has had a bumper year with a stream of outstanding solo shows, two especially from Ireland – Pat Kinevane in Silent, and Sonya Kelly’s How to Keep An Alien.
Add to that Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef, and Róisín McBrinn’s Joanne for Clean Break (five solos, written by five writers, Deborah Bruce, Theresa Ikoko, Laura Lomas, Chino Odimba and Ursula Rani Sarma, superbly performed, in the former, by Jade Anouka and in the latter, by Tanya Moodie, encompassing five different characters) – plus two superb double-handers, Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa and Bryonny Kimmings and partner Tim Grayburn’s Fake It Till You Make It – and you can see that Soho comes very close to being my venue of the year.
Under Vicky Featherstone, the Royal Court Upstairs has also produced some exceptionally fine new plays this year – Fireworks by Dahlia Taha, Liberian Girl by Diana Nneka Atuona, Lela & Co by Cordelia Lynn and Plaques and Tangles by Nicola Wilson – none of them easy viewing but all exciting, poignantly fresh perspectives on our world today – the Palestine conflict in the first, Liberia’s civil war in the second, childhood and female abuse in the third and the onset, genetically inherited, of early Alzheimers in the last. As I said serious subjects all but Richard Twyman’s production of Taha’s writing ensured the subject – children and childhood destroyed by war – emerged in its full horror with a lightness of touch and humour. Extraordinary.
Theatre503 had another good year. Bea Roberts’ stunning debut play, And Then Come the Nightjars by Bea Roberts – a rare foray into rural England – was followed by Jon Brittain’s disturbing and quite beautiful transgender themed Rotterdam.
Another new voice of great promise was Jessica Siån’s South African Klippies at Southwark Playhouse with two stellar performances from its young actors, Adelayo Adedayo and Samantha Colley in a coming-of-age story of adolescence and racial stereotypes.
I could go on! The pool of young talent blossoming via the Orange Tree (dynamically under Paul Miller), the Gate Notting Hill, the Arcola and the Finborough is staggering proof of the continuing richness of burgeoning theatre talent in this country, despite all the funding cutbacks and obstacles.
I must, though, also mention some of the major theatre events that have sent my heart soaring or provoked my mind to further thought: Chichester’s Young Chekhov trilogy, adapted by David Hare with James McArdle in Platonov as the eponymous wastrel and womaniser confirming his status (following his charismatic James I in Rona Munro’s The James Plays) as the most exciting young actor of his generation; Rupert Goold’s ambitious and stimulating season of Greek tragedies at the Almeida; Shakespeare’s Globe’s revival of Helen Edmundson’s Heresy of Love and Christopher Luscombe’s rambunctious, wholly gorgeous production of Jessica Swale’s new play, Nell Gwynn with the bubbling Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell; Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary production of Simon Stephens’ Song From Far Away (Young Vic).
At the Donmar, in a heated election year, James Graham and Josie Rourke came up with a brilliant theatrical conceit: simulating a voting booth and culminating its final performance on the night of the
General Election. All of human kind was on show hilariously, led by Catherine Tate and Mark Gatiss (never better) as the Presiding officer. Blissful.
Talking of which, watching Mark Gatiss also in Patrick Marber’s National Theatre production of Three Days in the Country (his remake of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country) was to realise that Gatiss is steadily turning into a `national treasure’. Sorry about the cliché but such sublime comic timing and slow burn reactions make his performances an utter treat to experience.
More treats to remember this year at the NT – Simon Godwin’s glorious, right-on-the-button revival of Beaux Stratagem, Jeremy Herrin’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s stunning People, Places & Things with a knock-out and what should be award-winning
performance from Denise Gough about addiction, acting and much else besides; Charles Edwards’ incredibly subtle, astute portrayal of the contradictions of political ambition as Henry Trebell in Roger Michell’s revival of Harley Granville-Barker’s ever timely Waste; and Ralph Fiennes keeping Shaw’s Man and Superman dancingly alive despite its longueurs.
At the year’s end, Richard Eyre provided two fine examples of good old fashioned theatre (in the sense of letting a play and its performers speak for themselves without the burden of `concept’ strangling them) and allowed Simon Russell Beale to give one of his best performance this year in Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg.
Eyre also provided a limpid account of Ibsen’s lesser known, Little Eyolf for the Almeida, with a fabulous, Nordic backdrop designed by Tim Hatley whilst at the blossoming St James (they’ve had a great year), Lucy Bailey pulled out all the stops in her witty, dressed down version of Around the World in Eighty Days.
At the Old Vic, under the new Matthew Warchus regime, Max Webster provided one of the most heart-felt and important family shows for many a long year in his brilliant Finn Caldwell puppet-inspired Dr Seuss’s Lorax.
And at Found111, yet another venue carved out of a disused building – Central St Martin Art School’s old stamping ground in Charing Cross Road – Andrew Scott with David Dawson delivered master-classes in Richard Greenberg’s claustrophobic three-hander, The Dazzle to round off a dazzling year.
A final thought: Hats off to: Designer Lizzie Clachan, responsible for no less than five stunning set designs: Fireworks (Royal Court); Macbeth (Young Vic); Carmen Disruption (Almeida); Beaux Stratagem and As You Like It (both NT) – an amazing line-up for one year.
To the Australian writer and director team of Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks who completely reinvented Medea (at the Gate Notting Hill) as seen through the eyes, almost exclusively except for their final dispatch, of Medea’s two sons.
To Lia Williams – persuasive, emollient and terrifying in her career defining Clytemnestra in Robert Icke (with designer Hildegard Bechtler)’s Oresteia, probably the production of the year kicking off Goold’s Almeida murder-fest, better known as the Greek tragedies.
And last but not least: To storyteller Yang-May Ooi, schooled by voice coach and director extraordinaire, Jessica Higgs in her debut as a performer in Bound Feet Blues, the story of her Chinese-Malaysian family’s and her own release from cultural and sexual confinement.
Finally: a special welcome back to: Kenneth Branagh and his year-long season at the Garrick, Nicole Kidman (in Photograph 51) and Martin McDonagh in typically caustic form with Hangmen (originally Royal Court now wowing them in Charing Cross Road).
Kidman’s return came courtesy of Michael Grandage who, also co-producer of The Dazzle, continues to deliver on his commitment to broaden West End fare and make it accessible at reasonable prices. Some achievement.
Ooh, STOP PRESS: congratulations to the stupendous that is Imelda Staunton in the New Year’s Honours list; to Siân Phillips, Barbara Windsor (Dames, both!), and lovely to see David Oyelowo recognised, plus James Nesbitt and Idris Elba.