Here is my review of theatre in 2014: A year of American plays, history plays, stellar performances, transitions and the West End once again being nourished by the subsidised sector.
The West End has come up with some top commercial productions in 2014. Sure, there have been lows like Fatal Attraction and mediocrities like Bakersfield Mist, but the highs include Blithe Spirit and Skylight (both of which recouped). Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a hit with many critics and audience members (I for one loved it so much I saw it twice) but it perhaps didn’t sell as well as expected, unfortunately. Also, Shakespeare in Love is still filling the Noel Coward Theatre and sets to transfer to Broadway along with the prescient and powerfully-acted Skylight. Harry Hill’s I Can’t Sing and Sheffield Theatre’s The Full Monty may have plummeted in the West End by closing early but the return of Miss Saigon soared like a well-maintained helicopter.
Speaking of things soaring, premium ticket prices and admin fees continue to rise, even if several comics have started a backlash against ATG Theatres. And just like the arguments over booking fees, the values of bloggers and theatre criticism is another old debate which has been flared up again this year. Print critics have been dropped (Tim Walker), online critics have been wiled, and a snobbery amongst critics (including bloggers) perhaps has been spotted.
The work and transfers from subsidised theatres that continues to impress. West End outings from the Donmar Warehouse (The Weir, with My Night with Reg and possibly City of Angels in the works), and other successful productions such as Versailles and Fathers and Sons have cemented Josie Rourke’s successful early years as artistic director. Looking at the transfers alone for the Royal Court (AD Vicky Featherstone) with Let the Right One In, The Beckett Trilogy and the upcoming The Nether, it seems that has had a more successful year than some people think. I thought that Birdland was a visually striking production of a very good play and others have championed the whacky ingenious and ambition of Teh Internet is Serious Business but when was the last new play from there that captured a mood with such public applause? But, then again, those are surely not the only signs of a successful of a New Writing theatre. Speaking of new writing, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, some might say, was the play of the year, with Rona Munro’s The James Plays (NT), Deborah McAndrew’s An August Bank Holiday Lark (Northern Broadsides) and Alistair McDowall’s Pomona (Orange Tree) also standing tall. It has also been a year of reflection with the centenary of the beginning of WWI being part of many theatre’s seasons. A small but notable inclusion has to be an amateur production of RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End at the Little Theatre, Leicester, where the cast respectfully didn’t come on to bow at the end.
The Almeida continued its string of West End transfers (even if it dipped mid-year), dominating the Olivier Awards. And the first play there which wasn’t tipped for a transfer, Mr Burns, managed to split opinion and was one of the most tweeted about new plays of the summer. The Young Vic has had successes aplenty with inventive interpretations of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, a visually stunning Christmas show, a West End transfer of The Scottsboro Boys and a 5 star production of Happy Days (not the musical!) which will return in 2015. The Old Vic turned around its fortunes by turning around its layout and had four plays which were either a critical or popular success. The newly-refurbished Chichester theatres also had a successful turnaround this year with many applauded shows which are or could be having a longer run. Its highlights include Gypsy, Stevie, Guys and Dolls, Pressure and Taken at Midnight. Last year’s Barnum has also been revisited and is now on a successful UK tour.
Fairly new theatres the St James Theatre and Park Theatre have also had West End transfers (with Urinetown and Daytona respectively) and other home grown hits including Torben Betts’ Invincible and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour. From the new to the experienced, and speaking of Hare, his revived Skylight produced two of the finest performances of the year from Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan and his new play Behind the Beautiful Forevers for the National Theatre is said to be revelatory and of huge scope. Sticking with the National, the new Dorfman opened with the adventurous Here Lies Love, the new NT bookshop opened to applause and NT Live continues to flourish.
There was a well-received production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People from Hampstead which filled a gap at the Noel Coward Theatre and a mixed received Mamet play (Speed-the-Plow) starring Lindsay Lohan. More innovative American revivals (from the modern classic canon) were well received, including Miller’s All My Sons, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. These interpretations highlighted their topicality and helped ensure that they were not seen as museum pieces.
Highlights of the year
I’ve paid my first visits to the National Theatre, The Young Vic, The Royal Court, The Almeida, Les Miserables and the Donmar Warehouse this year, with the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Assassins to come in January.
In no particular order (and with A View from the Bridge and Streetcar Named Desire near the top) here are my highlights:
· Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Savoy) – A musical comedy that brought a smile to my face from start to finish. Great casting, a colourful design, wonderful direction and choreography, memorable songs and witty lyrics.
· The Crucible (Old Vic) – Yael Farber’s direction brought modern day witch hunts to mind. A powerful and atmospheric revival.
· Skylight (NT Live from Wyndham’s) – a hilarious but poignant play with three excellent portrayals and some fine direction. It may have debuted (and was kept set in 1995), but it was just as contemporary as any new play.
· City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse) – Josie Rourke’s production of Cy Coleman’s Hollywood sendup musical was cleverly designed, well cast and great fun. It has a very funny book, some punchy songs and is a very relevant reminder of the pitfalls of creative expression.