London Theatre Top Ten 2008

It’s mid December and Christmas is fast approaching. A time for harmony and togetherness and getting giddy on mulled wine; the perfect time to compile end of year lists.

Lists just like this one in fact.

And so, with quivering drum roll, we present to you musicOMH’s, not at all definitive, Top Ten of Stuff We Liked this year.

The productions are listed in the order they opened rather than in order of preference.

1. The Hour We knew Nothing of Each Other, National Theatre

This one rather divided critics but we were impressed by James MacDonald’s production of Peter Handke’s wordless experimental play in which a stream of characters trot, bounce, stumble, cartwheel, skip, saunter and hobble across the stage. Some found it boring, others beautiful. We were in the latter camp.

Our verdict: “The production by James Macdonald and his team is beautifully executed, every detail immaculately observed, and any danger of earnestness dispersed with comedy.”

Read the full review of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other

2. The RSC Histories, Roundhouse

Unquestionably one of the cultural highlights of the year. Originally staged as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, Michael Boyd’s cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays came to London where they were put on at Camden’s Roundhouse in historical order, rather than in the order they were written. Many people went the marathon route, taking in the whole cycle, but each play stood up well enough alone. From an excellent ensemble cast, Jonathan Slinger emerged as a name to watch.

Our verdict (on Richard II): “It is a revelatory staging, insightful and intelligent, that stands alone but also bodes extremely well for the rest of the plays in this run of Histories.”

Read the full review of Richard II

Read the full review of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2

Read the full review of Henry V

Read the full review of Henry VI, parts 1, 2 and 3

Read the full review of Richard III

3. The Pitmen Painters, National Theatre

Lee Hall’s play about the Ashington Group, a group of miners who caused a stir in the art world, came to London a wave of acclaim from its original staging in Newcastle. The hype was more than justified. It has already scooped the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and more awards are bound to follow.

Our verdict: “This is a hugely enjoyable production not just because it makes you laugh, though it does that frequently, but because it makes you think deep and hard about art, about class, about society and the role of the artist within it. It does this without turning its characters into mouthpieces for particular points of view, and it succeeds in making it audience feel passionate, alive and engaged with the world.”

Read the full review of The Pitmen Painters

4. The Chalk Garden, Donmar Warehouse

Michael Grandage’s delightful production of Enid Bagnold’s 1950s play featured wonderful dialogue and superb acting from two great ladies of the stage, Penelope Wilton and Margaret Tyzack, with young Felicity Jones ably holding her own beside them. The notoriously hard to please bloggers, the West End Whingers, liked it so much they created the Bagnold barometer of theatrical excellence and found hardly anything to whinge about at all. We were inclined to agree.

Our verdict: “As a whole, the production rarely puts a foot wrong. While it brings forth the wit and sparkle of Bagnold’s writing and revels in each finely-honed line, it also finds a greater resonance in the play.”

Read the full review of The Chalk Garden

5. The Revenger’s Tragedy, National Theatre

Melly Still directs Middleton’s messy tale of vengeance with the reliably excellent Rory Kinnear as the wronged Vinidice. It was not a subtle production: it was noisy, aggressive and excessive, but then the play isn’t exactly subtle either.

Our verdict: “For the first five minutes of Melly Still’s staging of The Revenger’s Tragedy not a word is spoken, instead the set spins and music pounds and the audience are pulled into dark, forbidding world, a world replete with a sense of menace, decadent and dangerous.”

Read the full review of The Revenger’s Tragedy

6. Ivanov, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Donmar Warehouse’s year-long West End residency in Wyndham’s Theatre got underway with Michael Grandage’s intelligent staging of the early Chekhov play in a new version by Tom Stoppard. Kenneth Branagh, returning to the stage, took the title role.

Our verdict: “Branagh scoops despair from nowhere and flits with lightning speed between disgust and a raggedy self-possession. Ivanov has got the Donmar’s West End season off to a flying start.”

Read the full review of Ivanov

7. Iris Brunette, BAC

Post Punchdrunk the BAC has remained an exciting place to visit, one of the few fringe venues that truly embraces the experimental; the very building seems to bristle with creative energy. After performing in Chris Goode’s …Sisters earlier in the year at the Gate, Melanie Wilson brought her evocative solo show, based on the short film La Jetee to BAC. Difficult to describe; even harder to forget.

Our verdict: “Iris Brunette is at times impenetrable when asked about it by someone the next day I really struggled to explain what it was about but it was never less than hypnotic, a disorientating and memorable show, a transporting experience, that left me all of a quiver, looking at my watch and wondering.”

Read the full review of Iris Brunette

8. La Clique, Hippodrome

The Hippodrome went back to its roots as a place of entertainment and pleasure. Fresh from Edinburgh success, this variety show combined cabaret, contortionists, hoola hoops and handkerchiefs.

Our verdict: “In a world full of get-famous-quick shows the uniqueness of these acts and their dedication to pursuing these specialist arts is inspirational. These performers are icons, models of integrity, purveyors of the bizarre, and creators of one of the best nights out in London right now.”

Read the full review of La Clique

9. A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory

The Menier doing what the Menier does best: intimate, sophisticated musical theatre. Hannah Waddngton and Maureen Lipman starred in Trevor Nunn’s superior Sondheim staging.

Our verdict: “This is a production to match the Menier’s marvellous Sunday in the Park With George and a future West End run has to be a pretty safe bet, but it’s worth catching its intimate beginnings before it’s opened out for a bigger theatre.”

Read the full review of A Little Night Music

10. Hamlet, Novello Theatre

There was carping in some quarters about the casting of Doctor Who as the Dane, ignoring the fact that David Tennant had already amassed considerable stage experience before he picked up his sonic screwdriver. Ultimately it didn’t matter as his was a fine performance and Gregory Doran’s production equally good. Originally staged at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre, this has proved one of the year’s hottest tickets, almost rivalling the Donmar’s 2007 staging of Othello: even the skull used by Tennant as a prop managed to generate column inches.

Sold out, the production headed to the West End’s Novello Theatre. And then – and then – a back injury forced Tennant to pull out, leaving his understudy, Edward Bennett, facing the full glare of the press and, worse, the public, a good percentage of whom were dearly hoping to see the good Doctor in the flesh. The man accquitted himself well under very difficult circumstances.

Our verdict (on the Stratford production):“What makes Doran’s production so accessible is not the casting of popular actors (who have no problem demonstrating their classical credentials), but a rigorous assault on the text and a flood of fresh ideas that avoids gimmickry.”

Read our review of Hamlet, starring David Tennant

Read our review of Hamlet, starring Edward Bennett

So there it is: our top ten. Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County was a sliver away from making the list, but while we adored the second act, which contained one of the darkest, funniest scenes of the year, we thought it was striving too hard to make big statements about American society and didn’t quite justify its lengthy running time. It’s still definitely worth seeing though and is on at the National, with much of its original Broadway cast intact, until January 2009.

Other shows that got us excited this year included the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch and Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, but both of these productions had been doing the rounds for a while before they reached London, so were deemed ineligible for top ten status.

Polly Stenham became the youngest woman playwright to have work staged in the West End with That Face (her next play Tusk Tusk opens at the Royal Court next year) and Tarell Alvin McCraney was one of the men of the year with In The Red and Brown Water at the Young Vic and his Wig Out! at the Royal Court, but neither of these quite matched the wonderful The Brothers Size.

For the former production, the Young Vic stage was turned into a shallow lake, in one of year’s the most visually striking pieces of set design; across London the Bush Theatre had water issues of their own, putting their lighting grid out of action; their ingenious solution: the Broken Space season, a series of short plays that made use of natural light, or the lack of it. The results were rather hit-and-miss but Simon Stephens’ short monologue Sea Wall stood out, a devastating piece of writing, superbly performed. Stephens’ full length play Harper Regan was one of the most divisive productions of the year, but most people agreed that Lesley Sharp‘s performance in the title role was excellent.

While Trevor Nunn may have been responsible for one of our top ten productions, he was also the man behind one of the year’s biggest flops: the musical version of Gone with the Wind at the New London. It sounded like a bad idea and turned out to be just as bad an idea as it sounded, closing soon after opening. A similar fate befell Imagine This, a new musical set during the holocaust, that opened in the same venue. Reviews were pretty dismissive but it got a warmer reception in some corners of the blogosphere than The Wind, however this wasn’t enough to prevent it from posting early closing notices.

Other productions that deserve the turkey tag include Treasure Island, starring Keith Allen, the misguided dance theatre mess that was Divas, the pointless stage retread through Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring and Polly Teale’s Mine, the latter all the more disappointing for coming from a usually reliable and interesting company. You can probably add anything staged at the now closed Arts Theatre in its last few months of life to that list as well. Some would argue for the inclusion of Jude Kelly’s production of The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall, but we thought it displayed a degree of charm or at least the dog did.

So there we are, a year’s worth of theatre condensed into a few short paragraphs. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let us know.

We end on a note of cheer. If you missed The Pitmen Painters on its short, sold-out run at the Cottesloe, you’ll be glad to hear it’s returning to the National in the new year.

Read the musicOMH New York Theatre Top Ten of 2008

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