Review of 2005: London Theatre

2005 has been something of a mixed year for London theatre, throwing up some real gems as well as some major let downs.

Revivals of Schiller and Miller resulted in some top class theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue and Spacey’s first stab at Shakespeare rescued his Old Vic residency from the claws of the critics; Mike Leigh’s new work at the National became a sell-out success before he’d even decided what to call it but Mark Rylance bowed out at the Globe with what most critics agreed was not a vintage season.

Following on from the likes of The Producers and Mary Poppins, the welcome phenomenon of The Musical You’re Not Embarrassed To Admit Liking continued with Michael Grandage’s warm-hearted and ever so entertaining Guys And Dolls. The prospect of seeing Ewan MacGregor on stage may have provided the initial draw but it was the well-orchestrated musical numbers, the inventive staging and the talented cast – especially Jane Krakowski’s bubbly Miss Adelaide – that really made the show. With its run extended and a new set of leads starting this month, it looks like becoming a fixture at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Stephen Daldry’s stage version of his own hit film also falls firmly into the same category. The Billy Elliot musical jettisoned the film’s sentimentality and actually engaged with the politics of the era, Thatcherism and the miners’ strike, on a suprisingly intellgent level. The choreography is inventive and the songs, with lyrics by original writer Lee Hall, both move and amuse. When the idea first surfaced it didn’t sound promising but the resulting production is a genuinely exciting bit of theatre and well worth seeing. Can’t quite see it ever transferring to Broadway though.

Fortunately for those alarmed by this sudden injection of good taste into the musical genre there was always the recent tepid revival of High Society to act as a reminder that some things never change.

2005 also proved to be a patchy year at the National with no real standout production. The House Of Bernarda Alba delivered the goods dramatically, with a strong all-female cast led by Penelope Wilton, and Theatre Of Blood – Improbable’s staging of the 1973 Vincent Price movie – proved to be good, gory fun, but too many productions failed to live up to expectations. The UN Inspector, David Farr’s update of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, featured a great comic turn by Michael Sheen but operated at such a frenzied pace that it exhausted rather than amused. And, more recently, Edward Hall’s revival of George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once In A Lifetime exuded 1920s glamour while never really supplying the necessary satirical kick.

The National’s biggest coup this year was in coaxing Mike Leigh back to the theatre, the result being his first new play in 12 years, Two Thousand Years. This intimate, intelligent study of a middle-class Jewish family sold out before any details about the play were known, before even a title had been chosen, yet despite all the excitement it did not disappoint and the resulting play was as well observed, character-centric and intricate as one would expect from Leigh.

Michael Grandage’s slick production of Guys And Dolls at the Piccadilly saw the return of The Musical You’re Not Embarrassed To Admit Liking

At the Old Vic, Trevor Nunn’s production of Richard II finally gave Kevin Spacey a show capable of pleasing both critics and audiences alike. Well acted and impeccably designed, it was a striking, if oddly soulless, piece of theatre with a compelling performance by Spacey at its centre.

Over on Shaftesbury Avenue, Brian Dennehy gave another one of the year’s more memorable performances in a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, and two new works opened by black British writers: Kwame Kwei-Armah’s engaging if flawed Elmina’s Kitchen and Paul Sirett’s The Big Life, a simple but effective – and greatly enjoyable – musical update of Love’s Labour Lost to the Windrush generation. Both works gave a welcome, and well-timed, kick to a West End that was busy serving up not one, but two, mediocre Mamets (the Patrick Stewart-starring two-hander A Life In The Theatre and the disappointing courtroom farce Romance) as well as some dusty and dated Peter Hall productions (Whose Life Is It Anyway? being the chief offender).

Some of 2005’s most striking onstage moments came as a result of Eighteenth century German playwright Friederich Schiller. Earlier in the year Don Carlos was revived by Michael Grandage to great critical acclaim. Derek Jacobi played Philip II of Spain in a production that provided more edge-of-your-seat excitement than many of the year’s contemporary dramas. This was followed by the Donmar Warehouse’s tense and compelling version of Mary Stuart, which featured a passionate and dignified performance by Janet McTeer as the imprisoned queen, that is bound to scoop her an award or two.

At the other end of the critical scale, the uncontested top turkey of 2005 would have to be Behind The Mask at the Duchess, a musical based on Dumas’ Man In The Iron Mask and the recipient of some of the most vicious reviews I’ve read this year. The words “tedious” and “tragic” were used a lot and Paul Taylor in The Independent quipped that it had the audience losing the will to live. Needless to say, after a considerably curtailed run of three week, it quietly disappeared from view.

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife also suffered from a severely abbreviated run at the Duke Of York’s, which was a shame because, though flawed, this one-man show about the life of East German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf contained an enthralling performance by Jefferson Mays and one of the year’s most elegant and inventive sets courtesy of Derek McLane. It floundered in such a large venue however, the material being far better suited to a more intimate space.

Away from the West End, two of this year’s fringe highlights were supplied by the always reliable Bush Theatre. Dennis Kelly’s intense and edgy After The End gripped from start to finish and contained two flawless performances from Tom Brooke and Kerry Condon. And actress Amelia Bullmore’s domestic comedy Mammals though conventional was consistently hilarious in a way that few contemporary comedies manage. Ben Elton, whose similarly themed Blessed has been befouling the BBC evening schedules over recent weeks, should watch and weep.

The ever inventive Oxford Stage Company continued to produce treasures, bringing Kathy Burke’s excellent production of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow back to the Tricycle for a second run, touring the frothy but impeccably paced and performed 1920s farce Rookery Nook around the UK and restaging Sarah Kane’s disturbing drama Cleansed for the first time since its original production at the Royal Court. And Hampstead Theatre continued its trend for bringing interesting new writing to stage, Nell Leyshon’s poignant and lyrical Comfort Me With Apples being one of the most satisfying examples of this.

London has one of the most varied and exciting theatre scenes in the world. For every flop and star-padded disappointment, there’s always been something quirky and unexpected just around the corner to offset it, and the stream of talent willing to work on our stages is quite astonishing. 2005 was no different: for every On The Ceiling there was an Aisle 16, for every Scrooge – The Musical there was a Journey’s End. And that’s as it should be.

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