Dateline: 29th December, 2002
If there is one single event for which 2002 will be remembered, it will probably be the merging of the Regional Arts Boards with the Arts Council of England. It's not the sort of event which would really grab the attention of the average theatregoer - after all, administrative affairs seem a long way from the excitement of what actually happens inside a theatre - but its long term effects will be enormous, whether for good or bad remains to be seen. It is certainly true that it will have an impact on the funding of the arts at both local and national levels for many years to come.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company and its supporters, 2002 will be the year of the big rows over Adrian Noble's reforms and his subsequent resignation. Already we have seen the effects of his abandoning the Barbican on both that theatre and the company, with the admission that the latest London season, although a critical and artistic success, has been a box office nightmare. Now all eyes are focused on what is going to happen to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and on whether incoming director Michael Boyd will push through the reforms which will change the company from an ensemble to a more "star"-led group.
The RNT, the Almeida, the Donmar Warehouse, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Hampstead Theatre, the Old Vic and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, too, will focus on changes of artistic directors. Indeed, for there to be major changes at the top in eight of the country's leading subsidised theatres is a unique event, and certainly makes 2002 memorable.
The first ever appearance together on the West End stage by two of our greatest living actresses, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, will clearly have been a high spot for many, whilst Madonna's first appearance on the West End stage will clearly have been the high spot of the year for a very different type of fan. That appearance wasn't to the taste of William Ingrey, manager of Wyndham's Theatre, who resigned from his post because of her continual demands.
Musical theatre fans had less to get excited about. True, there were a number of popular revivals (South Pacific, Anything Goes and The King and I in particular proved very popular), but unless you're a fan of particular pop bands (especially Queen and Madness), there wasn't much to get excited about, except, of course, Bombay Dreams which its producer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, hopes will signal a new way forward for the British musical. Certainly his confidence in the show has been justified in terms of audience and takings. And then, of course, there was Romeo and Juliet - The Musical. But that bombed!
In spite of the best of intentions, the International Festival of Music Theatre in Cardiff, with its associated Global Search for New Musicals, never really hit the national headlines, and the last piece of music theatre news we had had at the time of writing, the revival of Rent, is only really of interest to its cult following, not to the music theatre world in general.
In the West End, Art finally announced it would end (on 4th January 2003) but Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth seems determined to follow in its footsteps, adopting the same pattern of replacing casts at regular intervals. Alan Ayckbourn hit out at West End managements, saying he would not bring any more of his plays to a commercial house. Echoing what many commentators felt, he said that commerical producers were only interested in "one-shot plays with one big name in it."
"These celebrities can't do it," he went on to say. "They get ill or lose their voices after twenty minutes, and you're left with the understudy."
And, in the opinion of this writer, a new low was reached in Guildford this Christmas when Neil and Christine Hamilton were booked to appear in panto.
At the National Theatre Tom Stoppard's new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, was presented to great acclaim, whilst, at the Donmar, Sam Mendes' last two productions, Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, sold out, as did so many of the Donmar productions during the year. But perhaps the busiest director of the year was Edward Hall, who not only walked out of the RSC's Edward III, but also directed some of the most popular Shakespeares of the year, Rose Rage and Macbeth.
Outside of London, Durham's Gala Theatre, the largest regional theatre to be built in ten years, opened in January, only for its operating company to crash in May with debts of over £690,000. However the Edinburgh Fringe had a record year, with 918,509 tickets being sold, bringing in £7,140,236.
Theatrical honours awarded this year:
During the year TV writer Carla Lane returned her OBE in protest at the award of a CBE to Brian Cass, managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences, which had been at the centre of a wave of animal rights protests.
Deaths during the year: