Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

The National

Rufus Norris is now settling in nicely at the National, attempting to combine traditional programming in the two larger auditoria with greater experimentation and more new writing in the Dorfman.

In fact, during 2017, he has also taken some chances with new commissions in both the Lyttelton and Olivier, with variable success. However, one should applaud his sense of adventure, since it would be far too easy to stick with Shakespeare, Coward, Wilde and “safe” contemporary writers such as Sir David Hare and Michael Frayn or from later generations Richard Bean and James Graham.

Four productions stand out as undoubted highlights of the London theatrical year.

Marianne Elliott’s revival of the epic AIDS play Angels in America (Part One: Perestroika; Part Two: Millennium Approaches) by Tony Kushner lasted for the best part of seven hours but never lost its hold on audience members. That owes much to the quality of the writing but also good direction and fine performances from an Anglo-American cast that included Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane, Denise Gough and Russell Tovey.

Also from the other side of the Atlantic came Oslo, a play about diplomacy by J T Rogers. The idea of sitting through a three-hour play about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in the mid-1970s may not have sounded tempting. The fact that a couple of Norwegian amateurs were trying to broker the deal between fiery warring factions both in the hotel rooms and battlefields makes the story more extraordinary but always gripping.

Network may have been written by Lee Hall, still most famous for Billy Elliot, but it too has American antecedents having originated in the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie.

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, making his British theatre debut, was outstanding and a strong contender for the year’s best actor.

Ivo van Hove’s typically idiosyncratic production style worked perfectly, managing to combine a human interest story with much wider commentary on society both forty years ago and today.

Follies represented a rare venture into musical theatre for the National, which specialised in the medium a couple of decades ago. Stephen Sondheim’s musical about the lost grandeur of 1930s theatrical extravaganzas worked both musically and dramatically, greatly helped by the outstanding Imelda Staunton.

This year’s only Shakespeare play on the South Bank was an unusual Twelfth Night, featuring Tamsin Greig as a dryly convincing Malvolia, making serious statements about the play as well as gender issues under the direction of Simon Godwin.

The family show for Christmas brought out the big guns. Pinocchio is based on the Disney movie and had a production team led by director John Tiffany, many of whom had strong links to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Once. It took time to get going but with gigantic puppets, great special effects and familiar songs, by the end of the evening viewers of all ages should have been intoxicated and won over.

The concentration on life on the other side of the Atlantic was also demonstrated by the UK transfer of Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino. A British cast, directed by Indhu Rubasingham and led by Kate Fleetwood, was asked to get to grips with the difficulties faced by those in small-town America, from the perspective of the borders of NASA and the space race.

The pick of work in the Dorfman came early in the year out with Us/Them by Carly Wijs, a piece from Belgian company BRONKS.

It featured a talented young acting pair Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, energetically recreating a high school siege in Chechnya. Somehow, the play managed to be simultaneously amusing and moving, tapping into magic that is unique to the theatre.

Not too far behind came Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, a raucous, rampaging soap opera / sitcom that looked at Africa today from the perspective of immigrants living in London. It is set to return in the New Year.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes took on science, which is always brave in the world of the arts. Featuring a cast that is led by Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams, it also puts a sharp and often witty focus on to family life in contemporary society. This play will also have new life in 2018, thanks to a West End booking.

Consent by Nina Raine features the disintegration of a marriage and potentially the lives of those involved at the centre and periphery when a barrister played by Ben Chaplin attempts to defend a man accused of rape. In many ways, this prefigured the sexual harassment debate that has raged in the months since the play opened. It also shines a wry, cynical light on the behaviour, both professional and private, of those in the legal profession.

Rufus Norris attempted to take on the state of the nation in My Country; a Work in Progress. To an extent, this worthy work with the text by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy lived up to its name, although London was only the start of a long trawl around that country when it might well have been tightened up into the piece that its creators originally envisaged.

The Majority by Scottish theatrical exponent Rob Drummond tried to explore similar territory. It featured a supposedly autobiographical picaresque journey during which the protagonist trekked around Scotland searching for meaning. Clever technology allowed him to tap into the opinions of the live audience as he was doing so.

David Eldridge’s Beginning will be best remembered for strong performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, as a mismatched London couple trying to find love or at least a bit of romance in the aftermath of a party.

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