Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

West End Plays

There was much to cheer theatre lovers in the West End offering of 2017. Not only did a series of wonderful new plays make appearances, generally having started life at other theatres such as the National, the Almeida and the Royal Court but three new companies led by Sir Nicholas Hytner (extending the West End to London Bridge), Dominic Dromgoole and Marianne Elliott made their debuts, promising much for the future.

As always, some big draws from TV and movies were cast to sell tickets. There was certainly revelations as those known in a different medium proved that their stage skills of the highest quality, although in some cases the artistic output was not all that the producers might have hoped for. 

James Graham has been building a reputation as one of the finest and most prolific playwrights in the country. In the latter part of the year, he managed to make St Martin’s Lane his own as Ink and Labour of Love played alongside each other.

The former started out at the Almeida and was such a success that it transferred immediately. The play featured a hilarious but insightful view of Rupert Murdoch and Larry Lamb setting up The Sun newspaper in the 1960s in a rip-roaring production that never let up.

Labour of Love viewed the Labour Party from the perspective of a Midlands constituency office across almost five decades of political activity. Once again, humour was to the fore while the behaviour of activists never stretched beyond the bounds of credibility. At the same time, the rollercoaster ride of the Party was explored from some unusual angles.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf always provides an opportunity for actors to shine and the lead pairing of immaculate Imelda Staunton giving one of the performances of the year and Conleth Hill, very nearly as good, duly did so under the sure direction of James Macdonald. Pleasingly, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots playing the younger couple were almost equally impressive in an evening that was quite literally stunning.

One of the biggest draws of 2017 was David Tennant playing the title role in Don Juan in Soho by Patrick Marber. A strange production was periodically amusing and frightening, helped by good support for the star from Adrian Scarborough as a long-suffering chauffeur-butler.

Returning to the American theme, Cherry Jones was imported from the States to star in a thought-provoking new version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany, which also highlighted the talents of young British actress Kate O’Flynn.

Less successful was a star-studded production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which attempted to modernise the play without either shining a light on life today or saying too much more about the work itself. However, fans of Sienna Miller and Jack McConnell will not have been too fussed about that, having had a chance to see their idols in the flesh.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet made a welcome return to the West End at the Playhouse with Christian Slater taking the lead. This dissection of 1980s greed, seen through the medium of a company selling property, remained as intoxicating as ever in a gripping new production by Sam Yates.

Edward Albee completed the set of American modern classics with the first London revival of The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ian Rickson’s production featured strong performances from Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo as well as the stage debut of Archie Madekwe who is one to watch for the future.

At the same venue, Venus in Fur by David Ives will primarily be remembered for the appearances of TV favourites Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in a play about theatre and sex.

JT Rogers’s Oslo is covered in the National Theatre section.

James Graham was not the only Brit to get a look in during a year when so many American revivals filled our larger theatres. Each of the new companies sought home-grown talent.

The inception of a new company run by Sir Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr was doubly welcome. Not only did the pair open their account with Young Marx, a very funny new play by Richard Bean starring Rory Kinnear as a lazy, lecherous, drunken layabout with an unlikely future; they did so in a sparkling new theatre in the shadow of London Bridge that should set the standards for every architect planning a theatre building in the foreseeable future.

Marianne Elliott also looked to new writing at the start of her company’s tenure. In this case, she directed the British première of Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens.

This featured an unusual love affair between a young woman played by Anne-Marie Duff and a much older man, Kenneth Cranham. Not only were the couple’s ages far apart but also their backgrounds in a quiet play whose greatest strength was to showcase the talents of two fine actors.

Dominic Dromgoole has set himself a different agenda, choosing to highlight the work of Oscar Wilde, Irish rather than English but a long-term resident here. Rather than opening with a popular crowd-pleaser, the director chose A Woman of No Importance to launch his new company.

This is a witty, rarely produced work that has a good number of famous aphorisms and is rather more subtle than some other Wilde works.

A fine traditional production featured a strong British cast of whom Dominic Rowan was particularly memorable as the dastardly Lord Illingworth, with Eve Best playing his foil and Harry Lister Smith impressing in the role of the impressionable youngster whose head is nearly turned by the devilish older man.

To entertain in the festive season, the prodigious talents of Mischief Theatre, best known for The Play That Goes Wrong, created Mischief Movie Night, an hour-long comedy offering creating movies on stage and based entirely on improvisations. Hilarity was pretty much guaranteed.

On the basis that the venue is completely unclassifiable, this is as good a place as any to record Lucy Bailey’s production of Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie. The evening was staged in the glorious council chamber at County Hall, which was a perfect location for a legal drama. While some of the plotting was frankly silly, it always held the attention and, far more significantly, the towering playing area made the visit special.

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