Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

Almeida, Donmar, Royal Court

Almeida

While Rupert Goold can be too adventurous to get everything right at the Almeida, he has a touch of genius and can claim credit for commissioning two of the best new plays in a very strong year, as well as an outstanding new interpretation of Hamlet.

James Graham’s Ink has been covered under West End plays, following a highly successful transfer.

Albion by Mike Bartlett should be heading in the same direction. This state of the nation play showcased the wonderful talents of Victoria Hamilton in the role of an aggressive businesswoman playing at landed gentry.

Not only did the drama feature elements of tragedy but there was humour to lighten the atmosphere, while cannier audience members would have spotted many parallels with the way Britain is currently being run.

Andrew Scott is the kind of actor who was always likely to be an unforgettable Hamlet and this duly proved to be the case. Under the direction of Robert Icke, this full-length (four hour) modern dress version gripped from start to finish, even for a critic who had barely recovered from illness before attending.

Such was the clamour for seats that the production subsequently transferred to the West End.

The Treatment is a relatively difficult play even by the standards of Martin Crimp. Lyndsey Turner’s revival had its moments without ever suggesting that viewers were seeing the playwright at his very best.

Christopher Shinn’s Against brought Ben Whishaw back to the London stage, which can never be a bad thing. Under the direction of Ian Rickson, he played one of those dot-com visionaries who have taken on almost idolatrous status in recent years.

Even better, Luke seemed to believe that he really was a new Messiah, behaving with the kind of eccentricity that it is only possible to get away with when you are filthy rich.

The year ended with a witty stage compilation based on the cult TV series The Twilight Zone, which was literally designed to take viewers into another world but was closer to satirising it than making the journey. However, given the nature of the original that may have been a good thing.

Donmar

The Donmar continues to thrive in the hands of Josie Rourke, eagerly balancing the political with the personal, although several of this year’s shows engendered mixed responses.

The hugely enjoyable Limehouse by Steve Waters was one of a stream of political plays that have enlivened the London stage in recent years.

This one, directed by Polly Findlay, shone a light on the genesis of the SDP, now the Dem part of the Lib Dems. Not only did Steve Waters get the internecine political battles spot on but he also turned each of the members of the Gang of Four (plus one wife) into totally credible personalities pursuing their own agendas while trying not to give that impression.

Bruce Norris’s modern take on Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui somehow made Lenny Henry’s protagonist into someone closer to the current President of the United States than Adolf Hitler. None of the humour or biting political satire was lost in a pacy, racy version of a play that has been known to drag.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company was a musical with music by Tom Dearing and book and lyrics by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke about the sad demise of a charity that was flavour of the month until there were suggestions of corruption and it sank taking many reputations down with it.

The medium did not really fit the message, although viewers will have learned a lot about the charity industry, Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh.

The second half of the year featured a re-located revival of David Harrower’s Knives in Hens directed by Yaël Farber, which captured the earthiness of the original without ever catching fire.

The year ended with a modern American play, Belleville by Amy Herzog. The drama was set in the home of a young doctor and his wife who had relocated to Paris in the hope of invigorating their marriage, although they did little more than drive each other mad.

The psychological insights made this an evening worth viewing, as did an exceptional performance from Imogen Poots, although by the end the plotting got close to stretching credibility.

Royal Court

The Royal Court is prolific and, thanks to the daring of Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, continues to experiment with new writing, perhaps inevitably achieving mixed results.

Without doubt, the highlight of the year came early with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. What many might regard as the play of the year transported scenes from Greek mythology to Northern Ireland during The Troubles, with Sam Mendes at the helm of a drama that was heading for the West End before it even opened.

With a talented and entirely convincing cast running the gamut from the highly experienced to the debutant, this was a gripping work that is likely to end up on school and university syllabuses, such was its depth and intelligence. Even better, this black comedy was also great fun.

In a rare foray away from new writing, the theatre presented a revival of Jim Cartwright’s Road. This is one of those modern classics that perfectly portrays a place and time, the North of England during the Thatcher years. What had originally been an incisive political piece that bordered on agitprop is now a historical document but was worth reviving under the direction of John Tiffany for just that reason.

a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun) by debbie tucker green was a distinctly unusual and sometimes intriguing production that turned the theatre upside down without necessarily making enough of an impact to justify the transformation.

The Kid Stays in the Picture told the tempestuous tale of movie mogul Bob Evans. In an adaptation directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney, the evening was equally unusual as no single actor played the central role. Instead, cast members drifted in and out of character, building an odd mosaic impression of a major player in the film industry of the last century.

Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch viewed a trio of women from different eras and demonstrated the difficulties that motherhood can present. Despite good performances from three fine actresses, Kate O’Flynn, Adelle Leonce and Hattie Morahan, Katie Mitchell’s production might have benefited from greater clarity although, by the end of the performance, viewers will have learned a great deal more about depression and the difficulty that sufferers have in escaping it.

Chris Thorpe’s Victory Condition was yet another that regarded forms far more important than meaning. A couple were observed going through the mundane business of their daily lives in a comfortable flat. However, somewhere beneath the surface the world was going mad, potentially heading towards some kind of Armageddon.

Minefield by Lola Arias was a play about the horrors of the Falklands War, performed by a team of veterans drawn from both sides of the conflict. Perhaps inevitably, while their personal stories were compelling, the performances were far less polished than one normally expects to see at the Royal Court.

Continuing the international theme, Goats written by Liwaa Yazji attempted to encapsulate the Syrian experience of war and death on stage. It also featured a whole team of live goats, who behaved remarkably well, desperately trying not to upstage their human companions. The strength of this play lay in its ability to depict the pointlessness and tragedy of warfare, especially when it begins to spread to a society’s youth.

Upstairs, the year started in fine, if rather depressing, style with Katherine Soper’s Wish List, a grim drama about kids trying to get by at the very bottom of society’s lowest rung. Matthew Xia directed a dedicated cast, fronted by an outstanding performance from young Erin Doherty, a star in the making who had several other high points during the year.

Gary Owen’s Killology was an edgy tale about death, video games and violence, designed to provoke and challenge audience members.

Vivienne Franzmann is a really fine playwright whose 2017 contribution was entitled Bodies. The play’s main topic was the pain felt by those who are unable to conceive. The Indian surrogate solution proposed inevitably led to numerous ethical and human questions.

A cast led by Justine Mitchell and Jonathan McGuinness capably demonstrated that the trappings of modern life, money and career are not always enough to fill a gap in the soul.

Grimly Handsome played neither Upstairs nor Downstairs but in a found space near to the theatre’s stage door. An American police procedural written by Julia Jarcho had a fantastic atmosphere thanks to the location, although the relatively predictable plotting could be somewhat confusing at times.

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