Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

Other Major Theatres

Young Vic

David Lan announced that he was standing down as Artistic Director following a wonderful tenure at the Young Vic. His final full year contained the usual mixture of the sublime and experimental.

John Willett's slangy, modern translation of Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht was given a lovely production in-the-round by Joe Wright, which featured an outstanding performance by Brendan Cowell in the title role.

The staging made history seem vibrantly modern and drew audience members into the drama making every moment seem deeply significant.

It quickly became apparent to those who saw Wings by Arthur Kopit that this revival was primarily a star vehicle for Juliet Stevenson.

A light, ethereal play with deep psychological undercurrents certainly managed to showcase the talents of one of our finest actresses.

David Greig’s new translation of The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus was distinguished by a memorable production directed by Ramin Gray for Actors Touring Company. This featured a sizeable, home-bred young female chorus who were remarkably talented and carried along an ancient story that still spoke very directly to audience members today.

The year ended with a co-production between the Young Vic and the National Theatre. The Jungle was set in the eponymous Calais internment camp for immigrants, which was eventually destroyed following a great deal of often heated global debate.

An immersive production attempted to make viewers feel uncomfortable as they witnessed terrifying stories of misfortune narrated right under their noses.

Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin co-directed a powerful evening, which will undoubtedly have had the desired political impact, although some of the storytelling in a script by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson felt more staged than might possibly have been desirable.

In the Maria Studio, the strongest piece that this critic saw during the year was a solo show about the Palestinian experience, Taha, written by Amer Hlehel and translated by Amir Nizar Zuabi. The latter also directed a touching performance by the playwright.

Trafalgar Studios

Trafalgar Studios aspires to be a West End theatre and some of the main stage productions are clearly attempting to compete with the more established theatres just up the road.

From a commercial viewpoint, the big hit of the year must undoubtedly have been Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. There seems little doubt that the cast given to director Simon Callow was put together for the youth appeal as much as their stage acting talent.

This became apparent in in evening during which some of the performers seemed to be replicating popular TV performances rather than fully addressing the needs of the play.

In the smaller Studio, there is a regular turnover of transfers from various locations. One of the highlights was Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate, the kind of intelligent off-Broadway production that makes viewers think. In this case, Tom Attenborough directed a talented young cast led by the exceptional Patsy Ferran in a sensitive work about social media, homosexuality and how painful life can be when you are both young and shy.

Kiss Me is an early play by Richard Bean that sensitively follows the fortunes of two young people played by Claire Lams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes in the aftermath of the Great War. Having created a most unusual situation, Bean explored it with humour but also great depth of psychological understanding.

Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company started life at the Finborough and fully justified its transfer into the West End. This Canadian import shone the spotlight on the aftermath of a schoolboy’s suicide, brought on by homophobic bullying. The unusual viewpoint is that of a dinner party hosted by the parents of one of the perpetrators, also present, and attended by those of the victim, in which the young man was offered an opportunity to see the error of his ways.

Both La Bohème and The Grinning Man are reviewed under West End musicals.

Hampstead Theatre

Like so many theatres in 2017, Hampstead under Edward Hall had its moments. This critic had two particular favourites.

Filthy Business by Ryan Craig focused on three generations of a working-class East End Jewish family as a means of considering the state of the nation between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The balance between comedy and drama was cleverly maintained throughout a long but rewarding evening, which particularly benefited from a fine performance given by Sara Kestelman portraying a fearsome matriarch.

Terry Johnson’s Prism was a homage to the movie industry and starred Robert Lindsay as a senile version of Jack Cardiff, a legend to those who love the business.

Lindsay had great fun portraying Cardiff’s dotty side, while the evening also gave viewers some behind the scenes glimpses of what life with Bogart, Bacall and Hepburn might have been like when they were in their pomp.

Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was set in New York magazine office, seemed believably bitchy and appeared to be drawn from personal experience. However, some of the excesses that took place as the playwright considered the failure of the Great American Dream were more geared to entertainment than replication of reality, which did not necessarily do the play any harm at all.

Nicholas Wright adapted Patrick Hamilton’s novel Slaves Of Solitude for the stage, with Fenella Woolgar in the lead. A work which was set in wartime felt rather dated and offered few fresh insights into either its characters or the human condition.

Simon Gray’s Cell Mates gained notoriety first time around when Stephen Fry struggled so much that he almost gave up acting. This play about the spy George Blake and his unlikely Irish friend Sean Bourke, respectively played by Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne, presented good opportunities for the performers, while viewers will have struggled to shake off memories of Alan Bennett’s far superior plays exploring similar themes and collectively presented as Single Spies.

Sex with Strangers by Laura Eason was a slick mystery story that starred Emilia Fox and Theo James but never really got beneath the surface of its characters.

Occupational Hazards brought the memoirs of MP and former soldier Rory Stewart to the stage.

In the Downstairs Theatre, Deposit by Matt Hartley might have made for distressing viewing for any young visitors who were in the process of buying a flat or wished that they could afford to do so. The trauma suffered by the four characters depicted might have seen far too close to home (pun very much intended).

In the same space, Andrew Keatley’s Alligators took on a very modish subject, child abuse and the consequences for a schoolteacher accused of misconduct. A Kafkaesque nightmare touched not only the character played by Alec Newman, who excelled as the man with the disintegrating life, but also his whole family.

Menier Chocolate Factory

The Menier Chocolate Factory is a very welcoming venue that loves to serve dinner as part of its theatre package. For a small venue, it also has a remarkable number of West End and even Broadway transfers. 2017 was a year for comedy at the Menier.

The pick of the season was Terence Rattigan’s Love in Idleness, the latest show to make it across the Thames from Southwark.

The production’s main selling points were the direction of Sir Trevor Nunn and presence of Eve Best at the head of the cast. The low-key comedy toyed with the emotions as a woman of a certain age tried to balance new love with the presence of a pushy son who was no longer quite the young schoolboy that she fondly remembered.

Sir Trevor also directed the dream duo of Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman in Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer. While the actresses did their bit, the play is beginning to creak, presenting gentle amusement rather than the hard-edged comedy that audiences tend to prefer today.

Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ turned up in a musical version which had first seen the light of day at the Curve in Leicester. With good central performances from Benjamin Lewis and Asha Banks, this often funny, if deliberately clichéd, comedy was ideal family entertainment.

The Lie by Florian Zeller, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, was the flipside of The Truth, which had played at the same venue the previous year. It was a rather contrived French comedy that suffered from the same weaknesses and benefited from the same strengths as the earlier play, not helped by a very late cast change, which delayed the opening.

Barnum is reviewed under West End musicals.

Tricycle

While the Tricycle has been closed for a major refurbishment right through the year, the wonderful Mikel Murfi made a couple of appearances in the cinema with hilarious character-filled Irish monologues entitled The Man in the Woman’s Shoes and I Hear You and Rejoice. Both were a real treat.

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