Review of the Year - The London Stage

Reporter: Philip Fisher

Dateline: 29th December, 2017

Smaller Theatres

The fringe continues to go from strength to strength, welcoming new theatres while rarely losing those that are already in existence. While the quality of the work is inevitably variable, there are many gems to be mined by those with the time and inclination to seek them out.

Under Sean Holmes, the Lyric Hammersmith presented its usual wide mixture of themes and styles.

Terror by German playwright Ferdinand von Schirach promised to be a gripping courtroom encounter in which the audience had the opportunity to decide the fate of a pilot accused of killing hundreds of people.

Some clever writing turned this into a wider debate about ethics, which unfortunately confused the decision-making for audience members in an evening that was good but missed an opportunity to be even better.

City of Glass based on the novel by Paul Auster and adapted for the stage by Duncan Macmillan was as mysterious as the original. The tales within tales featuring the writer as a character might also have left some audience members struggling to follow proceedings, although those that knew Auster’s The New York Trilogy will have relished the experience.

Seventeen by Australian playwright Matthew Whittet allowed not only the audience but the cast to regress to the days of their youth. Cleverly, it managed to take a relatively run-of-the-mill multiple coming-of-age story on to a different level by using a cast all of whom were 40 to 50 years older than the characters they were portraying.

Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox was an entertaining family romp featuring the adventures of its eponymous hero, brought the stage with some style by director Maria Aberg.

Soho seems determinedly out to prove itself wacky and wonderful as a small sample of work this year demonstrated.

Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat was the kind of show that the Lord Chamberlain existed to ban in the days when censorship ruled.

Retelling excerpts from the New Testament in a cabaret style that started with its star minimally clad and then dispensed with such niceties, the performance threatened simultaneously to exceed the borders of blasphemy and pornography, without quite doing either. What this energetic evening did was provide entertainment for the very broad-minded.

Touch by Vicky Jones came from the DryWrite stable, which has brought Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and other works to the stage.

This edgy tale about Amy Morgan’s Delilah and her troubled sex life amused without necessarily getting as deeply into her character as previous works by the company.

A different kind of entertainment was provided by Chicago’s finest, T J and Dave, who brought their renowned improv skills to Soho allowing a British audience to discover their talent.

The Bush spent the early part of the year under refurbishment before presenting some impressive new writing on its return to the former library in Shepherd’s Bush.

The theatre reopened with Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, an unusual but intriguing two-hander that pretty much did what it said on the tin.

As so often, Barney Norris shone a spotlight on to misfits in the later stages of life in While We’re Here. Tessa Peake Jones and Andrew French played two seriously damaged characters who needed each other’s help to get back on track in a quiet drama directed by Alice Hamilton.

Taylor Mac’s Hir was a wild comedy from the United States about the difficulties of those who believe they have been born with the wrong gender. The evening featured a very strong performance from Griffyn Gilligan as gender-confused young Max.

Sophie Wu's debut play, Ramona Tells Jim, was a quirky comedy-drama set somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.

Perhaps the best piece at the venue this year was Parliament Square, written by the highly rated James Fritz. It was graced by a fine performance from Esther Smith as a mother whose political beliefs were so strong that she was willing to die for them. Even if the final work had a few rough edges, it demonstrated that Fritz is definitely one to follow.

The Gate welcomed a new Artistic Director, Ellen McDougall, whose initial commissions suggest that experiments with form could be more common than slavish realism at the West London theatre in the next few years.

Before she arrived, The Convert by Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira was a chastening look at life in Salisbury, Rhodesia at the turn of the 20th century. Outgoing Artistic Director Christopher Haydon directed a strong cast in a play about perceived racial supremacy, religion and inequality.

Miss McDougall’s debut, The Unknown Island, adapted from a short story by José Saramago, was a gentle parable narrated as much as acted by a quartet who shared roles in an evening where the story took second place to the staging.

Suzy Storck by French playwright Magalie Mougel, translated by Chris Campbell, was a challenging horror story that focused on the feelings of the eponymous central character, played with convincing commitment by Irish actress Caoilfhionn Dunne. The play had many of the qualities of a mythic tragedy re-staged amongst today’s underclass.

A small selection of trips to the Park included sight of Kevin Elyot’s Twilight Song, the writer’s final play. This took a double look at homosexuality, drawing parallels between experiences today and those when it was illegal to have relations with another man 50 years before.

Joe Orton’s Loot covered similar ground in a very different style, presenting raucous comedy. Michael Fentiman’s revival will best be remembered for the performances of Sinéad Matthews as a very sinister nurse and Christopher Fulford playing an even more sinister Police Inspector.

The year ended with a revival of Daisy Pulls It Off by Denise Deegan. Paulette Randall and her cast clearly had great fun in delivering this comic spoof on the jolly hockey sticks style of literature so popular in the first half of the last century.

Neil McPherson and his team at the Finborough continue to amaze with their ability to dredge up long forgotten plays that provide rich entertainment and important social commentary about their own times and those in which we live.

They also produce new plays such as Run the Beast Down by Titas Halder. This was a monologue, spiced up thanks to the presence of an onstage DJ, who provided cool music as we watched the sad decline of city slicker Charlie, played by Ben Aldridge under the direction of Hannah Price.

Another unsettling new play, Jam by Matt Parvin, featured a psychological battle between a young tearaway played by Harry Melling and his former school teacher, Jasmine Hyde.

Gerry Moynihan’s Continuity was yet another fine play from the far side of the Irish Sea, taking as its subject the Continuity IRA during The Troubles of the 1970s.

Phil Willmott directed a new production of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, which subsequently transferred to the West End. This may not be one of the playwright’s best works but was still an interesting meditation on the Holocaust, viewed on a human scale.

Mr Gillie allowed the almost-forgotten but once-popular James Bridie to return to the limelight. A piece set in Glasgow portrayed a recently deceased headmaster played by Andy Secombe and followed the road to his demise.

However, the best of the Finborough’s output was saved till the end of the year. Jerome K Jerome may be best known for his comic novel Three Men in a Boat but he was also an accomplished playwright. The Passing of the Third Floor Back has something of a dated feel but nevertheless proved to be richly entertaining. It looked at a nameless traveller who quietly inspired the inhabitants of the boarding-house where he stayed. Each started out as a tired has-been but eventually gained hope and purpose.

Opening a few days later, Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, written during the First World War, took a look at Jewish immigrants to New York with wry wit but great good sense. Religion, politics, commerce and music all had their influence on a very entertaining work that should herald a revival in the fortunes of another playwright who is unjustly neglected.

Jermyn Street, which saw a change of Artistic Director during the year as Tom Littler took over, is also often at its best with discoveries of forgotten plays of the past, while also looking to find new works that complement the programme.

Under Anthony Biggs and the old regime, Stephen Unwin’s All Our Children was a fine, thoughtful work, like Incident at Vichy about Nazi inhumanity. On this occasion, the victims were troubled and physically challenged children.

Strangely, a third play also looked at the impact of the Nazis from yet another angle. This was the very fine Anything That Flies by Judith Burnley. Under the fine direction of Alice Hamilton, Clive Merrison played a dotty old Jewish aesthete living in Belsize Park, who eventually receives care from someone whom he immediately perceives to be the enemy, a German aristocrat portrayed by Issy van Randwyck.

This gentle, thoughtful play managed to get deeply into the psyche of a troubled old man, who, despite his tetchiness, was ultimately depicted as a sympathetic character.

Under the new regime, Howard Brenton contributed two contrasting plays. The Blinding Light presented a biographical view of August Strindberg, struggling to come to terms with life in a Parisian garret while pursued by his past.

Brenton also delivered a well-regarded new version of Miss Julie directed by Littler and starring Charlotte Hamblin in the title role, although some of the plotting seem to defy logic.

Southwark Playhouse is another venue that tries to mix ancient and modern. A small sample of the venue’s output left a very positive impression.

Dessert by Oliver Cotton brought Sir Trevor Nunn to the theatre to direct a distinguished cast including Michael Simkins, Alexandra Gilbreath and Theresa Banham.

The drawing-room comedy in which they were embroiled featured the embarrassingly wealthy behaving badly. It has to be said that the serving classes were not necessarily significantly better in what became a challenging debate about society’s ills.

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is a fascinating high-class morality parable centring on a convent where a priest is alleged to have abused a child. The aftermath became a fascinating power struggle between the fearsome principal Sister Aloysius played by Stella Gonet and the accused Father Flynn, portrayed by Jonathan Chambers.

J M Barrie’s Dear Brutus celebrated its centenary with Jonathan O’Boyle’s production. This turned out to be an ethereal drama taking many of the themes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which a group of the well-to-do is given an opportunity to reflect on their lives and decide how to behave better in future.

A couple of trips to Wilton’s Music Hall proved rewarding. This resurrected venue, which still maintains a charming dowdiness, was home to Manfred Karge’s haunting solo, Man To Man. This is a strange drama about a woman who took on her late husband’s job as a crane driver in Nazi Germany, fooling all and sundry as she progressed to other manly pursuits. Maggie Bain excelled, delivering this monologue while climbing all over the set, at times precipitously.

The 10th anniversary production of The Terrible Infants by Les Enfants Terribles, was a fine example of physical theatre. A series of dark, tall tales featuring naughty children was enhanced by wonderful puppetry and the performance skills of a very slick cast.

Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress at Print Room at the Coronet was another worthy revival, by Laurence Boswell. Set in a Broadway theatre 60 years ago, it was a poignant reminder of the evils of racism, particularly when it is ingrained in society. Tanya Moodie starred as a larger-than-life but deeply disappointed actress who had to accept an existence where she was consistently prevented from having the opportunities that her talents deserve.

An unusual piece from Romania is worth highlighting because it was such fun. What Shall We Do with the Cello? by Matei Visniec at The Vaults was an absurdist comedy presented in English but that could almost have worked without speech. Beneath the comic surface, it made some trenchant observations about life in the country under Ceausescu.

Winter Solstice by Roland Schimmelpfennig at the Orange Tree in Richmond was a dark mysterious comedy presented by Ramin Gray for his Actors Touring Company. A group of intellectuals spent a considerable time discussing a film script and bickering amongst themselves about some of the minutiae of life.

The theatre also presented a welcome revival of Clare McIntyre’s Low Level Panic. This all-female three hander wittily addressed the concerns of a trio of mildly neurotic young women (although the theatre’s Artistic Director apparently disputed this description). Pleasingly, there was a serious explanation of some important feminist issues lying not too far beneath the surface.