West End Plays

West End producers and theatre owners must be thankful to the National Theatre and the RSC, who together seem to be creating as much new and recycled material as almost everyone else put together, when it comes to straight plays.

Indeed, when you take away these two theatrical megaliths, new plays are becoming increasingly rare in the larger West End houses, which should be a cause for concern to all theatre lovers. However, a strong cohort of theatregoers might now argue that, with ticket prices now getting into three figures, smaller venues away from the limelight are infinitely more affordable and often produce very satisfying work.

Transfers from the National have been reviewed under that section either this year or, in the case of older plays such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in the past.

Perhaps of greatest moment is the decision by Rufus Norris and his team to push relatively experimental pieces from the Dorfman into the rough-and-tumble of the West End, which one imagines will have had mixed results commercially.

On the plus side, this policy does at least allow plays like Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night to reach a wider audience.

The RSC has shared out London presentations between the Barbican (again those plays are reviewed in that section) and a variety of West End houses.

Some of the finest and most ambitious work to be seen on London stages in 2018 has come from this source.

Top of the pile comes Imperium (part I: Conspirator and part II: Dictator), Mike Poulton’s epic two-part adaptation of Robert Harris’s Cicero Trilogy of novels. A full afternoon and evening in the theatre can seem daunting but the brilliance of this adaptation directed by Gregory Doran and the entertainment quotient offered by a gripping re-enactment of Roman history proved to be unbeatable and was undoubtedly one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

In a different vein but also adapted from a novel was James Fenton’s take on Cervantes’s Don Quixote, with musical assistance from Grant Olding. This highly enjoyable evening may have drifted some way from the original but, thanks to the combined efforts of David Threlfall and Rufus Hound respectively playing the Don and Sancho Panza, it proved to be richly rewarding.

The hottest competition for the RSC and the National came from a couple of different sources. Jamie Lloyd’s long season of short Harold Pinter plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre has proved to be greatly varied and benefits from carefully chosen, high profile casts. There are surprises in store even for Pinter aficionados and this continues to be a great opportunity to explore the breadth of work created by one of the finest playwrights of the 20th century. Pleasingly, there is more to anticipate from the last parts which open in early 2019.

On a completely different scale was The Height of the Storm, an intense but beautifully written new play about old age from Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. It is hard to imagine how a production starring Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce could go wrong, but this haunting piece lives up to and exceeds the hype and is undoubtedly French playwright Zeller’s best work since The Father.

Like Jamie Lloyd, Dominic Dromgoole has built his year around a single playwright, in this case Oscar Wilde. Three productions were of varying quality, with An Ideal Husband directed by Jonathan Church in comfortably traditional fashion, a real joy, streets ahead of unnecessarily quirky revivals of Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.

American drama was represented by a high-powered production of Long Day’s Journey into Night directed by Sir Richard Eyre. This beautifully judged evening, which will have won hearts of all who managed to catch it at Wyndham’s, started out at Bristol Old Vic and starred Jeremy Irons opposite Lesley Manville.

Two new plays but started out in the regions also hit the West End this year. The highly prolific James Graham’s Quiz opened in Chichester. It covered the story of the Major who may or may not have cheated his way into a £1 million prize on the TV series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. While this was undoubtedly fun, its main appeal will be to TV game show addicts. For those that have missed further work from Graham in the theatre, his time this year seems largely to have been devoted to screen projects.

Australian playwright Joanna Murray Smith’s Switzerland is one of the least likely West End transfers of the year. A two-hander about the novelist Patricia Highsmith, it was low-key but worthily amusing, especially to Ripley addicts.

Otherwise, the West End has welcomed an assortment of revivals, several of which are of plays that received premières relatively recently. Michael Grandage revisited John Logan’s Red, allowing Alfred Molina to reprise his epic performance as Mark Rothko in an intellectual stimulating work about the art business.

Another Grandage production, The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh proved to be just as shocking second time around as it had been when the RSC originally presented the play. Its rich Irish humour allowed the writer to get away with the kind of horrors that are normally associated with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, getting numerous laughs along the way.

Competing in the nasty stakes was Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe starring heartthrob Orlando Bloom at Trafalgar Studios. For those who enjoy their comedy very black, it was likely to prove another of the highlights of the year.

The ability to shock comes in a number of different forms and Bryony Lavery’s Frozen had the knack of worming itself uncomfortably into a viewer’s psyche. Under the direction of Jonathan Munby, Jason Watkins gave an outstanding performance as the kind of person that none of us would ever want to meet.

Revivals from further back also graced theatres. While Jamie Lloyd concentrated on Pinter shorts, Ian Rickson presented a high-profile revival of The Birthday Party with a top West End cast led by Zoë Wanamaker and Toby Jones.

Equally prominent is Sir Ian McKellen, who made his second London appearance in the last decade as King Lear. This time around, in a transfer from Chichester, he was a little less energetic and more thoughtful but evening was undoubtedly a triumph.

Given that it was unique, one must acknowledge the ambition behind a bilingual production of Tartuffe that somehow managed to bleed all of the comedy out of the piece in its effort to do something unnecessarily novel.