It is very hard to know quite where the Fringe starts and stops and inclusion in this section is not necessarily by reference to size or quality. For the most part, it comprises theatres where this reviewer makes only occasional visits.
Although The Other Palace is now dedicated to musicals, it closed the year with a revival of Patrick Barlow’s The Messiah, a comedy with occasional songs the most part sung by Opera diva Lesley Garrett. Directed by Barlow himself, the astonishing thing about this sometimes extremely funny show was the extent to which he had asked his actors, Hugh Dennis and John Marquez, to replicate performances delivered by Barlow and his earlier collaborators, Jim Broadbent and John Ramm.
It is hard to know how to categorise the Trafalgar Studios 2, a 100-seat space in the heart of the West End. Featuring many transfers from smaller theatres, it is a one-of-a-kind that provides a useful outlet for successes that have outgrown their homes.
One highlight in 2018 was Again by actress turned writer Stephanie Jacob. The theme may not have been the most original but an adventurously constructed work directed by Hannah Price proved to be a moving tear-jerker, as two families sat down at a dinner table for a conversation about life, death and the universe.
Wilton’s Music Hall has worked hard to maintain its comfortingly shabby character over the years and, amongst other varied programming, presented Sketching. This was a collaboration between James Graham and a group of aspiring younger playwrights. A work that intended to atomise London today proved to be patchy in the extreme and in great need of editing with the sections written by Graham generally the strongest. On the plus side, it delivered some powerful and much-needed messages along the way.
While Hackney Empire might not seem an obvious stopping off point for an RSC transfer from Stratford, given that a lively version of Hamlet starred Paapa Essiedu and was clearly designed for exactly the racially diverse clientele who are targeted by this East London theatre, it proved a sensible decision. There has to be a strong possibility that a good number of local youngsters who might not previously have had an opportunity to try out Shakespeare will have become hooked by this lively production as a direct consequence, which would be a great outcome.
Just along the road in Stratford East, Nadia Fall has recently taken over as Artistic Director and announced what sounds like an exciting opening programme. This included The Wolves by Sarah Delappe, a play ostensibly about a girls’ football team but in fact a powerful piece about the difficulties faced by young women coming of age in the States today.
The Finborough tends to be at its best when unearthing forgotten classics from long ago. A couple of examples this year proved the point.
Cyril’s Success by Henry J Byron opened at the same time 150 years ago as the building in Earls Court that now houses the theatre. It therefore seemed an appropriate piece to revive. While the melodramatic comedy would never have set the world on fire, it proved to be gently amusing and deserved this first London outing since 1890.
Considerably more hard-hitting was Finishing the Picture by Arthur Miller, a very obviously autobiographical play directed by Phil Willmott harping back to a difficult period in the playwright’s life when he was married to the very beautiful but impossibly demanding Marilyn Monroe. With a few name changes, the play painfully depicts the difficulties faced by all concerned as they tried to put The Misfits into the can.
Willmott also presented a short season of modernised classics at the Union Theatre. This included Carmen 1808, a musical homage to Bizet featuring an astonishingly large cast for such a small performing space. Pleasingly, it was great fun without in anyway diminishing the original.
The undoubted highlight of the year at Jermyn Street was an ambitious new production of Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8.30. A dedicated cast worked themselves into the ground presenting no fewer than nine plays across 10½ hours (including intervals). While some were far stronger than others, the experience was both varied and highly enjoyable with a couple of the short pieces outstanding.
The Orange Tree in Richmond continues to present a wide range of theatrical offerings which included the first London revival of Humble Boy by Charlotte Jones, originally a companion piece to John Caird’s Hamlet at the National Theatre. The production by Artistic Director Paul Miller in-the-round was charming and, while it may not have been able to compete with the riches of a South Bank cast that included Simon Russell Beale and Dame Diana Rigg, pleased audiences no end.
Last and most certainly not least was a transfer from Hampstead Downstairs to The Bunker in Southwark. Ken Campbell was a distinctly unconventional crowd-pleaser and fully worthy of a biographical play, Ken, lovingly compiled and presented by Terry Johnson alongside Jeremy Stockwell, the latter an uncannily good imitator of the great man. This madcap drama was absolutely hilarious and deserves a further outing, possibly in a smaller West End house.