National, Old Vic, Barbican (inc. RSC) & Bridge

National Theatre

The job of an Artistic Director cannot be easy, since on the day that you take over the public, the media and the artistic community all expect instant perfection from everything that you produce. Life is not like that but pleasingly, after some ups and downs, Rufus Norris is now settling in nicely at the National, presenting a wide variety of work, much of it of the highest quality.

The undoubted highlight of the year was Small Island, adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Andrea Levy, who sadly died shortly before the show made it to the stage. The starting point was a wonderful book bringing the hardships of the Windrush generation to life. The stage version, directed by Norris himself, was equally gripping and must rank as the best new play of the year.

Although the smaller Dorfman is frequently used for more experimental work, it has also become home to some exciting American imports, one of which ran Small Island close when it came to the best new play of the year, a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf entitled Downstate by Bruce Norris. This uncompromising piece was set in a halfway house for sex offenders. A series of fantastic performances from an Anglo-American cast under the direction of Pam MacKinnon gave viewers an opportunity to get under the skin of the kind of personalities that most of us would typically cross the street to avoid.

Otherwise, on the larger stages, the strongest productions were often revivals, although often with a novel twist.

Lyndsey Turner directed Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, a play that never fails but seems particularly topical at a time when feminism and proto-capitalism are high on everybody’s agenda.

Sir David Hare created an innovative, modern take on Ibsen with Peter Gynt, which divided audiences and critics. Given that the original almost always does exactly the same, followers should not have been surprised at mixed responses to an inventive re-working that always sought to entertain.

Rather than try to impose her own modern vision, Polly Finlay directed Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son in a traditional setting, which is almost always a cause of celebration in itself. With strong performances particularly from Roger Allum, Justine Mitchell and Anjana Vasan, the feminist message, which may well have inspired this revival, came across loud and clear.

Master Harold and the Boys by Athol Fugard was another success that owed much to strong acting, especially from Lucian Msamati and young Anson Boon in the title role.

The final production of the year was a bold attempt by Inua Ellams to fuse the horrors of the war for an independent Biafra with Three Sisters, Chekhov’s tale about unfulfilled women yearning for a trip to Moscow. Under the direction of Nadia Fall, this was not only a highly informative history lesson but also a thought-provoking way to reconsider the timeless strengths of the original.

New writing is always hit and miss and can sometimes rely on the eye of the beholder.

Secret River was not entirely new, since this Australian import originated in a novel by Kate Grenville, which was adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell several years ago. However, a moving production directed by Neil Armfield about the invasion of Aborigine land and culture by Europeans sent a powerful message to every viewer and felt uncomfortably timely. It also proved to be a tribute to leading actress Ningali Lawford-Wolf, who tragically passed away days before the London opening.

Elena Ferranti’s epic Neapolitan novel cycle, My Brilliant Friend has achieved cult status, both on paper and the TV. The five hour-long stage adaptation by April de Angelis and director Melly Still would undoubtedly appeal to fans but suffered from the same limitations as the original.

Antipodes was the latest transatlantic transfer of a play by Annie Baker. Her work is always subtle and intricate, with much of the activity going on the below the surface, in this case a series of boardroom squabbles illuminating life in America and beyond today.

Alexander Zeldin’s Faith, Hope and Charity continued his kitchen sink style exploration of Britain’s underclass today, the realism proving totally depressing but also a siren call to us all as leaving Europe became more important to politicians than supporting those in desperate need.

Jellyfish by Ben Weatherill, which started life at the Orange Tree in Richmond, was a moving and uplifting account of the attempts by a young woman played by Sarah Gordy to overcome the difficulties of Down’s Syndrome. Rather than merely focusing on the protagonist and her boyfriend, the agonies of a mother faced with the need to protect her offspring played a significant part in the storytelling of a true tearjerker.

Anna was a commendably bold experiment in which every audience member was obliged to follow events through headphones. On this occasion, the experience tended to override the writing.

Finally, it is pleasing to highlight a version of The Winter’s Tale for children in the Dorfman, which was not only great fun for the kids but also maintained the spirit of the original in the way that could please and amuse their grown-up chaperones.

Old Vic

The Old Vic has a very different business model from the National. Matthew Warchus concentrates on quality rather than quantity and much more often than not hits the jackpot. This year, he happily mixed old favourites with some exciting new plays.

There were two Arthur Millers. Jeremy Herrin directed All My Sons for Headlong in a powerful production starring American favourites Bill Pullman and Sally Field, supported by younger British performers including Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman. A great play and a bevy of transatlantic talent was a perfect combination. Less successful was Rachel Chavkin’s adventurous attempt to transform one of Miller’s weaker plays, The American Clock, into something timeless (pun intended). Somehow, there were far too many ideas floating around a production that eventually became confused.

The revival from this side of the Atlantic was Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. Warchus directed a cast led by the inimitable Andrew Scott, who carried the day in a version that was significantly rewritten but still proved highly enjoyable.

The modern plays could hardly have been more contrasting. Duncan Macmillan is making a big name for himself but, even so, he was probably as surprised as anyone to see his intimate (in every sense) two-hander Lungs on the schedule at one of London’s largest venues. The big draw was the casting of Matt Smith and Claire Foy, who excelled in a lovely in-the-round production of a superb play, although it might have come across even better in a smaller studio theatre.

A Very Expensive Poison by Lucy Prebble was an intoxicating factual piece looking at the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. The writing, together with John Crowley’s imaginative direction, turned what could have been a grim, depressing evening into a pleasure.

The Barbican

As always, the Barbican’s programming was extremely diverse.

Much fêted Australian director Simon Stone brought a Dutch-language version of Medea to the theatre. This was a very modern take on Greek classic set in a medical research institution. An engrossing production will be best remembered for the efforts of Marieke Heebink in the (not quite) title role.

The equally high-profile Ivo van Hove arrived with a quite shocking but very watchable interpretation of The Damned (Les Damnés), based on Luchino Visconti’s film. Although it came under the banner of Comédie Française, comedy was the last thing on most viewers’ minds as they witnessed a visually stunning production.

Avalanche was an Anglo-Australian solo show effectively highlighting the formidable skills of Maxine Peake, while Grief Is a Thing with Feathers, adapted by Enda Walsh from the novel by Max Porter, broadly did the same for Cillian Murphy.

Remarkably, Walsh went one better with a companion piece, Rooms. Even a solo actor was deemed to be one too many in a promenading event that sent its audiences around a series of carefully created rooms where they had the opportunity to experience soundscapes, which help to build a powerful overall impression of a lonely created reality.

The Barbican has also become London home to Cheek by Jowl, who returned with Jacobean comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont. Incongruously, this was modernised and translated into Russian and then, via surtitles, back to its original language.

The RSC’s London programme was based almost as much around equality of opportunity as artistic vision.

By far the strongest production was Measure for Measure directed by Artistic Director Gregory Doran. He played fewer gender-swapping tricks than his colleagues, inventively and coherently reimagining the play at a time towards the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With Lucy Phelps and Sandy Grierson making big impressions for different reasons, this was a highly worthwhile experiment.

Kimberly Sykes took As You Like It as an opportunity to use almost random changes of gender in an attempt to make the play feel modern. In doing so, she fell between two stools neither saying much fresh about the original, nor creating something new and exciting.

In between, Justin Audibert created a completely unlikely but ultimately enjoyable version of The Taming of the Shrew in which the genders of practically all main characters were reversed. While this made something of a mockery of the original, it was rather fun and guaranteed to make audience members think outside the box.

Bridge Theatre

Shakespeare was also the big ticket at the Bridge, where Sir Nicholas Hytner directed a highly entertaining, promenading version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream complete with writhing fairies on trapezes. This director knows how to blend old and new and ensure that Shakespeare is the winner at the end of the day, as happened on this occasion.

A German Life was that rarity, a solo show presented in a large theatre. Christopher Hampton’s script allowed Maggie Smith to show off her acting skills, although the production by Jonathan Kent tended to be very static. The autobiographical story of Brunhilde Pomsel, who worked for Joseph Goebbels when he was at his worst, was intermittently both amusing and shocking.

In Alys, Always Lucinda Coxon adapted the novel by Harriet Lane for the stage. Somehow, the bestselling thriller failed to excite as much as might have been expected.

Two Ladies was a political drama by Nancy Harris, which brought the wives of two presidents, one American, the other European, together behind-the-scenes at a global conference. Although Zoë Wanamaker and Croatian star Zrinka Cvitešić brought their own individual styles to the characters, the script never really took off.