West End Plays

It is becoming increasingly rare for new straight plays to appear in the West End. For the most part, London’s biggest theatres are populated by musicals, revivals and transfers from other large theatre such as the National and Old Vic. While this is a fact of economic life, it is still a sad state of affairs.

One could make a strong argument for suggesting that the three strongest new arrivals this year are amongst the strongest of 2017 and more recently, now finding new life.

The Lehman Trilogy continues to delight with the original cast of Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley shining a shrewd light on the business world and capitalism across the last couple of centuries.

Girl from the North Country looks at life at the other end of the scale: the poorest of the poor trying to make their way during the Great Depression. Conor MacPherson’s deeply moving script benefits from a wonderful musical accompaniment comprising some of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits.

A more modern vision of working-class life in United States could be seen in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. The original Donmar cast returned in a sad but gripping exploration of the underclass struggling to make ends meet in the wake of deindustrialisation.

On the new writing front, the real headline-maker and hottest ticket was Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller Bridge. Since it first appeared in Edinburgh and then at Soho, the show has spawned two seasons of TV and projected its creative genius into a masterminding role on the next James Bond movie. The play continues to delight, although it loses a great deal of intimacy in such a large theatre. Even so, the humour and the performer’s charm were still enough to entrance audiences.

Mischief Theatre’s latest offering, Groan Ups contained much of the trademark humour that has kept The Play that Goes Wrong at the top of the hit parade for years. Even so, the piece rather misfired, seemingly uncertain as to quite what the creative team was trying to achieve.

In a more serious vein, the stage adaptation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin proved to be as intoxicating as the novel on which it is based. Playwright Rona Munro and director Melly Still teamed up to ensure that audiences were in for a deeply moving and, at times, uplifting experience.

The story of Joe Simpson’s mountain exploits, Touching the Void, has been adapted for the stage by David Greig under the direction of Tom Morris. Despite the talents of this heavyweight team, too much of the evening was spent watching Simpson edging to safety at a literally painfully slow pace.

David Mamet’s latest production was hyped like mad, primarily because the great playwright had managed to entice John Malkovich to make a rare return to London stage. Bitter Wheat was panned by the critics, somewhat unfairly since it was a perfectly serviceable and amusing, if lightweight, work in which Malkovich was gruesomely convincing as a power- and sex-hungry film producer.

The other relatively new American import was The Starry Messenger. Kenneth Lonergan is now making his name in the film world and, having attracted Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern, there were high hopes even though the play hadn’t fared especially well on Broadway. It turned out to be a likeable, if somewhat old-fashioned, comedy.

Possibly the best of the revivals in 2019 was Duncan Macmillan’s faithful, understated version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Director Ian Rickson played up traditional values and was greatly assisted by a cast headed up by Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke.

Early in the year, Arthur Miller seem to be everywhere including Wyndham’s where Jonathan Church directed The Price. This play is always going to be remembered for the performance of a veteran and David Suchet duly shone.

Another American who has enough reputation to appear in the West End on a regular basis is Tennessee Williams. Clive Owen starred as the whisky priest in a worthy new production of Night of the Iguana. In James Macdonald’s atmospheric revival, he received strong support from Lia Williams and Anna Gunn.

Atmosphere was also a major player in All about Eve directed by cult Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove. He imposed his own iconoclastic style on a tense script, aided by a stirring performance from Gillian Anderson, alongside Lily James in the title role.

Sadly, the West End transfer of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg starring Toby Stephens and Claire Skinner became playwright Peter Nicholls’s memorial, since the playwright passed away soon before its opening. Half a century on, this play continues to shock audiences with its lifelike depiction of the troubles faced by families with a disabled child.

When it comes to revivals, Jamie Lloyd and his company are becoming a welcome phenomenon. They started the year with the final three parts of the Pinter at the Pinter Season of short works (Four, Five and Six). The Pinterfest was then completed with a spare version of Betrayal. Not yet exhausted, Mr Lloyd returned to the fray with a fresh take on Cyrano de Bergerac, once again spending little on the design but concentrating on the efforts of a cast well led by James McAvoy.