Smaller Theatres

There has been a burst of theatre openings in the last year, although one could argue that the term 'smaller' is a misnomer in some cases.

The magnificent theatre at Alexandra Palace has a long and distinguished history but fell into disuse many years ago. After a major refurbishment, this space, which was created on the scale of a sizeable church has reopened. It staged Headlong’s Richard III starring Tom Mothersdale under the direction of John Haidar. A lively production in modern dress was primarily memorable for the efforts of its leading performer.

Turbine Theatre is housed in the environs of an equally iconic and overwhelming London building, Battersea Power Station. Unlike Alexandra Palace Theatre, it is compact, which threatened to cramp the style of the performers in a musical version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. However, director Tom Jackson Greaves did a wonderful job with an enthusiastic cast who, despite almost tripping over themselves, sang, danced and acted their hearts out.

Trafalgar Studios welcomed American playwright Joshua Harmon’s Admissions starring Alex Kingston to its main space. Using a style that bordered on sitcom and casting that might be seen as controversial, the playwright took on the thorny issue of race, through the medium of a university.

In the smaller, studio theatre, another play set in the world of American academe, Actually by Anna Ziegler, addressed similar issues in a fashion that combined light-heartedness with more serious exploration into the motivations of youth today.

Soho Theatre is now probably better known for its comedy than drama but programmes often avant-garde or even sensational theatrical output as well. One example was Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece, a moving, existential two-hander centring on a prospective suicide. Unusually, a play about generational difference actually ended in harmony thanks to strong empathy between two sad characters.

The list of theatres introducing new Artistic Directors include The Bush where Lynette Linton opened her account with a revival of Caryl Phillips’s rather dated Strange Fruit.

Even when it tries to shock, much that goes on in British theatres is highly predictable. Therefore, Intra Muros by French playwright Alexis Michalik was a breath of fresh air. Directed by and starring Ché Walker, the play was based around the use of acting therapy in prison. Gradually, not only did viewers get into the story but they also learned much about each of the individuals involved and, by extension, the parlous human state.

Theatre Royal Stratford East has also welcomed a new Artistic Director in Nadia Fall, whose promising opening programme included a well-regarded, highly atmospheric touring production of Equus. This was particularly memorable for the starring performance by Ethan Kai who found the perfect foil in Zubin Varla.

The Arcola presents a varied programme. A musical version of the popular film Little Miss Sunshine was fun without setting the world alight. Far more powerful was Dael Orlandersmith’s self-performed solo Until the Flood. This verbatim drama investigated the tragic death of a black teenager by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri and the racial/political implications for the family and wider community.

Sadly, the Finborough in Earl’s Court has been obliged to cut its output almost in half by budgetary constraints. It still presents one of the most interesting fringe offerings.

Phil Wilmott worked wonders with a large cast in a tiny space while presenting a Victorian Sensation, After Dark; or, a Drama of London Life by Dion Boucicault. Although the underlying elements were somewhat unlikely, the result was great fun.

At the same venue, Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from the Aloes recreated life in southern Africa in convincing fashion. With Janet Suzman directing, this was a chance for audiences to recall the difficulties faced by white South Africans engaged in the struggle for freedom, even if these pails into insignificance when compared to those of their disadvantaged fellow countrymen during the days of apartheid when the evening was set.

Wilmott gets around and, in a year when both Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller seemed to get everywhere, he combined the two, directing the former’s An Enemy of the People in a version by the American playwright. Set in America during the communist witch hunt, this production at the Union proved to be a fascinating evening’s entertainment.

Jermyn Street is generally at its best with revivals of long-lost plays. For Services Rendered by W. Somerset Maugham falls firmly into that category. This family drama may not be the best play around but successfully took viewers back to Britain in the 1930s, when class was still predominant.

Dougie Blaxland specialises in plays about troubled sports folk. His latest play, The Long Walk Back, which stopped at Greenwich while on tour, was far more than merely a biography of former test cricketer Chris Lewis. Not only did it look at the ups and downs of a turbulent sporting career but followed Lewis into an afterlife during which he spent many years in prison but returned a stronger, reformed character.

Youth Without God was an almost forgotten play by Ödön von Horváth. Christopher Hampton wrote a new version a decade ago which received its British première at the Coronet. Under the direction of Stephanie Mohr, this coming-of-age drama set in Nazi Germany just before the war not only spoke volumes about the period but also about issues that continue to resonate today.

Theatre 503 is one of the most exciting new writing venues on the London fringe. This was amply demonstrated by a visit to see Wolfie, a fantasy by Ross Willis that was largely memorable for superb performances from its two actors, Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville.