West End Plays

It may always have been the case but the West End seems to be relying more and more on transfers from other London theatres, the RSC and elsewhere.

New productions are few and far between, while American imports have also been less prevalent.

Most of this year’s highlights have been reviewed elsewhere in these pages. The National’s production of Great Britain and King Charles III from the Almeida could well be competing for the main awards, while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time also from the National goes from strength to strength, despite the shock of a ceiling collapsing during a performance.

In this context, in the last couple of years Michael Grandage and Jamie Lloyd have been courageous with their efforts to bring fresh productions into town, though with mixed success.

Too often, producers are playing it safe reviving old favourites, using stars to sell tickets or piggybacking off a popular novel or movie such as one of the year’s turkeys, Fatal Attraction.

Unexpectedly, a breath of fresh air appeared late in the year with The Play That Goes Wrong. What appears to have started out as little more than a bright idea from a bunch of drama school graduates has progressed from the Edinburgh Fringe and a national tour to West End success. Amazingly, the cast contains no big names and still has the co-writers appearing on stage every night.

The long-awaited stage version of the popular movie with a script by Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love duly arrived to great acclaim. Why this reviewer did not feel that it added a great deal to the experience of John Madden’s superlative movie, it allowed Lucy Briggs-Owen to shine in the Gwyneth Paltrow role opposite Tom Bateman as a very hunky Bard.

As well as reviving The Pride, only a few years after it first appeared at the Royal Court, Lloyd’s season at Trafalgar Studios introduced a bevy of young actors in a well-balanced production of Another Country and gave the under-powered Martin Freeman his chance to play Richard III in a modern version graced with numerous TV screens.

Perhaps his best achievement in this season was the last play. East is East enjoyed the novelty of welcoming writer Ayub Khan Din to the cast, presumably playing his own father in a play that must be at least semi-autobiographical.

He played opposite Jane Horrocks in the company of a bunch of good young Asian actors obviously relishing their West End opportunity in a play that has stood the test of time surprisingly well.

The compulsory appearances of Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward and Sir Alan Ayckbourn respectively saw The Importance of Being Earnest, Blithe Spirit and Relative Values.

In the first, Lucy Bailey attempted to enliven the play by bringing in a modern framing, which was generally not regarded as the breath-taking innovation that she must have hoped for. It did allow Siân Phillips at the head of a very mature cast to have fun with “a handbag”.

Octogenarian Angela Lansbury may be even older but in reprising her Broadway triumph danced her way across the stage in Blithe Spirit like an actress half her age, getting good support from Charles Edwards and Jemima Rooper.

Revivals of more recent plays, frequently with big names to boost sales, were also attempted with varying results.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s contribution consisted of a transfer of Relative Values from Bath with a starry cast including Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin under the direction of Sir Trevor Nunn.

The dream team of Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan came together to try and improve on performances by Sir Michael Gambon and Lia Williams a generation before into David Hare’s Skylight.

Miss Mulligan played to the Manor born, making her screen superstardom all the more regretful for staged devotees. Mr Nighy was in danger of parodying himself as he drawled and twitched his way into the part.

One of the most hyped shows of the year was Speed the Plow starring Lindsay Lohan. One minor issue on this occasion was that she had the smallest of the three parts, although neither Nigel Lindsay nor Richard Schiff got any publicity. It didn’t help that there had been an unforgettable (and far stronger) production at the Old Vic only a few years before.

Bakersfield Mist was a different kind of star vehicle, allowing Kathleen Turner to impress in an unusual import from the United States. She played a female redneck welcoming to her home a prissy English art dealer, portrayed with style and wit by Ian McDiarmid.

This small-scale comedy of manners proved highly enjoyable while never likely to set the theatrical world alight.