West End Plays

All too often in 2016, as with so many recent years, when it looked for straight plays, the West End seemed more interested in either popular sources or popular stars rather than high quality writing or new work.

There were, however, some shining beacons to remind theatregoers that Britain has been at the forefront of this field for a century or more.

Despite having seen it twice on different stages at the National no more than four years before, the delight that This House managed to instil in a tired, battle-hardened critic was remarkable.

It is a perfect history lesson, featuring the torments of the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government during the mid-1970s from the perspectives of the warring Whips on both sides of the Parliamentary divide.

Somehow, what should have been a boring subject turned into a thriller with many comic interludes and a tear-jerking finale thanks to the prodigious talents of James Graham and the directorial skills of Jeremy Herrin.

From the same Headlong and National Theatre stable, People, Places and Things, which had wowed audiences the previous year, also transferred into the West End, once again showcasing the remarkable acting ability of Denise Gough.

By the end of what could be a gruelling evening, she had given viewers a really good idea of the ups and downs of life as an alcoholic, not to mention an actress.

Another magnificent female performance came from Michelle Terry in the unlikely role of Henry V. Miss Terry is slight but embodied the king with great assurance in the Open Air of Regents Park.

Gender bending has practically become the norm when it comes to Shakespeare this year but, even so, it was a pleasure to see how someone can transform themselves in the eyes of an audience into something that they so patently are not.

The commercial highlight of the year, which also proved to be a marvellous piece of theatre for the whole of its five-hour duration, was Jack Thorne’s new take on one of the great cult figures of the last decade in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Even for those who could find J K Rowling tedious (perish the thought), this was an imaginative and beautifully produced production from John Tiffany that will delight viewers, as long as they can find a ticket.

Another play that has enduring appeal is An Inspector Calls, in the classic revival by Stephen Daldry that remains as compelling as ever a quarter a century on. This is a tribute both to his skills as a director and J B Priestley’s ability to write some of the most intriguing plays of the last century.

New work was at a premium and the only significant opening in the West End was The Comedy about a Bank Robbery from the young creative team behind The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

The plot is a complete irrelevance where Mischief Theatre is concerned, since their main aim is to get audiences laughing. Three times in a row, they have succeeded and this latest effort suggests that there is much more to look forward to in future.

The View from Islington North was another political evening delivered by Max Stafford Clark’s Out Of Joint. A somewhat patchy production timed to coincide with the election (how long ago that sounds given ensuing events) featured writing from the heady team of Mark Ravenhill, Caryl Churchill, Alistair Beaton, David Hare, Stella Feehily and Billy Bragg.

Sir Kenneth Branagh’s London season continued with an eclectic mixture that hit its peak early in the year with a revival of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. This tale of acting talent and racism in the 18th century proved just as winning second time around, thanks in large part to the central performance by Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge.

Later in the year, the company produced the quirky French comedy The Painkiller starring the main man opposite Rob Brydon.

This was followed by a new version of Romeo and Juliet that he directed in which Lily James in the latter role excelled, while Richard Madden as her would-be lover could never quite compete.

The season finished with Branagh following Lord Olivier into John Osborne territory as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. This was a likeable revival of a timely play exploring loss of Empire that showcased the talents of its central figure, without ever setting the world on fire.

And then there were the star turns. It might be a matter of taste but writer/performers Matt Perry and Jesse Eisenberg in respectively The End of Longing and The Spoils, seem to have little to offer beyond their names. Similarly, while they might have generated a few screams amongst groupies, Dominic Cooper in The Libertine and Kit Harington in Dr Faustus also missed the mark by a considerable way. The women did not have it all their own way either, as Pixie Lott looked great and sang beautifully but added little personality to her performance as Holly Golightly in a lacklustre adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

When the big names did hit form, they could be impressive. This is hardly surprising where the established team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart took on Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with great style and more intelligibility than the play possibly deserves.

Ken Stott had a rare opportunity to play a great man, at least in his character’s own eyes, portraying the epitome of Donald Wolff it in Sean Foley’s poignant production of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, alongside Reece Shearsmith.

Similarly, when Ed Harris and Amy Madigan agreed to reprise their New York portrayals of the leading figures in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, they more than justified The New Group’s decision to transfer the play across the Atlantic.

This is a work that is gritty but amusing and works to its own logic, as proved by Scott Elliott’s low-key but gripping production.

Hand to God proved to be very funny in parts but couldn’t immediately justify the hype of a Broadway comedy that was so exceptional it should deserve a trip across the Atlantic.