Other Major Theatres
The Donmar continues to go from strength to strength and, in an interesting departure, expanded into the King’s Cross Theatre for its trilogy of all-female Shakespeares, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Closer to home, there were many highlights to relish under Josie Rourke’s consistently enterprising and successful leadership.
A new play, Elegy by Nick Payne, was directed by Miss Rourke herself and proved to be a deeply moving and thought-provoking piece about ageing, starring Zoë Wanamaker as a woman whose mind was slowly deserting her.
Brian Friel’s series of overlapping monologues, Faith Healer, provided opportunities for Steven Dillane as the eponymous and Fantastic Frank Hardy, Gina McKee and Ron Cook to hold the audience’s attention during a gripping evening.
The year ended with a rather unusual production of Saint Joan in which Gemma Arterton played throughout in period costume, while all around her were in modern dress. Even so, the leading lady gave what is undoubtedly one of the best stage performances of her career.
Welcome Home, Captain Fox! was Anthony Weigh’s new interpretation of a play by Anoiulh. This somewhat eccentric but nevertheless pleasing comedy was set amongst American socialites in the late 1950s.
Although this critic was less enthusiastic than the majority, One Night in Miami, which was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and brought together Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, American footballer Jim Brown and Sam Cooke on a fateful night in 1963, must also be regarded as one of the theatre’s big hits during 2016. Its take on issues of race was certainly refreshing and challenging.
Under Rupert Goold’s direction, the programming at the Almeida is always bold, which means that there will inevitably be the odd miss amongst the hits.
Goold himself directed Ralph Fiennes as Richard III in a cast that also included Vanessa Redgrave. The production started out in the Leicester car park where the purported remains of Shakespeare’s anti-hero had recently been discovered and progressed on to more traditional Shakespearean turf.
One of the most intriguing theatrical events of the year was Leo Butler’s Boy. This featured the outstanding debut performance of 2016 from Frankie Fox playing Liam under the direction of Sasha Wares.
In addition, Miriam Buether’s set, based around a symbolic conveyor belt, might well have been the best of the year (the only competition Miss Buether herself for Wild by Mike Bartlett) and greatly assisted to speed along the fly-on-the-wall documentary vision of ordinary Londoners today.
Ella Hickson’s Oil was an ambitious if not wholly successful attempt to follow a mother and daughter played by Anne-Marie Duff and Yolanda Kettle through the generations from the Victorian era into the realm of sci-fi.
The year ended on a real high with Robert Icke’s adaptation of Mary Stuart. This featured a nightly coin toss to determine which roles Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams would play.
With Miss Stevenson as Mary and Miss Williams Elizabeth, the piece proved to be an engrossing modern production of Schiller’s classic.
Vicky Featherstone also strives to maintain the Royal Court’s historic mission of delivering edgy new writing. This almost inevitably leads to some unforgettable moments and some that one wishes could be forgotten.
Starting in the Theatre Downstairs, The Children by Lucy Kirkwood was a dystopian sci-fi drama with a potentially thrilling underlying idea that was not fully developed.
Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable was a comedy poking fun at the artificiality of the film industry. It benefited both artistically and commercially from the presence of Matt Smith and Amanda Drew with strong support from younger members of the cast under the direction of the playwright.
Caryl Churchill had two opportunities to show her wares. Escaped Alone considered issues of ageing from a typically obscure but challenging viewpoint and is due to return in 2017, while Pigs and Dogs only lasted 15 minutes but delivered a powerful attack on archaic but entrenched attitudes to homosexuality in Africa.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks took on issues of race from the perspective of the American Civil War. This three-hour epic might have been on the long side but it certainly got its messages home with great power and wit.
I See You by Mongiwekhaya came from Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Using a variety of languages (not to mention titles), it turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare about unjust imprisonment on the African continent.
X by the highly rated Alistair McDowall might lead to the conclusion that he is still some way from the finished product. This was a drama set in outer space where a spaceship drifts aimlessly, while its inhabitants try to retain their sanity in difficult circumstances.
Upstairs, Human Animals by Stef Smith was another dystopian thriller with ecological undertones and random slaughter a constant theme.
Newcomer David Ireland presented Cyprus Avenue, a look at Northern Ireland at its worst starring Steven Rea as the ultimate Irish bigot in a shockingly entertaining if somewhat depressing vision of a country that now seems to be slowly escaping from the terrors of sectarianism.
The equally promising Anna Jordan created Yen, a scarily believable depiction of life on the skids featuring a couple of teenagers trying to survive in a world familiar to devotees of the in-yer-face genre.
Al Smith is a little more experienced but still on an upward path that should lead to great success. His Harrogate was an unsettling two-hander featuring a middle-aged man and a teenager with relationships clouded by an aura of deliberate mystery. The main conflict lay in the relationship between the two, which may not have been quite what it seemed.
Finally, actor turned playwright Nathaniel Martello-White delivered Torn. This was presented as a family meeting in a community centre. It swiftly turned into something considerably more chilling as details of the family’s history were revealed.
The Young Vic did not have its most consistent year but the best productions on show could rival anything in the city.
Indeed, the only question about Australian director/writer Simon Stone’s production of Lorca’s Yerma was whether it should be winner of the Best New Play or Best Revival of 2016.
On balance, this play was so far away from the original that it is likely to garner nominations under the former category.
It also demonstrated that Billie Piper is one of the most talented actresses amongst a bevy of competitors in a wonderful year for women in the profession. The agony that she showed as the heroine opposite Brendan Cowell was so authentic that at times this completely compelling play was painful to watch.
Almost as good was Matthew Xia’s revival of Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall. This taut drama about mental illness was played in-the-round, allowing viewers to get a holistic and voyeuristic impression of the difficulties faced by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, as he became a pawn in a battle between doctors played by the superb David Haig and Luke Norris.
Peter Brook’s day-long production of the Mahabharata has become legendary. Battlefield was an entrancing, compressed version that should have given viewers a least a feeling of what made the original so special.
In the smaller spaces, The Emperor was an adaptation of Ryszard Kapuściński’s journalistic re-creation of Haile Selassie. Colin Teevan’s stage version directed by Walter Meierjohann proved to be a worthy showcase the talents of Kathryn Hunter, playing 12 different men with aplomb.
Franz Xaver Kroetz can be a little bit of a grudge buy with his cheerless but meaningful dramas. However, having threatened to depress, The Nest, newly translated by Conor MacPherson, developed into a rather uplifting evening about parenthood.
The Invisible Hand, written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, was a fascinating, gritty American import shining a light on the War on Terror from the perspectives of kidnapped Westerners and their Pakistani captors, some of whom were brought up in the UK.
There was also plenty to enjoy at Hampstead, along with the odd dud. Pleasingly, Edward Hall always seemed willing to challenge audiences, with work from both sides of the Atlantic.
The British contingent itself contained considerable variety. Mike Bartlett’s Wild presented a fictional vision of the difficulties faced by Edward Snowden after he became perhaps the most wanted man on the planet. It also featured a set from Miriam Buether that was not bettered at any point in the year.
Labyrinth by Beth Steel viewed the world of financial wheeler dealing through cynical eyes. It may not have been been the most original play, following in the footsteps of Enron, but still amused and informed.
At the end of the year, a revival of Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey originally conceived by Howard Davies and completed by Jonathan Kent became an extremely funny evening. Based on the play most commonly known as Platonov by Chekhov, Frayn emphasise the farcical elements to great effect, helped by strong performances by Geoffrey Streatfeild in the title role and Justine Mitchell as a typically frustrated, young Chekhovian widow.
From the other side of the Atlantic, a suitably trenchant Neil Labute play, Reasons to Be Happy took on his usual battleground—the war between the sexes—in a witty but deep manner.
Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire featured Claire Skinner giving a heartfelt performance as a bereaved mother, complemented by Georgina Rich playing her mad sister.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner was, like the title, a little longer than might have been ideal. However, Michael Boyd’s production shone an accurate spotlight on contemporary American life as seen through the eyes of a particularly unhappy family.
The Menier Chocolate Factory has been firing on all cylinders for years and 2016 was another productive period.
The Truth by Florian Zeller was a lightweight comedy that garnered mixed reactions but otherwise, the hit machine continued to run smoothly.
Under the direction of Patrick Marber, a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties starring Tom Hollander was one of the funniest plays of the year, generating hilarity from the unlikely combination of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin. Pleasingly for those who are unable to obtain tickets, this tremendous production will be transferring to the West End in the New Year.
An off-Broadway interpretation by Fiasco Theatre of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods was imported wholesale from New York and charmed audiences with its warmth and wit.
She Loves Me by the team behind Fiddler on the Roof might well be yet another of those delightful Menier musicals that transfers to the West End and possibly even Broadway.
Mixing comedy and heart, a cast led by Scarlett Strallen under the direction of Matthew White, ensured that this creation with catchy tunes by Bock and Harnick was a winner.
The St James Theatre is currently in the process of transforming itself into a musical venue re-christened The Other Palace.
The highlight there was Paul Robinson’s revival of My Mother Said I Never Should by Charlotte Keatley. This enjoyable feminist comedy featured strong performances from a cast led by Maureen Lipman and Katie Brayben.
In a quiet year, the main house also boasted an uneven new musical from Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long entitled Miss Atomic Bomb and a rather dreary stage version of cult movie Sideways.