Smaller Theatres

There is a thriving fringe theatre scene just to the west of the city centre, with a large number of venues to choose from.

One of the highlights of the year was the Lyric Hammersmith’s British production of Andrew Bovell’s Australian drama Things I Know to Be True.

This was a touching, elegiac play about a troubled family that resonated long after one left the theatre. While such a comment might mean little to the average viewer, the typical critic watches, reviews and forgets the average production almost immediately, so this is high praise.

Other productions at this venue were harder-hitting but not necessarily as effective. The 20th anniversary revival of Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill suffered from a rather strange production by Sean Holmes, which lost much of the original work’s power.

Similarly, the same director bought Herons by Simon Stephens to the venue without proving that another classic in-yer-face work has much that is fresh to communicate to audiences today.

Madani Younis has proved a doughty Artistic Director, completely unfazed by the closure of his Bush Theatre for refurbishment. Instead, his cohorts happily set out on the road to explore the area around Shepherd’s Bush and share it with regular habitués through a series of site-specific productions.

The Royale was a play about racism in boxing in the United States in the days of Jack Johnson 100 years ago. It had already been a success on home ground and was highly effectively re-staged at the Tabernacle.

Possibly the best of a series of short plays at assorted venues under the umbrella title of This Place We Know was Terrorism, an engrossing work by newcomer Kenny Emson, which was reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. The evening featured a steamy affair that was never likely to end happily between a Canadian man played by Trevor White and his English lover, Eleanor Matsuura.

Boys Will Be Boys at Bush Hall was a chilling drama (with music) written by Melissa Bubnic about a ballsy woman played by Kirsty Bushell who tries to ascend the greasy pole of selling success in the finance industry against the strongest male opposition.

Prior to the refurbishment, Right Now, an import from Québec directed by Michael Boyd, proved amusing as a looked at familial politics through a medium that might just have been a sex-obsessed dream.

Not too far away at the Gate, Christopher Haydon announced his impending departure. As always, his programming as he winds down was eclectic.

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) by Nina Segal was a small-scale drama about parenthood, while Jonas Hassen-Khemiri‘s I Call My Brothers took a tangential look at terrorism.

The collaborative The Iphigenia Quartet by Caroline Bird, Lulu Raczka, Suhayla El-Bushra and Chris Thorpe was a predictably patchy reworking of Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides. It peaked early with Caroline Bird’s vision of Agamemnon starring Sharon Duncan Brewster as Clytemnestra.

Shannon Tarbet had a chance to shine in the third piece, Suhayla El-Bushra’s Iphigenia, while the evening ended well as Chris Thorpe summarised events through the eyes of his Chorus.

The Finborough is a remarkable theatre that has the ability to deliver vast numbers of generally very strong productions on what appears to be an extremely limited budget.

90 years after its first outing, Home Chat by Noël Coward received a most enjoyable revival directed by Martin Parr. This was a satire based around a celebrated novelist and some companions whose antiquated view of morality could only be matched by their salacious gossiping.

Adding Machine: A Musical was based on the Elmer Rice comedy about the rat race. A gripping production by Josh Seymour benefited greatly from an unusually constituted musical trio and well-drilled cast.

After October by Rodney Ackland appears to have been semi-autobiographical. 80 years on, the story of a rather hysterical young writer and his overbearing mother will still ring true, although it does seem of its period, if not actually dated.

James Bridie’s Dr Angelus was a run-of-the-mill thriller based on the true story of a medical man who indulged in a secret affair followed by something considerably worse.

The modern plays on offer included Merit by Alexandra Wood, a lightweight soap opera about generational dissension between a mother and daughter.

Set in New York, Don't Smoke in Bed by Aurin Squire also lacked oomph and did not live up to the promise of a previous production at the venue by the same writer at the Finborough, Obama-ology.

The Orange Tree in Richmond has long been a favourite hunting ground, particularly for its revivals. A couple of trips in 2016 demonstrated the theatre’s strengths when it comes to producing both familiar and unfamiliar plays in-the-round.

Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart is a hilarious gem and David Mercatali did it proud in a glorious revival that was a reminder of what a strong piece this is. The comedy is a play in two parts that explores language, structure and meaning in almost equal measure.

Similarly, Artistic Director Paul Miller ensured that George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer was great fun. His production featured Rupert Young as a rakish philosopher opposite a vampish femme fatale, outstandingly portrayed by Dorothea Myer-Bennett.

London does have smaller theatres in other environs. A visit to the Arcola is almost always a success, as demonstrated by the small sample from 2016.

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie by Anders Lustgarten was a fascinating and perceptive look at Chinese culture from the perspective of ordinary village folk across the last 50 or so years.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes closer to home three centuries ago. Like The Crucible, this Out Of Joint production looks at the church and its uncomfortable relationship with its parishioners and witchcraft.

The ever-enterprising Daniel Goldman brought Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco’s Thebes Land to the theatre in a new adaptation of his own.

Set in and around a British prison cell, this well-written piece focused on the carefully nurtured relationship between an aspiring playwright and a man who had killed his father after undergoing extreme mental torture.

Not too far away, a selection from the Park was rather mixed. A revival of J B Priestley’s The Roundabout may not have seen the playwright at his very best but was still well worth a visit. Like so many other plays on this page, it disappeared from view for many decades, director Hugh Ross rediscovering a piece focusing on well-meaning, well-to-do communists 85 years after its previous London appearance.

The Patriotic Traitor of the title in Jonathan Lynn’s new drama was Marshal Pétain, played by Tom Conti in a starry cast that also contained Laurence Fox as a young General de Gaulle. Somehow, the wit and energy of the man behind Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister made far too few appearances in a worthy but rarely exciting production.

The highly-rated Jonathan Maitland’s Deny Deny Deny looked into the subject of doping in sport but did not get as far beneath the skin of its characters as the needles that caused all of the controversy in the first place.

Soho Theatre still has the ability to bring in significant works. Monster Raving Loony by James Graham presented a biographical portrait of politician and all-round eccentric Screaming Lord Sutch, played by Samuel James. The style was almost as mad as the subject, drawing on traditions remembered from the days of music hall and variety, although pathos does begin to punctuate the comedy before the end of Simon Stokes’s production.

Burning Doors was a typically important but eccentric play about random imprisonment and protest from Belarus Free Theatre, a company that is always worth watching, although sometimes their work can be hard going and is rarely cheering. In this case, one of the attractions was guest artiste Maria Alyokhina, who made her name as part of the imprisoned punk band Pussy Riot.

Having set off in fine fashion in 2015, Found 111 lost its way a little in what is likely to be its final year. A programme of three plays all featured heartthrob actors.

With TV favourite James Norton playing opposite Kate Fleetwood, Bug sold out before it had even opened. Tracey Letts’s play is intense, to say the least, as a pair of lovers find themselves beset by insects that are invisible to the human eye. The consequences eventually proved devastating.

Unfaithful by Owen McCafferty had been something of a let-down on its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe and this new production did not suggest that the work is likely to reappear in the near future.

Finally, Lydia Wilson and her Ripper Street co-star Adam Rothenberg starred in the steamy Sam Shepard story of passions thwarted Fool for Love. While Simon Evans managed to recreate the depressing motel grunginess required for this play, his production was not as fiery as its subject matter.

Jermyn Street is another theatre that tends to be at its best with revivals.

I Have Been Here Before is the last of J B Priestley’s legendary Time Plays. Anthony Biggs created a likeable revival of a piece with deeply mystical overtones in which time is never quite what it seems.

Southwark Playhouse presented an enchanting version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring an enthusiastic young company whose main aim in life seemed to be to involve the audience at every opportunity in a witty, novel evening under the direction of ubiquitous Simon Evans.

At the Old Red Lion, Ugly Lovely looked at the lives of ordinary working class youngsters in Swansea today and had a real smack of authenticity, thanks to the impressive writing skills of Ffion Jones.

Lazarus at King’s Cross Theatre had started life in New York and must have baffled visitors there as much as it did Londoners. The main attraction of a work based on The Man Who Fell to Earth was a score (including a considerable amount of new work) composed by David Bowie, who sadly died before the play made it across the Atlantic.

Another transatlantic visitor was John Malkovich, directing Zach Helm’s always intriguing Good Canary at the Rose in Kingston.

This modern play about love and literature, not forgetting addiction, gave Freya Mavor the opportunity to strut her stuff, which she did the general acclaim.

At the Kingsgate Theatre in Kilburn, Gavin McAlinden revived An Apple a Day by Elizabeth Connor as part of a short Irish season commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. The play turned out to be a worthy and amusing comedy set amongst the mildly eccentric in and around a doctor’s surgery.

Last and by no means least, Lord’s Cricket Ground made a rare appearance as a theatrical venue, hosting When the Eye Has Gone by Dougie Blaxland. This biographical solo show about larger-than-life cricketer Colin Milburn was touring the country and proved both witty and poignant in roughly equal measures.