Those who see a vast amount of theatre every year sometimes realise that rather than heading out of an evening expecting a sublime experience, they rely far too much on hope or even prayer.
Such devoted souls quickly become aware that it is possible to rig the odds in the favour by using a number of tried and tested strategies.
One of the best of these is to recognise that certain favourite theatres and artistic directors are generally reliable in the judgements of what the public will enjoy and, more specifically, happily share your own tastes.
This article has been written to celebrate some of the best of those over the last few decades.
Best of the Best
It is inevitable that even the harshest of critics eventually sees the past through rose-tinted glasses. Even so, the National Theatre under the leadership of the future Sir Nicholas Hytner seemed to be the source of constant pleasure, every visit generating considerable excitement in advance.
How could anyone fail to be wowed by Shakespearean productions such as his inaugural presentation, Henry V starring Adrian Lester, the funniest comedy by the Bard that this writer has ever enjoyed, Much Ado About Nothing starring a second future knight, Simon Russell Beale, opposite Zoë Wanamaker or another Russell Beale special, the generally very dry Timon of Athens? As such, the Hytner era was a wonderful celebration of everything that Shakespeare had to offer.
Nor did the joys stop in the Jacobethan period. There were many equally enjoyable contemporary works, of which the two that immediately spring to mind are Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors and This House by James Graham.
Best Fringe Theatre for Revivals
While this category has other strong competitors, such as the Finborough and Jermyn Street, throughout his long tenure at the Orange Tree in Richmond, Sam Walters delivered a reliable stream of lost classics, almost every one of which was an unexpected revelation. Even the West End would often struggle to compete.
Best Theatre for New Writing
At various times, many London theatres have championed new writing, with the National, the Royal Court and the Donmar all having their moments.
However, when he was in his pomp at the Bush, Mike Bradwell could engender considerable anticipation about the prospect of something unexpected but inevitably exciting, even at the end of a very long week.
Having started out at Hull Truck, Bradwell was a veteran by the time he reached the Bush and used all of his experience combined with canny judgement to select promising young writers and then nurture their work.
Best Site-Specific Venue
It is almost inevitable that this would be a one-off and while Gregory Burke’s Black Watch proved to be a tremendous success wherever it toured, in its initial incarnation at the Drill Hall in Edinburgh, the show was a true revelation, also owing much to wonderful cast impeccably drilled by John Tiffany.
Best Regional Theatre
There’s a similar problem here, as there was when trying to select the best theatre from overseas, since almost inevitably there are very few critics, let alone members of the paying public, who will have visited more than a small sample of regional theatres across the UK.
It could well be that our editor David Chadderton has some views on this subject and may express them in the next week or two but overall, the pick has to be the Royal Shakespeare Company and its theatres in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Not only do these have iconic historic status but, particularly in the early years of (the bewilderingly yet to be knighted) Gregory Doran’s time in charge, they produced unforgettable theatre, frequently featuring his partner Sir Antony Sher, both in Shakespearean roles and modern plays such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
No other theatre can compete with the RSC when it comes to budget and scale but others that inevitably catch the eye include Chichester Festival Theatre, Edinburgh’s Traverse and, much smaller scale, Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester.
If readers wish to contribute their own choices, they will be gratefully received.