Make of it what you will, there was a hell of a lot of theatre that polarised people this year, and several of those productions seem to have ended up on this list. You didn’t hear many theatre-goers saying that they “quite liked” I Am the Wind or The School for Scandal or the Young Vic Hamlet - and the diversity of responses kept post-show debates lively, both in the Twittersphere and in what used to be known as the real world. The difficulty I had in whittling this list down to just ten shows (note the unseemly amount of "Honourable Mentions") confirms that 2011 was, overall, an excellent theatre year with many a welcome revival, a few strong new plays, and some great Shakes, plus a few inevitable disappointments, of course. And, most memorably perhaps, the work of actors, giving performances of sometimes startling originality and inventiveness. Max Reinhardt: “We can telegraph and telephone and wire pictures across the ocean; we can fly over it. But ... the human being next to us is still as far away as the stars. The actor takes us on this way.”
The Comedy of Errors (Propeller; Sheffield Lyceum)
“Madam, do you have a Devil inside you? …Would you like one?” So enquired Tony Bell’s exceedingly cheeky Dr. Pinch - Robert Duvall’s Apostle via Les Patterson - to a rather startled woman on the third row, having just led the assembled company in a raucous gospel number entitled “He Was Saved!” That sequence was the exhilarating highlight of Propeller’s altogether miraculous version of one of Shakespeare’s creakier comedies, a production that, along with their stunning Richard III (which made my list last year), constituted one of the company’s greatest-ever double-bills. Propeller’s Comedy was the feel-good show of the year for me, exemplifying the particular brand of lyricism and wild inventiveness that characterises the work of our best (fact!) Shakespeare company. What pleasure and insight these guys offer - even when they choose to draw attention to certain audience members’ bald spots. Bonus points to Henry V as well.
A Delicate Balance (Almeida)
Existential angst in a well-appointed drawing-room is something I can’t seem to resist. Especially when we’re talking about Edward Albee’s maniacally convoluted, Henry-James-goes-Pop dialogue being immaculately delivered by a brilliant cast including Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Tim Pigott-Smith and (intoning my favourite line of the year) Diana Hardcastle. By turns funny, moving and chilling, James Macdonald’s production didn’t delight everyone. But to me it seemed perfectly attuned to the play’s own, very delicate balance between comedy and tragedy, philosophy and bitchery, craziness and calm.
Flare Path (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
Trevor Nunn’s season at Theatre Royal Haymarket disappointed, in the end, but it opened with a gem: a production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path that had all the human drama, poignancy and humour that you could wish for. Few would call this WWII drama about a group of RAF pilots, crew and their wives holed up, between raids, in a Lincolnshire hotel one of Rattigan’s finest or most penetrating works. And yet in a year that saw a fair number of productions staged to mark the centenary of the playwright’s birth this is in some ways the one that I recall with the most affection. In a sterling ensemble, Sienna Miller failed to shine, but there were beautiful characterisations elsewhere, especially from Harry Hadden-Paton, James Purefoy and (star of the show) Sheridan Smith who, with Purefoy, shared one of the year’s most touching scenes. A bit of all right, all round.
Anna Christie (Donmar)
“Don’t talk dat vay, Anna!” Look - or, rather, listen - past those accents and you’ll find in Rob Ashford’s atmospheric production as strong and sensitive account of O’Neill’s hoary drama as you could ever hope to see. A strapping Jude Law - as beefy of bicep as of brogue - gave a memorable performance, but the evening belonged to Ruth Wilson, goose-bump-inducingly good in the title role.
Grief (National Theatre, Cottesloe)
Quiet heartbreak in a suburban living room. Its understated tone and measured pace proved a turn-off to many. But I found Mike Leigh’s latest to be one of the most emotionally affecting experiences of the year. (And after the disappointment of his last film Another Year, for me, this came as something of a relief.) As memorably as any other production I saw in 2011, Grief succeeded in putting an emotional state on the stage. There was something about the languid-yet-taut rhythm of this production that I found completely immersive: watching it felt like being placed, ever so gently, into a vice. Superb performances, too, especially from the amazing Lesley Manville, here the beating heart of one of the most humane and tender dramas Leigh has ever produced.
Hamlet! The Musical (Richmond)
"Where else? Where else? Where else? ELSINORE!" Very silly but also very smart, this was one of the happiest nights I had in a theatre in 2011, so happy, in fact, that I went to see the show again three days later. Here's hoping for a 2012 revival. Altogether now: "The question is to be or not to be..."
The Golden Dragon (Arcola)
A (warmly appreciated) gesture against what its director Ramin Gray termed “crawling realism,” Actors Touring Company’s excellent production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's play anatomised economic migration and its resultant exploitations through exciting anti-naturalistic means. But as its cast crossed lines of gender, age and even species to create the diverse protagonists of the establishment of the title, the humanity of Schimmelpfennig's writing - and, ultimately, its emphasis upon theatre as a site of empathy and imaginative transformation - rang as clear as a bell.
The School For Scandal (Barbican)
Too cool for School? It’s a funny thing about Deborah Warner: there’s no director whose ideas seem more questionable, to me, in theory, but whose productions I find so totally thrilling to watch. Approaching Sheridan’s classic comedy through all kinds of self-consciously quirky means - rock and fashion show, a touch or two of Brechtian distanciation left over from her great Mother Courage - Warner’s po-mo mash-up of a production was sometimes heavy-handed but it succeeded in giving the play the shock of the new. And the themes emerged with surprising clarity, helped by great performances from Alan Howard, Leo Bill and John Shrapnel. Torture for those who didn’t respond, apparently, but a deep pleasure for those who did.
Much Ado About Nothing (Globe)
Wa-hey! They say the first time can be a disappointment, but I’m proud and pleased to have - shockingly belatedly, for shame - lost my Globe virginity to Jeremy Herrin’s joyous production of Much Ado About Nothing. Very funny, the production also succeeded in doing justice to the play’s undertow of sadness and rue. With solid work from the cast across the board (sorry, naysayers, but I even liked Paul Hunter's Dogberry), it boasted an especially delightful Benedick in Charles Edwards, while, as Beatrice, the highly-anticipated return of a certain Eve to the London stage proved conclusively that you cannot beat the Best. David and Catherine Who?
Othello (Sheffield Crucible)
Wired! The estimable Dominic West delivered two of my favourite performances of the year: first as the acerbic academic-in-meltdown in Lindsay Posner’s pitch-perfect West End revival of Simon Gray’s Butley, and then as a chillingly hale-and-hearty Iago in Daniel Evans’s Othello in Sheffield, an altogether excellent production in which Desdemona's handkerchief saw alot of exciting action indeed.
Honourable Mentions (in very rough order of preference): Mary Broome (Orange Tree), Butley (Duchess), Eden End (Richmond), Salt, Root and Roe (Trafalgar), The Deep Blue Sea (Chichester), Richard II (Donmar), The Tempest (Cheek by Jowl/Barbican), The Children’s Hour (Comedy), Korczak (Rose Kingston), Bernarda Alba (Union), Journey’s End (Richmond), Richard III (Old Vic), The Village Bike (Royal Court), How To Be Happy (Orange Tree), Beasts and Beauties (Hampstead), The Government Inspector (Young Vic).
Disappointments: Twelfth Night (NT), Cause Célébre (Old Vic), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (TRH), The Kitchen (NT), Doctor Faustus (Globe), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham's).
Nightmare: I Am the Wind (Young Vic)
Sorry to have missed: London Road (NT)
Yet to see: Matilda (RSC/Cambridge)
Unexpected bonus: Annoying Neil LaBute.