Between Ian Rickson’s glacial revival of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in the West End and a grim trip to Stratford for the RSC’s very unmerry Merry Wives of Windsor, my theatre year started fairly lamely: a seeming continuation of last year’s rather slim pickings. But, happily, the year gathered momentum and soon there was one terrific production after another. Sure, there were some disappointing seasons (Jamie Lloyd and Michael Grandage, take a bow) as well as productions that were mixed bags or that tripped up on a play’s flaws. Lloyd’s overrated revival of The Pride, for example, conveyed 1950s ache with acuity but over-pitched the play’s weaker contemporary scenes while James MacDonald’s Donmar revival of Roots delivered two Acts of radiant, detailed domestic realism but couldn’t do much to redeem Wesker’s hectoring finale. In contrast, other productions overcame mediocre material thanks to an inventive design or distinguished performances: witness, for one, Jenny Lee and Eileen Nicholas's beautiful turns as the Glasgow neighbours separated not so much by a wall as by their contrasting temperaments in the Finborough's revival of I Didn't Always Live Here. With new artistic directors in position for several major venues it’s all change for the UK theatre scene in 2014: an exciting prospect indeed. In the meantime, here’s my list of favourite shows from the stuff I managed to catch in 2013: a motley crew featuring more musicals than usual, no Shakespeares for once, and several striking new works and revivals. Curtain up.
The Light Princess (Lyttelton, National Theatre)
Sympathising with royalty doesn’t often occur at Trends Towers, which is one reason that I’d just about have rather stuck a pin in my eye than gone to see The Audience. And yet, as it so happens, it was the parallel trajectories of a floating princess and a solemn prince – she towards gravity, he towards levity – that provided this year’s most involving and inspiring journey for me. (A “To hell with the imperial!” refrain always helps.) Combining music, acrobatics, puppetry and a healthy feminist politics into a seamless, original whole, Marianne Elliott’s luscious, inventive staging of Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson’s rich musical fairytale was a case of love at first sight when I clapped eyes and ears on it a few months ago and my admiration and appreciation for the show has only deepened on (quite a few…) subsequent encounters. It is, by far, my show of the year. Intricate in its structure, neither too sweet nor too harsh, contemporary in its perspective yet timeless enough, Adamson and Amos’s book and lyrics dig deep into our escapist urges and the difficulties of challenging parental expectations, while the generous, supple soundscape of a score (too demanding, it seems, for those weaned on the more predictable pleasures of the jukebox musical) pounds and shimmers, glides and swoons, constantly surprising yet also embracing and welcoming the listener: much like the lovely lake that becomes, for a time, our hovering heroine’s haven. Running on pure emotion, the music moves from the exhilarating drama of “My Own Land” to the melting seduction of the love ballad “Althea,” from the sheer gleeful jubilance of “Better Than Good” to the heart-breaking wrench and operatic intensity of “No H20,” alert as Amos’s work has always been to the pain of confrontation, the necessity of finding one's own path, and the ever-shifting complexities of emotional life. Supported by vivid turns from Nick Hendrix, Clive Rowe and Amy Booth-Steel, at the show’s heart is an unforgettable performance of staggering range and virtuosity by Rosalie Craig that navigates the show’s singular demands with apparent effortlessness and total conviction. An absolutely exquisite experience: that’s what comes of Light. Full review here.
A Time To Reap (Royal Court)
“Rhianna’s ‘Only Girl (In The World)’ is playing in my head…” A Polish girl, Marysia, steps from a Warsaw-London flight into the arms of a childhood chum, Piotr, who’s studying in the city, having left behind her abortionist employer/lover, who happens to be Piotr’s Dad. This tricky triangle is at the centre of Anna Wakulik’s sharp, poignant, funny and painful play. The publicity material made the piece sound like a whole heap of issues masquerading as a drama but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Sure, Wakulik’s play has Polish attitudes to religion and abortion at its heart, but it explores them through a character-centred approach and a quirky, fluid method that moves the protagonists rapidly through time and place. Caroline Steinbeis’s lickety-split production was right on target in all departments, and was crowned by a performance of startling freshness and verve by Sinead Matthews, one of the two awesome performances (the other was in Trout Stanley) that this prodigious actress gave on the London stage this year.
Merrily We Roll Along (Harold Pinter Theatre)
The Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s reverse-chronology musical received a most welcome West End revival at the Harold Pinter. Maria Friedman’s zesty, confident take on a much-re-written piece mitigated the obvious moralising of the show’s corruption-by-success narrative thanks to a sharp, sleek design by Soutra Gilmour, the edgy energy of Tim Jackson’s choreography and the incomparable trio of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damien Humbley. Clinging to one another during a gorgeous “Old Friends” these three generated an unforgettable, magical warmth. And in the graced, moving final scene Friedman’s production did full justice to the show’s sad undertow, and the poignancy of its characters’ interwoven journeys from experience to innocence. Full review here.
My other favourite NT show was Rufus Norris’s great production of James Baldwin’s seldom-seen play. There are plenty of things about the writing that I don't like, but the flaws of the piece were overcome in Norris’s lively, loving staging which marked a sensational return to the London stage for Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the proud preacherwoman getting a lesson in humility from her errant ex. Full review here.
Armstrong’s War (Finborough)
A wounded soldier bonding over books with a disabled pre-teen … The premise of Colleen Murphy’s latest play sounded super-worthy and studded with sentimental pitfalls. But what was striking about Armstrong’s War, which received an all-too-brief workshop production at the Finborough prior to its official world premiere in Canada, is just how deftly such traps were avoided. Exceptional performances from Mark Quartley and Jessica Barden turned Jennifer Bakst’s production into an irresistibly involving and beautifully sustained duet. Revival please. Full review here.
The Winslow Boy (Old Vic)
It was slim pickings for those of us craving a Rattigan fix this year. But, though it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved, Lindsay Posner’s beautiful, deeply-felt take on The Winslow Boy is a production that I recall with a great deal of love and pleasure (and was by far the best show that I saw at the Old Vic in 2013). Gently revealing the sorrows, humour and hopes of the drama, and with fine performances from Henry Goodman, Deborah Findlay, Nick Hendrix, Naomi Frederick and Charlie Rowe, it’s hard to imagine seeing the play served better than this. (Plus: Trends bonus point for the mention of Reading.) Full review here.
The Silence of the Sea (Trafalgar Studios)
Simon Evans’s production of Anthony Weigh’s adaptation of Vercors’s 1942 novella – about a German officer billeted at the coastal home of a French man and his pianist niece who respond to the intruder's presence with silence – proved a haunting thing indeed, an atmospheric slow-burn about connection and resistance that featured terrific work from Leo Bill, Finbar Lynch and Simona Bitmaté. Full review here.
Before The Party (Almeida)
You wouldn't call the moral bankruptcy of the British upper-classes a novel theme, exactly. But Matthew Dunster’s take on Rodney Ackland’s Before The Party (based on a Somerset Maugham short story) was a creamy dream of a revival: ideally cast, sharp yet humane, and very funny. Bonus points to the Orange Tree’s spiffing revival of The Breadwinner, another Maugham work concerned with breaking free from conventional expectations and family ties, that nicely complemented this one. Full review here.
The Middlemarch Trilogy (Orange Tree)
Eight and a half hours well spent! Geoffrey Beevers’s ambitious project to stage Middlemarch sounded doomed but after an arch start this Trilogy developed and deepened into something special, avoiding either anachronism or period drama fustiness through its wry yet sensitive approach. Terrific work from the multi-tasking ensemble, too. Full review here.
“It’s not easy, having a good time,” opines the rapacious Mr. Frank N. Furter. Well, it is if you’re attending this show. In its 40th year, Richard O’Brien’s one-of-a-kind musical can seldom have looked in ruder health (or just plain ruder) than it did in Christopher Luscombe’s touring anniversary production, which delivered the show’s delirious mix of sci-fi spoof, camp horror and all round midnight movie-derived excess with soul-satisfying alomb. Geeveing yourself over to absoloot play-sure was never more delightful. Full review here.
Honourable mentions: The Man Who Pays the Piper (Orange Tree), Larisa and the Merchants (Arcola), A Doll's House (Manchester Royal Exchange)
Disappointments, duds: The Hothouse (Trafalgar Studios), Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense (Duke of York's), Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic), Much Ado About Nothing (Old Vic)