Friday 28 December 2012

End of Year Review: Theatre - 10 Favourite Productions of 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night

I cut down on theatre-going this year, an attempt at dross-dodging that didn’t really pay off, as it happens. Disappointments weren’t avoided, alas, and I can’t honestly say that much that I saw in 2012 really made me go “Wow!!!” as a number of productions last year certainly did. (Here’s last year’s list, for the record.) Apart from Jamie Lloyd’s irresistible She Stoops to Conquer, the National Theatre proved a let-down every time I did go in a hopeful mood, first with Nicholas Hytner’s straining-for-relevance Timon of Athens then with Stephen Beresford’s shallow 60s-baiting dysfunction-fest The Last of the Haussmans and finally with Alan Bennett’s drafty whinge, People. (Here’s hoping that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I’m excited to see when it transfers, is the one to stem the tide.) Shows elsewhere that I’d have been happier to have skipped include the RSC’s shrill and entirely charm-free The Taming of the Shrew, the witless Neighbourhood Watch, Relatively Speaking and Dandy Dick, Headlong’s muddled Medea and the weirdly static The Judas Kiss. And while I accept that there could be a parallel world in which I shared the love for Nick Payne’s much-admired Constellations, I’m afraid that in this universe the play seemed to me a mediocre and wildly overrated wee thing, Love Story filtered through Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges with a honey-comb shaped lump of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy on the side.

Still, my whinge over, let’s try to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive here, after all. For 2012 did boast several shows that either met or surpassed expectations, as well as some pleasant surprises too, especially on the ever-inventive fringe. In no particular order I’ve rounded up what meant the most to me below, productions which have, in a couple of cases, grouped themselves into pairs this time around.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Richmond, & Apollo)
The most personal of all “family” plays received a great staging by Anthony Page that, while not matching Robin Philips’s 2000 production for ghostly ambience, nonetheless dug just as deeply into the pain and poignancy of O’Neill’s magnum opus, written, as the playwright claimed, “in tears and blood.” Beautiful, beautiful work from David Suchet (by far the most sympathetic James Tyrone of the three I’ve seen), explosive Trevor White and soulful Kyle Soller, while Laurie Metcalf - back on the London boards for the first time since 2001 - delivered a performance to match her unforgettable turn in the NT’s All My Sons for disturbing intensity and haunting power. (How’s about a comedy next time, though, Ms Metcalf?) This quartet made Page’s production an incredible Journey, indeed. Full review here.

The Winter’s Tale (Propeller/Sheffield)
Patience (Union)
While generating the usual critical flack in some quarters (see my interview with Propeller’s Chris Myles for a counter-argument) all-male productions proved quite the rage in 2012. Time will tell whether the Donmar’s very exciting all-female Julius Caesar (more of which anon) will herald an evening up of the score or not, but in the meantime two of these productions delighted this spectator. First up, and paired with their solid but somewhat disappointing Henry V, Propeller were on peak form with a Winter’s Tale that embraced the dizzying tonal shifts of Shakespeare’s genre-bending late romance. The company’s funny, moving staging suggested a mixture of self-made adult nightmare and child’s playtime dream-world at will, while the perfectly-judged ending haunted and startled, providing a memorable sting to this Tale. And as a rock God Autolycus the incomparable Tony Bell was a perfect cutpurse MC, by turns arthritic and spry, strewing thongs and condoms. At the teeny Union, meanwhile, Patience proved a virtue in Sasha Regan’s staging of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta. With a lovely woodland set by Kingsley Hall, spry choreography from Drew McOnie and costumes that suggested the raiding of a Laura Ashley shop, Regan’s production looked as good as it sounded. The silliness of the proceedings was enthusiastically embraced by all, but the intimacy of the space gave a surprising emotional undertow to certain moments, even if each expression of “genuine” emotion didn’t go long before receiving some ironic twist or counterpoint. Dominic Brewer and Stiofàn O’Doherty were great value as the vain competing wordsmiths, and, as Patience, Edward Charles Bernston, vacillated adorably between the pair, with a beguiling touch of purring Joan Greenwood to his dulcet delivery. Full reviews here and here.

Cornelius (Finborough)
Hindle Wakes (Finborough)
Aww. To paraphrase an artist I’m quite keen on: I get a little warm in my heart when I think of Cornelius. Sam Yates’s exquisite revival of J.B. Priestley’s vivid portrait of between-the-wars office life was spot-on in every department, its perfect ensemble crowned - yet not swamped - by Alan Cox’s dynamic star turn in the title role. Of almost equal appeal was Bethan Dear’s production of Stanley Houghton’s 1913 play Hindle Wakes which, while lacking the emotional depth of Cornelius, also proved a most delightful thing, an evening full of humour, insight and warmth, that delivered the play’s elements of social critique with disarming lightness and charm rather than stridency. Full reviews here and here.

All That Fall (Jermyn Street)
“Tis suicide to be abroad.” Well, perhaps. But not if one had the good fortune to be witnessing Trevor Nunn’s superb production of Samuel Beckett’s 1956 radio play. Composed between Godot and Endgame, reflecting the former and anticipating the latter, Beckett’s portrait of an Irishwoman’s trek to collect her spouse from the station became, in Nunn’s production, at once comedy, tragedy and odyssey, with some great visual vaudeville and performances from Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon that were everything you could wish for. Very special. Full review here.

Julius Caesar (Donmar)
Phyllida Lloyd’s lean 'n' hungry production may have nabbed its prison-setting premise from the Taviani brothers’ somewhat subtler Caesar Must Die but at least it had the decency to add a significant twist, locating the action in a women’s prison not a men’s. Despite some rum notions – the baby-doll Soothsayer; that doggy moment – and a couple of not-quite-adequate performances, the results proved thrilling. Lloyd and her cast punched the play home with a potency and urgency missing (for me) from the RSC’s well-received Africa-set version. Harriet Walter started in customary affected-voice mode but gradually deepened to become a truly moving Brutus; Cush Jumbo delivered “Friends, Romans, countymen” better than I’ve heard anyone else do it; Jenny Jules commanded as Cassius, and Frances Barber made an absolutely extraordinary, hearty and haunting Caesar-cum-warder, responding to a sublimely-staged stalls-stabbing with surely the most ferocious “Et tu, Brute?” ever heard. More!

The Lady From The Sea (Rose)
Hedda Gabler (Old Vic)
Ibsenites weren’t stinted on high-quality productions this year. Carrie Cracknell’s A Doll’s House at the Young Vic would probably be most people’s choice, but while I loved it, some weak supporting performances and a second half that didn’t quite deliver on the promise of the first just keeps it off the list for me. Instead I’m going to opt for Stephen Unwin’s expert production of The Lady From the Sea, with Joely Richardson commanding and moving as Ellida, and Anna Mackmin’s superb Hedda Gabler which fully erased the memory of Richard Eyre’s shrill production back in 2005, presenting its frustrated, ever-pacing heroine (great Sheridan Smith) in a series of cages and cells with only one possible means of escape.

Directors Showcase (Orange Tree Theatre)
2012’s Orange Tree season surprised and pleased not so much with its rediscoveries, as often, but rather with some engaging new work, both from veterans (Martin Crimp’s Play House) and young bloods (Archie W Maddocks’s riots-inspired Mottled Lines). Best of the OT bunch, for me, was this year’s fine Directors Showcase which offered a confounding yet strangely complementary triple-bill of diverse pieces that anatomised a range of societal divisions, first amusingly then horrifyingly. The evening opened comfortably enough with Karima Setohy’s pleasing production of St. John Hankin’s proto-Home Alone escapade The Burglar Who Failed then segued brilliantly into an infinitely more discomforting home invasion scenario in Omar El-Khairy’s chilling Return to Sender and climaxed with Polina Kalinina’s fierce and stinging rendering of Amiri Baraka’s rarely-seen race relations parable Dutchman. I was also very keen on Sam Walters’s beautiful and much underrated production of Ana Diosdado’s Yours for the Asking. Reviews here and here.

Special mention:

Blood Brothers (Phoenix)
Tell me it’s not true! Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers finally ended its rather lengthy West End engagement this year, and I’m so happy that I got the chance to see it beforehand. The performance I went to - happening in our so-called summer of sport - was woefully underattended (the stalls about a quarter full) but discomfort soon become delight as the connection between performers and audience proved so strong as to create a very special and appropriate ambience for this most intimately scaled and most humane of musicals. The matinee turned magical, and ended up as one of my favourite theatre memories of 2012. Full review.

Honourable mentions: King Lear (Almeida), She Stoops to Conquer (National Theatre), Sweeney Todd (Chichester/Adelphi), In the Republic of Happiness (Royal Court), A Doll’s House (Young Vic), Oedipussy (Lyric Hammersmith), Mottled Lines (Orange Tree)

Disappointments, duds: The Taming of the Shrew (RSC), The House of Bernarda Alba (Almeida), The Drawer Boy (Finborough), Dandy Dick (Richmond), Let it Be (Prince of Wales), Relatively Speaking (Richmond), People (National Theatre)


  1. I saw less theatre in London this year, but the five plays that I watched were more lukewarm than usual. The best one was the production of Hay Fever that we saw together. I've still never seen a production of Long Day's Journey into Night, so I'll have to correct that when I have a chance.

  2. Some nice choices here, especially the Finborough shows both of which were excellent. I agree that it wasn’t a great theatre year and that ‘Timon’ and ‘Haussmans’ were disappointments. But you must be the only person who didn’t like ‘Constellations’!!

    I didn’t see the RSC ‘Shrew’ but the Globe one was great - one of my favourites of the year. Also loved ‘Curious Incident’, ‘Love & Information’ & ‘Straight’.


  3. Jason - Yes, HAY FEVER’s a happy memory for me too, especially as we were able to actually see a show together, at last. :-) What were the highlights of your NYC shows, in the end? As for LDJIN I don’t think you can see it better done than Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film version. Is that on DVD? It *should* be!

    Anonymous - Thanks for the comment. I’m not the only person who didn’t like CONSTELLATIONS. There are 3 of us, as far as I know. ;-) I think a lot of it was inflated expectations, but I just found it to be such a flyspeck of a play, and every time a scenario was repeated or “modified” I cared a litte bit less about it. (Ayckbourn’s INTIMATE EXCHANGES had the same effect on me.) It’s such a challenging way to structure a play and I think it would take a *very* talented writer to pull this off. So a big let-down this end, I’m afraid.

    I’m sorry to have missed the Globe SHREW; I didn’t see any productions there this year. As for STRAIGHT, I wasn’t at all keen on HUMPDAY so opted to skip that, despite being slightly intrigued to see how Moore adapted it. I can’t envisage the film’s mumblecore ramblings working on stage at all. I’m *really* sorry I missed LOVE AND INFORMATION (had a ticket; couldn’t go). Shame that wasn’t one of the Royal Court shows to transfer…

  4. Love and Information has to be the only play I've seen at the Royal Court where the audience where joyfully clapping along throughout the entire play - has Caryl Churchill become commercial?

    Thought the Cheek By Jowl production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Barbican was superb but despite the rave reviews at the time, never seems to appear on any best of 2012 lists. The same with The Fear of Breathing at the Finborough.