My Year in Theatre: Best of 2011

Time to jump on the end-of-the-year bandwagon with a round-up of all the best productions to grace our stages this year – or at least the best of the ones that I was able to see. Because I hate rankings almost as much as I hate star ratings, I’m going to eschew the usual top shows list and instead summarize what caught my attention and why in the last twelve months.

Let’s start with the show that pinches the crown for out and out spectacle. The National Theatre’s Frankenstein was destined from the start to be a hit, blessed with the marketing gold of not only one of the country’s most beloved directors but also two very recognisable leading men alternating as Frankenstein and the Creature. Mark Tildesley’s truly remarkable set almost stole the show, but the acting prowess of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller ensured that the performances also remain firmly rooted in the mind. It may not have been the best adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel in terms of script, but it did make for one hell of a show.

Much ado about the Bard

As always and perhaps inevitably, a good deal of my theatregoing this year was claimed by Shakespearean productions. While I saw a good few that were below par, there were some that thankfully got it right. The Globe’s touring open air production of As You Like It kept things simple and traditional, a wise move that made for an immensely enjoyable evening’s entertainment. At the other end of the spectrum, Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham’s Theatre unnecessarily updated the comedy to 1980s Gibraltar, but this odd artistic choice just about worked, especially when featuring with the ever-excellent David Tennant.

The year’s best Shakespearean productions, however, put new but not overwhelming twists on well-known plays. Cheek by Jowl’s outstanding Russian version of The Tempest wins the award for most water-drenched stage, returning to this shipwreck drama a tangible sense of the elements. Meanwhile all-male company Propeller, who impressed me last year with their very bloody Richard III, gave the same invigorating treatment to Henry V.

Love, earthquakes and unlucky numbers

If any one living playwright has dominated my 2011 theatregoing, it is probably Mike Bartlett, with whose work I have formed something of a love hate relationship. My first introduction to Bartlett was Love, Love, Love, which I, ahem, love love loved (badum tish). Carefully constructed on a small scale and with a rather traditional three act structure, the play also expands outwards from its focus on one family into an unflinching criticism of the baby boomers and the lost generation that they in turn have spawned. Similarly to Bartlett’s excellent Cock (titter titter), a recording of which I recently caught on BBC Radio 3, a miniaturist approach paid theatrical dividends.

From the microscope of Love, Love, Love to the monolith of Earthquakes in London, which I got a second chance to see in Richmond after missing last year’s National Theatre run. Tackling the large, unwieldy beast that is climate change, this dazzling and ambitious drama falls flat in the underwhelming final scenes, a punchy play reduced to a weak, shaky conclusion. Similar problems are evident in 13, Bartlett’s latest offering at the National Theatre, a piece with equal if not greater ambition but even less cohesion. Bartlett’s subject this time around is belief – one of the widest and woolliest concepts he could have landed upon – and while intellectually stimulating, it is messily orchestrated. A muddle, then, but an interesting one.

The faith obsession

Bartlett was not alone in questioning belief and faith on the stage this year. The amount of religion finding its way into theatre was perhaps not surprising considering that 2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, with the most impressive of the celebrations being the new Bush Theatre’s inaugural production of 66 Books, a theatrical phenomenon that I was sad to miss. I also regretted not seeing The Passion, National Theatre Wales and Michael Sheen’s site-specific spectacle in Port Talbot.

But not all explorations of faith were linked to the King James Bible. Much like 13, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play The Faith Machine at the Royal Court played with ideas of organised religion but also posited a more flexible and not necessarily religious understanding of what faith might be. To move off on a slight tangent, it also provided a vehicle for the considerable talents of actor Kyle Soller, who deserves all the best newcomer plaudits he gets.

Both 13 and The Faith Machine were ambitious and both frequently stumbled, but I agree with Michael Billington that such big ideas deserve a place on the stage. What is theatre for if not for asking life’s difficult, defining questions?

Ten years on

September’s theatrical horizon was dominated by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a milestone that prompted numerous dramatic responses. The Faith Machine, which opens on that fateful September morning in 2001, could loosely be considered as one such response, but by far the most ambitious dramatic attempt at dealing with the event was Headlong’s Decade. Written by a collection of different writers and assembled with skill by director Rupert Goold, this had possibly the greatest impact of any piece of theatre I have seen this year, despite several flaws.

At the other end of the scale, the Pleasance Theatre’s revival of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat depicts the reaction of just two (not particularly pleasant) characters who have been personally affected by the disaster. Theirs, however, is not a response of grief or shock but one of opportunism. Not scared of confronting the ugly side of human nature, sensitive direction by Rob Watt and stunning performances from Sean O’Neill and Janine Ingrid Ulfane made this repulsive display compellingly watchable.

Top girls

While strong male performances were hardly lacking in this year’s theatre, many of the most memorable performances of 2011 came courtesy of women. Actresses were blessed with the return of Caryl Churchill’s seminal all-female play Top Girls, which I caught at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester before it transferred to London’s Trafalgar Studios. While the majority of the performances were impressive, it was Suranne Jones who stood out, bringing just the right balance of steely ambition and soft vulnerability to the role of Marlene.

Another play dominated by female performances was The Last of the Duchess, which although slightly disappointing in itself at least allowed for a verbal stand-off between captivating leading ladies Sheila Hancock and Anna Chancellor. There was a little room left for the wonderful John Heffernan to shine, but this was a play that was all about the women. Other actresses whose performances stuck in the memory this year included Lisa Jackson in Love, Love, Love and Charlotte Emerson in the muted, poignant Eden End, but two women have deserved places at the top of the pile: Lesley Manville and Tracie Bennett.

I must admit slight disappointment at Mike Leigh’s much-hyped Grief, but it was worth seeing for Manville’s acting masterclass if nothing else. Nuanced and meticulously judged, hers was a delicate and many-layered portrait of a woman helplessly weighed down by  bereavement but emotionally straitjacketed by stiff 1950s etiquette. Bennett, meanwhile, brought seemingly boundless energy to the role of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, a true feat of both transformation and stamina. It may be an over-used phrase, but Bennett’s performance really did come right from her guts.

Miniature musicals and classy revivals

A couple of return visits to Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Avenue Q aside, this year’s musical theatre was, for me, characterised by the small rather than the big. I did not attend any of 2011’s West End musical openings, but judging by some of the reviews my attention was better focused on the London fringe. Instead I caught the dazzlingly downscaled Ragtime at the Landor Theatre, undoubtedly one of my favourite shows of the year, along with the colourful and cheery You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and an effectively simple production of The Last Five Years, both at the Tabard Theatre. Who said size matters?

The final – and considerably larger – musical of the year for me was Sweeney Todd at the Chichester Festival Theatre, featuring the starry pairing of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. Not only did they put bums on seats, this duo were also something of a revelation. Usually cuddly Ball butched up impressively for the role, becoming as sinister a Todd as any, while Staunton on the other hand was all sweetness and light in the role of devoted Mrs Lovett. This was a textbook musical revival, and its upcoming transfer to the West End might well provide one of the musical theatre hits of 2012.

And last but not least …

Other shows of 2011 that deserve brief special mentions include the performances I was lucky enough to catch in the SUSPENSE Festival, which firmly cemented a new love of puppetry, and the Little Angel Theatre’s delightful family production A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. Continuing with the family-friendly theme, Beasts and Beauties at the Hampstead Theatre was storytelling at its best this winter.

The Finborough Theatre continued its run of acclaim this year, with the standouts for me being Atman and Foxfinder, while Hacked at Theatre503 provided an interesting if uneven response to the phone hacking scandal. Finally, I was treated to a couple of excellent Pinter revivals, the first of these at The Print Room and the second in the terrifyingly evocative space of the Shoreditch Town Hall.

Happy New Year and happy theatregoing in 2012.

One Response to “My Year in Theatre: Best of 2011”
  1. Bill Buffery says:

    Great to see that I wasn’t alone in being stirred by Decade – despite, as you say, a certain looseness. It seems to be have been passed over in most accounts of the theatre year. A major relief to feel that theatre could actually aspire to engage with something of moment rather than get bogged down in self-conscious meanderings around questions of style and its own existence. I really enjoyed your round-up. Thank you.

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