London Theatre Review of the Year 2014
Whilst I am never a particular fan of New Year's Eve, it does provide an excellent opportunity for a moment of reflection - looking back at the year that has slipped away whilst making promises for the upcoming twelve months. Whilst in New York the theatrical season is dictated by the Tony Awards which splits the year almost in half, the London season is sometimes easier to judge alongside the normal calendar. New shows tend to open in the early autumn and spring in order to capture vital markets, but the often volatile nature of venue scheduling leads to erratic openings throughout the year.
The theme of New Year is one that is handled consistently in both musicals and plays, as that point of reflection provides an excellent theatrical backdrop for projecting forward as well as looking back. Characters, as well as 'real life' characters enjoy that moment of limbo stuck between the old year and the new, which more often than not results in explosive moments.
Whilst compiling a list of what I have seen in 2014, I decided to offer my highlights of the year, in what has certainly been another exciting London season:
My favourite venue of 2014 was, without a doubt, The Young Vic theatre on London's Southbank. Their 2014 season was eagerly anticipated from the moment it was announced, with tickets turning into gold dust, lines around the theatre and the return of 'scalpers' made their shows the hottest tickets in town. After delighting in the London transfer of The Scottsboro Boys, which later made its way into the West End, their shape shifting auditorium allowed reinventions of classic plays to be presented by internationally renowned directors, resulting in these frequently revived titles being shown in fresh and invigorating ways.
Beckett's Happy Days saw Juliet Stevenson buried up to her waist then neck in sand, delivering the finest production of this mesmerising play I have ever witnessed. Whilst I wasn't as convinced by the modern day updating of The Cherry Orchard directed by Katie Mitchell, Simon Stephens' slim-lined translation fully justified another outing - even if it was pretentiously directed to give more of a view of the actor's backs.
Gillian Anderson's take on Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire seemed to grab most of the headlines and was a powerful take on the Williams classic through a modern lens, giving audiences a 360 degree look at the world of Stanley, Stella and Blanche. For me however, it was Ivo van Hove's production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge which proved unforgettable, and is one of my overall highlights of the year. The combination of knockout performances from Mark Strong, exceptional design and a tight, uninterrupted abridgement lifted this domestic drama to a whole different level, tapping into the public's current obsession with immigration and the challenge of an integrated society.
The West End was once again blessed by numerous transfers from the public funded sector, allowing productions that began life on the outskirts of London to be seen in greater numbers in the commercial West End. My favourite of these was the London premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People which starred Imelda Staunton as single mother Margie, delivering what was, in my eyes, the most compelling performance of the year. After being struck by the commitment and emotional intensity of pint-sized Staunton, I was once again knocked out by her performances as Mamma Rose in the Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Gypsy, which is thankfully transferring to London's West End in 2015.
Once again the London fringe showed the breadth and depth of talent held within this great city, providing innovative and ground-breaking productions of plays, musicals and everything in between. Once again The Southwark Playhouse grabbed much of the buzz, providing homes for UK premieres of Broadway musicals such as 'In The Heights' and 'Dogfight'. However it was Morphic Graffiti's production of Carousel at the Arcola Theatre that impressed me the most, presenting Rodgers and Hammerstein's most enchanting work in a radically different setting - heightening the drama and drawing out new elements of the show that proved delightful on the smaller scale.
One of the most poignant dramas of 2014 was the Donmar Warehouse's revival of My Night With Reg which delivered an expert mix of pathos without ever feeling overbearing or 'preachy'. Delightfully performed, designed and directed, this was a gem of a play and fully deserving to be seen by a wider audience as it transfers to the West End in early 2015.
My favourite piece of new writing came from Mike Bartlett who created a 'future-history play' with his drama King Charles III starring Tim Piggott Smith at the Almeida and later Wyndham's in the West End. Evoking Shakespeare's blank verse, structure and also characters, it gave an imagined view of Britain's future under the next ruling Monarch.
The high profile musical flop of the year came from music guru Simon Cowell as the X Factor musical I Can't Sing arrived on the West End about eight years too late feeling overly produced, heartless and ultimately tacky. Harry Hill's humour failed to translate to the stage, and despite an extremely talented cast, the show struggled to last six weeks in the vast London Palladium.
It wasn't a classic year for new British musicals, as the two offerings from 2013 From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward closed early in the year. Made in Dagenham was received generally well but to me felt vulgar and simplistic - forcing the audience to their feet shamelessly through song which actually tells you to 'Stand Up'. Once again it was the American imports that felt the most successful, with Tony Award winner Memphis standing out in terms of style and substance. The West End went back to the 80s with revivals of Miss Saigon and Evita offering new takes on classic shows with the former proving much more successful than the latter - mainly due to the miscasting of Evita's leading players.
Here Lies Love which reopened the National's Dorfman (Cottesloe) Theatre was the most refreshing new musical of the year, telling the story of Imelda Marcos in an exciting and relevant new way, pushing the boundaries of form in an otherwise regressive year for musical theatre.
London's multiple performing arts schools often provide excellent ways of seeing new musicals in London as well as earmarking the talent of the future. This year I particularly enjoyed the London School of Musical Theatre's production of Violet at the Bridewell Theatre, as well as Grand Hotel by students of the Guildhall at the Barbican.