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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
PASSING STAGE

A LOOK BACK AT 2008
By MATT WOLF

  Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum/Ph: Manuel Harlan

The hair did it.

Did what, you might well ask, and what could someone's locks possibly have to do with a wrap-up of the London theatre year just gone? But as I reflect on the highs - and, as is inevitable, a few of the lows - of the capital's stage offerings during 2008, one image more than all others recurs: that of Jessica Stevenson Hynes brushing her unruly blond locks back from her face in the superlative Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests. The gesture - unforced, entirely natural, and increasingly poignant as the cycle of three plays unfolded - allowed one of many ways into a Matthew Warchus production that gave off the quality of eavesdropping on good if sometimes fractious friends. One felt for Stephen Mangan's surpassingly amiable sheepdog of a Norman - those baleful eyes! - even as sympathies extended to the various women whom he spoke so enthusiastically of wanting to please. The resulting intimacy marked out author Alan Ayckbourn more than ever as the Chekhov of Britain's disputatious marrying middle class, with enough Strindberg thrown into the mix to ensure that the ensuing comedy also carried a sting: this is one staging whose putative trans Atlantic crossing simply cannot happen soon enough.

It was a grand year, indeed, both for Warchus and artistic director Kevin Spacey's once-beleagued Old Vic, a venue that hit its crackling stride in February with a definitive production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, directed at absolute full tilt by Warchus, that was shown off to particular advantage later in the year when set against the inferior, entirely separate Broadway remounting of the same play. Spacey gave a career-best turn inheriting Ron Silver's erstwhile Tony-winning assignment as Charlie Fox in a play about betrayal, morality, and the boys own world of the Hollywood hustle that made room for unexpected reaches of pathos in Jeff Goldblum's Bobby Gould: a careerist adrift in the ethical ether, a realm to which the astonishingly tall Goldblum seemed to have unique access. The play's on-the-make trifecta was completed by London's original Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly, playing the office temp Karen, and if this Olivier-award winner occasionally seemed like an outsider to events, what else would you expect from someone more accustomed to floating about the auditorium with an airborne umbrella?

As it happened, American drama was on regular view throughout the year, whether via an ad hoc festival of plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney or courtesy not one but three dreary offerings from Neil LaBute, of which the most recent, In A Dark Dark House, was also the most specious ( and managed to waste the talents of a too infrequent visitor to the London stage in the wonderful Steven Mackintosh). Admirers of ensemble acting could set the pitch-perfect work of the Norman Conquests crew against some mightily distinguished visitors in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, who returned to the National Theatre scene of their onetime triumph with The Grapes of Wrath to deliver up August: Osage County within months of its Tony-winning Broadway triumph. Tracy Letts 's play looked even more bracingly outsized and emotionally audacious on a Lyttelton stage where Todd Rosenthal's multi-storied house seemed to reach straight to the heavens. And it was nice for British showgoers to be reminded that. hey, America does committed company-led theater, too, even if Amy Morton, playing the eldest Weston daughter, Barbara, emerged once again as primus inter pares, in a role blessed with the second-act curtain line of many a wounded family member's dreams.

 


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