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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews



  Amanda Drew and Royce Pierreson in Three Days in the Country/ Ph: Mark Douet

It was a good year for the Greeks, Ralph Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale and all manner of superb leading ladies, and less good for new British musicals (sorry, Bend It Like Beckham; good intentions do not a satisfying show make) and overtly feminist agitprop (I’m thinking of you, We Want You to Watch, a painful National Theatre entry that set all sorts of fine causes back a decade or more).
I laughed a lot at Peter Pan Goes Wrong, pondering all the while the extent to which the still-young Mischief Theatre Company has become a major force on the London stage; chuckled and then was moved by the great Jim Broadbent as his Scrooge deftly melted from scold to softie in A Christmas Carol; and grinned and gently bore it at Ben Hur, a four-person adaptation from some of the same creatives as The 39 Steps, which proved only that lightning doesn’t always strike twice. 
That said, it was amazing to note the people who did remarkable double duty during the year just gone. The National’s one-time artistic director Richard Eyre gave what shape he could to the baggy, overwritten Ian Kelly play Mr. Foote’s Other Leg before turning his attentions to a commendably lean and mean Almeida Theatre version of Little Eyolf, a lesser-known Ibsen play that was one of the major reclamations at a north London address that devoted the lion’s share of its activity across the year to reinvigorating the Greeks so that the ancients provoked and disturbed anew. Cheers and cheers again to director Rob Icke and his superlative Oresteia, by some measure the surprise success of the year in its ability to transfix across three and a half hours of Aeschylus first at the Almeida and then – remarkably – on the West End.
Designer Lizzie Clachan proved that visuals can do their bit to enliven Shakespeare every bit as much as performers can. I haven’t seen as clever a coup de theatre as is contained in her National Theatre As You Like It in many a year, a feat matched by the remorseless (and deliberate) greyness of the quite-literal tunnel vision with which she reimagined Macbeth at the Young Vic. That production, in turn, allowed John Heffernan in the title role to give a modest-seeming master class in delivery of some potentially overfamiliar text. Indeed, when it came to acting Shakespeare, one took heart in the ease with which the greats continued to dazzle alongside a fresh generation of emerging talent whose gifts are only now being announced.
And so it was that Dame Judi Dench, now 81, lent her vocal luster and unsurpassed empathy to playing Paulina in an otherwise four-square account of The Winter’s Tale starring a rather hammy Kenneth Branagh. (The same actor was seen to much better effect in that production’s concurrent entry, a revival of the 1940s one-act Harlequinade.) A young unknown by the name of Emily Barber cut an immediately transfixing presence as the wide-eyed Innogen – the character normally known as Imogen – in Sam Yates’ delicious end-of-year production of Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse located in the bowels of Shakespeare’s Globe. Mariah Gale was a poignantly alert and alive Isabella in Measure for Measure over the summer at Shakespeare’s Globe, the same play reemerging in a radical autumn production at the Young Vic that gave pride of place to Paul Ready’s bible-toting, scarily commanding Angelo.
It was gratifying to see various playhouses thinking outside the box. The Donmar hit upon the ingenious idea of giving British election night over to a special performance of James Graham’s typically ingenious play The Vote, a large-cast occasion (Dame Judi and her real-life daughter Finty Williams among them) that was buoyantly served up by Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke. And if the same director turned a 30th-anniversary revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses into a play that seemed this time around to be a study in rape rather than seduction, at least one was able to welcome back the peerless Janet McTeer to the theatrical fold, as well as a design by the invaluable Tom Scott that turned a dilapidated manse into installation art.
The National received undue stick in some quarters for losing some of its sheen as the world-class playhouse bade farewell to Nicholas Hytner and hello to Rufus Norris. That wrist-slapping struck me as not at all fair given the abiding excellence not just of Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production of Husbands and Sons, featuring the ensemble cast of this or any year, but also Ian Rickson’s quietly devastating premiere of Wallace Shawn’s latest exercize in subversion, Evening at the Talk House, easily the year’s most undervalued and misunderstood play. Separately, I remain mystified by the raves that greeted the extensively filleted Jane Eyre, a staging whose techniques resembled Nicholas Nickleby redux, but not done nearly as well.
The quality of performance as ever and always was a joy to behold, whether referencing the unshowy contribution made by Nancy Carroll first to the Donmar’s so-so revival of Closer or to the Hampstead premiere as directed by the expert Jeremy Herrin of David Hare’s latest, The Moderate Soprano, or the giddy delights of Debra Gillett and Mark Gatiss whether separately or together in writer-director Patrick Marber’s ravishingly designed (by Mark Thompson) Turgenev rewrite, Three Days in the Country.
Ralph Fiennes left one looking on first in awe and then in appreciation at the verbal dexterity and boisterous good humor that he brought to Shaw's unabashedly prolix Man and Superman, while his onetime RSC colleague Simon Russell Beale in the splendid Donmar premiere of Temple found the lasting virtue in onstage contemplation and stillness. Credit to the director Howard Davies for his guidance both of that play and of the Hampstead Theatre's surprisingly moving revival of a onetime Tom Stoppard dud, Hapgood, that seemed this time out to be an essential part of Sir Tom's indispensable canon. And first among equals must surely have been Imelda Staunton’s fierce and unforgiving Momma Rose in the Gypsy performance of a lifetime. I saw her in the part four times, closing night included, and her 11th-hour meltdown remains with me still – a silent scream from the same woman who enters the show barking “Sing out, Louise” only over time to be struck dumb by life’s terrors and in the process awakening her audience to the alchemy of great art. I think we can all sing out to that.


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