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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews



  Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge in Stephen Ward/ Ph: Nobby Clark

Here’s one astonishing aspect of the London theatre year just gone. In a capital that offers 150 or more openings worth reckoning with per year, 2013 marked the first time in my experience that I had trouble finding a candidate to vote for at year’s end for Best New Play.
How can this be in a city that regularly sends plays new and old to New York and points elsewhere? Where was the Arcadia or Skylight or Jerusalem or even Tribes of our time? In the end I voted for Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, a Donmar world premiere that did in fact go on to New York (to the Atlantic Theatre Off Broadway for an acclaimed run). But even that play doesn’t quite belong to its wonderful writer’s absolutely top rank, though the author’s own production went some way towards making the ellipses as alluring as possible, due in no small measure to an all-Irish cast headed by such alums of his teasing and spectral work as Jim Norton and Ciaran Hinds
Many found Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica to be the play of this and several other years, though the era- and continent-spanning thriller seemed to me a classic case of ambition outstripping achievement, and it was fascinating to note its director Lyndsey Turner and her director Es Devlin bringing several of their staging techniques on that play to their subsequent Broadway collaboration on Machinal. Far more rewarding, if comparatively under the radar, was the sequence of weeklong entries under the audacious auspices of a new artistic director in Vicky Featherstone that the Royal Court programmed during their Open Court season across June and July. Of the sextet of premieres, Alistair McDowall’s Talk Show and Clare Lizzimore’s Mint immediately announced themselves as worthy of longer runs and greater exposure, the latter in particular offering a searing star turn from Sam Troughton, who would go on to play Edmund in early January 2014 in the National’s new King Lear. (Lizzimore, for her part, is better known as a director, here making a superbly accomplished writing debut with a play about a man trying to adjust to normalcy – whatever that means – after five years in prison.)
But where 2013 really shone was in modern plays that were offered up anew, revealing themselves as classics arguably ahead of their time but in sync with ours. The director Ian Rickson bookended the year with two such entries, and at the same playhouse, no less. Audiences seized dual opportunities to catch his shimmering revival of Harold Pinter’s 1971 triangular drama Old Times so as to watch its leading women, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, swap over the roles of Kate and Anna, the two women in the badinage-filled yet ultimately baleful orbit of Rufus Sewell’s matchless Deeley. And come November, Rickson was back at the Harold Pinter Theatre to steer a supreme reappraisal of Mojo, the 1995 Jez Butterworth play deeply indebted to the late Nobel laureate. American theater tour groups had a notably hard time with this play, which begins in the middle of a labyrinthine plot steeped in Butterworth’s largely invented patois; but those who got the tenor and vibe of the occasion had a far more satisfying experience than Rickson had mined from this same text nearly two decades ago, the performance of the night – some would say of the year – belonging to Ben Whishaw, as a hip-swiveling psychopath by the name of Baby whose Hamlet-style issues no doubt resonated with an actor who had launched his professional career playing that most iconic of roles. (Whishaw, one learned later, had also been in a production of Mojo while a student at drama school but in a different part – Skinny, not Baby, a role that under Rickson’s keen eye gave Colin Morgan one of the most arresting death scenes in many a season.)
Shakespeare was everywhere in evidence, even if Hamlet took a back seat to such lesser-known titles as Coriolanus, served up in a galvanic Donmar staging from Josie Rourke that seemed to tap directly into the energy of the same theater’s all-female Julius Caesar from late in 2012: Tom Hiddleston and Deborah Findley brought equal measures of wit and ferocity to two halves of a family steeped in pride and perhaps not a little socio-political prejudice. David Tennant cut a Christ-like Richard II in a rather grand staging of that play featuring a notably lustrous supporting cast (Jane Lapotaire, Michael Pennington, the great Oliver Ford Davies), while Mark Rylance proved with his singularly inept Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic that he should stick to acting – where he excels – and not directing – where he does not. I’ve rarely seen two unhappier-looking leads than Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, their reteaming post-Driving Miss Daisy on this occasion, alas, no date with destiny.
A far happier stage duo was that of Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner on blissful loan from the States to head the glorious UK premiere of The Book of Mormon, a show-biz phenomenon that seemed both cleverer and (who’d have guessed it?) more moving on the West End than it did on Broadway. And though Once suffered the opposite fate, the victim in London of two leads possessed of no palpable chemistry between them whatsoever, the musical year ended on a grimly giddy high with Rupert Goold’s scintillating production of American Psycho, a show that manages to be satirically on point and also disturbing, as the material demands. Indeed, watching the Almeida premiere within weeks of the Mojo revival got me thinking about some cross-fertilization: Given what Mojo reveals of Whishaw’s sizable singing chops, maybe he’d make a good Patrick Bateman in some other onward production of American Psycho?


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