wed 24/07/2024

Best of 2023: Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2023: Theatre

Best of 2023: Theatre

The National Theatre fielded hit after hit, and smaller venues scored as well

Infinitely wonderful: Christina Kirk in 'Infinite Life' at the National Marc Brenner

Wait, and your wishes are answered. That seemed to be the case during the theatre year just gone, following on from 2022 when new British writing of quality seemed thin on the ground.

That couldn't have been further from the case during 2023, not just at such venues of choice like the National, which fielded two big, bold new British plays amongst a generally strong output from artistic director Rufus Norris across the year, but in smaller venues too: both the Bush and the Hampstead Downstairs were amongst those punching above their weight, in neither case for the first time.

Anoushka Lucas's solo entry Elephant returned to the Bush, this time in a larger auditorium in-the-round, in keeping with a thematic reach that felt itself enlarged. And Marek Kohn's deceptively simple Octopolis was beautifully served by its two-person cast (Jemma Redgrave and the charismatic Ewan Miller) and Ed Madden and a design team who between themed to bring a cehalopod to life in the nether regions of a north London playhouse. 

Familiar titles scored afresh, as well. The non-binary American performer Mason Alexander Park brought an amalgam of brio and bite to the ongoing revival of Cabaret that was astonishing to behold, and one only assumes they will be in the mix for cast replacements when Rebecca Frecknall's quietly searing revival crosses the Atlantic this spring. Christopher Eccleston gave A Christmas Carol a galvanic force suggesting seasonal visitor to the Old Vic as yearly requirement for the good of humankind, much like flu and COVID jabs but a lot more fun. 

Not everything hit home. I grimaced most of the way through Pandemonium, notwithstanding a cast headed by Paul Chahidi, so wonderful earlier in the year in the National Theatre's scorching reboot of Phaedra, the latter courtesy writer-director Simon Stone and the always-welcome Janet McTeer. Sleepova felt like a distaff also-ran to the same venue's ebullient, deeply moving Red Pitch, which gets a West End upgrade in March, whilst Brokeback Mountain rode the coattails of an Oscar-winning film to scant effect and wasted the talents of a fast-rising film actor, Mike Faist, here returning in exuberant form to his theatrical roots.Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman on the West End I wanted more emotion than was to be had from the extravagantly designed The Witches, a so-so, long-aborning British musical whose commendably manic co-star, Daniel Rigby, was more exhausting than energising in a furious take on Accidental Death of an Anarchist that transferred from Hammersmith into the Haymarket. And both Portia Coughlan and The Pillowman disappointed upon renewed acquaintance, the latter ill-served by a leading lady, Lily Allen, in an instance of gender-flipping a character to the serious detriment of a once-revolutionary work that here felt mean-spirited and gratuitously nasty. The tricksy Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons took a long time (both in its title, and onstage) to say not especially much, and the Globe was happier in its smaller indoor venue (bravi to both Titus Andronicus and Ghosts) than outdoors, however adventurous it was to find their recent Winter's Tale straddling both spaces at every performance.  (Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman, the co-stars of Lemons, are pictured above, photo c. Johan Persson.)

Herewith are ten nights (well, a few of them were matinees) that were restorative in various ways to the soul, which is no mean feat in these increasingly strange times. In which case, the theatre in 2024 is going to be more crucial to us all, I have a hunch, than ever. 

Dear England, National Theatre / Olivier (and West End) 

Would Gareth Southgate like to run the country? That seemed the collective wish as we exited the press night of James Graham's exultant, full-bodied play, which made history as the first non-musical since anyone can remember to play the Prince Edward Theatre in its deserved West End transfer. Marking a return to the very auditorium where he once played Berowne for Trevor Nunn, Joseph Fiennes captured not simply the physique but also the soul of the England football manager whose counsel on matters of loss might come in handy during the American elections that seem guaranteed to make troubling headlines during the year ahead. For now, all praise to Fiennes, co-star Will Close as Harry Kane and their director, Rupert Goold, for revving Graham's play up to fever pitch and beyond - so much so that a cluster of travelling American playgoers last summer; all of them savvy but few of them seasoned in such topics as British football, proclaimed the play and production their favourite of all the (many) shows they saw. 

Feeling As if Something Terrible is Going to Happen, Bush Theatre 

It's not every day that one encounters the phrase "semen gutters" onstage (or, for that matter, in life) but Marcelo Dos , Santos's solo play dared audiences to come along for a take-no-prisoners ride and its invaluable lone performer, Samuel Barnett, ensured that a rapt public did just that. Some took issue with the occasional plot twist in Dos Santos's concurrent West End opening, the still-running Backstairs Billy, but there was no doubting the emotional swerves charted by the comedian played by Barnett across 75 minutes in a descent into the psychic abyss that lands with a volte-face for the ages from which I'm still reeling. Barnett is sure to tackle the play again elsewhere, but in the meantime this is one text that happens to read very well if that is useful to those awaiting its return. 

Guys and Dolls, Bridge Theatre

The English appetite for Frank Loesser's "musical fable of Broadway" isn't equaled on Broadway, where this sweetest, smartest of shows is less frequently seen. But it is sure in time to host Nicholas Hytner's immersive take on a 1950 classic that is also this director's first London musical, astonishingly, since he revived Carousel for keeps at the National in 1993. I've seen this production three times and have plans to see it at least twice more, the various cast configurations never bettered than in the opening night pairing on "Marry the Man Today" of Marisha Wallace and Celinde Schoenmaker, both in peerless form. Schoenmaker, incidentally, was the raison d'etre of a twice-over concert performance of Love Never Dies that played Drury Lane as, later in the year, was Hytner's onetime Carrie Pipperidge, Audra McDonald, in a Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute. The lineup of talent there included Miss Adelaide herself, aka Wallace, on momentary leave from a marvellous show that send you giddy and glad-hearted into the night. 

Infinite Life, National Theatre / Dorfman

No praise seems enough for this infinitely rewarding anatomy of compassion and pain: the latest from the exquisitely keen eye of American dramatist Annie Baker, whose unofficial British residency at the National will, one hope, continue under that venue's incoming artistic director, the accomplished Indhu Rubasingham. Baker can ask for no better directorial ally than Englishman James Macdonald, who brings to this searching excavation of a society in miniature losing its moorings the same detail leant to comparable works by Caryl Churchill, from whom Baker has presumably drawn sustenance. As for the cast of six, brought over intact from the Atlantic Theatre in New York's Chelsea, a collective Olivier seems the only appropriate award - well, that and our undying thanks. 

Medea, @sohoplace

Sophie Okonedo as Medea @sohoplaceCentral London's newest venue has so far blazed most brightly when turning towards the classics. Last year saw Josie Rourke's glorious reappraisal of As You Like It, followed this past spring by the director Dominic Cooke's mighty new Medea, with cast members seated amongst the audience and Ben Daniels in fighting trim (quite literally, it would seem from his physique) as all the male participants who conspire, singly or otherwise, to send Medea on her murderous way. As the eponymous perpetrator of infanticide, Sophie Okonedo (pictured right, photo c. Johan Persson) seared the stage with a sad-eyed fury that gathered in argument, persuasion, and logic only to scatter any semblance of order to the four winds in as grievous an ending as the theatre knows. 

The Motive and the Cue, National Theatre / Lyttelton (and West End) 

Great Shakespeare stagings were scarce this past year (here's looking at you, Kenneth Branagh), but at least the West End now has the opportunity, as Broadway surely will in time, to watch John Gielgud coach Richard Burton on how to play Hamlet. That in fact happened on Broadway in 1964 as we are reminded by Jack Thorne's loving play - a tribute both to the theatre itself and to the titanic talents that inhabited it both then and, occasionally, now. Amongst their ranks, let us count Mark Gatiss, whose questing Gielgud remains the male performance of the year, alongside a student-rival for the ages in the protean Johnny Flynn, here in vocally gravelly form as a Welshman who locates drama aplenty in art and in life. Sam Mendes, on scintillating form, directs. 

Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, Gielgud Theatre

Stephen Sondheim is having quite the moment just now in New York, with two Broadway sellouts and the Off Broadway premiere, seen posthumously, of his show Here We Are. London, meanwhile, saw a return in fuller, more emotionally robust form of the May, 2022, gala, this time not quite as starry (there was no Judi Dench, for instance, or Petula Clark) but every bit as moving, if not more so. For that credit the dream directing team of Matthew Bourne "side by side" as the Sondheim lyric goes with the wondrous Julia McKenzie. The two have been gifted with a cast headed by the 75-years-young Bernadette Peters, who was in the first Broadway show I ever saw (On the Town, in 1971) and whose way with a Sondheim lyric remains beyond compare. I'll be at the final performance of Old Friends on January 6 to join in the sort of send-off that Sondheim allows uniquely, hankies (or even towels) at the ready.  (The ensemble is pictured below, photo c. Danny Kaan) 

Old Friends ensemble at the Gielgud TheatreA Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre (and West End)

Rebecca Frecknall returned to the Tennessee Williams well, this time bringing along her Olivier-winning Alma from Summer and Smoke, Patsy Ferran, as a last-minute replacement who turned out to be entirely revelatory, as was the production itself, at once stripped-back and emotionally brutal. Paul Mescal was the name attraction as that bare-chested manchild, Stanley Kowalski, but the bruised, eternally beating heart of Frecknall's vision of the play lay in its portrait of two sisters, Blanche and Stella, rent asunder by primal desires that will not be contained. Ferran and her stage sibling, Anjana Vasan, were jointly awarded best actress in November at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards (full disclosure: I am on the panel) as a way of paying joint obeisance to two protean actresses at the top of their considerable game. 

Sunset Boulevard, Adelphi Theatre

The director Jamie Lloyd followed up his elemental National Theatre rendering of Lucy Prebble's The Effect with a set-free Sunset Boulevard that by rights shouldn't have worked. How do you do Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical without a huge levitating house for that ballad-belting monstre sacré Norma Desmond, not to mention her defining turban? Answer: cast Nicole Scherzinger (and, on Mondays, the equally feral Rachel Tucker) as Norma and let Lloyd's ferocity of vision do the rest. Lloyd Webber had a tough time with his shows both sides of the Atlantc during 2023 not to mention the unimaginable loss of losing a child. Sunset Boulevard turned out in unexpected ways to be the right show at entirely the right time in a bravely dystopian rendering whose onward journey, one imagines, is just beginning. 

The Swell, Orange Tree Theatre

Swell, yes, but searching and probing and very moving, too: such was Isley Lynn's beautiful Orange Tree premiere, which brought kudos to the Richmond playhouse now boasting a new artistic director in Tom Littler and which allowed Lynn's neatly observed mosaic of three women as seen at defining moments across 30 years to send shivers of recognition and understanding as its interrelationships played themselves out. There was a lot of time travel on view on London stages this year (a dreary new musical with that in the title included), but none of those other shows matched the stealthy power of Lynn's writing or Hannah Hauer-King's production, with Sophie Ward the name perfomer amongst a uniformly flawless cast.

Sophie Okonedo scattered any semblance of order to the four winds in as grievous an ending as the theatre knows

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