I went to my first first night of the New Year last night – the annual Cirque du Soleil outing at the Royal Albert Hall, which this year brings a 2007 touring show Kooza to London for the first time. And no sooner has the new theatre year began with it than it already brought a clash: last night also saw the opening of a short run at the Old Vic Tunnels of Fiona Shaw in Phyllida Lloyd’s stage interpretation of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I’m duly steeling myself to brave tomorrow.
Not because I don’t revere Shaw and love Lloyd’s work, but because the Old Vic Tunnels routinely wins my personal award for London’s least appealing, most appalling venue, an indescribably damp, chilly and grubby space. A colleague who runs theatre and journalism courses tells me that whenever he takes his students there, they love it – and for exactly the same reasons why I hate it! So perhaps I’m just showing my age.
[The Stage 100 is] a fascinating exercise in trying to harness the shape-shifting nature of Britain’s theatrical elite
But then this is the time of year when the theatre industry, and its leading organ The Stage, annually takes stock of the movers and shakers that make it all happen, led by the publication of the annual Stage 100 in last week’s issue of The Stage, as well as the announcement of the winners of the Stage 100 Awards for London, regional and fringe theatre of the year, as well as producer and school of the year, who will receive their awards at The Stage’s annual, invitation-only New Year’s Party on January 25.
I should declare an immediate interest here; not only am I a judge on the Awards panel, but I also help compile the Stage 100 list, too. Of course it has to be said immediately that the list (and our award winners) only provides a snapshot of the changing landscape of British theatre, but it is nevertheless a fascinating exercise in trying to harness the shape-shifting nature of Britain’s theatrical elite and give them some kind of ranking.
This year’s shared top ranking of the commercial (last year’s top rankers of ATG’s Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire) and subsidised (with the National’s two Nicks, Hytner and Starr) reflects just how mutually dependent both sectors are on each other nowadays, as each also stray regularly into the other’s territory and learn from each other’s ways of working. Both organisations now have a growing international reach which each are consolidating with their own efforts, with ATG opening an office in Sydney (alongside the one they already operate in New York), and the National setting up its own West End and New York operations, too.
The National will soon have three productions running simultaneously in the West End, when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time joins its current runs of War Horse and One Man Two Guvnors. Meanwhile ATG is adopting the subsidised model of nurturing and creating homes for leading creative talents by setting up subsidiary production companies to promote the work of directors like Jamie Lloyd (whose first production under the new arrangement will see the Trafalgar Studios reconfigured for Macbeth next month), Jerry Mitchell and Christopher Luscombe (at Brighton), and producer Tali Pelman alongside its ongoing relationship with Sonia Friedman.
Though the top twenty list is inevitably fairly static in terms of who appears in it, there is room to reflect both big and small changes within the power rankings. This year saw Ruth Mackenzie, for instance, soar to third, listed alongside Danny Boyle, for their contributions to the Cultural Olympiad and Olympics opening ceremony; but it was also gratifying to see the contributions of Bradley Hemming and Jenny Sealey noted elsewhere on the list, who co-directed the Paralympics opening ceremony.
It is also good to see Shakespeare’s Globe – The Stage 100′s London theatre of the year – also entering the Top 20 list for the first time, an overdue acknowledgement of how essential it has become to the fabric of London’s theatreland. Part of its the reason it hasn’t made the mark before is because it is only a seasonal theatre (though it manages to stretch the definition of a British summer all the way from April to October). That is changing partly because of its growing touring operation, but is going to change forever as it finally realises its plans to complete the long-intended creation of a year-round indoor theatre.
And last year’s Globe to Globe season – presenting all 37 Shakespearean plays, each in a different language from companies around the world – was one of the crowning achievements of the summer, bringing entirely new audiences to the Globe for the first time. (Those who look at the list closely may notice the absence this year of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, which fell off the list after a curtailed summer Olympics season reduced its main productions to just two, though I hope it returns to form and scale this summer).
Also new to the Top 20 list are Sheffield’s Daniel Evans and his chief executive Dan Bates, with Sheffield Theatres also winning the accolade of The Stage 100′s Regional Theatre of the year, and actor Mark Rylance, who has managed to become that rare thing: a genuine stage star who can sell tickets on the strength of his name alone in the West End, without (as The Stage citation for him has it) “much of a TV or film profile.”
One disappointment is the absence of composers from the writers and composers list
Evans and Rylance are both real theatre animals, utterly committed to their art and craft. So, in their own absolutely unique ways, are The Stage 100′s two Unsung Heroes of the year: former Donmar casting director Anne McNulty – that theatre’s long-time secret weapon from both the Mendes and Grandage years – and former Duchess Theatre front-of-house manager Chris Isherman, the warmth of whose welcome at that theatre always made it a pleasure to visit. They will both be keenly missed, though the Donmar has done well to attract Alistair Coomer, former deputy casting director of the National, to fill Anne’s shoes.
One disappointment in this year’s list is the absence of composers from the writers and composers list, but a slow year in new musicals in the West End only saw shows drawn from the back musical catalogues of Whitney Houston, the Spice Girls and Irving Berlin (The Bodyguard, Viva Forever and Top Hat) make an impact. Though I personally championed the sole original British entry of the James Bourne scored Loserville, it didn’t take the town; but fringe outings for Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders (at Soho Theatre) and Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale (at the Landor) found those writers doing terrific work.
Meanwhile, next Tuesday lunchtime I am also hosting this year’s annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards at the Prince of Wales Theatre, where the UK’s theatre critics check in with their own accolades from the year’s theatregoing. The awards are the first official event in the Critics’ Circle’s own centenary year, and prove the ongoing importance of critics in the theatrical ecology.
Unlike the suddenly proliferating public award ceremonies via assorted websites, which are often popularity contests not based on the need to have seen the shows at all but on how widely people can draw on their Facebook and Twitter followers to vote for them, these are voted for by the people whose job it is to go to the theatre – three, four or more times a week. So they actually mean something. But more than that, the ceremony itself gives the theatre industry an opportunity to come face-to-face with the critics who judge their work in an informal, friendly setting, where we both realise that we’re after the same thing, but from different perspectives: making work of true excellence and acknowledging and promoting it.
It is also neatly appropriate that in the Queen’s New Year’s honours, two veteran, still-working critics were duly honoured, too: the Observer’s film critic Philip French and The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington. As Billington told his own paper,
It is the 100th anniversary of the Critics’ Circle this year, so I believe it is recognition not of me but of the need for critics and the continuity of criticism.