Mark Shenton looks back at some of the highs and lows of Theatreland’s year
The current success rate of the West End has been bought at a price – while there are no dark theatres, it is also in serious danger of stagnating entirely. The fact is that there’s a real estate crisis – we have only a stock of around 40 West End houses, yet there are 15 musicals currently on the boards that have been running for at least two, or in most cases many more, years.
With new musicals about to head into the Coward and Novello in the new year, and given that St Martin’s, Fortune, Criterion and Ambassadors are also seemingly permanently decommissioned – thanks to the long-running successes there of The Mousetrap, The Woman in Black, The 39 Steps and Stomp, respectively – there is only a handful of West End playhouses left for regular commercial use. These are the Apollo, Comedy, Duchess, Duke of York’s, Garrick, Gielgud, Haymarket, Vaudeville and Wyndham’s, plus the Trafalgar Studios, which is no longer a conventional West End house anyway.
As a result, Broadway has started beating us at offering new productions of plays in its commercial heartland. While London has 15 plays running in West End theatres (including those long-runners), New York was last month just two behind, at 13 plays in Broadway houses. None of those 13 shows existed before the current season that began there in October – all have arrived since. In the same month, just 11 London productions were new.
Of course, the situation in the capital is not quite so critical for plays, since we always have the Royal Court (the theatre of the year for new plays, with an amazing run of terrific work that included Clybourne Park, which will transfer to the Wyndham’s next month), National, Donmar, Almeida, Tricycle, Hampstead and so on to satisfy even the hungriest theatrical appetites. But these are dire times for lovers of musicals. If you’ve seen Les Miserables (which you could see in three different versions being presented simultaneously in London during its 25th anniversary week), Phantom, Mamma Mia! and Chicago countless times – and I have – trying to get a fix of new musicals is hard to find. There has been only three British-born West End musical openings all year, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, David Essex’s jukebox parade All the Fun of the Fair and Howard Goodall’s Love Story (via Chichester).
While the troubled gestation of Love Never Dies (quickly redubbed Paint Never Dries in the internet blogs, an epithet which stuck) confirmed the difficulty of musical sequels, especially to one of the most successful shows ever written, Lloyd Webber has returned it to intensive care and recently relaunched it in a much improved, retooled new version.
The welcome arrival of Love Story brought composer Goodall back to the West End for the first time in 23 years, and it is my musical of the year. But there were also sensational revivals of Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Passion as part of the year-long celebrations of the composer’s 80th birthday. Broadway sent us a revival of Hair, complete with its original New York company, as well as Fela!, a stirring concert recreation of the life and music of Nigerian legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela! was staged at the National, where Nick Hytner’s regime may have begun with Jerry Springer – the Opera but has otherwise failed to deliver new musicals except for this and the import of another Broadway show in Caroline, or Change. The National has instead continued to be the place for outstanding play revivals, including Hytner’s own productions of Hamlet, with actor of the year Rory Kinnear, and London Assurance, as well as brilliant work by three women directors, Josie Rourke (making her NT directing debut with Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep), Thea Sharrock (Rattigan’s After the Dance) and Marianne Elliott (Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings), which suggests that one of them could well be his successor when the time comes for him to move on.
Meanwhile, Michael Grandage – continuing to do exemplary work at the helm of the Donmar, as witnessed by his new production of King Lear with Derek Jacobi, but also spreading his wings this year with his operatic directing debut at Glyndebourne quickly followed by another opera for Houston Grand Opera – also made his NT directing debut, and has now announced he is leaving the Donmar.
Who will take over? Directors like Jamie Lloyd and Phyllida Lloyd (no relation), Katie Mitchell and Rupert Goold, all of whom have worked there, must surely be in contention. But also making a big splash regionally is Laurie Sansom, who brought his Northampton double bill of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams plays to the National this year and is returning to direct there in 2010.
The British theatre is blessed with terrific actors, writers and directors – but their loyalties no longer lie with specific places. Goold may have bombed on Broadway with the export of Enron, but at home he’s fired on all cylinders for both the Royal Shakespeare Company (Romeo and Juliet, now in rep at the Roundhouse) and National (Earthquakes in London).
Likewise, Simon Russell Beale has shone both at the National (London Assurance) and in the West End (Deathtrap). And Nina Raine, who wrote one of the year’s best new plays in Tribes – premiered at the Royal Court – next month sees her latest offering, Tiger Country, open at Hampstead. The theatre and its practitioners are constantly evolving and it will be wonderful to see where they go to and take us next.