Paul Vale looks back at a year of highs and lows for Britain’s smaller venues
While 2010 witnessed the arrival of several new venues, 2011 saw the Lost Theatre in financial difficulties and both Above the Stag and the Southwark Playhouse in a precarious state due to major redevelopment of both the Victoria and London Bridge area. Despite the pressure, all three houses have managed to provide varied and entertaining productions throughout the year and to date, are booking into 2012.
The Bush Theatre moved to its new 130-seat venue and opened with the ambitious 66 Books featuring a cast of 130 performers, whereas across town in Kilburn, the Cock Tavern, having made such an impressive mark on the London fringe in so few years, shuttered over the lack of an entertainment licence. The Olivier Awards saw OperaUpClose’s production of La Boheme awarded Best New Opera Production. Despite this high honour, pay disputes from some of the artists involved threatened to sour the award and prompted popular debate within the theatre community on the low pay/no pay question.
New takes on classic texts were a staple of the Blue Elephant in Camberwell and the Rose Bankside, with the works of adaptations of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Schiller.
The Finborough produced a marvellous revival of Accolade by Emlyn Williams while the Print Room in Notting Hill gave us sumptuous productions of Ayckbourn’s thriller Snake in the Grass and Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth.
The London fringe remains a valuable platform for new writing and 2011 has been no exception. The Finborough again proved itself a reliable ticket with exemplary new work such as the nihilist Mirror Teeth by Nick Gill and And I and Silence by Naomi Wallace. Bodies Unfinished by Lewis Hetherington at the Brockley Jack examined familial relationships whilst Chapel Street by Luke Barnes at the Old Red Lion took another look at the one night stand. Amphibians by Steve Waters at the Bridewell was an early highlight of 2011 utilising the venue’s swimming pool origins as well as some nifty choreography for this Olympic drama.
Highlights of the Brighton Festival (whose sister event, Brighton Festival Fringe, now claims to be one of the world’s largest) in May this year included the world premiere of Neil Bartlett’s For Alfonso – A Wilde Evening starring Bette Bourne and the British premiere of Les Ballets C de la B’s Gardenia.
The Latitude Festival in July saw a reorganisation of the performance space resulting in an increase of site-specific performances including input from the Bush Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre and Theatre Delicatessen with its production of A Doll’s House.
August saw the Edinburgh Festival Fringe featuring The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence. Out of the nearly 300 shows seen by The Stage reviewers, the winners included Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre for best ensemble for The Monster in the Hall; best solo show went to Gerard Logan for The Rape of Lucrece; best actress went to Alessija Lause for Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and finally Billy Mack became the first performer to win best actor for a second time in The Overcoat at the Pleasance Dome. Ultimately summer 2011 will be remembered as the year of the great venue shift as finally, the Assembly moved to the Bristow Square area, further cementing, perhaps, the ever changing face of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Musical theatre reached a new high on the London fringe, particularly at the Landor in north Clapham. Despite drastic changes to its programme at the last minute, it still managed to mount exemplary productions including By Jeeves, John and Jen, The Hired Man and a superlative production of Ragtime.
The Union too provided a strong series of musicals including productions of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, The Baker’s Wife and Dames at Sea. The Southwark Playhouse made important additions to the musical revivals taking place, firstly with Company at the beginning of the year and then in September with Parade, which gained two long-list nominations for the 2011 Evening Standard Awards.
New musicals of note have been less forthcoming but the fringe remains the best and undoubtedly most economic outlet for musical theatre composers. At the Union Gerry Ware and Andrew Emerson gave us 1888, which took a stab at musicalising the Jack the Ripper story. Away from the fringe, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Ed DuRante and Fred Carl gave a rap score to their new adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. The Rosemary Branch in Islington saw David Harrod and Peter Scott-Presland give us their version of a gay musical La Ronde and at Above the Stag Glenn Chandler and Matt Devereaux set the Victorian Cleveland Street scandal to music. Towards the end of the year Jermyn Street presented Adam Meggido and Roy Smiles’ new musical Burlesque, which has gained not-unwarranted critical acclaim.
While cabaret may have found a new home at the Pheasantry on the Kings Road with performances from Sally Ann Triplett, Janie Dee and Helena Blackman, closer to the city centre the Soho Theatre opened the Soho Downstairs, with an eclectic opening season which included The Tiger Lillies, Stewart Lee, Omid Djalili and David Hoyle.