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Mark Shenton: My highs and lows of 2017

Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson Kwame Kwei-Armah. Photo: Richard Anderson
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It’s the time of year when critics are busy compiling their 2017 end-of-year reports, offering their round-ups of the best (and sometimes the worst) of the year. The Observer’s Susannah Clapp ran hers last Sunday, with three weeks still to go, while Dominic Cavendish has also declared Albion his play of the year in the Daily Telegraph.

And I’m stopping for Christmas myself after today, by heading off to Gran Canaria for an entirely theatre-free fortnight.

So I’m taking stock of the year’s events and headlines. A lot happened across the year, but these are my biggest take-aways from the year.

1. Sexual harassment and bullying in the theatre is not okay

This should be absolutely bleeding obvious, but it took the wave of anger in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations to start holding other creative artists, producers and administrators to public account for their actions. The first to be exposed in Britain was veteran director Max Stafford-Clark, who stepped down from Out of Joint – the company he founded – without any reason being given in September, but was subsequently revealed to have been under enquiry for his behaviour towards members of staff. This week, the Royal Court, where he was once artistic director, cancelled its planned London run in January of his final Out of Joint/Royal Court co-production Rita Bob and Sue Too. Then came the outing, in every sense, of Kevin Spacey, who apologised for his alleged behaviour towards a 14-year-old Anthony Rapp that he claims not to remember while coming out publicly as gay. This let to a flood of allegations dating from his tenure as artistic director at the Old Vic.

Mark Shenton: Old Vic report into Kevin Spacey underlines the toxicity of fame

The theatre launched an immediate enquiry, in which it revealed reports had been received from 20 victims, 14 of whom were advised to go to the police. The Metropolitan Police is also now reported to be officially investigating two sexual assault claims against Spacey.

2. Artistic directors coming and going

The shock announcement of the departure of Emma Rice from Shakespeare’s Globe, just as the theatre announced her second season, was mitigated somewhat by the welcome announcement of Michelle Terry as her replacement: she will announce her first season on January 4. Earlier this year, Rice finally made her displeasure publicly known, via a column on the Globe’s own website, saying: “I chose to leave because, as important and beloved as the Globe is to me, the board did not love and respect me back. It did not understand what I saw, what I felt and what I created with my actors, creative teams and the audience. They began to talk of a new set of rules that I did not sign up to and could not stand by. Nothing is worth giving away my artistic freedom for, it has been too hard fought for.” She is at least going with her integrity intact – and also leaving on a considerable high, with her final production – Romantics Anonymous in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – a delightful hit.

Hugely welcome this year has been the announcement of Kwame Kwei-Armah as the replacement for David Lan at the helm of the Young Vic. As I wrote when it was announced: “Kwei-Armah’s appointment is not just a welcome return home for a notable London-born actor, writer and director who has been based in the US for the past six years, where he has been artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage since 2011. It is also a pretty large cultural statement – though one that shouldn’t be as large as it is.”

Kwame Kwei-Armah: ‘Black representation in the UK is behind the States’

This paper’s editor Alistair Smith put it in perspective: “Overnight, he will become British theatre’s most senior black leader. While there are already several excellent black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders – both of building-based theatres (Madani Younis at the Bush, Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle) and of non-building based companies (Michael Buffong at Talawa, Kully Thiarai at National Theatre Wales) – the Young Vic is on another level.”

3. Original British musicals stage a comeback

While Broadway continues to blaze trails for innovative original musicals like this year’s Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away, the British musical is catching up: this year at least four new musicals have offered bold signposts for the future of homegrown musicals.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie review at the Apollo Theatre, London – ‘fabulous homegrown musical’

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which transferred from Sheffield to the Apollo, is a burst of infectious joy. Girl from the North Country, which premiered at the Old Vic this summer and is about to transfer to the West End’s Noel Coward, is a jukebox show with a thrilling difference, folding the Bob Dylan catalogue into a new Conor McPherson play (Dylan also made an unexpected appearance in Robert Icke’s Almeida Hamlet). The Grinning Man, transferring from Bristol Old Vic to the Trafalgar Studios, where it opens officially on Monday, is a gothic musical gem. And the aforementioned Romantics Anonymous at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is one of the shows of the year.

4. The changing fortunes of theatres

The Almeida has been on a particular high this year – though I’ve missed its final show The Twilight Zone, I wouldn’t have missed Andrew Scott as Hamlet (which transferred to the Pinter), James Graham’s Ink (which transferred to the Duke of York’s) or Mike Bartlett’s Albion, while its 2016 production of Mary Stuart is also heading to the West End in January. The theatre has rightly just been nominated for The Stage Award for London theatre of the year.

The Stage Awards shortlist: London Theatre of the Year

So has the National, which although it has had successive duds in its largest Olivier theatre with Salome and Common, has fared better with Angels in America (moving to Broadway in March), Follies (running at the Olivier until January 3), and David Eldridge’s Beginning (transferring to the Ambassadors from January 23). It has also had a series of good new plays in the Dorfman, including Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles.

The most disappointing theatre of the year has been the Menier Chocolate Factory. Though it sent last year’s production of Travesties to the West End (and it goes to Broadway next to open there in April) and its production of Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith (at some dates) in the title role went on a lucrative national tour, its homegrown shows lacked punch and fire – Florian Zeller’s The Lie, a disappointing revival of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage, and the current revival of Barnum with Marcus Brisgstocke miscast in the title role. But at least I enjoyed the Rattigan curiosity Love in Idleness, and the charmer that was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 3/4.

5. Let them eat madeleines

Nick Hytner and Nick Starr’s Bridge Theatre finally opened its doors – the first new commercial theatre since the New London on Drury Lane opened in 1973 (with almost exactly the same number of seats).

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr: ‘It must be time to look beyond the commercial West End’

But the smell of fresh bakery got more universally positive reviews than its first play Young Marx: as Dominic Cavendish wrote of the catering in his Telegraph review, “It’s a bit ‘let them eat madeleines’, whereas the British proletariat and bourgeoisie unite in demanding sarnies.” I’ve already heard the theatre being dubbed the Madeleine Theatre.

6. The luckiest critics in the world

When Tom Hiddleston decided to give us his Hamlet as a charity fundraiser for his former drama school RADA, at its own house theatre that seats only 160 people for a run of just three weeks, no critics were officially invited; we were told to apply via the public lottery for the chance to buy them instead. Yet no fewer than three national papers – the Guardian, Times and Telegraph – managed to win the chance to buy a ticket; and all, by an even more miraculous coincidence, secured them for the first public performance.

Hamlet starring Tom Hiddleston – review at Vanbrugh Theatre, London – ‘Hiddleston shines’

I was assured by the show’s publicist that this was entirely bona fide; but as I wrote here: “I am also minded to suggest that they should each select next week’s National Lottery numbers, too; Michael Billington could then personally answer the Guardian editor’s daily call on every article accessed online to readers to help fund the paper’s journalism”.

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