While it’s possible to be disturbed, distressed and, sadly, disappointed by theatre, one cannot technically be turbed, tressed or appointed by it. Until now. You’ll have to wait until next week for my Best of the Year picks but, for starters, here are my year’s sad disappointments and its appointments – the shows that failed to live up to the proverbial great expectations and those that very happily exceeded them.
Ivo van Hove is currently in preview on Broadway with a new production of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ classic West Side Story which cuts both Maria’s song I Feel Pretty and the ballet Somewhere with its yearning opening “There’s a place for us…” As reported in Vogue by Adam Green, son of Bernstein’s frequent musicals writing partner Adolph Green (alongside Betty Comden), Van Hove will be using video “to bring action from the streets, as well as the wider world, into the theatre”.
The worrying aspect is that although his video designer is Luke Halls, who did such beautiful work on The Lehman Trilogy, it was Van Hove’s obsession with video that disappointingly killed his production of All About Eve stone dead. The estimable supporting cast from Monica Dolan to Julian Ovenden, Rhashan Stone and Stanley Townsend struggled to make their presence felt as their dialogue and actions paled beside giant screen blow-ups of the faces of Gillian Anderson and Lily James. The video was so dominant that I wondered why he’d bothered making a play out of the material and not just remade the movie.
By contrast, there was appointment aplenty at the National in Rufus Norris’ richly textured Small Island. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation couldn’t solve every challenge set by Andrea Levy’s rambling, multi-plotted novel but the cumulative effect of writing and production was big-hearted and hugely telling. The production was planned long before the post-Windrush scandal broke but it couldn’t have been more timely in its arrival. It also featured a raft of fine performances, most especially Gershwyn Eustache Jr as increasingly weary but almost-always-hopeful Gilbert and Aisling Loftus’ quietly compelling, wonderfully determined Queenie.
The National also hosted my major disappointment of the year: the revival of Top Girls. I can remember being poleaxed by the astonishing final scene of the original Royal Court production back in 1982, and in its subsequent revival and other productions of this great play. Alas, after the National production I met people seeing it for the first time who found it okay but who couldn’t see why it was revered as a classic. Small wonder. Lyndsey Turner’s revival flattened out the legendary opening scene and by the end had too simplistically divided characters into goodies or baddies, robbing the writing of its searing emotional power.
Mercifully, director James Macdonald was on hand to show everyone how to stage Churchill’s often elliptical writing to best advantage with his gleaming premiere of Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at the Royal Court. Superbly designed and lit by Miriam Buether and Jack Knowles, respectively, Churchill’s writing shone. Most writers who survive into their 80s rework past themes, ideas or successes. At 81, Churchill continues to break new ground. Anyone coming cold to the plays would have assumed they were written by a young firebrand.
Swimming against the current, I must admit that my disappointment of the year in musical theatre was Dear Evan Hansen. Having not seen it on Broadway and having studiously avoided listening to the score or reading the reviews, all I knew about it was that it featured social media and was a sensation. My disappointment, other than for the performances and the lean, clean design, was pretty fierce.
I entirely admire and, from experience, sympathise with its focus on the loneliness and pain of adolescence when one doesn’t fit in but as the songs rambled and the well-intentioned plotting all too easily resolved the crisis that everything in the show had made out to be insurmountable, I despaired of its lack of rigour. I love sentiment, but sentimentality – where feelings are not properly earned – not at all. As novelist Francine Prose memorably wrote in the New York Review of Books in her forensic review of the much vaunted novel The Goldfinch: “I found myself wondering: ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written any more?’”
As far as new musicals were concerned, I was far more appointed – and then some – by Andy Stanton and Jim Fortune’s almost entirely overlooked Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear the Musical!. Again, I arrived knowing nothing, but the moment it finished I wanted to see it again. Amy Hodge’s frankly delicious NT production glowed with warmth and wit and every performance was perfectly judged. The whole shebang was extraordinarily imaginative and quite splendidly silly. Revive it, please.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict