Today across the US, friends and families will be gathering around the table to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a time of coming together, sharing and celebrating, even if the cast of Waitress will tell you it’s really all about the pies.
In keeping with the tradition of giving thanks, here are 10 things I’m thankful for over the past year in theatre. So, in no particular order, here goes…
There are nights at the theatre, and then there are knights of the theatre. But what a treat to be afforded both. There was nothing more rewarding than watching Ian McKellen in his solo show celebrating his 80th birthday. He reminded us all about giving back, kindness, and generosity – which can sometimes be forgotten.
This was reflected by the fact he toured his show around the country playing tiny halls through to big stages, sharing his love and passion for acting. Meanwhile, the box office takings everywhere he played were donated to local charities and education programmes affording young people access to theatre and drama training.
But if that were not enough, at the end of the performance, he also stood in the lobby with a bucket to raise a few more pounds from his departing audience.
The theatre offers moments of sheer joy: the pairing of Brian Conley and Bonnie Langford together in the West End Musical 9 to 5 was one. These are the kind of performances that should be given out on prescription. But hardly surprising: Conley and Langford are two of our finest musical comedy talents and their performances were a masterclass in timing and delivery.
There was a different acting masterclass going on by Tower Bridge in April when Maggie Smith returned to the stage at the Bridge Theatre in Christopher Hampton’s new play A German Life. It was a virtuoso 90-minute solo performance that left me thankful I was fortunate enough to see it.
Some moments in theatre can be beautifully unexpected. By sheer chance, I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s public understudy performance of The Taming of the Shrew, and got to witness a moment in RSC history when Charlotte Arrowsmith, playing the role of Vincentia, became the first deaf actor to understudy a hearing role for the company using British Sign Language.
Arrowsmith gave a lovely performance, as did actor Amy Trigg, a wheelchair user who covered the role of Biondella, a part normally played by an able-bodied actor in the production.
But what made this performance so special was the driving sense of company that ran throughout the performance with its actors and stage management supporting each other and making this an unforgettable performance for both audience and cast alike.
The hit Broadway musical arrived in the West End and it was well worth the wait. With its powerful themes and strong connection to teenage audiences, it provides a welcome and valuable addition to Theatreland.
She gave three performances that define her versatility as one of this country’s great actors. Clarke seamlessly crossed from her Oliver award-winning performance in Caroline, Or Change to one of the most compelling performances of the year in the Young Vic’s Death of a Salesman. Then there was Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre. New York audiences will have a chance to see her in Caroline, Or Change when it transfers there next spring.
I was thankful that I made one last trip back to see the original Trevor Nunn and John Caird West End production of Les Misérables before it closed, making way for the new version that opens next month.
Sadly, long-running musicals’ cast changes do not always get re-reviewed or given the recognition they deserve, but I was treated to one of the finest casts (led by Dean Chisnall) that I had seen perform it. Particularly impressive were the supporting actors who are the glue behind any musical, and among them superb turns from Steven Mao and Vivien Parry as the Thénardiers, who discovered new depth to those familiar characters.
There were similarly great supporting performances to be found at the National Theatre, where I was thankful that Follies returned for a second run, affording me another chance to see Tracie Bennett’s performance as Carlotta and her brilliant rendition of I’m Still Here. My hope now is that she will also get to reprise it in the recently announced film adaptation.
The Society of London Theatre’s excellent scheme offers discounted tickets in January and February. Not only is it a great way to get out and beat off those January blues, it’s been invaluable for introducing new audiences to the theatre.
There are nights in the theatre that are both moving and a privilege to attend. Maybe none more so this year than To Gillie With Love, a special one-off West End concert in July to celebrate the life and talent of genius choreographer and director Gillian Lynne, put together by her husband Peter Land.
With a remarkable array of talent on stage who had worked with her, it was an outpouring of love and admiration. The performance also launched the Lynne and Land Foundation, helping support hard-up drama students complete their professional training.
It can be easy to forget that front-of-house teams are not there simply to sell ice cream and tear tickets. This point was demonstrated a few weeks ago when part of the Piccadilly Theatre’s ceiling collapsed during a performance of Death of a Salesman. The front-of-house team jumped into action, showing exemplary professionalism, in the same way that the Apollo Theatre front-of-house team did in 2013 when part of its ceiling also collapsed during a performance.
Front of house are the unsung heroes of the theatre industry and deserve our upmost respect and thanks.
I have barely scratched the surface in choosing my 10 moments of the year so far and it’s this, more than anything else, that makes me feel very thankful indeed.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan