After the political surprises of 2016 it was easy to assume that 2017 would be defined by the fallout. For those in the liberal London bubble, the direct collision of old and new Britain, demonstrated at the ballot box last year, caused a shift in the way we see ourselves, a rethink that put concepts of nationalism, power and societal influence back under the microscope, Naturally, facing what felt like a significant and unbreachable rift, instability and economic downturn was the likely outcome, which for the arts, could only mean one thing – cultural depletion – as audience seek safety in comfort and nostalgia.
What actually happened in 2017 theatre couldn’t be further from that prediction, and while the revival of great American dance-led shows continued apace, looking back at this year’s very best productions, they were strikingly new. It has been an outstanding year for fresh, and predominantly political, writing with a West End transfer for Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, an ambitious technical accomplishment if not entirely emotionally satisfying play about the encroaching effect of the 1980s hunger strikes on a rural Irish family that opened at the Royal Court in May, before making it to the Gielgud shortly afterwards, where its changing cast has led to two run extensions so far.
Just a tad more fulfilling was the first UK production of Oslo, arriving with its Tony Award winning headline from Broadway and a new British cast. Opening at the National Theatre in September before a prompt move to the Harold Pinter the following month, Oslo is a superb and very human examination of the personalities that created an unlikely peace process, dramatizing the complexity without undermining the entertainment value, an exceptional piece of writing by J.T. Rogers.
Undoubtedly, and for productivity and consistent quality alone, this year has belonged to James Graham with two new plays in neighbouring theatres, and a third announcing a transfer in the Spring of 2018. Labour of Love is one of the few new plays to open cold in the West End this year, premiering to much acclaim at the Noel Coward Theatre in September and innovatively charting the history of the Labour Party since the mid-1980s to the present day through the eyes of grass-roots membership, using a reverse then forward chronological structure.
Unpicking established historical scenarios and carefully controlled construction are Graham trademarks, both perfectly demonstrated in his biggest hit, and, personally my favourite show of the year, Ink, establishing the tabloid newspaper’s current powerbase rooted in its quest for populism in the sales war of 1969. A wonderful and unexpected surprise in its first outing at The Almeida in June, Ink promptly arrived at the Duke of York’s in September cementing Graham’s influence on modern political writing and paving the way for his next big show, and my first 2018 recommendation, Quiz, which is heading to the Noel Coward from April after a successful Chichester try-out, focusing on the power of the television media and the nature of modern justice, framed by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing-Major scandal.
Another stand-out piece of new writing this year was a personal examination of the impact of suicide on three generations of the same family that placed women’s experience front and centre. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicideopened at the Royal Court in June and ambitiously reimagined traditional narrative approaches by telling the three separate but inter-related stories side-by-side, upping the emotional investment, while The Barbershop Chronicles at the National was an invigorating examination of black male experience around the world distilled through a visit to the local hairdresser. And finally, The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios arrived in the West End from the Bristol Old Vic just in time to be crowned this year’s best new musical, reimagining Victor Hugo’s dark tale of mutilation and injustice. Genuinely magical, it swept the audience up with its heightened fairy tale quality, charting the story of a tragic outsider to quietly devastating effect.
Emotional and quietly devastating also describes 2017’s best revival, the Sondheim classic Follies that united Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee at the National Theatre. From the very first night of previews, the show ached with regret, disillusion and nostalgia for lost youth that filled the sizeable Olivier auditorium and never has a production suited the awkward space so well. Twice this year, the National has arguably produced definitive productions that will certainly preclude other major revivals for at least a decade, and joining the genuinely heart-rending Follies was the epic Angles in America (Part 1 and Part 2).
Tony Kushner’s two-part 1990s ‘gay fantasia’ was much trailered this time last year, and when it finally opened in a mammoth seven and half hour production it more than lived-up to expectation. Director Marianne Elliot balanced the multiple narratives and hallucinatory elements convincingly, while leads Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in particular gave the performance of their lives as men ravaged by HIV.
Andrew Scott also gave a career-best performance in this year’s superstar Hamlet, opening in February at the Almeida before transferring to the Harold Pinter. Robert Icke’s production was a modern, strongly conceived production that despite a few loose ends and some underpowered interpretations of Claudius and Gertrude, gave its leading man the space to deliver one of the most heart-breaking Hamlets of the 21st century.
Another former Hamlet returned to the stage this year and having established a devoted fan-base as a much-loved TV character and a respected Shakespeare performer, blew it all up to play a dastardly lothario with only his own pleasure in mind. David Tennant’s performance in the revival of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho divided critics and audiences alike with its crude and gleeful take on an unrepentant wastrel. But Tennant’s joyous interpretation, perfectly matched by Adrian Scarborough’s put-upon servant proved irresistible, making it one of my favourite and most uproarious nights in a theatre this year.
With another cracking Imelda Staunton performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe impressing in the Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and charming returns for An American in Parisand 42nd Street, 2017 has been a cracking year for top-quality theatre. But as we say a bittersweet farewell to one of the strongest years for mainstream theatre in a long time, we can take comfort in knowing that 2018 is already filled with possible treats.
The new Bridge Theatre opens the year with an all-star promenade production of Julius Caesar – one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – starring Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrissey as Mark Anthony which should be an interesting take on well-known tale of power and corruption. The National follows suit in February with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in a new Macbeth that could be the best stage version in years, while more must-see Shakespeare is planned for September with a much anticipated version of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo also at the National.
Another early highlight is the much acclaimed transfer of Long Day’s Journey into Night starring Jeremy Irons and the wonderful Lesley Manville pitching-up at the Wyndhams in January, while in the same month Kathy Burke directs Lady Windermere’s Fan, the second in Dominic Dromgoole’s Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, and soon after Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins take the lead in Bryony Lavery’s thriller Frozen, opening at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.
The late spring and summer months also promise much, with a revival of Red starring Alfred Molina also heading to the Wyndhams, while, following the London run of James Graham’s Quiz from April, all eyes will be on the Noel Coward Theatre in July where Martin McDonagh’s the Lieutenant of Inishmore will mark the West End debut of Poldark star Aidan Turner, timed to coincide with the next series of the hit show.
And that’s not even the half of it; later in the year Jim Broadbent will star in Martin McDonagh’s new play about Hans Christian Andersen at the The Bridge Theatre entitled A Very Very Very Dark Matter, the National has announced a version of Brian Friel’s Translations with Colin Morgan, the first London run of the trilogy of plays about Lehman Brothers directed by Sam Mendes who follows his wonderful control of The Ferryman with more new writing, while there is a new play from The Flick writer Annie Baker, who returns to the National with John, and the Royal Court welcomes Carey Mulligan in a new show Girls and Boys, while the Gielgud hosts a gender-swapped version of Sondheim’s Company from September.
So, it may be sad to leave a year of really great theatre, but 2018 has plenty to offer, and looks set to continue the investment in new writing that has been such a feature of the last 12 months. With a constantly shifting governmental landscape and ongoing uncertainty, it’s comforting to see mainstream theatre responding with sophisticated political writing and greater attempts at diversity – that some of the approaches that have long been a feature of the Fringe are finally filtering up. It’s far from perfect and there’s still a long way to go, but with the work of 2017 setting a high bar, the theatre year ahead looks full of promise.