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Theatre: Top 10 of 2013 | reviews, news & interviews

Theatre: Top 10 of 2013

Theatre: Top 10 of 2013

Two helpings of Old Times, Ghosts and Ben Whishaw. Plus a Dame's farewell

In a good year for stage psychos, Ben Whishaw in `Mojo' was a sociopathic breed apart Simon Annand (and also for Old Times photo below)

Playgoers could be forgiven for thinking that they were seeing double during much of 2013. No sooner had you sat through Ian Rickson's dazzling revival of Old Times once before you returned again to watch its peerless pair of actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams, swap roles. Similarly, Ben Whishaw had barely shed his Peter Pan-related persona as the male half of John Logan's Peter and Alice before lending his whiplash authority to the revival of Jez Butterworth's Mojo. There were multiple GhostsMidsummer Night's Dreams and Macbeths, slices of O'Neill esoterica and Tony-winning musicals transferring across the pond. Below is this observer's list of the year's 10 best London openings in alphabetical order, and in full recognition that there are at least another 10 titles that could have featured as well.

1. American Psycho, Almeida

So what if Matt Smith's singing voice will never land him a role in The Phantom of the Opera (a lucky escape, if you ask me) and Duncan Sheik's score doesn't boast the instant array of catchy take-away tunes proffered by the year's second-best new musical (well, new to London at any rate), The Book of Mormon? Rupert Goold's Almeida regime got off to a lethally brilliant start with this musical dissection of psychic disturbance Bret Easton Ellis-style, with Smith inheriting Christian Bale's screen role as that marauding Manhattanite, Patrick Bateman, and doing what on paper sounded a dubious enterprise more than proud. Five machetes, as well, to the entire creative team. 

2. Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

It was a good year for the Donmar in general and its artistic director, Josie Rourke, in particular, even if Rourke's Manchester-to-Manhattan venture, The Machine, revealed a tiny play trapped in a bewilderingly outsized staging. There were no such problems of scale in Rourke's end-of-year Coriolanus, which tapped into the testosterone of the previous season's all-female Julius Caesar and applied it across both sexes. Marking his first London stage role since becoming an action film hero, Tom Hiddleston shifted that same dynamic to the stage. all but literally striking sparks during a shower scene that was one of multiple directorial innovations on view. And cheers and cheers again to the redoubtable Deborah Findlay's Volumnia, a stage mother of blood-curdling power right up there with Mama Rose in Gypsy - which in fact makes one wonder, can Findlay sing? 

3.. Eat Pray Laugh!, London Palladium

This was a big year for thespian royalty taking to the stage, with Judi Dench back on the West End in Peter and Alice and Helen Mirren reprising Elizabeth II, this time across a half-century of weekly visits with her nation's various prime ministers in The Audience. But primus inter pares was surely that Antipodean figure of frolicsome outrage, Dame Edna Everage, who lifted the second half of her alter ego Barry Humphries' self-described "farewell tour" to the comic stratosphere and beyond. Let's hope this particular adieu is what Raymond Chandler in an entirely different context referred to as a long goodbye. 

4. Ghosts, Almeida (& Trafalgar Studios)

At the rate she is going, Lesley Manville (pictured right with Jack Lowden; photo: Hugo Glendinning) will before too much longer be a dame, the actress capping her previous stage work of late in Six Degrees of Separation and Grief with a pole-axeing performance as Ibsen's ever-febrile Mrs Alving in far and away the best of a busy Richard Eyre's plethora of productions across the year. Manville was joined at the Almeida by the supporting cast of anyone's dreams, all but one of whom (Will Keen) have transferred to the West End for the ongoing run at the Trafalgar Studios. 

5. Home, National Theatre / Shed

The year saw not just notable plays but several notable new playhouses, from north London's welcome if (so far) under-attended Park Theatre to the National's deliberately makeshift and hugely necessary Shed, a replacement for the shuttered Cottesloe, which will reopen as the Dorfman in the spring. If the Cottesloe rebuild means shedding the Shed, that will be a shame, not least in depriving playgoers of the spiky verbatim theatre represented by director Nadia Fall's superlative Home (not to be confused with the David Storey play of the same name, which was tenderly revived at the Arcola later in the year). Set in an East London hostel, the play carried with it the sense of life caught on the wing, its mixture of fury and fortitude an example of theatre pushing beyond its borders to engage us all (cast member Grace Savage pictured above; photo credit: Ellie Kurttz).

6. Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre

Who says you can't go home again? On pretty much every level, Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson's encore partnering on the play that first made Butterworth's name (under Rickson's direction) had more heft, pain and, yes, heart than had been evident in 1995, the slice of late Fifties Soho lowlife arriving this time in a star-packed production in which everyone carried their weight. If Ben Whishaw's damaged Baby was ultimately the performance of the night, it's unusual to be moved by a sociopathic malcontent to the degree that Whishaw pulled off here. Add to that evidence that the man can sing as well as move and that Freddie Mercury film biopic for which he has been mooted makes more sense by the minute. 

7. Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre

So nice, they invited the critics twice: such was the casting gambit of the protean Ian Rickson's shimmering take on Harold Pinter's emotionally translucent 1971 play whereby Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams (pictured right) swapped roles across the run as wife and lover, lover and wife, with the matchless Rufus Sewell in quietly malleable place as the lone man in a play that constitutes an abiding anatomy of melancholy for this or any year. The late Nobel laureate had a busy time of it during 2013 on Broadway as well, with Betrayal and No Man's Land each returning to New York to mixed results; this Old Times topped them both with a surpassing empathy that made one want to see it a third time. Perhaps Sewell would like to tackle one of the women's roles? 

8. Othello, National Theatre / Olivier

Its 50th birthday year found the National offering all things to all people, from a musical about a gravity-defying princess to a pair of Teutonic openings at year's end to make one wonder whether the theatre canteen ought not to make an evening special of bratwurst. But Nicholas Hytner's lacerating reapraisal of Othello stood out across the year both for completing a modern-dress Shakespeare trifecta begun with this same director's NT Henry V and Hamlet and for locating in Rory Kinnear's era-defining Iago the living (and fearful) embodiment of that oft-quoted phrase, "the banality of evil".

9. A Season in the Congo, Young Vic

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice LumumbaWith the success of 12 Years A Slave, for which he may well win an Oscar, Chiwetel Ejiofor (pictured left; photo: Johan Persson) is becoming known to the world. Let's just hope his burgeoning fame doesn't keep this brilliant actor from lending his scorching talents to the London stage. As the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in a rare sighting of Martinican playwright-poet Aimé Cesaire's purposefully angry 1966 play, Ejiofor performed with almost palpable fire in his belly only to still the house with a hush-inducing moment in which he maps out the African continent in all its tumult and sorrow in his hand. 

10. Sweet Bird of Youth, Old Vic

Finally, here was a production of Tennessee Williams's tricky 1959 play that gave equal pride of place to its central pairing of a down-on-her-luck Hollywood diva known as the Princess and the young buck, Chance Wayne, who offers solace and a bedmate but at a price. Kim Cattrall and London stage first-timer Seth Numrich seized the demanding roles with that amalgam of grace under pressure and grit that defines Williams's in extremis world: a landscape in which those who live for desire are more often than not done in.

The year saw not just notable plays but several notable new playhouses

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