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Theatre 2009-10: Looking Back and Ahead | reviews, news & interviews

Theatre 2009-10: Looking Back and Ahead

Theatre 2009-10: Looking Back and Ahead

Jerusalem may well be the play of 2009 - and 2010

How to encapsulate the theatre year just gone, one in which the critics - not always to the benefit of an increasingly imperilled profession - made headlines of their own, whether for being drunk (as if!) or fat? (Well, how many critics do you know who resemble Olympic rowers?) Amidst such a  kerfuffle, one might have thought life offstage was more interesting than it was on - until one pitched up virtually any night across the year in either of the Royal Court's two auditoria or at a rejuvenated Almeida or at a National capable of Alan Bennett's deliciousThe Habit of Art or at a spate of West End revivals (Arcadia and Dancing at Lughnasa, especially) that were at least the equal of their original productions. Clutching to the last to the holiday spirit, I herewith offer five shows that made 2009 playgoing a genuine pleasure, followed by five to look out for in 2010. Both lists are presented in order of the productions' openings.

2009 highlights

Tusk Tusk, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (April)

Barely into her 20s, Polly Stenham proved that her debut play That Face was no fluke. This follow-up effort took even more scalding a look at adolescence at its most sorrowful. The earlier play shone a merciless glare on a mother and her son, leaving Tusk Tusk very deliberately to write parents out of the (visible) equation as three children - two teens, the third much younger - are left to cope with an abandonment whose scars run troublingly deep. Jeremy Herrin, the director, deserves all praise for coaxing two of the year's most compassionate and urgently felt performances out of his two school-age leads, Bel Powley and Toby Regbo, and for a production that had far too short a run.

When the Rain Stops Falling, Almeida (May)

Australia was responsible for the year's glitziest West End musical (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), but it was Oz dramatist Andrew Bovell whose puzzle plays intrigued not once but twice - in the autumn West End revival of Speaking in Tongues, starring Ian Hart, and, far more memorably, in the late-spring UK premiere of When the Rain Stops Falling, whose cryptic beginning in no way hinted at the calamitously moving cross-generational saga that would unfold. Michael Attenborough's production was alive to every last clue in a text that pulsates with an abiding sense of loss, which was in turn conveyed by a cast among whom Lisa Dillon and Phoebe Nicholls shone as a wife glimpsed at two transforming moments in the same woman's life. Too clever by half? Not this play, which was wholly absorbing from first to last.

Arcadia, Duke of York's Theatre (June)

In an ideal world, some plays would be always with us, by which I prefer to think not of The Mousetrap but, instead, of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, especially if served up as vibrantly as it was by director David Leveaux and his cast on the West End over the summer. Set in two distinct periods that shimmeringly converge at the close, the play has tended to be dominated by the earlier passages involving the teenage maths prodigy, Thomasina, and her randy tutor, Septimus. But here, at last, was an Arcadia that gave equal time and emotional weight to the contemporary encounters featuring Thomasina's scarcely less clever descendant, Valentine (played by Ed Stoppard, Tom's son, with a movingly clamped-down passion), and a literary critic called Hannah, winningly taken by a huskily spoken Samantha Bond. I paid this Arcadia a pretty significant compliment in that I saw it twice and could have returned many times for more.

Hello, Dolly!, Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park (August)

Those who scoff at musicals - you know who you are - probably have seen too many duff ones: they know who they are, too. Particular cheers, then, for Timothy Sheader's gorgeous al fresco reclamation of Hello, Dolly!, a campy Broadway concoction for Carol Channing that here became a serious, and seriously lovable, piece about putting the past to one side so as to be able once again to love. Samantha Spiro brought impish, irresistible zest to the title role of the matchless Yonkers matchmaker, Dolly Levi, in a production that put this venue squarely on the music theatre map: one awaits Regent's Park's summertime Into the Woods, also directed by Sheader, with real impatience.

Red, Donmar Warehouse (December)

The 17 years, as it happens, were worth the wait. It took that amount of time for the large-framed, hugely talented Alfred Molina to come back to the London stage, this time as the abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko, in Hollywood screenwriter John Logan's return to his theatrical roots. Here, too, was no sentimental discourse on an artist's doomed life but a furious enquiry into the process of art, not least when Molina and fellow actor Eddie Redmayne prime a canvas in real time in a scene of ecstatic, infectious frenzy. Red's director, Michael Grandage, was busy across the year working with Judi Dench and Jude Law, to name but a few, but this world premiere showed a prolific talent at his very best in a galvanising production whose onward journey, one senses, has only just begun.

2010 hopefuls

Six Degrees of Separation, Old Vic (8 January-3 April)

Is there life for John Guare's ravishing play after leading lady Stockard Channing, who headlined the first Broadway and London casts and was nominated for an Oscar for the 1993 film version? We will soon see, when Lesley Manville steps into the prime role of Manhattan socialite and sophisticate, Ouisa Kittredge, whose life is transformed when a young black man arrives on her Upper East Side doorstep claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Taking the art of Kandinsky as its abiding metaphor, Guare's play helped define the era it describes; whether the piece resonates nearly two decades on remains one of the more fascinating questions of this young theatre year.

Jerusalem, Apollo (from 27 January for 12 weeks)

The play - and performance - of 2009 looks likely to occupy a comparable perch in 2010, as Jez Butterworth's knockout Jerusalem moves on from its Royal Court origins, first to the West End with Broadway and a putative film version said to follow. Mark Rylance reprises his career-capping role to date as Johnny Byron, a onetime daredevil whose rural English life of misrule is overdue for the reckoning that it receives across three alternately hilarious and mournful acts. Layered though the writing is, the play at this point seems inseparable from the acute eye of its director (and Butterworth regular) Ian Rickson. Catch the production now before it, like Johnny himself, becomes the stuff of legend.

An Enemy of the People, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield (11 February-20 March)

Regional theatre gets a robust shift in artistic personnel with the arrival at Sheffield's Crucible of the Olivier Award-winning actor Daniel Evans as artistic director, following on where Sam West and Michael Grandage recently led at the same address. Evans kicks off an exciting inaugural season with his own revival of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, here seen in the Christopher Hampton version and starring Antony Sher. No London transfer has yet been mentioned, which makes a trip a double imperative for those of us who inhabit points south.

Macbeth, Barbican Theatre (18 March-10 April)

The Bite10 season brings all manner of heavy hitters to the Barbican, from Laurie Anderson and Peter Brook to the Tanztheater Wuppertal of the late Pina Bausch. But spare a thought for dear old Willy Shakespeare, whose most compressed tragedy, Macbeth, here resurfaces courtesy of Declan Donnellan's Cheek by Jowl troupe. When last seen at this playhouse, Donnellan was fielding a French ensemble in Racine's Andromaque. His Macbeth, Will Keen, does in fact speak fluent Spanish but will be delivering this most elusive yet terrifying of plays in his native, always lucidly spoken English. Keen's Lady, in turn, will be Anastasia Hille, who took a stab at - sorry! - the same role yonks ago at the National opposite Alan Howard.

Peter Pan, King's Theatre, Glasgow (from 23 April, and touring till 19 June)

Glasgow, appropriately enough, will be the first port of call for the National Theatre of Scotland's new Peter Pan, which reunites the team behind the much-laureled Black Watch, starting with director John Tiffany. There's every reason, then, to hope for a robust, not at all twee take on a time-honoured classic from a Scotsman in J M Barrie in a production that will be very much set in Victorian-era Edinburgh with, presumably, no small amount of fog. The tour includes London's Barbican, opening 13 May, and further Scottish dates in Inverness and Aberdeen. If Tiffany and the NTS's past form is anything to go by, this looks to be a Peter Pan worth pursuing to the city nearest you.

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nice line up of theatre performances.. thanks for sharing.

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