The best of 2011: theatre
Time Out's Theatre team picks out the venues and productions that have made a real impact in 2011
Tills rang in the New Year in Theatreland despite the recession: the West End started 2011 with profits up on 2009’s record year, albeit with audience attendance slightly down. Commercial conservatism has deepened. But this was, if not another golden year then a silver one, when subsidised hits brightened Shaftesbury Avenue and the Strand, and, thanks to the RSC’s ‘Matilda’, the West End musical could finally look Broadway in the face.
The best of 2011...
Show of the Year: 'London Road'
Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s delightful ‘Matilda’ was very nearly our show of the year. It deserves to go far and has already extended its booking period at the Cambridge Theatre. But Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s gorgeous, ambivalent verbatim musical about the Ipswich community haunted by the Suffolk Strangler killings was our critics’ choice: 'London Road' was the genuinely groundbreaking new work of 2011 and we live in hope of seeing it return to the capital.
Best Venue: National Theatre
Soho, Hampstead, the Finborough, Southwark Playhouse and the Bush all deserve very honourable mention. But, beyond any doubt, 2011 was the year of the National Theatre. Nicholas Hytner’s slick hit factory brought History Boy James Corden back to acclaim in the massive ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, now on the West End and destined for Broadway. ‘Frankenstein’, for which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller bared all, was the monster hit of the summer. And, thanks to self-produced hit ‘War Horse’, the NT absorbed arts cuts without reducing its budget or its ambitions – bringing Rory Kinnear’s marvellous ‘Hamlet’ back for a victory lap and premiering exciting new writing shorts from DC Moore and Sam Holcroft in its fun summer pop-up space, The Paintframe.
Best New Play: 'The Knowledge'
New writing bastion the Royal Court had a downbeat year, though its era-defining ‘Jerusalem’ came back for more praise in the West End. London’s off-West End and fringe venues stepped into the breach. Dawn King’s ‘Foxfinder’ (Finborough); Jack Thorne’s Edinburgh hit ‘Bunny’ (Soho); and Tom Wells’s ‘Kitchen Sink’ (Bush Theatre) led our list. But John Donnelly’s provocative and hilarious 'The Knowledge' (Bush Theatre) topped it. In 2011 many writers including Vivienne Franzmann (whose ‘Mogadishu’ began another strong year at the Lyric Hammersmith) tapped in to the lyrical gangsterism of London schools. But Donnelly’s play went beyond stereotypes. Had it got the West End transfer it deserved it could have done for cunnilingus and citizenship what ‘The History Boys’ did for poetry and the blow job.
Best Fringe Show: 'Accolade'
With the Southwark Playhouse churning out arresting productions at a rate of knots (notably ‘ The Belle’s Stratagem’ and ‘Tender Napalm’) and some fine ones coming in from leftfield (hello Eddie Elks’s totally unexpected ‘Botallack O’Clock’ at the Half Moon in Herne Hill) it’s been a very decent year for fringe theatre in London. However, West London powerhouse the Finborough was once more the theatre to beat, and fringe show of the year goes to its revival of Emlyn Williams’s neglected masterpiece 'Accolade'. Williams’s sensitive broadside against British hypocrisy boasted superb performances from Aden Gillett and Graham Seed and announced the arrival of great young director Blanche McIntyre. Bring on the mooted 2012 West End transfer.
Best Revival: 'All's Well That Ends Well'; 'Saved'; 'Top Girls'; 'Ecstasy'
With the exception of Richard Bean’s retro ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, revivals were pretty much the only species of theatre that made it to a cautious West End: the Open Air Theatre’s ‘Crazy for You’ and the Tricycle’s ‘Broken Glass’ made excellent transfers. The standard of revivals has been so high that we failed, collectively, to pick just one. Congratulations, then, to John Dove’s hilarious and original rom com interpretation of 'All's Well That Ends Well' at Shakespeare’s Globe; Sean Holmes’s fine production of Edward Bond’s 'Saved' at the Lyric; Max Stafford-Clarke’s five star revival of Caryl Churchill’s 'Top Girls' at Trafalgar Studios and Mike Leigh’s tender, wonderfully acted revival of his own 1979 play 'Ecstasy'.
...and the worst of 2011
No obvious giant gobbling monstrosity reared its head over 2011 – though misguided West End flop ‘Cool Hand Luke’, the King’s Head’s ‘new’ Oscar Wilde play ‘Constance’, and the NT’s multi-authored climate change disaster ‘Greenland’ all had us reaching for the cranberry sauce. But stinker of the year award goes to semi-audible RSC snore-fest ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Director Michael Boyd deserves an ovation for pulling the RSC out of its doldrums and building its new theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But, beyond ‘Matilda’, London audiences have been deprived of the RSC’s best shows this year (no Christmas season at the Roundhouse) and have suffered its mediocre-to-dismal new writing instead.