2012 ROUND-UP: Our Reviewers' Best Of UK Theatre - Part Two
For Part Two of our year's round-up, reviewers Gary Naylor and Kaite Welsh have their say...
Gary Naylor: It's been my great privilege to review 144 Productions in 2012, the overwhelming majority of which have been somewhere between very good and excellent - a fantastic testament to the variety of London's theatre and the extraordinary breadth and depth of talent turned out by an education system in which the government seem determined to marginalise arts.
It's (yet again) the price of everything and value of nothing thinking from men (and maybe one or two women too) who believe that education's role is to shape young people the way a plane shapes wood - knocking off every rough edge until everything looks like it should. That's not how you get Olympic Opening Ceremonies like London 2012 and it's not how you get theatre as good as London's in 2012.
I don't give stars in reviews - how absurd it is to reduce all that effort, all those contributions, all that magic to a five point scale - so it's hard to write about the best of the year. Nevertheless, I'm going to - so there. Having carefully done the math to make certain that the price was equivalent to £6 and not £60, Nabucco at Moldova's National Opera House was moving and beautiful, with the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves a spine-tingling highlight. Amongst a consistently strong offering at The Arcola all year, Purge was the most powerful drama I saw: contemporary writing about contemporary issues performed with complete commitment.
The Arcola finished the year with my favourite musical, Sweet Smell of Success - catching the zeitgeist as the press lurched from one ethical crisis to another.
Theatre's also about fun, of course, and I had the most fun watching Jeff Achtem's hilarious, poignant and inventive puppetry in Swamp Juice - storytelling of the highest order.
The worst of the year? Well, most of the works that might be styled performance art were disappointing: often humourless and messy, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was an audience who had paid to be entertained. What grates most about these pieces is that there is often a tremendous evening buried under the layers of self-induced "difficulty" - as The Tiger Lillies spectacular and avant-garde Hamlet showed most clearly. If the hand comes out to the audience, we'll grasp it - but it has to be offered!
Just shading Martyn Jacques' Hamlet at the Southbank Centre as my favourite show is The Print Room's Uncle Vanya, a classic delivered with verve and utter confidence, thrillingly close-up. Like my favourite last year (London Road) it had a swift return run, so strong was audience demand. Like London Road, it wasn't a "Happy Ever After" piece, nor was its humour of the kind that provokes bellylaughs, but it engaged from start to finish, tearing you from one compelling character to the next as life - with all its ugliness on show - demanded attention. Above all, it was theatrical - its alchemy creating something still unique in the age of 3-D movies and hyper-realistic computer games. It was the kind of show (and there were many others) that made me not so much thankful to have seen so many productions this year, but regretful to have missed so many too.
And now next year beckons - I can't wait.
Kaite Welsh: I deliberately held off writing this until I'd seen Phyllida Lloyd's all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, on the grounds that it would end up being my favourite show of the year. For once, my epic powers of procrastination were right - this gritty, bleak production might be one of the best things I've ever seen. Set in a women's prison it shifted seamlessly from the claustrophobic world of the inmates to the play they escape into. In true Shakespearian style, the moments where the 'real' world intrudes - an actor being called away by the prison guard a stage fight turning nasty and being broken up, Harriet Walter breaking off from a speech to snarl "shut the f*** up, w***ers" at her rowdy companions - only serve to heighten the tension of the main action.
If the production had been all-male, like so many modern Shakespeare plays are, or all-black like the RSC's recent magnificent production, it would have received rave reviews. As it is, it's hard to see that such a strong production could have received such drastically mixed reviews out of anything other than sexism. Charles Spencer noted in his review for the Telegraph that "[b]efore seeing this women-only Julius Caesar I vowed that I wouldn't resort to Dr Johnson's notorious line in which he compared a woman's preaching to a 'dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all'." To give him his due, he did go on to say that "some of the acting is excellent" to the point where he forgot they were women at all, so good were their performances. It remains to be seen whether the awards season takes Spencer's view, or rewards the production the way it deserves.
Katie Mitchell's The Trial of Ubu was another highlight - although it wasn't flawless by any means, her stable of actors is good enough that even if you're not a fan of the bells and whistles that accompany her productions you're guaranteed a good night out. Although Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchêne as the eponymous trial's interpreters were stuck with reciting the court proceedings they still managed to convey a rich inner life for their distinctly different characters, and Paul McCleary convinced as a ruthless despot oblivious of the fact that his charm has faded and his power is on the wane.
One of my favourite off-West End discoveries of the year was Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, a spit and sawdust queer feminist cabaret collective who had a busy year putting on their first panto (where Cinderella's happily-ever-after is a polyamorous relationship with genderqueer romantic asexual Buttons and Princess Charlotte, and her evil stepmother is the permed and pearled Baroness Scratcher) and taking their Alternative Sex Education show to Edinburgh. With their ABC of sex (that's Asexuality, Bondage and Consent) and an imaginative interpretation of Cole Porter's 'You're the Top', they're never going to get on a school curriculum - but with their inclusive celebration of love, desire and the need to belong, that's a real shame.