Best London theater, 2009


While I’ve still got three more shows before the season’s entirely over, I feel confident that I can now get the “what was the best” posts out of the way (complete list of shows here, grand total estimated to be 116). Best dance, best musical/drama are my categories, as well as a few special celebrations and a shaming here and there. Read on …

Discovery of the year: the Southwark Playhouse. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this small and atmospheric venue blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of mixed quality (the recent and continuing Christmas Carol was a treat to be sure) but never made me feel financially cheated. Generally worth going to “just for the heck of it.” Now, mind you, Royal Court has been crowned “The New Donmar” (affordable prices, adventurous programming) and I’m planning on buying something akin to the entire spring season there, but it was hardly a discovery; it just became noticeable for its greatness this year.

Overdone gimmick of the year: “event” theater with movie or TV celebrities. Please, let’s have less of the classics being butchered by people who can’t act at extravagant prices. I realize this is probably singlehandedly responsible for the fantastic income London theater is experiencing this year, but good theater is not just about filling seats. I feel like seeing Jude Law/David Tennant/Keira Knightly on stage gets people to go just so they can say “ooh ah I was in the same room as INSERT NAME HERE” and does little to encourage the creation of good shows. The Donmar deserves an especial drubbing for going so mad for celebrity casting in their West End season – and what a horrible mistake to waste Judi Dench in that Mishima dog they put on.

Dance performance of the year: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “E=MC2” (full discussion here) I saw the Royal Ballet many times this year and they just weren’t doing anything this exciting – not really helping the cause of getting ballet into the 21st century and recruiting new audiences so much as sticking with tried and tried and tried and true (“Mayerling” twice in two years, please!). I also give BRB points for “best new story ballet of the year” even though I don’t think Cyrano was new and I don’t think I saw any other new story ballet this year (even though I do try to go see them when I can – well, okay, there was the Wuthering Heights ballet but it seemed more like a thought than a story).

Painful lesson of the year: modern opera, I really shouldn’t bother. Die Tote Stadt, Into the Little Hill, Grand Macabre; I really want to support new opera but unfortunately I think it’s almost entirely unmusical, like it’s designed by academics to adhere to certain structures and generally not to be musical in any way.

Musical of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical*; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. After tossing and turning, debating the hysterical brilliance of Silence (full of hummable, if utterly rude, tunes) and the extravagant, seedy intensity of Pirates, I’ve decided the award goes to … Pirates, which made an arthritic script come to life in a way I truly did not think possible. Rumor has it it’s going to be reprised at Wilton’s Music Hall this spring, though unfortunately I can’t find any information about it on their calendar. That said, Silence: the Musical is going to be done again at the Above the Stag theater – don’t miss out as there’s really little reason for it to be staged again so soon and it really is a hoot.

Best theater blog: I’m not going to list the ones I read (mostly because it’s a short list), but once again the West End Whingers have proven to have the blog that gets me the right hot tips on what shows to see. Sometimes it was a show I’d unimaginatively rejected; sometimes it’s a show I never heard of; almost always it was a show that was on the verge of becoming unattainable. It’s even better now that they have a Twitter feed: getting a line from them to “buy your tickets for Jerusalem now” will send me immediately to my computer. Every now and then we utterly disagree on a show; but mostly they are like having my own private theatrical pimp. I like that.

Show of the year: the nominees were: Entertaining Mr Sloane; Kursk; The Mountaintop; Enron; Cock. (Note absolutely nothing from the Donmar this year, for shame). In a year in which great shows were thin on the ground in comparison to the volume of productions being cranked out, this wasn’t nearly as competitive as I was hoping it would be. Still, I’ve weighed the best of the year (that I saw), and it’s clear: not only as best production but also as best script, Mike Bartlett’s Cock blew me away. Each performance was perfect; the close confines made it all that more intense; the words were exactly what they should be. It’s a damned shame it sold out so fast, but such good theater should never experience a single unoccupied seat for even one night. I can’t imagine it being remounted elsewhere without watering down the impact of seeing this in the round in a tiny (80 person?) house, but this was really just a tiny drop of perfection in a year that was otherwise a bit of a desert.

Right, that’s it for me: 116 shows in one year was probably about thirty more than I should have seen. I don’t even think I’m capable of remembering who the best actor and actress even were anymore. Next year, I’m hanging up my hat and taking it easy; I want 2010 to be a year when I see less shows and more that I like. This will require waiting until the reviews come in so I can more easily identify the productions that will suit me, and might mean that I miss a few that sharper people snapped up sooner – but I think it’s probably the way to go. Even sticking to a budget like I try to do, this year was taxing on my wallet as well as my sleep schedule. See you in the second balcony …

*Actually, Priscilla was never a contender for me. I just put it in there because it seemed like it should have been, especially given how expensive it was.


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6 Responses to “Best London theater, 2009”

  1. TheTTCritic Says:

    Interesting list. Not sure what you mean about Mayerling twice in two years as prior to this year it hasn’t been revived since 2006/2007 (unless I missed it which I’m pretty certain I didn’t). The Royal Ballet have been disappointingly conservative recently (and Birmingham have done very, very well at commissioning new work) but to their credit they are premièring a new full length next season (and have done pretty well for one acters recently). Cyrano was great fun but a classical throwback (even pastiche at times), it didn’t exactly push ballet into the 21st century so much as return it to the 19th (I exaggerate).

    I don’t think “Die Tote Stadt” can really be described as modern either. Would you describe Puccini or Janacek as modern? Modern’s a pretty vague term though. It doesn’t really have any of the hallmarks (so to speak) of contemporary opera however (another vague term).

    I feel you’re a little unfair on the Donmar. Their West End season played to absolutely packed houses despite containing some fairly unusual material (I didn’t catch the Mishima so can’t comment but Ivanov was definitely worth seeing). Apart from Jude Law most of the “Celebrities” were tried and tested actors (and Jude Law isn’t a total novice by any means). If finding recognisable names is what’s required to fill theatres showing obscure Chekhov then I’m all for it. Plus they could all act (the ones I saw at any rate and the general critical consensus was pretty positive across the board). They kept prices down as well (extravagant they were not) which can only be congratulated. The Rachel Weisz “Streetcar” was tremendous as well. For such a tiny theatre the Donmar remains a serious force to be reckoned with.

    Bashing David Tennant is similarly unfair, long before Doctor Who he was doing fine work on the stage. His performance in “The Pillowman” remains a highlight of my theatregoing life. Keira Knightly’s a bit different but then if the poor girl wants to move into theatre she has to start somewhere. Producers are inevitably going to capitalise.


    • webcowgirl Says:

      Did they really not do Meyerling last year, too? It just seems like it was so recently – I think of story ballets getting at least a 4 or 5 year rotation. I mean, how long has it been since Manon? Seems like forever …

      And I really do think the Donmar did a good job of making good theater affordable, but I felt like their programming was just too unimaginative – and the productions seemed similarly very by-the-book. And “recognizable names” is a bad path to follow when it leads to all of these TV stars and minor celebrities walking the boards.

      Modern opera: well, I mean pretty much anything post-Classical era. I should really just stick with what I like, which is Baroque, and not bother with the rest of it. But just wait, I’ll be seeing that Rufus Wainwright opera at Sadler’s Wells in spite of myself.

      • TheTTCritic Says:

        Manon was revived last year by the Royal Ballet, the ENB produced their version around the same time. Story ballets can’t get a 4/5 year rotation there simply aren’t enough of them. Not nearly. In an ideal world I’d be all for not having Swan Lakes coming out of my ears but that’s the cultural world we live in.

        I don’t completely disagree with you about the Donmar. Andrew’s bang on with dependable. I’m still not convinced about the celebrity thing. I can’t actually think of many that have lowered the standards. I can see why some find it irritating that conventional West End theatre is getting masses of mainstream press for regulation revivals with stars whilst interesting, quirky theatre gets little attention but upon examination that’s a silly way of thinking. Theatre’s in the National conciousness, who loses out? Who are these TV stars and minor celebrities you refer to; what shows are they doing? “Calendar Girls” perhaps but I’ve heard some very interesting things about the audience that it is dragging in and none of them negative. I can’t defend “Breakfast at Tiffanys” but then it’s scarcely fair to bash the whole sector with one example. The Royal Court’s “The Author” was hardly a triumph.

        If you’re still stuck in the classical period do you not think pushing your way through the gorgeousness of the Romantic period might be better before hammering away at contemporary works? “Boheme” and its ilk make for pretty reliable evenings and occasionally borderline life-changing ones.


  2. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    We are deeply honoured to be named Blog Of The Year. Do we get a cash prize? Or a badge?

    The Donmar really HAS gone off the boil a bit, hasn’t it? Solid and dependable but not very exciting. Even more so the National which is the other elephant in your shortlist.

    And I support TTC’s request that you stop bashing David Tennant right this instant. The way he has overcome the disability of his Scotch accent should be an inspiration to us all and particularly so to Americans.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Your prize is a free glass of wine the next time we’re together and a taco dinner at my place. And, gosh, did I forget the National? Odd that.

  3. Remount review – All male Pirates of Penzance – Wilton’s Music Hall « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] now of the remount at Wilton’s Music Hall, this is still a good show, a re-energized remounting of a dusty old classic. If you haven’t […]

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