2008 West End

Donmar in the West End logo (British Theatre Guide)

After a few years of some epic musicals on the London stage, 2008 will be remembered as being a time for excellence in plays both old and new. The Donmar Warehouse began its year long residency at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, kicking off with an outstanding production of Chekhov’s Ivanov starring a somewhat smug Kenneth Branagh, directed by Artistic Director Michael Grandage. At the venue itself Sean Holmes presented a tasteful production of Arthur Miller’s lesser known play The Man Who Had All the Luck alongside Elena Roger in a revival of Piaf. Proving that a foreign accent can work for Spanish (Evita), French (Piaf) and later Italian (Passion) Roger used her distinct voice to bring the show to life, transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End.

Shaftesbury Avenue was a wash with teenage (and some slightly older…) girls going crazy for Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett who starred in Rain Man at the Apollo Theatre, based on the 1988 Oscar-winning film. Celebrity hunters were out in force later in the year as David Tennant of Dr. Who fame took on the role of Hamlet in the RSC’s bold new production alongside Trekkie Patrick Stewart. Directed by Gregory Doran Tennant defied the critics who labelled the move as mere ‘celebrity Shakespeare’ to give a powerful performance. After transferring to London however Tennant had to miss multiple performances due to bad health and back injury – something that upset many of his eager fans. Michael Boyd brought the RSC to London in an eight play Histories season at the Camden Roundhouse, winning much critical acclaim.

Across the river at the Old Vic Matthew Warchus presented Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests trilogy, altering the venue to give an ‘in the round’ performance, similar to Ayckbourn’s own Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Vanessa Redgrave’s one woman Broadway production of The Year of Magical Thinking found a home in the West End and the actress reprised her emotional role based on Joan Didion’s book. Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins starred in a new production of Oedipus at the National, in a season that was filled with mishaps. The wide mouth frog, otherwise known as Felicity Kendal, starred in a rather safe and uninspired staging of Noel Coward’s The Vortex on Shaftesbury Avenue, but it was another Coward that captured many people’s imaginations. The Kneehigh Theatre Company created a wonderful fim-to-stage adaptation of Brief Encounter which used a combination of theatre and film to tell the classic story set in a bygone age of romance. The piece was a critical hit and inspired a Broadway transfer and subsequent US tour.

Eurobeat

When the jewel in the musical crown comes from a jukebox transfer show it seems obvious that the West End shows 2008 was a dry year. Jersey Boys slotted seamlessly into the Prince Edward Theatre under the supervision of Cameron Mackintosh and managed to emulate similar success to its Broadway debut. The Menier Chocolate Factory went on to prove they can do no wrong with a revival of La Cage aux Folles starring Douglas Hodge as the drag queen ZaZa. The production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre and featured a number of celebrity take overs – the most disappointing being Graham Norton, and the best being John Barrowman. The Novello Theatre proved it had hit new theatrical lows when it let Eurobeat: The Eurovision Song Contest Musical take to the stage. Providing the audience with a unique interactive experience, the show reconstructed the Eurovision Song Contest complete with tacky sets, bizarre accents and crude humour. The tone of the Savoy Theatre was severely compromised as Never Forget, a musical based on the back catalogue of Take That, opened and thankfully didn’t last long enough to raise too many eyebrows.

Zorro Poster (wikipedia Lightdefender)

The Garrick Theatre presented a succession of musical flops, the first one coming in the form of Zorro, a musical based on the films with a new score by the Gypsy Kings. Starring an impressive Matt Rawle and Emma Williams, the show deserved to run longer, but even swashbuckling, fire eating and a salsa inspired score couldn’t save the ill fated show. It was replaced by Peter Pan, el Musical which wasn’t worth the time it took to change the theatre marquee.

The New London Theatre presented two very different musicals which given a different climate may have been allowed to flourish. The first was an ambitious staging of Gone with the Wind, directed by Trevor Nunn. Running at an epic length of almost 4 hours during previews, the show was critically savaged despite a talented cast and some wonderful moments. Imagine This opened later at the same theatre, presenting a musical set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II that failed to find an audience. Peter Polycarpou led the cast and the show closed after only a month.

Gone With the Wind Poster (wikipedia ExpressingYourself)

The most successful new musical of the year came from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg as book writers and music by Michael Legrand. Marguerite opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in May, running through the summer until September 13, closing three months ahead of schedule. The show starred Ruthie Henshall, Julian Ovenden and Alexander Hanson and was set in 1940s German-occupied Paris. The critics praised the production, saying it raised the bar for modern musicals. Sadly the audiences didn’t feel the same and the coach parties headed up the road to enjoy Jersey Boys instead.

The failure of so many new musicals this year reflected the economic climate, as many people began to feel the pinch of the recession. Although West End theatre continued to thrive in terms of numbers, audiences were drawn to ‘safer’ options, such as celebrity castings, jukebox musicals and shows they knew they would like. It would be interesting to judge the reception of these shows in a different year under different circumstances as many had potential to succeed and were enjoyed by the rare few who managed to see them before they closed.

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