2009 West End

Enron (wikipedia, adracas)

2009 proved to be once again a phenomenal year for new writing. New plays from the National Theatre, Royal Court and the Almedia ruled the season, alongside further revivals by the Donmar both in and out of the West End. Celebrity turns, some more reality television casting and comedians-turned-serious-actors made for some exciting productions in London, with only a small number of Broadway transfers.

The most long awaited new play of the year came from Alan Bennett in his first play since the triumphant The History Boys of 2005. The theme had been announced by the National Theatre, and Michael Gambon and Alex Jennings were ready to play Auden and Brittain respectively, alongside Francis de la Tour and managed by Nicholas Hytner. Last minute changes saw Richard Griffiths step up to the plate, replacing Gambon and making for a rather comedic History Boys reunion. Bennett’s play sparkled in the Lyttleton Theatre, creating a meta-theatrical look at the nature of creating and maintaining art. Poet Auden and composer Ben Brittan were forced together in a fictional meeting by Bennett in this riotous comedy full of Bennett’s usual pathos and serious reflections.

Lucy Prebble’s play Enron premiered in Chichester before transferring to the Royal Court followed by the Noel Coward Theatre. The play was based on the Enron scandal, directed by Rupert Goold. The production highlighted the smoke and mirror financial practices which resulted in the collapse of Enron and gained five star reviews from many newspapers. The play did not transfer successfully to Broadway, where the New York Times panned the production and it closed prematurely. Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalemalso opened at the Royal Court before transferring to the West End and received similarly strong reviews, particularly for Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. The play follows a group of travellers living in Wiltshire whom the council want to evict. The play transferred to Broadway later in 2011, where Rylance picked up the Tony Award for Best Actor.

Prick Up Your Ears opened at the Comedy Theatre, based on the life of playwright Joe Orton. The cast included Chris New and Matt Lucas, who had to pull out of the production due to the death of his former husband. The dark comedy failed to recover from Lucas’s departure, and the production was short lived.

Sister Act original artwork (wikipedia, howcheng)

The big new musicals of the year were both stage adaptations of famous films. Sister Act the Musical opened at the London Palladium, featuring a brand new score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Although the show was part produced by Whoopi Goldberg, the show did not use any of the songs from the hit 1992 film of which she starred. The musical received positive reviews, with many praising Patina Miller who took on the role of Dolores, the part originally played by Goldberg. Sheila Hancock starred as the Mother Superior with Katie Rowley Jones as Sister Mary Robert. The show was seen to be a spectacle, with larger than life sets and costumes invoking the disco period in which it is set. Menken’s music and Slater’s lyrics were praised, with most of the criticism focused on the book. The show ran for over a year, and transferred to Broadway before embarking on a UK wide tour.

The Palace Theatre went all glittery when Priscilla Queen of the Desert landed in March, co produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. The show is adapted from the 1994 film and tells the story of two drag queens who travel across Australia to perform in Alice Springs in a lavender bus. The score uses famous pop songs from the 70s and 80s, accompanied by an ensemble of drag queens wearing outrageous costumes. Billed as a feel-good show, past casts have included Jason Donovan, Tony Sheldon and Oliver Thornton. The show closed in London in December 2011 after an acceptable run.

The biggest musical revivals of the year came from the Young Vic and the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, as they brought Annie Get Your Gun and Hello Dolly to new audiences. The former starred Jane Horrocks as Annie Oakley, and featured a dramatic re-orchestration using four onstage pianos. Thanks to free publicity from the BBC via yet another reality TV casting stunt, it was Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! that got most of the attention, opening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Based on Sam Mendes’ previous production, the show set box office records after announcing that Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) would play the role of Fagin, alongside ‘I’d Do Anything’ winner Jodie Prenger as Nancy. The production featured an army of children, bringing the show to life on the colossal Drury Lane stage where it ran for just under two years. Russ Abbot, Omid Djialili and Griff Rhys Jones all took turns at playing Fagin, to often full houses of schools and coach trips. Many in the industry felt that the show’s success was as a direct result of free primetime TV marketing, causing much debate in the theatre world.

Jude Law (wikipedia, indiannomad)

The Donmar in the West End season presented what seemed to be the tenth celebrity Hamlet in the past year, as Jude Law brought the Danish Prince to life at the Wyndham’s Theatre. The actor spoke of the challenge of the role, and although many praised the production, he was seen as a weak link. Back on home turf the venue presented a wonderful production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Rachel Weisz as the faded southern belle Blanche du Bois in a production led by Rob Ashford. Weisz defied expectations in this clever production, bringing a new vulnerability to the role that was praised by numerous critics, leading to her winning the Olivier Award that year.

William’s fans were in for a second helping as the Broadway 2008 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof transferred to the Novello Theatre, featuring the same cast with the addition of Adrian Lester as Brick. The production was equally as stunning, James Earl Jones delivering a magnificent overall performance as the patriarchal Big Daddy in the all African-American production.

Over at the National, Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren starred in Phaedra, directed by Nicholas Hytner in a bold new production. Ken Stott played the ill fated Miller hero in a classy revival of A View from the Bridge although his ego led to multiple breaks in the performance as his temper often flared off the stage and into the unsuspecting audience. Sir Ian McKellen was joined by Sir Patrick Stewart in the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s production of Beckett’s tricky play Waiting for Godot. Critics found the interpretation to be definitive, offering a rare chance to see such fantastic actors together onstage.

Spring Awakening London, 2009 West End Theatre Production (salparadisetmblr)

The biggest failure of the year came from the over hyped Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening. After an ‘out of town’ tryout at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, the show moved to the Novello where it was unanimously praised by the major critics. Audiences however thought differently and London was not taken in by this Tony Award winning musical, and it shut prematurely, losing a significant percentage of its investment.

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