2011 West End

2011 proved to be one of the most varied years in recent history with the West End seeing a mixture of new works, revivals, Broadway transfers and celebrity appearances. As the recession threatened a double dip the face of the West End became unpredictable with shows closing early and dark theatres, filled with stopgap productions and regional transfers. It wasn’t just new plays suffering falls in audiences, revivals of classic plays staring celebrities as varied as Thandie Newton and Joanna Lumley posted early closing. At a time when audiences were visibly tightening their belts, the role of the critics became even more important. Shows receiving 4 stars invited confidence for frugal customers, with those achieving only middle of the road reviews proving the most quiet.


Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and nowhere was this more clear than with Cameron Mackintosh’s new musical Betty Blue Eyes which received almost unanimous critical praise but failed to draw in the masses at the Novello theatre.  Penned by British duo Stiles and Drewe the riotous romp starred Sarah Lancashire and (the voice of) Kylie Minogue as a talking pig. A string of five star reviews and Alan Bennett’s name (whose 1984 film ‘A Private Function’ inspired the show) were not enough to see the show much past the summer haze. Other new musicals suffered a similar fate, both at the Gielgud theatre. First up The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which starred Joanna Riding followed by Matthew Kelly in the musical farce Lend Me a Tenor. Both shows proved popular with audiences and critics but were unable to battle against the commercialism of other new shows such as The Wizard of Oz or Shrek drawing in the schools and coach tours.  The former billed as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘new’ production was a large scale, garish production at the London Palladium acting as a star vehicle for Michael Crawford and TV reality winner Danielle Hope. The Lord himself added five new songs to the show, adding nothing to the classic musical but schmaltz and a certain tacky appeal for families and tourists. The Broadway transfer of Shrek the Musical lost all energy and originality in the trans-Atlantic journey as it opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Songs were cut to suit Richard Blackwood’s vocal talents (or lack of) and Sutton Foster’s Princess Fiona was replaced by a wooden Amanda Holden, whose vocal stamina meant she missed multiple performances and ultimately left the role early.


Following the tradition of screen-to-stage musicals, Ghost opened at the Piccadilly Theatre based on the film of the same name. The show became an instant success and will transfer to Broadway in 2012 with original stars Richard Fleeshman and Cassie Levy. Backbeat followed suit opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre with an impressive cast including Nick Blood and Andrew Knott, telling the story of the Beatles rise to fame and their Hamburg years. The most successful new musical to open in London transferred from the RSC’s new theatre in Stratford to the Cambridge Theatre gaining the best reviews of the year. Matilda a musical, based on the book by Roald Dahl featuring a score by Tim Minchin was an overblown spectacle directed by Matthew Warchus with choreography by Peter Darling.

A period of much uncertainty from both producers and audience members has created a revolving door at some theatres, with gaps being filled by regional gems finding new homes in the West End. After the departure of Betty Blue Eyes the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (who took home the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival once again) leapt at the chance to transfer their highly successful production of Gershwin’s Crazy for You to the Novello Theatre, adding a certain amount of glitz and glamour to the Aldwych. Further down the road, the closing of long running Dirty Dancing before a UK tour led to a number of disappointing plays which included Mark Warren in Cool Hand Luke closing early, making way for the sparkling touring production of Top Hat to enter the West End early 2012. The jewel in this nostalgic crown was the Chichester Festival Theatre’s dazzling production of Singin’ in the Rain which was met with excellent reviews, and will take over the Palace Theatre after Priscilla finally drives her party bus out of the West End on New Year’s Eve. Chichester proved lightning can strike twice with it’s brand new version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd starring Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in a fantastic revival which will also open in the West End in 2012.

Some of the most honest productions of the year opened at Off West End venues, proving what can be achieved in smaller non-traditional spaces. First up was Parade at the Southwalk Playhouse, and although the production didn’t quite live up to the 2007 Donmar revival, it was still a tour de force, strengthening the venue’s dominance on the London fringe scene. Over at the Landor Theatre Flaherty and Ahrens’ epic musical Parade was presented in a breathtaking new production featuring a number of stunning performances and incredible musical achievements. The Menier Chocolate Factory enjoyed a relatively quiet year with productions such as Road Show and Pippin failing to excite critics. Other regional revivals worth mentioning both occurred over the festive period – the first at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a witty new production of Annie and the second Company at Daniel Evans’ newly managed Sheffield Crucible Theatre. Commercialism in the West End meant that regional and fringe productions could thrive, finding new audiences in frustrated theatregoers looking for more than ‘razzle dazzle’ and overblown productions.


Over on the Southbank Hytner hinted he intends to stay for another three years after yet another diverse and successful season. Early successes included Frankenstein and London Road which became somewhat overshadowed by the success of James Cordon in the hilarious One Man Two Guvnor’s which subsequently transferred to the Adelphi Theatre followed by a Broadway transfer. NT Live continued to thrive, sending productions of Wesker The Kitchen and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to new audiences around the world. Mike Bartlett’s new play 13 failed to match the early success of Earthquakes in London offering an obvious view on modern London that failed to answer as many questions as it raised.  The Donmar Warehouse continued it’s incredible success as it’s production of King Lear transferred to BAM after a brief UK tour, and it’s production of Anna Christie starring Jude Law making for a perfect farewell season for Michael Grandage.

The Comedy Theatre was renamed The Harold Pinter, offering a conveyor belt for celebrities in pedestrian revivals of shows such as The Children’s Hour, Betrayal and Death and the Maiden. The Royal Court’s production of Jerusalem enjoyed a victory lap at the Apollo Theatre as Mark Rylance continued to star as Rooster. Trevor Nunn began his first season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, opening strong with a production of Flare Path starring Sheridan Smith but failed to match his own success with flat productions of The Tempest, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Lion in Winter, the latter closing early despite the popularity of Joanna Lumley. Over at Trafalgar Studios Max Stafford Clark re-directed Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to great affect, breathing life into the 1981 play he originally directed at the Royal Court.

Shakespeare continued to feature strongly throughout the year with a masterclass in acting from Kevin Spacey as Richard III in the Sam Mendes directed production at The Old Vic. Catherine Tate and David Tennant draw new audiences to the Wyndham’s theatre in an otherwise ordinary production of Much Ado About Nothing which also featured at the Globe for their summer season. Michael Grandage chose to bid farewell to the Donmar Warehouse with an inspired new look at Richard II starring flavor of the month Eddie Redmayne as the young King. All eyes are firmly set on his successor Josie Rourke to keep the flame burning into the Olympic year and beyond.

As 2012 approaches all eyes will shift somewhat east of the West End for the summer months, bringing new challenges to the theatre industry which will hopefully be met with great respect. As Andrew Lloyd Webber threatens to close his productions over the three week Olympic period let’s hope others will embrace the wave of tourism into the capital, making 2012 a theatrical success.


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