2016: Top Ten Plays – West End

What a disappointing year 2016 has been for the West End. It should be difficult to compose a list of the real hits of the West End – after all, it is the theatrical centre of the world. But too many producers prefer stars over quality and, more and more, the major U.K. companies presenting works in the West End are spending time fooling themselves about what is greatness in theatrical endeavour.

The National Theatre, The Young Vic, The Old Vic, The Royal Court and The Donmar Warehouse Theatre have all lost their way – a hit production in any of their theatres is not the usual experience there any more. The Globe has proved itself to not understand what it is for by sacking Emma Rice before her second season has commenced. The Kenneth Branagh Company started strongly but fizzed out. Only the Almeida Theatre is a reliable and exciting West End hitmaker.

The cost of the theatre on the West End is high, but standards and expectations are low. This must stop if the West End is to survive and thrive.

This list is a personal one, based only on shows that I have seen. So it does not include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but only because I have not seen it. It doesn’t include the Young Chekhov season at the National because I saw that in Chichester, not at the National. But both would likely have featured on this list had I seen them on the West End.

Honourable mentions go to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe), Richard III (Almeida), The Red Barn (National), The Nest (Young Vic), King Lear (Old Vic) and Dr Faustus (with Kit Harrington and Jenna Russell).

What strikes one most about 2016 were the number of outstanding performances from females in plays on the West End. It was an exceptional year for female actors. As every year should be.

10.     All The Angels

All The Angels sounded like archetypal Christmas fare: classical music and period costumes, a drama about making music and the healing/restorative powers of music. But you didn’t expect Handel to swear quite so vigorously and nor did you expect him to tell a singer that her voice comes from her fanny. Yet, there it was. All The Angels was that rare play: a mediation on the transformative power of music and the cost of achieving it. Against a human narrative, the Messiah has never sounded so remarkable.

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9.     How The Other Half Loves

Despite the passage of time since Alan Ayckbourn wrote it, some nearly fifty years, the writing and the gags in How The Other Half Loves still felt entirely modern. Alan Strachan set this production firmly in 1969, and that afforded an opportunity for Julie Godfrey to enjoy herself creating decor and costumes that loudly and clearly evoked that time, but there is really no reason why it could not be set in the present day. These types of people are still everywhere in Britain and they are not going anywhere and it was good to have their prejudices and foibles unsparingly skewered by Ayckbourn’s comic sword.

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8.     Uncle Vanya

Robert Icke brought his particular brand of theatrical magic to Ibsen’s Uncle Vanya and scored another triumph. Modern names, a constantly revolving set and a sense of fluid but rising tempestuousness defined this production which made palpable notions of loss, yearning and mischance. It was another stellar achievement from the Almeida, easily the best company firing hits on the West End.

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7.     The Master Builder

Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, written in 1892 and first performed in London a year later, was revived by Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic (his second directorial effort in his first season as Artistic Director) using a translation by David Hare. This is one of Ibsen’s trickiest plays to pull off. On the one hand it is a domestic drama about a petulant raging narcissist who believes he can will events to occur through the sheer power of his brain’s meanderings; on the other, it is a psychological exploration of ambition, grief, lust and power, with explicit erotic undertones. From the very first moment she entered the stage, Linda Emond, a formidable Broadway star, grabbed attention and commanded respect. Her Aline was grim, tortured, watchful, alienated and completely broken inside while accommodating and dutiful on the outside. A star turn that more than measured up to Ralph Fiennes’ central performance.

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6.     No Man’s Land

When star casting works, the results can be thrilling and sublime. So it was with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Patrick Stewart, two true stars, two real giants of stage and screen, both absolute masters of theatrical alchemy. This was a flawless display of real skill and the result was macabre, thoughtful, slightly frightening, and very, very funny. For many months, there was nothing to match it on the West End.

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5.     Les Blancs

Yaël Farber’s fascinating and quite wondrous production of Les Blancs, a play written by Lorraine A Raisin In The Sun Hansberry and adapted by her widower Robert Nemiroff (and others) was an unqualified masterpiece. Vicious, insightful, urbane, thrilling and, most of all, intensely passionate. It was both powerful and enlightening, shocking and uplifting. The strength and positions of the characters seemed clear almost from the outset, but as the play progressed black turns out not to be black and white not white; grey abounds. It was hypnotic to watch unfold. The fiery finale seemed inevitable, but also, counter-intuitively, hopeful. Sian Phillips shone.

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4.     Mary Stuart

It was difficult, still is,  not to go all Charity Hope Valentine – ” All I can say is Wow!”- over Robert Icke’s flawless and thrilling revival of Mary Stuart. Because, after a year where extraordinary productions of plays were been few and far between on the West End, Mary Stuart attained a very high benchmark. Sharing the central roles of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams tossed a coin each night to decide who played which Queen, and then proceeded to give luminous, exhilarating and extraordinarily revealing performances, exacting every emotion and nuance from every scene. Extraordinary.

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3.     Nell Gwynn

Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s truly wonderful played at the Apollo Theatre following a sold out first run at the Globe. Gwynn was a real historical figure, but the play is not historically accurate although it strives – and succeeds admirably – in evoking both the spirit of the times and the spirit of a remarkable woman who literally changed the course of theatrical endeavour forever. But it is also a celebration of women in the theatre and a timely, perhaps critical, wry reminder of how important the better sex are to the theatre, as well as life, and how they should be revered. I cannot recall the last time I sat in a theatre (discounting musicals) and smiled continuously for the entire playing time, except for those moments I laughed out loud or cried, either with joy or in sorrow. But this was such a time.

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2.     Iphigenia in Splott

Playwright Gary Owen took the basic premise, or at least aspects of Iphigenia at Aulis, as the basis for a modern take on the tale. Iphigenia in Splott has little to do with mythological figures, however. Rather, the play is steeped in modern (almost mythical) notions of the way certain sections of society behave, live and love. The play was a tour de force for Sophie Melville, who played Effie. She was utterly remarkable. When the play began, Effie seemed like the Daily Mail stereotype of an angry estate-dwelling alcohol-swilling obscenity-hurling misfit short on education, dress-sense or a sense of responsibility. But as the play progressed, Melville stripped away the spiky exterior Effie prefers to hold to the world rather like a snake shedding skin. What she revealled beneath the tough exterior was touching and easy to empathise with. It was a remarkable progression, beautifully and convincingly conveyed. A performance that still haunts me.

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  1. Escaped Alone

It may have only been 55 minutes long, but Caryl Churchill’s new play, Escaped Alone, which had its premiere season at the Royal Court, directed by James Macdonald, was a gem. Like a valuable jewel, it sparkled and shined and took on different colours and complexions depending on how you looked at it. In some light it looked intriguing, seductive, shimmering, tangible; in the darkness, however, it needed to be found, because its colours depended upon the light – or at least it seemed that way. An unmissable treat with the sensational Linda Bassett at its core. It proved the power of Caryl Churchill’s dramatic writings and cemented her place in the pantheon of the great writers of the Twenty-First Century.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.