What can one say of a theatre year that began with one spirited, unexpectedly brainy young woman (Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, via the sublimely funny and endearing Sheridan Smith) and ended with a decidedly brilliant pre-pubescent (Roald Dahl's preternaturally and supernaturally gifted Matilda), pausing along the way to give pride of place to the doomed Christine Daae in Love Never Dies – in the shimmering presence of West End first-timer Sierra Boggess – and Elena Roger's pint-sized, memorably hapless Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion? (Oh, and let's not forget Tracie Bennett's electrifying Judy Garland, newly incarnated as opposed to cheesily impersonated, in End of the Rainbow, the self-evident audience favourite of the year.)
In musical terms, at least, it was ladies' night – girls, if one is referring to 11-year-old Kerry Ingram's wee, parentally challenged Matilda – at the theatre this year, just as straight plays offered up male star turns aplenty, not least when it came to Shakespeare: Rory Kinnear displayed his Bardic chops and gifts for clarity not once but twice, in Measure For Measure and Hamlet, while a cherub-faced Derek Jacobi played the testiest, most distinctively combative Lear in my experience. (Also one of the few to approximate the character's age, 72 being not far off the actual years of the mad monarch he was finally playing: a date with theatrical destiny fulfilled.) Simon Russell Beale scored twice over as well, laying aside his usual Shakespearean forays – though word has it that he will tackle Lear before too much longer – to camp it up agreeably in the National's London Assurance, then finding Iago-esque reserves of jealousy and sublimated longing as the blocked playwright at the murderous heart of Ira Levin's Deathtrap. (That Matthew Warchus revival also welcomed to London Broadway's Jonathan Groff in an assured stage turn that found the Spring Awakening star sharing a prolonged smooch with his generation's leading stage classicist.)
Warchus was also at the helm of the year's showiest acting feat: Mark Rylance babbling, chewing, and on occasion farting his way through the opening half-hour or more of David Hirson's La Bete, a tiresome play that traveled from the West End directly to Broadway without setting either city on fire; David Hyde Pierce deserved kudos of sorts for patiently standing by, though Joanna Lumley – playing a character that had changed gender in the 20 years since the play was first seen – got to make a grand entrance and not much else; the opening sight of Adrian Scarborough in After the Dance, lying prostrate on a sofa, face covered by a newspaper, reaped far greater if decidedly less glamorous rewards.
In fact, After the Dance was the straight-play revelation of the year, an all-but-unknown Terence Rattigan text that kicked off a year early the centenary of the playwright's birth that promises all manner of theatrical enticements in 2011; that line-up includes Cause Celebre at the Old Vic, directed by Thea Sharrock, who was on dazzling form with After the Dance. An enquiry into a blighted community of Bright Young Things, the play paired Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll as an ill-fated husband and wife, the fast-rising Cumberbatch communicating his character's visible self-disgust and the febrile Carroll all but walking off with a show from which she disappeared two-thirds of the way through. (But not before winning the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress.) Scarborough, meanwhile, suggested himself as a Russell Beale of sorts in waiting, his mixture of asperity and passion anchoring a play that was moving in ways that only a writer trafficking in such clamped-down emotions could make possible.
The Lyttelton stage hosted two other major discoveries. The White Guard completed director Howard Davies' trifecta of Russian reappraisals in a Bulgakov play careening from tragedy to farce and back again, and Men Should Weep found National Theatre newcomer Josie Rourke serving up the most challenging set of accents to be heard all year due to an Ena Lamont Stewart play set in Glasgow tenements teeming with cruelty and also compassion. Sharon Small, playing the matriarch of a home marked out by rickets, adultery, and an ageing gran', gave off somethi