Two plays featured real-life babies (Consent and The Ferryman). The National swung from instant sellouts to baffling duds. And the Almeida emerged as the Off West End theater of choice in a characteristically dizzying, often dazzling year on the London stage. That might not have been apparent at the National premiere of Salome, a riff on the Oscar Wilde tale from the writer-director Yael Farber that really did prompt thoughts of a mid-show escape – not possible given the absence of an intermission. The same show had been raved about in Washington D.C., which makes one wonder what happened in the trans-Atlantic crossing.
But the gifted Farber soon after redeemed herself, and then some, reviving for the Donmar Warehouse David Harrower’s infinitely mysterious and intriguing Knives In Hens, a parable of literacy and agency dressed up as a love triangle that Farber rendered with the atmospheric heft that has become her stock in trade. (There’s scarcely another director working today whose lighting and sound designers make such a crucial difference. Tim Lutkin and Christopher Shutt were the consummate talents on hand here.)
Even as the National’s capacious Olivier auditorium went on to house two more plays not ready for prime-time – though Saint George and the Dragon was quite a bit better than Common, and both were very well acted by their leads – the same address closed out the year with a wondrous revival of the 1971 Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies. Long talked about for this venue as a passion project of Trevor Nunn, the show landed in the empathic lap of Dominic Cooke, a dab hand with American work here directing, astonishingly, his first-ever musical, and with a social anatomist’s eye for detail that meant the production not only looked ravishing but burrowed deeply under the skin.
I saw Follies three times and saw it deepen on each occasion, and my only regret is that I don’t have a way of collating for eternal consideration the various ways that Imelda Staunton found to shade her character Sally Durant Plummer’s torch song, “Losing My Mind.” The staging’s enthusiasts by the last performance had very nearly lost theirs – in delight. Cheers to the entire cast, not least Philip Quast and Peter Forbes, who were sometimes sidelined in the bouquets thrown at the female trifecta of Staunton, the sleekly acidic Janie Dee and the diminutive powerhouse that is Tracie Bennett.
New British musicals were there, if not necessarily to be savored. I’m far more sceptical than most of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a critics’ favorite that has its heart in the right place but could use gallons more art. The Grinning Man, meanwhile, took as its source the same author as Les Miserables (Victor Hugo) while cribbing shamelessly from The Phantom of the Opera, all the while telling its basic story so convolutedly that this spectator's grin, for one, soon turned into a deeply furrowed brow. There were far greater pleasures at a trio of American titles, and not just Hamilton, which cut its international chops by making an explosive star out of 25-year-old newcomer Jamael Westman in the title role.
Devotees had fun comparing the virtues of An American in Paris (which I saw four times) and 42nd Street (twice, with more to come), but there’s no doubt that Robert Fairchild, Zoe Rainey and David Seadon-Young all astonished in the former, whereas the latter gave vital pride of place to a fast-driving, hard-working ensemble who often looked as if they would stop at nothing in their quest to raise the roof. (Let’s pause, though, to single out the lovely Clare Halse, whose small-town gal Peggy Sawyer genuinely does go out there an unknown and come back a star.)
New plays were inordinately rich on the ground, and varied too, if not always readily classifiable. Girl From the North Country divided playgoers as to whether it was a play with music or a musical, but there was scant argument about writer-director Conor McPherson and his musical arranger Simon Hale’s abilities to wrest something fresh and fierce from the Bob Dylan back catalogue. A second Old Vic entry, A Christmas Carol adapted by Harry Potter scribe Jack Thorne, played Dickens’ seasonal chestnut for keeps, proffering a message for compassion for the ages even as it sent Brussels sprouts falling from the ceiling into many a delighted lap.
The search for empathy and understanding fueled the altogether extraordinary Young Vic production of The Jungle, in which the vaunted playhouse (heading into 2018 with a new artistic director in Kwame Kwei-Armah) refashioned itself as the now-demolished Calais “jungle” – a blight on the landscape that was also, as Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s immersive staging reminded us at every turn, for some not inconsiderable while a haven, a place of commingling, for better or worse a home. I saw it with a young Syrian friend of mine who had spent time in the "jungle" itself. He said the play felt entirely authentic, of which there is no higher praise.
Across town, the small but mighty Almeida fielded hit after hit, from Andrew Scott’s febrile, flutelike Hamlet to Victoria Hamilton’s Brexit-era businesswoman and grieving mum in the new Mike Bartlett play Albion, which also seemed to put all the local garden centers on one Islington stage. Best of all was James Graham’s journalistic vaudeville about a young Rupert Murdoch, Ink, a cautionary tale for today that is also a nostalgic look back at a forever-vanished way of working in a newspaper era now given over to the digital. The method of production may have changed; the debate about morality posited by the play has not.