Arts: Size isn't everything

Neither the National nor the RSC had a great 1998. In fact, nearly all this year's theatrical highlights came from more unexpected venues. David Benedict pulls out some plums, while Dominic Cavendish clears a path through the fringe

You don't have to be Mystic Meg to predict that Kevin Spacey will bag the Olivier award for his completely magnetic performance as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. Of course, he was on to a winner from the off. Hickey gets the biggest build-up in world drama - for an entire hour the rest of the cast sit around yakking about what a great guy he is and how they can't wait for him to arrive.

But Spacey did far more than cruise in on star status. He rode the wave of anticipation like a champion surfer and for the next three hours, with a host of meticulous performances surrounding him, the audience was glued.

Hayley Carmichael confirmed her promise from successive productions with her Told By An Idiot company giving a shimmering jewel of a performance as the yearning upper-class daughter in Mr Puntila and His Man Matti and almost stealing the show from beneath the noses of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl - aka The Right Size.

Indeed, some of the year's best acting came in overlooked roles. Jessica Turner brought unlooked for depths and delicious comic flair to What You Get and What You Expect at the Lyric Hammersmith: very sharp and very funny.

Quite rightly, everyone applauded the Almeida's bravery in taking Racine into the shark-infested West End, but most people were so busy being awed by Jonathan Kent's beautiful productions and their starry leading players that few recognised the excellence of David Bradley. His riveting performance as Theramene in Phedre was a masterclass in relaxed understatement. He barely raised his voice; he just stood his ground and let the richly wrought images of Ted Hughes's translation spring to terrifying life.

There was acting of similar depth in the play of the year, Never Land at the Royal Court. Phyllis Nagy's devastatingly compassionate portrait of a French family hurtling towards disaster made huge demands of its actors who progressed from farcical high comedy to a heartbreaking conclusion as the family made peace with itself. Michelle Fairley shone with self- possession, Anthony Calf brought rare humilty to his role, and almost a year after seeing it, the tragic grandeur of Sheila Gish still burns bright. Watching her battling between the consoling fictions of self-delusion and a true understanding of love in the passionate final act was simply overwhelming. Steven Pimlott's production - returning next year - was also graced by an extraordinarily effective (and almost completely unnoticed) design by Mark Thompson which echoed the atmospheres and moods of Nagy's text.

There was equally bold writing in the widely misinterpreted The Play About the Baby. More than any other play this year, this suffered from "reviewers' baggage" whereby preconceptions coloured the responses to the piece. Several commentators clearly expected Edward Albee to serve up a play in the same style as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and then reprimanded him for not doing so. Either that, or they criticised the subject matter - the moral responsibilities behind having children - and not the play itself. Pardon me, that's not criticism, it's censorship. Howard Davies's scrupulous production featured beautifully calibrated performances all round with a frankly hilarious Frances de la Tour matching blissful comic timing with truthful resolve to a remarkable degree.

The surprise of the year also came courtesy of the Never Land team, Pimlott and Thompson, who spun straw into gold with Dr Dolittle. With its drab score and bald book, no one would be foolish enough to claim that this was the musical of the year, but even cynics were stunned by its beguiling warmth and larkiness, the direct result of Pimlott and Thompson's invention and execution.

The other outstanding collaboration was between director James Macdonald and designer Jeremy Herbert on Sarah Kane's now notorious Cleansed. Their pristine realisation of Kane's disturbing images was an unequivocal and necessary testament to the power of live theatre. Furthermore, although it proved to be box-office poison, Cleansed was a timely example of a theatre staging the unique vision of its playwrights in the teeth of commercial pressure. Thanks to its unheralded Young People's Theatre, the Court also wound up with the debut of the year in Christopher Shinn's astonishingly tender and eliptical state-of-the-nation play Four. Shinn, 23, isn't merely promising: he's the real thing.

Cheek by Jowl went out on a high with a stunning Much Ado About Nothing, the only time I have ever seen all the play's elements fused into a glorious whole. Along the way, director Declan Donnellan made a star out of Matthew McFadyean whose hilarious and touching Benedick was only matched by his Charles Surface in Donnellan's superb The School for Scandal, the finest RSC show in a frighteningly long time. Then, just as the rest of the Shakespearean year looked like a washout, Michael Grandage directed Twelfth Night at Sheffield Crucible. Brimming with unforced humour, this carefully cast, fleet, fresh and superbly spoken production was done on four weeks rehearsal putting to shame the disaster which was Sean Mathias's Antony and Cleopatra, which had twice Grandage's rehearsal period and budget. The National almost made up for that with Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman's veritable exhumation of Oklahoma! Anthony Ward's eye- widening design played no small part in its success. Yet surprisingly there was competition for the coveted award for Best Covered Wagons on the London Stage from the ludicrously enjoyable Yee-Haw!!, 1998's only "camp, cross-dressing cowboy musical", which had a sell-out run at the Rosemary Branch. "Sing and dance/ For no particular reason", whooped the chorus. Yessiree. They share my Best Musical and Funniest Night of the Year awards with the frankly insane film-noir pastiche The Betrayal of Nora Blake at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. The opening number - courtesy of the movie Laura - was entitled "Amnesia", but, to coin a phrase, I remember it well.

There is, however, a worrying theme to this. Theatre is alive, but rarely in the expected places. Almost none of these highlights happened within the large-scale subsidised companies. Time to take stock.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones