The Critics' Awards 1998: Play - My dear, it was a perfect Bohr

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The Independent Culture
Some big hitters were over from the States this year. We went from the British premiere of Lakeboat, a riveting early David Mamet at the Lyric, Hammersmith, to the British premiere of a middle-aged David Mamet in Patrick Marber's taut production of The Old Neighborhood. In it, Colin Stinton was superb as the man in a mid-life crisis, leaving his wife and dropping in on his indignant sister, played with hilarious ferocity by Zoe Wanamaker. The National discovered an early Tennessee Williams, Not About Nightingales, written in the 1930s when he was still in his twenties. Trevor Nunn's powerfully atmospheric staging demonstrated his Dickensian eye for contrasts, aided by breathtaking designs of a savage prison by Richard Hoover. The only disappointment was the latest Edward Albee at the Almeida, The Play About The Baby, a sour, puzzling reprise of themes he has explored since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A crass year, yet again, for musicals: the Broadway hit Rent crossed the Atlantic, with its producers blowing its chances by opening this shakily maudlin piece in the West End, when they might have built up a cult young audience out of London, in non-traditional venues. Often loud and inaudible, Rent was La Boheme for Nineties solipsists. A new product, also launched in the West End marketplace, was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind. With this queasily manipulative rewrite of a cleverly poised film it was safer to make a financial investment rather than an emotional one. The new musical with the most kick was Arlene Phillips's high-adrenalin version of Saturday Night Fever where the ensemble dancing was better than in the film.

I enjoyed revivals of Showboat and West Side Story, without sensing any great urgency about why they had been revived. This wasn't the case with Oklahoma!, a glorious evening with Nunn (again) teaming up with choreographer Susan Stroman to give us a fluid, charged and colourful mix of drama and dance that revealed new emotional depths. Oscar Hammerstein's son has said it's the best revival ever. It transfers to the Lyceum on 21 January.

Ted Hughes's translation of Phedre was a highlight in the Almeida's West End season of Racine. David Hare's Via Dolorosa, his one-man show about his journey to the Middle East, demonstrated - not least by standing up there himself - that the prolific playwright has a lot of bottle. Among young playwrights, Helen Blakeman's Caravan at the Bush was a funny and sharply observed play about Liverpudlians on holiday in a cramped space, and Nick Grosso's Real Classy Affair at the Royal Court confirmed his gift for energetic dialogue.

Stephen Poliakoff's incisive Talk of the City, a portrait of internal politics in the BBC in the 1930s, was a buoyant mix of comedy, current affairs and period detail that centred round the apposite dilemmas of modernising that institution, and awakening people to the horrors of events abroad.

In The Unexpected Man, translated by Christopher Hampton, Yasmina Reza followed the global success of Art with the elegantly modest situation of two people (Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins) sitting opposite one another in a train. The reveries that take place in their own minds, the dissatisfactions of cultured bourgeois life and the constant picking away at isolated moments are caught with a daring formal deftness.

But the play of the year was Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. It was a forensic examination of the troubled friendship between two leading nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who find themselves on opposing sides during the Second World War. Frayn's ability to dramatise some of the most significant issues of the 20th century through the story of three individuals (Bohr's wife is the third) is a technical tour de force. This emotionally gripping detective thriller was directed with unsparing exactness by Michael Blakemore. It transfers to the Duchess on 9 February.

t Play of 1998: Michael Frayn's `Copenhagen'