Arts review of 2011 - Theatre: Words failed us. But never mind the writers, let's hear it for the players

In a thin year for new scripts, some outstanding performances caught the eye – and, 400 years on, the King James Bible scored

Electrifying actors

The skeletally gaunt actor Tom Brooke was riding the crest of a wave.

He played a manic depressive with demonic fervour, rising above Jon Fosse's drear dialogue in I Am The Wind at the Young Vic – stunningly staged by renowned French director Patrice Chéreau on a lurching raft. Brooke then played the lead – a desperately angry young chef – in The Kitchen, Arnold Wesker's play revived at the National.

Harry Hadden-Paton also deserves a medal, for his shattering performance as Teddy, the Second World War pilot struggling to maintain a stiff upper lip in Flare Path, staged by Trevor Nunn at the Haymarket Theatre Royal to mark the centenary of the birth of playwright Terence Rattigan.

Scintillating actresses

Siân Brooke shone out in two productions. She is currently playing the insulted girlfriend, Steph, in Neil LaBute's Reasons To Be Pretty at the Almeida (superbly directed by Michael Attenborough). Starting out in a near-psychotic rage, Brooke treads a fine line, simultaneously making that funny. She goes on to win your sympathy with surfacing vulnerability. Before the LaBute, Brooke was heartbreaking in Ecstasy, playing a reticent singleton trying to drown her sorrows in a bedsit. This beautifully understated Mike Leigh revival transferred from Hampstead to the West End.

Sheridan Smith was outstanding in Flare Path as well, moving from comic chirpiness to mute pathos as the barmaid Doris whose pilot husband goes missing in action.

The lowest moment ...

Lullaby was meant to be charming: the Barbican Pit transformed into a cosy dorm, after-hours, with the audience being sung to as they drifted off to sleep. Featuring limp fools in octopus outfits, it was tuneless, talentless torture.

... and two highs

Some of this year's theatrical highs were not merely metaphorical. Gisli Örn Gardarsson fantastic set for the RSC's The Heart of Robin Hood was a vertiginous, green ski slope with the cast scampering up it like monkeys and bombing down with glee. You can still catch this in Stratford-upon-Avon, until 7 January.

In May, in the poignant promenade piece Fissure, the audience literally climbed a windswept peak, as well as wandering through subterranean caves. Devised by Louise Anne Wilson, in memory of her late sister, this hike in the Yorkshire Dales became a pilgrimage through death and bereavement, haunting figures emerging and vanishing through rock crevices, and mournful songs by composer Jocelyn Pook echoing from the crags.

Best new play

Though 2011 wasn't awash with great new writing, docudramatists caught the eye. The Riots, at the Tricycle, was superb. Investigating what caused August's wildfire anarchy, writer Gillian Slovo amassed gripping first-hand accounts and insightful analysis, from interviews with looters and residents, policemen and politicians. If you missed it, a brief revival is being staged at Tottenham's Bernie Grant Arts Centre in January.

Unlikeliest musical

Commissioned by the National Theatre, London Road was a brilliantly innovative musical, uniting Alecky Blythe, who compiles verbatim docudramas, with composer Adam Cork. The subject matter was the 2006 serial killing of Ipswich prostitutes. Avoiding any lurid melodrama, Blythe's interviews with locals focused on the social impact – fear and mutual suspicion, then a blossoming community spirit after the murderer's arrest. Retaining every "um" and "er", Cork ingeniously drew out the rhythms and cadences of ordinary speech, subtly sliding into song.

Stories on a biblical scale

Besides the mega storytelling session at Shakespeare's Globe – a cover-to-cover, quatercentenary reading of the King James Bible – the Bush really got rolling in its new venue (a delightfully homely, converted west London library) with Sixty-Six Books. This was a 24-hour cycle of new shorts (by Jeanette Winterson, Billy Bragg, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many more), all taking novel slants on episodes from the Bible and running right through the night.

Even more phenomenal was National Theatre Wales's community-specific theatre piece The Passion, which saw thousands cheering on the streets of Port Talbot over the Easter weekend. Michael Sheen milled among them, playing a modern-day, socialist Christ figure, resisting corporate exploitation and cherishing the ghosts of the past. Climactically crucified and resurrected – on a roundabout down by the beach – he transcendently raised the spirits of those still living in his beleaguered, industrialised hometown. Unforgettable.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz