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

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The Independent Culture

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.