It wasn't all blonde blandness on the stage

A year in theatre
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The Independent Culture

On the West End front, the past year was like being stuck in Groundhog Day. No sooner had the producers clobbered you with one blonde movie star with precious little stage technique than they were hauling you back to endure another.

On the West End front, the past year was like being stuck in Groundhog Day. No sooner had the producers clobbered you with one blonde movie star with precious little stage technique than they were hauling you back to endure another.

Two figures emerge from this cynical circus with dignity. In Madame Melville, Richard Nelson's funny, delicate and mature new play, Macaulay Culkin is movingly gauche as the 15-year-old who becomes embroiled with his sexy Parisian teacher. And Jessica Lange is a breathtaking mass of hairline cracks and denial as the morphine-addicted mother in a production of Long Day's Journey into Night by Robin Phillips, which startlingly demonstrates the close relationship, in this epic of family dysfunction, between the harrowing and the hilarious.

The best new play from the subsidised sector was Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange. Superbly staged like a boxing match by Roger Michell, this drama has two self-interested psychiatrists slugging it out over the diagnosis of a black patient (excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) who may or may not be mad. It's the finest piece about the way the professions conspire against the laity since Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma.

Good to see this play mounted at the National, which has had an embattled year. Trevor Nunn's mastery as a director (demonstrated again in his splendid Cherry Orchard) has yet to be matched by his skills as a producer. Too much of the programmed work should have been left to commercial management (Frayn's Noises Off, Ayckbourn's House and Garden, the ghastly adaptation of Henry James's The Heiress) and too many directors got mysteriously mislaid before opening night. And there is still no sign that Nunn is grooming a successor.

The RSC is in the middle of a genuinely stirring project: the cycle of all the Shakespeare history plays, with the intriguing departure from tradition that venues and directors change from play to play. Also stirring is the refurbished Royal Court, where the Lottery-funded face-lift manages to be freeing, yet faithful to the building's impressive history. The studio work here has tended to have more life than the drama on the main stage: David Eldridge's Under the Blue Sky, in particular, was a lovely, interlocking triptych about unequal love and the tricky position of contemporary schoolteachers.

In a year which saw the deaths of John Gielgud and Alec Guiness, it was heartening to be reminded by two thirtysomething actors of the riches we retain. Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance are both magnificent Hamlets: the former, the searching, complex scholar; the latter, the sweet-natured tragic-clown. On the directing front, Michael Grandage had a stunning year, giving us not only a delicious As You Like It and a knock-out vindication of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, but also a production of Passion Play, which put the veteran and sorely under-rated dramatist Peter Nichols back where he belongs - at the centre of the theatrical map. Nichols's new piece, So Long Life, a mordantly funny play about old age, was seen only on the Bristol fringe, and deserves a longer life in London in 2001.

Finally, if you had told me 12 months ago that my most joyous theatrical evening in 2000 would involve listening to a crowd of blue rinse American septuagenarians called the Young@Heart Choir in a semi-staged programme ranging from Dylan and the Stones to "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's 80", I'd have said you were out of your mind. But Road to Heaven proves that I'd have been quite wrong.

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