Theatre in 2008: Fun and games with the English Chekhov

Spacey redeemed himself at the Old Vic with 'The Norman Conquests' – but the year belonged to another star turn

My corker of the year would have to be The Norman Conquests trilogy, which opened at London's Old Vic in the autumn – a stroke of genius on the part of artistic director Kevin Spacey.

The revival of Alan Ayckbourn's legendary triptych was a buzz-creating, all-day event which proved to be cryingly funny: not just a farce about middle-class couples and adultery in the 1970s but also a startlingly poignant portrait of mid-life unhappiness. Matthew Warchus's whole cast ought to be given an Exquisite Ensemble Award. Besides helping to revive the sexagenarian playwright's reputation and reminding you why he was hailed as an English Chekhov, The Norman Conquests saw Spacey's playhouse turned into a compelling theatre in the round. The conversion was so successful that it's being retained into 2009.

Also vying for the 2008 Superlative Production Prize was The Lady from the Sea in the Arcola Theatre's terrific Ibsen season in the East End. Lia Williams's central performance as a wraith-like, shimmeringly unstable Ellida was mesmeric.

Equally electric was Frantic Assembly's bold take on Othello, turning Shakespeare's tragedy into girlfriends and gang warfare on a northern council estate. Touring from Plymouth's Theatre Royal with a supple young cast, this was a bizarrely inspired fusion of iambic pentameter and reeling, slamming dance­vaulting over a pub pool table.

Turkey of the year

Fridtjof became a vigorous expletive in my household after I had to sit, without howling, through Fram. Tony Harrison's clunking play about the Arctic explorer and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen was not so much biodrama as biodoggerel, all in excruciating rhymed couplets. I still haven't quite got over Nansen (a red-faced Jasper Britton) emerging from his shared tent to launch into the unspeakable aubade: "It's a great relief to escape that farter and that snorer/and get my spirits lifted by the sight of the Aurora." A massive piece of ship jutted though the pack ice in the playwright's self-directed disaster, which sank without trace during the NT's spring season.



Big shot of the year

Michael Grandage, who runs the Donmar Warehouse, has been swiftly but surely expanding his artistic empire. Most notably, in the autumn, his company continued operating at its Covent Garden base while adding a second home in the West End. Grandage's star-studded yet reasonably priced Donmar residency at Wyndham's Theatre began with Kenneth Branagh in Chekhov's Ivanov, followed by Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night. Further Donmar productions are set to open in New York, Los Angeles and Sydney, with a total of 14 lined up to play worldwide in the year ahead. The film Frost/Nixon also started life on stage in Grandage's 250-seat theatre, although he's currently resisting the call of Hollywood.



Newcomers

Sharp portrayals of messed-up adolescent girls abounded. Jessica Raine played two with particular acumen at the NT, in David Hare's Gethsemane and in Simon Stephens's haunting play Harper Regan. Meanwhile, Ella Smith was deliciously witty and subtly vulnerable in her West End debut, playing the outsized sweetheart in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig at the Trafalgar Studios. As for promising architecture, one can't ignore Leicester's brand new theatre, the Curve. Sleekly designed by Rafael Vinoly, this is an enticingly adaptable space with sliding walls, so its two auditoria can flow into each other or out into the foyers.



R.I.P.

It may not be strictly RIP, but David Tennant's scintillating Prince Hamlet met an unexpected sorry end just before Christmas. The actor's fame as Doctor Who had ensured that the West End transfer of Gregory Doran's RSC production sold out in a flash. Alas, the understudy ended up standing in at alarmingly short notice on the London press night. Having been hospitalised with a prolapsed disc, Tennant has since been recovering from surgery. That leaves the hoped-for resurrection of his Prince of Denmark – before the end of the run on 10 January – hanging in the balance.

On a profoundly sadder note, British theatre bid adieu to the West End playwright and trenchantly witty diarist Simon Gray who died, aged 71, in August. The legendary classical actor, Paul Scofield – still revered for his Peter Brook King Lear as well as the film A Man for All Seasons – slipped away quietly, aged 86, in March. We also lost the fantastically wacky, bushy-browed, zany Ken Campbell: actor, writer, director and exuberant one-off. His death was unexpected, at a spry 66. Still, he exited in humorously eccentric style: his coffin pulled on a sled through Epping Forest by his pet dogs.

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