Theatre: Season of short, sharp shocks

Moments That Made The Year: The spaces have kept on the move, but then so have the best of the new writers. By Paul Taylor

In purely geographical terms, it's been a confusing year. Whether because of lottery-funded refurbishments, brewery-enforced overhauls or callous evictions, most of London's key purveyors of new writing have had to play "musical venues". So, in order to catch the latest new offering from the Bush, you've had to remember not to catch the tube to Shepherd's Bush but to head, instead, for the Lyric Studio or Electric Cinema. Going to the Royal Court now involves a trip into the West End and struggling to recall whether the Theatre Downstairs is the old Duke of York's or whether it's the old Ambassador's (aka the Theatre Upstairs - where Stephen Daldry and designer William Dudley have, to confuse matters still further, carved out two new spaces - the Stage and the Circle - from the old auditorium). "Which side is up?" is a question that is now, more than usual, up in the air.

It's heartening to report, though, that when you finally tracked down these places in 1996, you tended to be given the goods. If one of the primary duties of theatre is to confront a society with itself - to make it catch its reflection from a new, revealing and inescapably warranted angle - then the Court and the Bush have both been fulfilling that function with great flair. The burgeoning talents of the post-Thatcher 20-something generation, who write about the moral drift and tribal youth culture of contemporary urban life, have been handled with sensitivity and creative solicitude.

My one quarrel with Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking (which opened - to a flurry of censorious asterisks - in October and returns to the Royal Court on 8 Jan) is that it tried too hard to be the summary statement of our times. What can't be questioned is Ravenhill's skill at turning sharp empirical observation into a kind of diagnostic symbolism or the economy with which he conjures up a dysfunctional, disconnected, disposable world where the only relationships that can be trusted are those which can be turned into transactions. It's an extreme vision and there are one or two scenes in the play which had this critic on the point of fainting away. But it never feels gratuitous: rather, the work of a young man who can look hard at moral horror and not lose his balance, sanity, wit or compassion.

That opening was also an example of how - albeit initially for pragmatic reasons - the Court has contrived to break the hamster wheel of conventional West End theatre-going. The sound insulation at the Ambassador's does not allow both spaces to be used simultaneously, entailing a late start (eg 9.30pm) for one of the evening's two shows. Can we think, in theatre terms, of a post-watershed slot? Certainly, if you take the example of Jim Cartwright's I Licked a Slag's Deodorant, the 9.30 start-time allows for a piece that is shorter (under an hour), more off-the-wall and more lyrically intense than you would normally expect in this neighbourhood - and one that can appeal to young adults who may have had a few drinks, rather than the one ritual gin and tonic, beforehand. It's good that Daldry, who could have charmed money for a Cavalier theatre season out of Cromwell himself, is using the financial backing of the Jerwood Foundation to such unstable ends.

As for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written by the prolific, unstoppable newcomer, Martin McDonagh, who seems to have marched straight to the top of the class, I couldn't decide whether it was the real thing or an extremely clever fake. It will be easier to tell if he has more than a quite awesome competence when his new play The Cripple of Inishmaan opens at the National next month. Let's hope he does.

In the West End proper, where McDonagh is surely bound, the play that has set cash registers ringing is Yasmina Reza's Art. The teamwork of Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott is a delight to behold, but the piece itself is like something a computer might have come up with if asked to devise a worldwide boulevard hit. Nobody ever lost money on a play that can flatter either an audience's philistinism or its desire to feel in-the-know about fashionable cultural issues. Art also has the advantage of being a "Three Tenors Concert" without the music. It's a cut above Old Wicked Songs or Tolstoy (or anything else from the tiny amount of new work that has come into the West End from the largely non- subsidised sector). But that doesn't mean we have to fool ourselves about Art's quality. It's essentially a product, cleverly but shallowly written, for people who, when they hear the word "art", reach for a chocolate.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
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
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition