So what kind of a year have we had in the London theatre? Violent for a start: The most influential director around has been neither Sam Mendes nor Stephen Daldry but Quentin Tarantino, who without leaving California has managed to condition a whole generation of young British playwrights. It is hard to believe that without him we'd have had "Mojo" or "Bruises" or "Blasted" or far and away the best of them all, "Gangster No. 1" by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, two young first-time dramatists who gave Peter Bowles the role of his career in a Soho shoot-out, which I cannot believe will be much longer in transferring to the West End, and then I'd guess Hollywood, thus rounding the vicious circle that began with Tarantino himself.
Two of these plays, "Bruises" and "Blasted," were the work of women, but elsewhere it has been a blokish sort of a year with at least two plays ("Dealer's Choice" and "According to Hoyle") entirely set around poker tables and many others devoted to the joys of bashing the living daylights out of your nearest and dearest.
When Timberlake Wertenbaker tried for a more elegant and, some would say, feminist social debate about the price of parenthood versus the cost of careers ("The Break of Day"), she was rapidly dismissed by critics, leaving the field to such male counterparts as David Edgar (Pentecost, dealing with art versus communism) and Ronald Harwood ("Taking Sides," art versus the Nazis and then the Americans in 1946 Berlin).
Tom Stoppard's lyrical farewell to the Raj, "Indian Ink," was much underrated, while "Steward of Christendom," despite Donal McCann's brilliant performance, struck me as a character in search of a play. Michael Frayn also came up with a new play, "Now You Know," vastly more intelligent than my colleagues would allow; though if I had to choose a single script of the year, it would be David Hare's heartbreaking "Skylight."
Musicals were in unusually bad shape, with "Mack and Mabel" at last in town after 20 years to prove that it still has a breath-taking score and no real book, while its only competitor, "Jolson," at least had the courage to point out between show-stoppers what an appalling man old Al really was. So, as usual in times of crisis in the pit, it was back to Sondheim whose "A Little Night Music" at the National gave us a new group of Supremes (Judi Dench, Patricia Hodge, Sian Phillips), while his "Company" came into the Donmar Warehouse at Christmas to prove itself the revival of the year and the score that first defined what we mean, sexually and socially and musically, by "A Sondheim show." Gay theatre had a good year, with new plays by Jonathan Harvey wherever you looked and David Greer's "Burning Blue," which faltered at the Haymarket but triumphed in smaller venues as a homosexual rethink of "A Few Good Men" or "Caine Mutiny" for the nineties. The National continued to triumph under Richard Eyre, who perhaps announced his 1997 departure rather too early, thereby creating a needless vacuum of almost two years; but the RSC under Adrian Noble seemed to be in continuing mid-life crisis, with (in my view) a catastrophic decision to pull back from the Barbican for half of every year and Noble's ongoing feeling that he is really a director rather than a producer, which means that he has failed to build up the kind of artistic team around him that was taken for granted in the days of Hall and Nunn.
Villain of the year was, as usual, John Major's government, which persisted in clawing back from the arts whatever the Lottery had bestowed on them, so that we are now in the ludicrous position of having millions of pounds floating around for capital projects that nobody really wants to build, and less money than ever for the companies which will have to inhabit them. Nero might have made a better arts minister than those we've had recently, and at least he had the grace to torch his buildings when they appeared of little purpose.
Performances of the year include the aforementioned McCann and Bowles, the great Michael Gambon in "Volpone" and "Skylight," Daniel Massey as a haunting, hunted Furtwangler, Simon Russell Beale as Stoppard's Guildenstern and Jonson's Mosca, and that's just the men, among whom Terry Johnson was undoubtedly the director-dramatist, with no less than three of his shows playing in London, a record unrivaled since Ayckbourn.
Among the women, Maggie Smith back by public demand in "Three Tall Women," Zoe Wanamaker definitive as the mother in Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie," Maria Friedman in a stunning solo concert at the Whitehall, Fiona Shaw and Geraldine McEwan in "Way of the World," while Shaw went on alone to a memorable "Richard II" ("Thirty miles to Pomfret and still no sign of Dick"), Diana Rigg as "Mother Courage," Sheila Gish in "Company," Judi Dench in "Absolute Hell," all as close to perfect as makes no difference.
An unusual number of theatre companies are now on the move due to restructuring at home base, not least the Royal Court, which will occupy the Ambassadors and the Duke of York's for the whole of '96; but we still have a real estate situation around the West End where not nearly enough theatres are owned by producing managements, and unless we start paying some attention to the state of our commercial rather than subsidized theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue will be just another outpost of the Broadway map.
Have a Happy Theatre-going New Year.
--By Sheridan Morley