1997: A Tough Year in the West End

Special Features   1997: A Tough Year in the West End
London Ticket -- February 1998

London Ticket -- February 1998

Let us survey the battlefield at the end of a year that, I remind you, brought us a supposedly arts-friendly government. Covent Garden: board resigned, builders in, touring and interim plans a shambles. Old Vic: for sale, Peter Hall forced out, no sign of a likely buyer. Chichester: director resigned, board told to do likewise if they wish to see their theatre open at all in '98. Sadlers Wells: builders in residence. The Gate and the King's Head: grants slashed, likely to close in April. Greenwich: grants slashed, no longer to have any resident company. Coliseum: English National Opera effectively closed down, will move to Covent Garden on time-share basis with Royal Ballet, that's if there still is a Royal Ballet.

Any other arts problems? Official government forecasts now indicate that the arts will lose 50 million per year until at least 2001. Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?

Given that a combination of Nero and Caligula would have been hard pressed to do more damage to the arts in Britain this year than Chris Smith and his merry butchers from the Treasury, it is some kind of miracle that we still have any kind of theatre at all, let alone one as strong in both plays and productions as this has been.

The invasion of new Irish plays continued to be overwhelming, but this was also the year that gave us a major new work from Tom Stoppard (The Invention of Love, a tender and brilliant account of the poet A. E. Housman at Oxford and after), David Hare (Amy's View, which transferred to the Aldwych, a wondrous account of the loneliness of the actor from a writer who also gives us, this year, a new Oscar Wilde, The Judas Kiss, and a revival of his Plenty), and Patrick Marber (Closer, a Design for Living for the late nineties in which four people find themselves unable to live apart or together). The fact that all three of these modern classics came out of Richard Eyre's last year at the National gives some indication of the class act that Trevor Nunn now has to follow, though with the RSC still in meltdown and most other classical companies shuttered for lack of funds, at least he doesn't have to worry too much about the competition.

In the commercial West End, it has been a year of political documentaries more notable for performance than writing: Corin Redgrave and Amanda Donohoe as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in murderous exile, Edward Fox as Harold Macmillan at the time of Profumo, Michael Gambon as Tom Driberg and Alec McCowen as Clement Attlee at Yalta in 1945.

Madame Tussaud herself couldn't have had a busier season, while in revivals the performance of the year for me was John Standing as the semi-detached husband in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance at the Haymarket, one he is still giving in the face of immensely tough female competition from Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith.

Then again, there were two sterling King Lears, from Ian Holm in the intimacy of the Cottesloe (Eyre again), and Alan Howard in the more classical surroundings of the Old Vic, where Peter Hall had a truly wondrous year from Felicity Kendal in Waste through to Howard and Ben Kingsley in Waiting for Godot; as I write, the rumors backstage are that Bill Kenwright will take the Hall company into the Piccadilly for a residency, so all may not be lost on that one front.

It was, at least, a good year for young directors, and I haven't even the space to do more than acknowledge the greatness of Sian Phillips in a virtually solo Dietrich and Clare Skinner in Sam Mendes's superbly filmic Othello. Oh yes, and on the night he opened a strong Front Page, it was announced that his Donmar Warehouse would be losing its subsidy a year ahead of schedule due to a change of sponsor-management.

At least l998 can't get much worse -- or can it?

-- By Sheridan Morley

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