Rounding up the noughties

As the decade closes in, round-up mania gathers apace and top ten lists proliferate like young girls claiming they’ve slept with Tiger Woods.

There was a lot of happy back-slapping in a Guardian article by Mark Lawson which quoted Sam Mendes, Sonia Friedman and Nick Allott explaining an apparent West End boom in a period of recession.

It has indeed been a remarkable decade. But there are clearly tough times just around the corner, in the regional theatre, which is tottering, the RSC which is on a knife edge and in the classical repertoire which is lacking in thrust and adventure.

Was Billy Elliot the best new musical of the decade? Sadly, it probably was, but I don’t think anyone will be performing it in fifty years time.

And what was the best new play? You can’t really point to anything by Pinter or Ayckbourn or Stoppard (except for Rock ‘N Roll, perhaps; but it’s not as good as The Real Thing or Arcadia) or Churchill (possibly A Number) or Hare.

You might well reckon Michael Frayn’s Democracy or Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (though I think The Habit of Art is better) best defined the decade, or perhaps even, right at the last, Lucy Prebble’s Enron or Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.

But if I was pinned to a wall and ordered to reveal the play I’d enjoyed most in the last ten years the answer would be The Play What I Wrote by Hamish McColl and Sean Foley (and Eddie Braben) which in so many ways summed up what happened in our theatre, good and bad.

It merged old style vaudeville with new style comedy and slapstick, worked as a tribute show to Morecambe and Wise (much more so than the ludicrously overpraised Morecambe), wittily pandered to the celebrity culture in its roster of visiting stars (Ian McKellen one night, Ralph Fiennes the next) and basked in that air of semi-improvised informality that somehow restores the true vitality and meaning of theatre.

And it was brilliantly funny, of course. So much so that I did something I never do. I went back to see it not once more, but twice, and paid for my tickets with real money.

However much they’re bigged up by the on-message critics, the work of Shunt and Kneehigh and their spin-off imitators doesn’t cut much ice with the general public, although the latter’s version of Brief Encounter was a splendid breakthrough of sorts.

And the Sunday Times yesterday even suggested that War Horse was the show of the decade! Well, it’s certainly very good, but if that’s the best we can do, we’re setting our standards fairly low.

I loved War Horse. But I’ve seen several productions this year alone that leave it absolutely standing: The National Theatre of Scotland’s Peer Gynt, the visiting Dutch production of Roman Tragedies, Thea Sharrock’s As You Like It at the Globe and the rock musical Spring Awakening (three times as good as Billy Elliot, I reckon, or the wholly meretricious Jerry Springer — the Opera).

And we all get trapped into terrible bracketings and simplifications in these round-ups. The Evening Standard, while correctly singling out Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman as a highlight, tags on the regret that “London also lost Dan Crawford and Joan Littlewood,” as if those two’s achievements and significance were remotely comparable.

One of my biggest regrets is the paucity of work done here by directors Deborah Warner and Declan Donnellan. Others include the lack of exploration in the Jacobean and Restoration plays, the ludicrous price of tickets in the West End, the scandal of the booking fees, and the absence of real inspirational leadership in the regional theatres.

Apart from that, what’s not to like about our theatre? There’s no question that theatre has renewed itself as an important forum in public life, in the documentary plays of David Hare and at the Tricycle, and that the Travelex £10 ticket scheme at the National points the way for new audiences.

And, perhaps most significantly for the next decade, Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court has picked up where Stephen Daldry left off in boldly programming promising new writers and new voices straight into production. There’s been far too many workshops and readings, re-writes and tinkerings. All theatres should just put the new plays on. Nothing changes otherwise.

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