The year gone by – William Russell

One of the pleasures of doing this job is that you can follow the programme at a specific theatre – it probably had not escaped your notice that i am a fan of the Finborough in West Brompton. That isn’t to say I award everything they do four or five stars regardless- but even when something misfires, and it happens, the policy this tiny above a pub theatre has followed over the years means that it is invariably worth seeing.
The rarely performed can be rarely performed for a very good reason. But sometimes it is just that the playwright has fallen out of fashion – Emlyn Williams is a classic example. He was in his day a major figure as a dramatist, actor and film maker and the Finborough in recent years has revived plays of his that stand the test of time – his Wind of Heaven not seen for 75 years was a case in point.
I also like the Arcola in Dalston where the programming again can be exciting with risks in particular being taken in their small basement studio – a play about a lady cyclist for heaven’s sake! – the Park in Finsbury Park, which also has two theatre spaces and attracts big name players, the tiny Jermyn Street theatre in where else but Jermyn Street and doing Shakespeare, the Union in Southwark where you can catch some musicals you will never see in the West End again but which are worth seeing and the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark currently home to The Boy Friend. And if it is a gay day you are after then try The King’s Head in Islington, the Daddy of them all.
Theatre lovers coming to London tend to make straight for something on Shaftesbury Avenue or at the National theatre or the Old Vic where big names on stage and directing can be found. There is nothing wrong with that although the West End will certainly empty your wallet. But it is worth looking a little further afield- all these fringe theatres are accessible and the seat prices are remarkably low while the standard of work is just as remarkably high. Nor are you simnply seeing actors out of drama school on their way up. This month Trevor Nunn is directing David Threlfall, who made his name in Nunn’s legendary production of Nicholas Nickleby and went on to be the star of Shameless on television, in a Beckett play at Jermyn Street. It is a small theatre, they all are, but try your luck. These days you can google a theatre’s own web sites easily enough.
The best thing I saw all year was without doubt Maggie Smith in A German Life by Christopher Hampton at the Bridge, Nicholas Hytner’s theatre by – pretty obviously – a bridge, namely Tower Bridge. It is not quite a fringe theatre, but neither is it part of the musical dominated overlong runs world of the West End. She was superb and laid the ghost of that wretched Countess at a stroke.
The picture of Dame Maggieis by Helen Maybanks

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