Anna Nicole, Jude Law, Frankenstein Topped 2011 London Stage

Anna Nicole
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole) in ``Anna Nicole’’ by Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas at the Royal Opera House, London. The opera, based on the real life of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, was the Royal Opera’s most successful world premiere in years. hotograph Bill Cooper. Source Royal Opera via Bloomberg

This wasn’t a great year for new writing in London’s West End theater district.

Producers put their money behind tried and trusted formulas. Even then, some bets proved safer than others.

The stylish new musical “Lend Me a Tenor” had great reviews in June. There were 1930s-style toe-tapping numbers and a witty, literate book. It had “hit” written all over it. The show folded after a few weeks. A mystery.

Keeping on surer ground, there were plenty of revivals of well-known plays or adaptations of familiar works. The National Theatre scored a point in February with “Frankenstein,” alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in the roles of the scientist and his creature.

The national bard was well served by great actors. Kevin Spacey took on Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Old Vic, and won. His characterization, an unlikely mix of Stalin and Groucho Marx, produced laughs and chills in equal measure.

Michael Sheen was a tortured, passionate Hamlet at the Young Vic last month, despite the best efforts of Ian Rickson’s production to sabotage him. Rickson set the story in a 1970s mental asylum. It was as bad as it sounds.

Lenny Henry, a popular comic, triumphed in a spectacular and clever “The Comedy of Errors,” which is still in repertoire at the National Theatre.

Musical Tricks

Audiences, in general, turned to what was familiar. The blockbuster new musicals “Shrek,” “Ghost” and “The Wizard of Oz” were based on pre-existing material.

All deserve their place among the long-runners. “Ghost,” with its crowd-pleasing magic tricks, sleights of stagecraft and some ear-catching numbers, just pips them to the top slot.

For the best original play, London had to look to New York. Bruce Norris’s superb comedy “Clybourne Park” touched just as much of a nerve here in February as it had in the U.S. Norris put race relations under the microscope, and dissected just about every comforting fiction surrounding the subject. There were laughs and cringes in equal measure, and no one came out clean.

The best new theater work was found outside the world of the spoken word. The opera “Anna Nicole” by Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas portrayed the heroine as a well-meaning simpleton in a world of human commoditization. It blended comedy and tragedy with sure-footed musical skill, and was the Royal Opera House’s most talked-about world premiere in years. It’s slated for revival, though the dates aren’t confirmed.

Jude’s Torso

Some film actors did well. Kristin Scott Thomas was memorably shrewd and fragile in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” at the Comedy Theatre in June. (The venue now has been renamed the Harold Pinter Theatre in the late author’s honor.)

Jude Law blustered and blathered with delightful energy as an Irish sailor at the Donmar in August in Eugene O’Neill’s creaky old “Anna Christie.” Law was much better than the play, and it didn’t hurt that he took his shirt off a lot.

The latter part of the year has produced a comedy boom, perhaps in response to the worsening financial situation. As well as “The Comedy of Errors,” the National Theatre’s rollicking “One Man, Two Guvnors” (in a transfer to the Adelphi Theatre), and the Old Vic’s terrific farce “Noises Off” are still causing chuckles.

The Young Vic’s “The Government Inspector,” directed by Richard Jones (who was also behind the staging of “Anna Nicole”), was another comic delight earlier in June.

Overall, 2011 was a great year for laughs, and not so good for new writing. Fresh works are the lifeblood of the theater: Will 2012 bring a much-needed transfusion?

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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