This was a year on the London stage in which Shakespeare often appeared twice over (with two productions each of Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and Richard III), and when one could catch Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swapping roles—and stripping off—in the National Theatre’s sellout version of Frankenstein. Where, then, to begin choosing the year’s best? In the spirit of the season, think of the five shows listed below as the icing on an exceedingly rich theatrical cake. In order of opening, they are:
The Children’s Hour
While Broadway has yet to honor Lillian Hellman’s celebrated play, West End producers revived it last winter for the first time since 1994 in a starry production that gave pride of place to Elisabeth Moss. The Mad Men star made her UK stage debut as one of two schoolteachers who fall prey to a student’s gossip-mongering in 1930s New England. Blessed with a firm voice and fierce stage presence to match, Moss and co-stars Keira Knightley, Carol Kane and Ellen Burstyn turned possible melodrama into something approaching the mythic: Broadway, by rights, should beckon.
A World War II drama of wounding power, Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play was the first and best of director Trevor Nunn’s four-show season at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, a playhouse with an intimacy perfect for the shifting emotions of a cross-section of folk hanging on to life and love as the specter of death looms. Sienna Miller and James Purefoy did fine work as a pair of glamorous thesps, but it was Sheridan Smith (late of Legally Blonde) who scooped up the prizes, playing a former barmaid turned wife of a Polish air pilot who also happens to be a Count.
One Man, Two Guvnors
Broadway has come calling for Richard Bean’s riotous rewrite of A Servant of Two Masters, Goldoni’s classic comedy of multiple (and mistaken) identities. Onetime History Boy James Corden takes increasingly harassed center stage amid a sublime cast in which colleagues Oliver Chris and Tom Edden seem all but irreplaceable. The play will reopen at London’s Haymarket Theatre in spring 2012, leaving its current—and glorious—ensemble to triumph at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in April.
Wait: Wasn’t director Matthew Warchus’ inspired musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved story on this list last year? Well, yes, on the basis of its out-of-town run in the wintry climes of Stratford-upon-Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Company's home base. Now that the show has hit the big time, audiences at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre can appreciate anew Tim Minchin’s score, the lead performances of Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward, and as buoyant an original musical as London has hosted in an age.
After copping a Tony for Red, rising film star Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) went royal, proffering up a fallen monarch of unusual pathos opposite Andrew Buchan’s clear-eyed usurper, Bolingbroke (who goes on to become Henry IV). The fleet, fluid production from Redmayne’s fellow Red Tony winner, Michael Grandage, marked the director’s farewell after nearly a decade running the tiny but titanic Donmar Warehouse. Grandage will be missed at this address, even as Broadway—via his forthcoming revival of Evita—continues to offer a second home.