This has felt like a year of transition for the theatre. First, some of the biggest companies have seen new artistic directors appointed or hitting their stride (Royal Court, National Theatre, RSC, Donmar, National Theatre of Scotland, Almeida, Headlong, Bush, and more). Second, theatres have been trying new things: secret and surprise theatre, Open Court, new collaborations, ever more blurring between the new writing culture and live art, devised and director-led theatre. There were a couple of new theatres - The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park and the St James Theatre in Westminster (or was that late 2012?) - oh and I suppose I might mention our own new theatre at Royal Holloway which we were very proud to launch as the Caryl Churchill Theatre in the presence of the playwright herself.
There was late and sorry news just before Christmas when a section of ceiling plasterwork at the Apollo collapsed during a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. This was traumatic, of course, for the audience caught beneath it and fortunately no one was seriously hurt, but it's also a very broad warning shot about the West End. The economics of running a West End Theatre appear to be pretty bleak; few people have much money to restore and renovate them and little secure prospect of getting a return on their investment if they do. The fact that virtually every West End theatre is locked down as a listed building means that conversion, restoration and rebuilding is doubly or triply complicated and expensive. Most of the West End theatres need much more than a lick of paint or a strengthened ceiling; they need to be gutted and remodelled completely. For what it's worth, I think we need a high-profile public consultation about the future of the West End, convened by the Theatres Trust, that would seriously consider a temporary de-listing all of the buildings' insides and making Lottery funds available to see a rolling programme of renewal and rebuilding, with an eye across the whole of the Estate, ensuring we have a range of different styles, sizes, audience-stage relationships. We need several more 400-500-seaters, more single rakes, more beautiful and flexible spaces, that still offer the West End's sense of event, its array of machines for imagining together, its traditions and elegance, but with more of a sense of the contemporary, the live, and the way we want to watch stories now. We need spaces that can take productions like This House and Curious Incident in the beautiful and thoughtful configurations for which they were designed. It would make a lot of sense to nationalise the West End theatre stock though there's not a hope of getting that (or, probably, any of this) from this ideologically-fixated market-fundamentalist Coalition government.
But how did you like the plays, Mrs LIncoln? The usual disclaimer: I live in London and didn't even make the Edinburgh Festival this year, so my non-London theatregoing was pretty attenuated. I went to Stratford to see Mark Ravenhill's brilliant assault on Candide (pictured, the play a bit better than the production, I felt, which was a little too broad in places, not quite as contemporary in feel as the script) and down to Plymouth to see Solid Air by Doug Lucie (where I felt the opposite; a rather lumpy script disguised by a terrific central performance). Other than that I'm afraid I did the metropolitan thing and sat waiting for the good stuff to come to me. And lots of it did: The Events was a brilliant example of the blurred lines between devising and writing, between new writing and director's theatre, between the precise formality of the written text and the crackling liveness of performance. This response to the Norwegian shooting two years ago had two actors playing a variety of roles alongside an amateur choir, a new one for each performance. The amateurs gave the performance a sense of vulnerability that was vitally precarious; the professionals told a story that organised the experience to enormously affecting ends. It's a lovely playwriting lesson that the most emotionally choking thing I experienced in a theatre this year was someone saying the absurdly simple line 'We both said me'. By the time the choir are singing 'we're all in here', the theatre has turned into the world and everyone around me in the Young Vic were in tears.
Other playwriting highlights for me this year included Dennis Kelly's monstrous The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromus at the Royal Court, a restless, shape-shifting play which dared to ask difficult questions about our attitude to morality and did so in darkly theatrical ways (why are the villains always the best roles?). It featured perhaps the trendiest cast in London theatre and, with every scene, designer Tom Scutt reimagined the Royal Court stage thrillingly. The moment when the Royal Court proudly tweeted a link to Quentin Letts's one-star review may come to be seen as the symptom of a tectonic shift in the relationship between the print and online critics. Letts's hostility was directed at the play's politics; while I think it was more interested in morality than politics as such, there was a trend this year of the theatre being much more explicitly political in its approach. When you walked into Chris Thorpe's There Has Possibly Been an Incident, the pre-show music was being played into the auditorium at conversation-cancelling volume and the play, despite its quiet precision and pared-down staging, was a similar assault, the words filling the space and the ideas filling your head, taking us from Anders Breivik (again) to Tianenman Square with riddling fluidity. There was the Calm Down, Dear festival of feminist theatre at Camden People's Theatre; who would have imagined such a thing even five years ago? I also really admired Kieran Hurley's Beats which ended up at the Soho Theatre in the Autumn. On the face of it, unpromising - does anyone care any more about the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 which outlawed the M25 rave scene? - but it was a hypnotic, funny, finally enraging show. I found peculiarly fascinating the ending, its own set of repetitive beats, in which Hurley just repeats and repeats the line 'It doesn't mean nothing': a double negative of affirmation that speaks volumes about our bleak political times and the persistent spirit of revolt. I was won over by If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep, probably the most traditional political play of the year; it reminded me of David Edgar, whose If Only... at Chichester was a beguilingly chilling analysis of the Coalition's immigration strategy, built around a brilliant intellectual trick about how to divide 17 camels. Routes by Rachel De-Lahey was a confident and informative examination of the UK Border Agency seen from below.
There were several plays that didn't seem to fit into any particular trend but were no worse for that. Pigeons, a strong and assured new play by Suhayla El-Bushra in the Court's brief weekly repertory season in the Downstairs theatre, sadly notable for the final performance by Paul Bhattacharjee before he took his own life. Elizabeth Kuti's Fishskin Trousers interwove three long monologues telling a haunting and beautiful story of hundreds of years lived on the Suffolk coast. Its poetic quality was a rare one this year. Bitch Boxer was Charlotte Josephine's literally pugnacious debut, a ferocious one-woman play (pictured) about a woman boxer - but also about girls and their fathers, and what we do with our tender hearts - performed by the author with an amazingly winning mixture of cockiness and gawky vulnerability. One of my most enjoyable theatre evenings of the year.
There were some excellent revivals this year. Arnold Wesker's Roots at the Donmar looked good as new, with two fine performances by Jessica Raine and Linda Bassett. By a very clever bit of casting, Lindsay Posner showed that The Winslow Boy was more than just a brilliant piece of pastiche, but actually a rather affecting portrait of a family torn apart by justice. Port at the National started slowly but Kate O'Flynn (in the lead role) and Marianne Elliott (director) eventually found a scale and grandeur in the play that filled the Lyttelton. Headlong's The Seagull with a hilarious and weirdly sensitive text by John Donnelly was pretty great. I saw two good, very different Ibsens: Richard Jones's crazy 1970s Public Enemy has stuck in my memory for good reasons; Richard Eyre's crisp Ghosts was superficially traditional but made it feel like you were watching the play for the first time. The same might be said of Nick Hytner's Othello a play which, God help me, I studied for A Level and yet was so clean and clear that whole scenes took place that I swear I've never seen or read before. As we left for the interval, my wife said 'That was amazing - I can't wait for the next episode' capturing brilliantly the production as Your Next Box Set. After being disappointed by Jamie Lloyd's shock-and-awe assault on Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios, I enjoyed Eve Best's Globe production of the play, which managed to be surprisingly funny (The Globe always makes plays funny) and genuinely supernaturally fearful. I mostly adored the all-female Julius Caesar, a prison riot of a production which featured, from Cush Jumbo, the greatest Mark Anthony I've ever seen. The most richly fulfilling revival was, in truth, a complete reinvention that turned the play inside out: Katie Mitchell's Fräulein Julie (pictured) was Strindberg's play as seen through its apparently least important character, while we watched much of the play silently through exquisitely-composed live video projection of scenes which we could only glimpse through windows onto a film set.
I don't see a lot of musicals but everything I saw this year I liked. The Scottsboro Boys is a jaw-droppingly brilliant satire on racism, with Kander and Ebb's unflinching political edge and performed by a sensational ensemble cast. The revival of A Chorus Line was great; a really innovative and still remarkable show, completely without spectacle. This could not be said of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a production which got quite outrageously scorned by a lot of the critics, principally for failing to be Matilda and for being expensive. In fact, it's an inventive, touching, tuneful and slightly subversive show and I'd urge you to give it a try. Douglas Hodge gives one of the performances of the year.
At the other end of things (is it the other end?), I thought Forced Entertainment's Tomorrow's Parties was their best show in years, a steely battle over the future, filled with nostalgia for the time to come. Bryony Kimmings's Credible Likeable Superstar Model was another explicitly political piece, timely in its earnestness (it felt somehow part of the year's brilliant Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3 campaigns), but subtly complex in its complicated use of the child performer. I loved Anthony Neilson's Narrative, upstairs at the Court, a show about which one will eventually say that everyone who saw it went out and formed a theatre company, so brilliantly, idiotically enjoyable was its collage. Ontroerend Goed's Teenage Riot skewered precisely my prejudices by dividing me internally between the shock of seeing young people's perspectives taken absolutely seriously and the stern wish to see them clear this bloody mess up and go to your room. At the same venue was Henry the Fifth (pictured), a retelling of Shakespeare's play and the historical story by Ignace Cornelissen, that was completely delightful and endlessly enjoyable. And then there was Tim Crouch and Andy Smith's what happens to the hope at the end of the evening which, as ever with these guys, asked us to think about who we all are, what friendship means, by asking us to think about theatre. It's one of the great evenings I've spent in the theatre this year.
There were several evenings I failed to spend in the theatre this year, including Chimerica, Grounded, Leaving Planet Earth, Scenes From a Marriage, My Generation, Mission Drift, Crime and Punishment, Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, and Fatherland, because of cupidity or indolence or just failing to book for things. I saw loads more than this but if it's not here I either (a) hated it or (b) have inexplicably overlooked it. An evening of theatre that I enjoyed, despite not spending it in the theatre, was the National Theatre's 50th anniversary celebration which was broadcast live on BBC4 and, it seemed to me, showed that finally how far we've come in representing theatre on video. It's not theatre, but it's also not just florid-looking people shouting embarrassingly on telly either. The evening was well judged - lack of women writers aside, which is more the fault of the previous 50 years than the celebration itself - nicely affectionate without being sentimental, with just a few gobsmackingly great moments.
Overall, I thought this was a good year. And it's the ever-greater proximity between experimentalism and new writing that made what happens to the hope... and The Events and There Has Possibly Been an Incident my shows of the year.