Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest theatrical venture, the transforming of the St James Theatre in Victoria into The Other Palace, this year opened its doors with the gin-soaked jazz age musical The Wild Party. It featured a cast of 15, cavorting around an exuberant three-storey set that also housed the eight-piece orchestra. It was, by any standards, a spectacular production. Yet for all the spectacle, glamour and glitter, it was one of the dullest shows of the year. With tunes that you forget even while you’re listening to them, weak and sparse jokes, a thin plot and plodding, pedestrian lyrics, the lavish production values weren’t enough to prevent The Wild Party from repeating the same flop it experienced on Broadway in 2000.
Large casts and orchestras are no guarantee of critical success. I’ve felt more exhilarated by performances in a room above a pub featuring just one or two actors, and this year has seen an outstanding selection of shows with minimal casts. The Pit theatre space in Waterloo’s Vaults is as far from West End glamour as you can get: cramped, uncomfortable wooden benches, and a space so damp you can see water running down the walls. But this was host to Siren, written and performed by Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson, a witty and sparkling exploration of the minds of serial killers. With virtually no set or props, they managed to jump convincingly between locations, generating real sympathy for the plight of the murderous couple.
At the more professional end of the scale, with steeply raked seating and a set featuring a vast round bed in the middle of a vast round carpet, Soho Theatre was the venue for David Ireland’s hilarious and touching two hander The End of Hope, featuring Rufus Wright as an intellectual poet baffled by the fact that his internet date, played by Elinor Lawless, spends the evening dressed in a rabbit costume – even during sex.
Paring things right back to just a single actor can still result in outstanding performances. The glorious, tatty, lovingly unrestored early Victorian theatre that is Wilton’s Music Hall hosted Man to Man, a magnificent one-woman show about cross-dressing for survival in war-torn Germany, with an extraordinary performance from Maggie Bain matched only by the versatile, ingenious and constantly surprising set.
Exactly 20 years ago I saw the outstanding actor Nichola McAuliffe in the tiny Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, performing a one-woman show about the Toxteth riots of six years earlier. She played 19 roles in all, and you’d swear you were looking at a stage full of people: joy riders, grief-stricken relatives, social workers, police, a West Indian rapper and an Indian shopkeeper were all brought to life in an unforgettable performance. The set, as I recall, consisted of a single chair.
Next time you’re at a lavish West End production, marvelling at the cast of dozens and the ingenious revolving stage, bear in mind that true theatre doesn’t need any of these trappings. Leave the confines of Shaftesbury Avenue and look further afield for smaller but frequently more engaging theatrical experiences.