In the line of duty

Theatre 2005 - Michael Portillofinds a few gems among the endless brown-bread productions

In my first weeks as a reviewer for the New Statesman, I realised that I had stepped from the tranquillity of politics on to the Western Front of theatre criticism. The eminent arts commentator Nicholas de Jongh machine-gunned me after I had made a few platitudinous remarks at the annual Critics' Circle awards ceremony. At the end of my second year, the Stage Online has trained its fire on me: "In an age of Pop Idol, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and Big Brother, where anyone can become a pop star/millionaire/celebrity in the flash of a television minute, it seems that theatre reviewing, too, is open season . . . parliamentarians like Michael Portillo have managed to achieve a regular spot doing so . . ."

So please be aware that this review has no more validity than one by, say, Gareth Gates, Major Charles Ingram or Nasty Nick (Bateman, that is, not de Jongh). Also, it is difficult for me to give a comprehensive account of the year. The sadistic New Statesman editor has generally sent me to brown-bread-and-sandals productions in off-off-West End venues in distant pubs and even, on one occasion, in a subterranean abattoir.

A rare outing to a mainstream theatre took me to Mary Poppins. I found some of the material turgid, and the supporting cast not up to it. But Laura Michelle Kelly as the eponymous nanny was excellent and the children in the audience were transfixed by the spectacle, if deafened by the band. The show wins my award for set of the year. The Banks family house was constructed by Bob Crowley in five different parts which flew apart.

Among the disappointments of the year was the revival of Whose Life Is It Anyway? at the Comedy Theatre. Kim Cattrall, star of Sex and the City, could not bring as much brittle sarcasm to the role of the patient with the severed spinal cord seeking legal permission to end her life as Tom Conti did 27 years ago. Val Kilmer was even less inspiring as Frank, the man who plots with his lover to kill her husband in James M Cain's vintage piece The Postman Always Rings Twice.

My flop of the year was David Edgar's Playing With Fire at the National. The play deals with the attempts by a new Labour minister to drag an old Labour council in northern England into the modern world of performance targets. The subject matter was dull, the characters antipathetic, the love interest contrived and the outcome implausible.

Disaster of the year I award to F*****g Asylum-Seekers by the Russian emigre Victor Sobchak, which was an evening of ranting silliness, mercifully over by 9pm.

But there were many good performances. Nicholas Lyndhurst (of Only Fools and Horses) was a wonderfully camp Norman in The Dresser, and Julian Glover, a man of real substance, was superb as the actor to whom Norman is valet. Henry Goodman turned in an excellent comic performance in the title role of Moliere's The Hypochondriac. Among supporting actors, I really liked Jonathan Slinger and Forbes Masson, who were truly indistinguishable as the Dromio twins in The Comedy of Errors at Stratford-upon-Avon. Gillian Raine was a perfect Aunt Juliana, forced to endure countless humiliations from her nephew's new wife, Hedda Gabler, in Ibsen's play of the same name at the Almeida.

As a reviewer, my most interesting experience came in that London abattoir (in Clerkenwell) where, across a vast area underground, actors played out snatches from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The snippets were jumbled chronologically, and the audience had to rush about to encounter the action, or follow characters until they became involved in a scene. As experimental theatre it was re-freshing and its impact was haunting.

Comedy of the year I award to Joe, Stephen and Mark McGann for their roles as brothers in the fast-moving farce Tom, Dick and Harry by Ray and Michael Cooney. However, the prize for comic dialogue goes to Owen McCafferty for Shoot the Crow at the Trafalgar Studios. His script is a fine mixture of the banal and the profound. He uses his acute ear to write as people really speak, but then somehow stylises it into the pattern of a litany.

My prize for the best production over- all goes to Billy Elliot: the musical. I was not blown away by Elton John's music, but I was by Peter Darling's choreography. The dance interaction that mixes up the striking miners on the picket lines of 1984, the police and the podgy little girls in Mrs Wilkinson's ballet class was stunning. Haydn Gwynne was delightful as the tough-talking but soft-hearted teacher. The Billy part is extremely demanding. Extraordinary athletic prowess is required of the young actor, who also has to excel in every dance genre from tap to ballet to modern. I saw George Maguire, and I believe that James Lomas and Liam Mower were as good when they took the role on other nights.

For a second year, I feel lucky that in this age of Pop Idol, theatre reviewing has been thrown open to the likes of me.

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