Revivals boosted British stage in ’08

'Chalk Garden' highlights stellar season

Given that Enid Bagnold famously wrote the novel “National Velvet,” the film version of which catapulted 12-year-old Liz Taylor to stardom, it would be faintly absurd to describe her as neglected. Yet until Michael Grandage remembered the play he had appeared in as a teenager, almost no one had thought of reviving the scribe’s 1955 tragicomedy “The Chalk Garden.”

With a thrillingly inscrutable Penelope Wilton policing its dark heart and a flawless supporting cast cracking out Bagnold’s deceptive one-liners, Grandage’s effective and affecting Donmar Warehouse production was the theatrical high of 2008. And the chatter so far for 2009 is that it might reappear. Nothing is fixed, but if the cast and a theater become available, the will exists to revive it.

There’s good news, too, about the year’s other great revival. Sonia Friedman recently returned from New York and “very positive” meetings about a Gotham transfer for Matthew Warchus‘ resplendent production of Alan Ayckbourn‘s masterpiece trilogy, “The Norman Conquests” at the Old Vic.

As “Boeing-Boeing” proved, Warchus has a supreme talent for comic precision. What his production of Ayckbourn’s three plays set over one weekend showed was his gift for poignancy. As achingly touching as they were laugh-out-loud hilarious, the three intertwined plays felt like “Uncle Vanya in Suburbia.” Ayckbourn was revealed as not just a master craftsman — watching all three is as mindblowing as watching three simultaneous chess games played in 3-D — but also as a writer as wise, sad and unjudgmental as Chekhov.

All six actors couldn’t be better — and all are attached if the proposed transfer goes ahead. Invidious though it is to single anyone out, Paul Ritter was devastatingly funny and sad, dancing from foot to foot as Reg, the hen-pecked husband on a rolling boil of suppressed rage and disappointment.

Ritter is one of those unshowy actors who so quietly nails whatever role he’s playing, he rarely gets praise outside of the business. His versatility appears limitless, a compliment one could also pay to Douglas Hodge.

Currently spinning gold from straw as Albin in the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” Hodge is not only giving up drag when he leaves the show on Jan. 17, he’s also returning to his other day job: as a director. As associate director at the Donmar, he will helm Jonathan Pryce and Anne Reid in a revival of Athol Fugard‘s 1975 play “Dimetos,” opening March 25.

Surprise of the year was Fiona Evans‘ engrossing new play “Scarborough” at the Royal Court Upstairs, the surprise being that the second half of her script was identical to the first but nonetheless fascinating.

Evans and director Deborah Bruce presented the play — about an underage boy running away for a weekend with a thirtysomething female teacher — and then replayed it with a teenage girl and her older male teacher. Arrestingly produced, the differences were startling.

The same theater also saw the debut of the year from actor-turned-playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, whose spellbinding “The Pride” had the structural intelligence and emotional maturity that left most plays looking decidedly flimsy. Happily, there’s more in the pipeline: Campbell has already delivered his second play to the Bush Theater, which smartly commissioned him before “The Pride” was in rehearsal.

However, those qualities also shone through in Simon Stephens‘ quirky, tender and compassionate “Harper Regan” at the National Theater. Lesley Sharp glowed in the title role while, as her troubled husband, Nick Sidi was heartbreaking as a man tremulous with hope.

The show’s director, Marianne Elliott, revived her smash-hit “War Horse” — the previous year’s theatrical triumph. The other good news for 2009 is that when its National run finishes in March, “War Horse” will transfer to the West End. Play will go into the New London, which in 2008 housed two turkeys:

“Imagine This,” a heartfelt piece of Jewish history, proved that good intentions are not enough. Trevor Nunn‘s “Gone With the Wind” — patronizing when it wasn’t torpid — had too much talent working on it to be a theatrical train wreck. But watching so much talent produce so little was the nadir of the year.

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