Theater veterans and newcomers re-invented old shows

Looking back, 2011 was the year of the helmer, as far as U.K. theater is concerned. In venues large and small, directors didn’t so much revive shows as reinvent them. For proof, look no further than the year’s most talked-about smash “One Man, Two Guvnors.”

The now Broadway-bound comedy was the year’s best new play and, at the same time, was a re-working. Playwright (and former standup) Richard Bean took “Servant of Two Masters,” an eighteenth century comedy by Carlo Goldini, and relocated it to the faintly down-at-heels seaside town of Brighton in the Beatles-era 1960s.

This was, however, not merely an update. Bean’s laugh-a-minute script had inventive characterization and a galloping lunacy all its own. And it was given rampant energy and ruthless precision by National Theater helmer Nicholas Hytner, who added songs by Grant Olding.

This column’s Helmer of the Year prize, however, goes to Rob Ashford for his riveting Donmar Warehouse revival of O’Neill’s “Anna Christie.” It was sold-out before it opened thanks to the presence in the cast of Jude Law, who rewarded fans with a career-best performance.

Ashford’s production took the problematic play — it wears its thematic concerns less than lightly — and gave it intensity and immensity. The former is easy in the up-close-and-personal, 250-seat Donmar; the latter was greatly aided by a breathtakingly bold design by Paul Wills, which presented an unwritten storm at sea in front of the awestruck audience.

The production couldn’t immediately capitalize on its success due to the cast’s commitments elsewhere. However, Ashford told Variety that, if scheduling can be worked out, there is interest in the show getting a Gotham transfer. Ashford himself is fairly tied up in 2012 choreographing Michael Grandage’s Rialto revival of “Evita,” developing the stage tuner version of “Finding Neverland” — destined for an unnamed U.K. regional theater in Fall 2012 — and helming a Broadway play that’s yet to be announced.

Other helmers, too, made their mark revisiting classics. James Macdonald didn’t just shepherd a flawless cast through Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” at the Almeida, he created a rapt stillness that allowed audiences to see that this, not the more volatile “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is Albee’s masterpiece.

More unexpectedly, “Accolade” a forgotten 1950 play about private behavior and political life, was given a revelatory revival by new kid on the block Blanche McIntyre at the Finborough Theater, a tiny but terrific venue that consistently punches above its weight.

McIntyre was the discovery of the year. Still in her 20s, she combines dynamic visual strength with acute sensitivity to actors and textual detail and flow. There’s talk of a 2012 West End transfer for “Accolade” — the National Theater wanted it too — but she’ll have to fit that around other commitments, including a double-bill of new plays at the Bush Theater and, intriguingly, a revival of “The Seven Year Itch” at regional theater Salisbury Playhouse.

Helmer Jonathan Munby also scored highly not only with a fierce production of the Jacobean tragedy “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” at West Yorkshire Playhouse, but with a high-octane revival of Sondheim’s “Company” at Sheffield’s Crucible theater, which may have a future life in London, with talk of a fall transfer.

“Company” and Jonathan Kent’s revival of “Sweeney Todd” pretty much stole the 2011 tuner honors. In a far-from-vintage year for big new commercial musicals, even Cameron Mackintosh couldn’t turn “Betty Blue Eyes” into a hit. Despite rave notices, it shuttered after struggling through six months. With a title change and some reworking, it deserves a future. Its helmer, Richard Eyre, however, rounded out his year with a beautifully judged production of Nicholas Wright’s new bioplay “The Last of the Duchess” about Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Eyre’s 2012, meanwhile, contains the year’s most intriguing prospect. He will helm a dance version of “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” the movie by the late Anthony Minghella. Dramatic ballerina Viviana Durante will star in a production designed by Tim Hatley and lit by Neil Austin (“Red.”) Opening out of town in the fall, it will then play London’s premier dance house, Sadler’s Wells.

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