London Year-End Roundup: Best Productions of 2012

In a year dominated by the Olympics and the Queen’s diamond jubilee, could the London stage hold its own? Most emphatically yes, thanks to an inordinate array of world-class productions of shows old and new, in venues large and small, some with stars and some without. Below, in alphabetical order, are a handful of the very best from a theater capital that on multiple occasions during 2012 crossed the finish line in triumph.

A Doll’s House, Young Vic Theatre
Can lightning strike twice? It certainly has in the case of Ibsen’s theatrical warhorse, a career-making vehicle for Tony winner Janet McTeer in 1997 that did much the same for Hattie Morahan this past summer. But Morahan’s extraordinarily alert and alive Nora was just one of the banner achievements of a staging from Carrie Cracknell whose cast included an actual baby (so well behaved!) and an ever-shifting set that represented an actual doll’s house all its own. Designed by Tony winner Ian MacNeil (Billy Elliot) this was precisely the sort of classic English staging one could imagine transplanted to Broadway.

The Effect, National Theatre (Cottesloe) 
The National offered high points across the year, from Simon Russell Beale’s embittered Timon of Athens to Helen McCrory’s outspoken daughter in The Last of the Haussmans But Lucy Prebble’s first play since Enron is something else again: an overwhelmingly moving dissection of love, considering both its causes and consequences among two young people who sign on for a pharmaceutical drug trial and get more than they bargained for. Rupert Goold directed the flawless four-person ensemble (a co-production with his Headlong company), running in repertory through February 23. If a fall commercial transfer materializes, expect Billie Piper’s performance to be the talk of the town.

Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory
Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway flop has had multiple London airings, but this latest is the first to be directed by an alumna of the show itself. Maria Friedman played the lovesick Mary at the Leicester Haymarket some 20 years ago and returned this year to the piece as director in order to re-tell the rending narrative of loss and betrayal that threads backwards across the years. The leads —all of them superb and in outstanding voice— are Mark Umbers, Damian Humbley, and Jenna Russell, and you have until March 9 to catch the extended run at the south London playhouse that has become synonymous with Sondheim.

Singin’ in the Rain, Palace Theatre
This celebrated MGM stage musical tended to sit rather awkwardly on stage until Jonathan Church’s buoyant Chichester Festival Theatre production (still running in its West End transfer), which finds audiences clamoring to sit near the front so they can soaked by the onstage rain. Water droplets aside, the transition from the silent film era to talkies resonated anew in a year that saw the comparably themed The Artist sweep the Oscars, and the principal players are worth making their own song and dance about: Adam Cooper, Katherine Kingsley, and Scarlett Strallen, the last of whom segues shortly to play Cassie in the West End revival of A Chorus Line. A five, six, seven, eight…!

The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe
The director Toby Frow made his Globe debut with Shakespeare’s ever-vexed early comedy, proving that no play’s problems are too great if there is a creative team smart enough to tackle them. The solution on this occasion lay in a pair of leads who found in the warring Kate and Petruchio a couple truly “mated”: combatants, to be sure, who were the most difficult people in the room and also the most interesting and impassioned. Cheers and cheers again to Simon Paisley Day (seen in 2011 on Broadway alongside Kim Cattrall in Private Lives) and two-time Olivier Award-winner Samantha Spiro. Someday, they should re-team on Much Ado About Nothing, Shrew’s logical sequel.

For Matt Wolf's list of the five best performances on London stages in 2012, click here