One of the few bad things about being a theatre critic is that friends keep asking: 'What shows are worth seeing?' What an impossible question.
Tastes vary so much from person to person. And there is so much going on in our theatres at present — so much of it worth catching, and even seeing twice — that I can never remember all the plays and musicals and their blasted names.
British theatre is having a terrific 'moment', as was confirmed yesterday by the latest ticket-sale statistics. The Society of London Theatre this week reported that in 2017 more than 15 million tickets were sold in the capital, the highest figure since the society started compiling box-office numbers more than 30 years ago.
Just a few years back it was common to hear Jeremiahs predict that traditional theatre was in terminal decline. They claimed that ageing audience profiles suggested millennials (youngsters raised in the internet age) would never submit to communal, passive entertainment in city-centre playhouses with uncomfortable seats and pricey interval drinks. Not for the first time, the Jeremiahs were wrong.
British theatre is having a terrific 'moment', as was confirmed yesterday by the latest ticket-sale statistics
From musicals to straight plays, historical epics, all-day marathons and 90-minute one-act jobs, theatregoers of all ages and backgrounds are finding plenty to chew on over their post-show suppers. British theatre is throbbing with interest.
The past year has seen new venues and younger audiences. Sir Nicholas Hytner, former head of the Royal National Theatre, has opened the spanking-new Bridge Theatre in the shadow of Tower Bridge.
He has already experimented with its moveable stalls seats to put on a promenade production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar complete with a rock band, a Donald Trump-style Caesar and a sea of 20-something spectators standing within a few feet — and in some cases inches — of the actors.
At the other end of Central London, on the traffic island beside Marble Arch, another theatre knight, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, has erected a temporary venue which staged a circus-style production of the smoky jazz musical Five Guys Named Moe.
Then there is Agatha Christie's Witness For The Prosecution. The producers didn't build a new auditorium for that. Instead they colonised the debating chamber of the old County Hall just across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster. The space, so long left to grow cobwebbed by neglect, is incredible. The show ain't bad, either. I suspect it will run for years.
This theatrical resurgence can not easily be ascribed to any new trend in drama. One of the great attractions, in fact, is that there is such a mix of genres and directing styles.
The current boom is not comparable to the working-class 'angry young men' theatre of playwrights such as John Osborne who stormed the stuffy West End scene of the Fifties. Nor is it some repeat of the 'in yer face' dramas that were in vogue 20 years ago, startling audiences with bad language and social grittiness.
There is new writing — we have had a genuine new classic in Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman set in rural Ulster in the Troubles — but there is also old writing that has been given a new sheen, such as the delightful take on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol at the London Old Vic just before Christmas. They offered us minced pies in our seats during that one, too. Delicious!
There has been less political preaching than in some recent years. James Graham's Ink, one of the hottest tickets of the year, told the story of Rupert Murdoch taking over The Sun newspaper in the Sixties.
From musicals to straight plays, historical epics, all-day marathons and 90-minute one-act jobs, theatregoers of all ages and backgrounds are finding plenty to chew on
Those who expected it to be a disapproving denunciation of Murdoch's popular journalism were in for a disappointment.
The play — which had brilliant performances from Bertie Carvel as Murdoch