As all good Roman emperors knew, what keeps us happy day to day is “bread and circuses”. We may all be feeling a bit nervous about putting bread in our mouths in times of dramatic economic uncertainty, but for the moment 2012 does at least show a good, feisty, defiant spirit when it comes to entertainment.
Arts people may quail about cuts, and indeed have suffered some, and London theatres quail in apprehension of Olympic travel chaos. Certainly, with tourism bookings in the middle of the new year down to ten per cent of the norm and hotel rooms already scarce and expensive, you can see why some have predicted that shows would go dark in summer.
And yet look around, and there are a thousand reasons to be cheerful. Summer in the West End may yet be all right: the Society of London Theatres has a cheeky lure for sports-mad visitors in the slogan “Don’t miss the REAL show!”. Many, after all, will have long gaps between their ticket windows and need amusing.
As for the rest of the year, even apart from old chestnuts like Phantom and Les Mis, apart also from ongoing delights of hilarity like One Man, Two Guvnors and The Ladykillers, big new capital city openings are promised.
David Haig’s memorable portrayal of mad George III arrives from Bath in spring; Singin’ in the Rain comes to the Palace Theatre from Chichester, with the ballet star Adam Cooper kicking up real water to drench the front stalls; Summer Strallen and Tom Chambers will recreate Fred and Ginger in Top Hat, and Michael Ball – as you have never seen him before – brings in the Sweeney Todd which froze the blood in Sussex.
Meanwhile the Shakespeare Festival competes head-on with Olympic mania. Quite apart from performing at his old stamping-ground at the Globe, Mark Rylance promises to prowl the streets accosting passers-by with passages of Shakespeare worked into ordinary conversation. The RSC and the National of course have new productions brewing, as does the Barbican.
But the strength of British theatre is that it is no Tudor fossil, nor is it tied to expensive whoop-de-doop musicals. There are new workings of modern classics, like Noël Coward’s comedy of bad manners Hay Fever (with Lindsay Duncan) and David Suchet in A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
But new plays too spring like green shoots in the forest: lately the Bush theatre put on the most truthful family comedy of the year, The Kitchen Sink, and the Tricycle, having anatomised the riots, turns its attention to the history of the bomb.
You could go on for ever, listing existing treasures and promised ones, nor is it all about London.
The triumph of creativity
What fascinates me is the vigorous, seemingly fragile nationwide ecology of theatre: how shoestring companies working for love produce works and actors who flower into international fame; how a few actors in the National Theatre studio walking round with boxes on their heads becomes the global hit War Horse.
Or how Jez Butterworth writes Jerusalem at his pig farm in Wiltshire, with input from the maverick Rylance, and the result, via the Royal Court, wows Broadway.
Meanwhile, in tunnels under Waterloo Station or in rooms above pubs, you might pay a tenner and find an evening of revelatory, captured human truth that makes your heart turn over. Magic.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.
The Story of Musicals airs tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.