Theatre Overview: February 2017

February’s been and gone and it’s time for my second theatre overview of the year. Can’t say I got to see a lot this month, it should’ve been a bit different, but I had to cancel a trip to London (and York) so the list looks less impressive than it might’ve done and this post will be shorter than the last one.

February was a month of mostly repeat visits: of my 12 theatre trips, only 2 were brand new, 7 happened to be to see Sunny Afternoon in Oxford and Liverpool, 2 were some of my favourite plays in their new homes, and I had to see The Kite Runner again, especially since I got a chance to see a different take on Amir by David Ahmad who was word perfect and did the character justice. I’ll be back to see this play in March before it leaves the West End and gives way to Don Juan in Soho starring someone called David Tennant. Sunny Afternoon tour is still my pride and joy, I can never get tired of them and, even though we’ve pretty much planned our final week with them in Plymouth, I’m dreading the day I’ll have to say goodbye to them. Touring cast is, undoubtedly, my cast, which will make partying with them even more difficult than waving goodbye to the show in London. But it’s not happening for another 2,5 months so I’m trying not to think about it too much. For now, my February theatre adventures in chronological order.

Fantastic Mr Fox (Lyric Hammersmith)

Billed as a family show, Fantastic Mr Fox is just a tad more than that. The auditorium is filled with families with kids, that’s true, but Roald Dahl’s story is so universal grown ups have nothing to worry about: they will find something to relate to, plus some of the jokes will go over their kids’ heads while being appreciated by the parents. The cast is incredibly strong and I can’t help but marvel at their energy and enthusiasm, considering how physically demanding the show is. It’s hard to single out anyone, but Richard Atwill (Rat/Bean), Raphael Bushay (Badger/Boggis) and Gruffudd Glyn (Mole/Bunce) deserve a special mention for doubling as animals and farmers as it requires some very quick costume changes. It was also a great pleasure to see Lillie Flynn on stage again and hear her sing so much. Fantastic Mr Fox is rather fantastic and a lot of fun for kids and adults alike.

This House (Garrick Theatre)

Ever since I saw This House at the National Theatre in 2012, it’s been one of my most favourite plays of the decade. It doesn’t really matter how much (or little) you know about the 70s and coalition government, this play is surely an extremely piece of theatre and I’m glad I had another chance to see it and sit of the Labour bench once again. This is a proper ensemble show led by strong performances from Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri. It’s uncanny how timely the play sounds these days. I saw James Graham at the Hampstead Theatre Festival this month and he mentioned how different lines find resonance among today’s audiences and how some people even ask him how much of the text he’d changed for this revival. The answer is nothing has been altered, it just rings truer today than ever while remains immensely entertaining and enjoyable.

The Boys in the Band (Vaudeville Theatre)

I loved this play so much when I saw it at the Park Theatre last year I decided to come back to its West End home and see it once again. While it was still the same charming and heartbreaking productions, at times I couldn’t help thinking that maybe I should’ve stayed away this time. Yes, it’s excellent, yes, its cast is strong and very well cast, but the intimacy felt at the tiny theatre in Finsbury Park was somewhat lost and I didn’t feel like sitting there, in that room anymore. It’s not a bad thing, but I was a bit upset that this sense of involvement had become weaker. Still, it’s a wonderful and important play and I’m glad I got to see it more than once.

Promises, Promises (Southwark Playhouse)

I love Burt Bacharach and when the casting for this show was announced, the deal was sealed. I can list a host of reasons why I can’t say I was overjoyed by this production (from evidently low budget to it being one of the most dated things I’ve seen recently), but I didn’t dislike it. Chuck Baxter, played by Gabriel Vick who is perfect for the role, may not be your average hero – he is trying to advance his career by aiding senior executives of his company in cheating on their wives by letting them use his apartment – but it’s hard not to sympathise with him when you get to know him better. He’s charming and caring and a true gentleman when it comes to the woman he loves. I went to see the show because of Gabriel and I can say he was definitely worth it as well as the musical itself.

Like I said, February wasn’t too busy for me, but March is shaping up nicely and I have some really exiting plans for the next month, hope they’ll live up to my expectations.

Musical of the Month: Sunny Afternoon (UK Tour)

Play of the Month: This House (Garrick Theatre)

Theatre Overview: January 2017

Just over a month ago I published my resolution of sorts to write more about theatre. Now that January is almost done and dusted, it’s time for my first “Theatre Overview”. My initial plan to choose one show of the month had to be revised as I can’t really rate musicals and plays in the same way.

Over the first weeks of the year I’ve been to the theatre 17 times: I got to see 13 different shows, 9 of them were new. Not bad, considering I’m a repeat attender, but I have a feeling the situation’s going to change dramatically because Sunny Afternoon tour is back on the road after their early January break and I have some plans regarding my visits to various locations to see it. Anyway, first things first: my January theatre shenanigans and some thoughts on the productions I saw.

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Lin-Manuael Miranda and cast and creatives on In the Heights in London

I started 2017 in the rather cold King’s Cross Theatre watching Lazarus. David Bowie’s musical became an important part of my life and I’m glad I saw it 3 times, including my final visit on Bowie’s birthday. It really is a remarkable production and it’ll stay with me for a long time, at least in the form of the cast recording. Of other repeat visits I should mention School of Rock, a love child of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Julian Fellowes. Considering I’m not exactly keen on either, it’s interesting that this show is now on my list of things to see to cheer me up, and I think it’s something everyone should see. It’s fun, it’s loud and it has a great story – something many productions can learn. Another important repeat visit was to see In the Heights. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to the wonderful London version, and I’m slightly kicking myself for taking my time to see it and missing out on seeing other cast variations. Still, 11 visits and some time in the same room as Lin-Manuel Miranda happened to be some of the happiest times I’ve spent in any theatre. And, of course, there’s Sunny Afternoon tour. I caught them in Cardiff on their last day there and I am so glad I decided to go – it was definitely the best venue of those I’ve been to so far and the Saturday night show exceeded all expectations. I’m happy to see the tour going from strength to strength and looking forward to seeing them again very soon.

I may say I’ve been lucky so far in terms of new productions. Of the 9 shows I’ve seen, only one made me wish I had booked something different and one left me uncertain of what I’d seen. Here they are, in chronological order.

The Red Barn (National Theatre, Lyttleton)

David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s thriller would probably work much better as a film: even though scene changes and flashbacks don’t make it difficult to follow the story, they slow it down and take some of the intended suspense out of it. Bunny Christie’s set is definitely the star of the show, however, I have a feeling it might’ve been difficult to see some of the scenes from the sides of the auditorium. I went to see it because of Mark Strong, having seen him in a couple of other productions and knowing he’s worth a trip to the theatre. He is very good, no doubt, but the story lacks in novelty and power, I could easily predict what was going to happen a few scenes later and at the very end. It’s meant to be a gripping thriller, but it somehow fails to keep you on the edge of your seat.

RENT (St James Theatre)

This 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s musical would make its author proud. It has some of the strongest performers I have ever seen, both main characters and ensemble work as a whole, showing excellent chemistry between cast members. Philippa Stefani is a standout as Mimi, totally believable and heartbreaking. Scenes between Layton Williams’s Angel and Ryan O’Gorman’s Tom Collins won’t leave a dry eye in the house. This is my first production of RENT and I’m glad it’s this one. Should I ever see another version, it’ll have a lot to live up to.

Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

Half a Sixpence is a proper feel-good show, full of heart and excellent musical numbers. It’s hard to leave the theatre without feeling impressed by the mood the show sets, despite its simple story. Charlie Stemp is probably the brightest young musical theatre star at the moment. He spends almost all of the time on stage acting, singing, dancing, playing his banjo, sometimes simultaneously, and making it look like the easiest task there is. I’ll be very much surprised is he’s not recognised for his performance at this year’s Oliviers.

Dead Funny (Vaudeville Theatre)

With names like Steve Pemberton and Katherine Parkinson in the cast you’d expect the show to be a hit, but it’s more of a miss, with a half-empty auditorium. It’s not not-funny, it has its moments, however, the below-the-belt jokes lose their appeal 30 minutes into the first half and become slightly weary post-interval. It’s not necessarily bad, the cast are on top form, with the above mentioned Pemberton and Parkinson proving that they’re true comedy geniuses, capable of drama performances as well, but we already knew that from their other works. However, they get a little bit lost amidst the general chaos, good as they are.

Nice Fish (Harold Pinter Theatre)

This West End transfer of the play co-written by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins sees the former being good as usual at seemingly effortless performance. The play may not be the most action-packed or straightforward production in London at the moment, but it’s enjoyable nevertheless. Simplistic set and clever use of puppets help create the atmosphere of a distant ice-fishing spot. It’s funny at times and touching in other scenes, and it leaves you with a smile on your face without trying too hard.

Art (Old Vic)

Probably some of the most enjoyable 90 minutes I’ve spent in any theatre in the last few years. Billed as a comedy, Art proves this for almost an hour, with the story revolving around three friends, one of whom spends a lot of money on a questionable piece of art, leading to his friends’ disbelief and mockery. However, Art’s high point is Tim Key’s performance as Ivan, who, despite being a little looked down upon by Serg and Mark (Rufus Sewell and Paul Ritter respectively), turns out to be the most multi-dimensional character and wins the audience over in one of the key scenes.

Wild Honey (Hampstead Theatre)

For someone not exactly keen on Russian literature I spend a lot of time watching Russian plays in English. However, Chekhov has always been one of the more enjoyable writers for me and I was glad to get a chance to see Geoffrey Streatfield on stage again. The performance I saw involved a rather last-minute replacement for Howard Ward, who had been taken ill a couple of days before, so the character was played by Simon Slater with an aid of the script as he’d only had a day and a half of rehearsals. However, it didn’t diminish the effect and it was still an enjoyable evening, making Wild Honey an enormous fun and one of the more cheerful stage adaptations of Russian plays I’ve seen, as much cheerful as it’s applicable here, of course.

The Kite Runner (Wyndham’s Theatre)

(NB: This was written after my first visit to see the play, I’ve been to the Wyndham’s twice already and will definitely be back again, more than once.)

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The Kite Runner at the Wyndham’s Theatre

It was a last minute decision as I prefer reading books before seeing their adaptations, but I decided to break my own rule and see the play. I know it’s only January, but everything else I’m going to see this year will have a tough job getting anywhere near the bar set for me by the Kite Runner. It’s a universal story of friendship, loyalty, hope and redemption. I see a lot of different productions, but I won’t lie if I say that I’ve never seen anything so powerful. I spent most of the time weeping in the front row and I can tell you I wasn’t alone. Ben Turner as Amir is the heart and soul of the production, changing between playing a little boy in Kabul and a narrator, a grown-up version of that kid. He’s on stage all the time and he is the sight to behold. Andrei Costin as Amir’s childhood friend and servant Hassan, and later Hassan’s son Sohrab, is making his West End debut and it’s not something I’ll forget soon, if ever. I cried my eyes out over his characters and I hope both Turner and Costin will be recognised for putting everything they’ve got into The Kite Runner.

She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

My friend and I keep breaking theatres: on the day we went to see She Loves Me, they had problems with revolves and had to change choreography and blocking to adapt to the circumstances. It might’ve added a little chaos, but the cast did their job and delivered an excellent performance. My standouts are Dominic Tighe and Katherine Kingsley as Stephen and Ilona. My cheeks ached from laughter and it was such a pleasure to see them on stage together and hear Dom’s wonderful singing voice again. Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen are hilarious as Georg and Amalia, they’re perfect together when they both argue and become friends. It’s a wonderful show for cold winter days when something uplifting and cheerful is needed.

That’s about it for January. I have some rather exciting plans for the next month, although they mostly involve repeat visits of sorts, but I’m determined to keep going and hope to have a lot to say about shows that are yet to come.

Musical of the Month: Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

Play of the Month: The Kite Runner (Wyndham’s Theatre)

Theatre in 2016

Everyone will tell you this: 2016 has been tough, incredibly so. However, looking back, it seems I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of theatre this year. I know it’s not over yet, but I’m not seeing any new productions in the next 12 days, so I might as well think of something to say about my theatre year. I don’t blog about productions I see, even though I probably should, even just for myself. Anyway, I do have something to say, so…

the-globe

By the end of the year I will have been to the theatre 146 times, which is almost twice as many as in 2015 (it was 75), and I’ll end up seeing 54 different productions (massive improvement on about 20 in 2015). As you can guess, most of those visits were dedicated to a certain Sunny show: both in London and on tour. As a matter of fact, the tour is going to be my last show of the year – which is how it should be. There have been other shows I ended up seeing more than once, for different reasons: Hangmen, In the Heights, Kinky Boots and The Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, – so it’s not just one production.

Like I said, I’ve been very lucky this year but there’s a couple of shows that turned out to be below my usual standards. The worst production I had to endure was All or Nothing, by miles. I never got round to seeing it during its initial run at the Vaults so I can’t say if it got better or worse by the time I saw it in August, but it was the one time this year when I was thinking of leaving in the interval, which I never do, no matter how awful the production I’m seeing is. I saw it through, however, to make sure it was as weak as I’d been told. That said, I tried to be as unprejudiced as possible, it wasn’t that hard. I love The Small Faces, it’s one of my most favourite bands, and it pains me to see their story treated in such an immature way. The show may have its potential, but its book needs to be rewritten and some of the characters should be recast. I don’t know how it sounded in bigger venues, at the Vaults musical design seemed non-existent and I couldn’t hear any of the vocals, which is not a good thing. You should be able to hear Steve Marriott, I couldn’t, although it’s not the only problem with this show.

I was slightly disappointed by the UK tour of the Commitments, I don’t like the changed ending which comes out of nowhere and makes no sense to me, plus it didn’t feel to me like it was the same show I’d seen in London. I’m also not quite sure about Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. It’s a fun show, but it doesn’t have much of a story (not their fault, obviously), it might’ve worked better as a shorter show without an interval. It appeals to certain audiences and it’s still enjoyable, though. There have been some other productions I’m not particularly keen on, I knew it might happen and it doesn’t mean they’re bad – just not my kind of shows.

However, 2016 has been a very good theatre year for me. Some shows opened in 2015 but as I saw them this year, they’re on my list. I stopped avoiding musicals and, even though I may not be coming back to see most of them, I happen to enjoy and appreciate some productions. Without further ado, I give you my Top 5 shows from 2016.

  1. In the Heights (King’s Cross Theatre)

It took me a while to get to see it, I missed its original run at the Southwark Playhouse and only went to the King’s Cross Theatre in May – and I fell in love. It’s a wonderful production, its simple story is full of heart and never fails to make me laugh and cry. I’m going to be sad to say goodbye to it in January, but I’m glad I got to see it and spent some time enjoying it.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Globe)

One of my least favourite plays and one of the best productions I’ve seen at the Globe. I’m grateful to Emma Rice for her first season and for this particular version of the play. It’s fun, it’s mad in the best way possible and it introduced me to a number of actors who quickly became some of my most favourite people. And don’t get me started on some of Emma Rice’s casting decisions: Debbie wrote a great feature on Helenus and I can only second everything she said, Katy Owen as Puck is my role model now, and Ewan Wardrop happens to be the Bottom that doesn’t set my teeth on edge but makes me cry with laughter. I’m annoyed and irritated by the board’s decision to get Emma Rice to step down in 2018, but I’m glad we still have one more year with her.

  1. Lazarus (King’s Cross Theatre)

2016 deprived me of one of the most important people in my life. Bowie’s legacy lives on, no doubt, but it’s the thought of not having anything new that’s devastating. I’m happy that Lazarus found a home in London and glad I got to see it. I’ve heard different opinions and reviews, to me it’s one of the most personal things I’ve ever seen on stage. It may be weird to some, to me it’s one of the strongest theatre experiences ever. I couldn’t stop crying for almost two hours and was visibly shaking when I was leaving the theatre. It’s so Bowie you could almost feel his presence. And don’t get me started on the cast, Michael Esper as Valentine is something to behold. My only regret is that I booked just one ticket when they went on sale, I’m going to see it again in 2017 – in fact, it should be my first show of the year – but having watched it from the middle of the front row, I want to see it from there again.

  1. Red Velvet (Garrick Theatre)

This was my most favourite production of the whole Branagh season at the Garrick – quite possibly because Branagh had nothing to do with it. It’s a timely story told by a top-notch cast, it’s Adrian Lester at his best. Productions like this stay with you for a very long time. I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking or use any other big words – it just makes you stop and look around you, and see that not that much has changed in 150 years. It’s a shame it had such a short run, but I’m so so glad I saw it in February.

  1. Hangmen (Wyndham’s Theatre)

To my shame, I missed Hangmen at the Royal Court in 2015, timing just wasn’t right (it was on around Sunny cast change, you know…) and then it was sold out so I couldn’t even try and risk cancelling something I’d already planned. However, I made up for it when it moved to the West End. I saw it 3 times and if I’d had a chance it would’ve been far more than that. There’s nothing I don’t like about this Martin Mcdonagh’s play, I could probably go on and on about it forever and I keep everything crossed that one day it’ll be back and I’ll get to experience it over and over again. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s stylish, it doesn’t matter that I know its plot twists, I still enjoy it enormously and miss it a lot. And I’m still baffled and annoyed that Johnny Flynn didn’t get an Olivier nomination for his performance – he was definitely the best thing about this incredible production.

What? Sunny Afternoon is not on the list? You may have guessed that of those shows I’ve seen more than once this is still the one I see a lot. We had to say goodbye to its London version, which was tough, even though the world didn’t end, it just feels odd knowing it’s not in Panton Street anymore. On the other hand, I have the tour, and it’s the best option I could wish for. I’ve seen them many times now and I love them dearly – it’s still the same show and yet it feels fresh and new. I look forward to spending more time on the road and seeing them in 2017.

Speaking of things to look forward to next year, I have 9 new shows to see when I’m next in London and quite a few new productions in the first 6 months. One of my favourite actors is going back to the theatre and, even though it’s another version of the play I’m not very keen on, I’m glad I’m going to see him again. I’m also massively looking forward to the new season at the Globe and I’m determined to make the most of it and see every production at least once. In November, that little show called Hamilton is going to hit London, so that’s definitely another exciting prospect, plus, even though it’s not set in stone yet, I may finally make it across the pond again and see a few Broadway shows. Let’s hope 2017 will be better in general and in terms of theatre in particular. I hope that my fellow theatre addicts will get to see a lot of great shows and that my favourite actors will get the roles they want and deserve. I have decided to try and do some theatre blogging next year. I don’t know yet if I’m going to do monthly overviews, or if I’ll just write about those shows that should get a mention, for good or bad reasons, or if I’m going to write proper blogs on every new production I see – it all depends on how much time and energy I’ll have. In any case, here’s to a good 2017, filled with excellent theatre.