Theatre in 2017

2017 is almost over. For various reasons, I had to cancel some of my theatre plans and therefore never got to see a number of the productions that, I’m certain, would’ve easily made my list of favourite shows of the year. Still, I managed to see quite a lot, with a more or less healthy balance between West End and Off West End shows and with plays dominating over musicals, even though a couple have somehow found themselves among those that I enjoyed the most. Choosing between some of the shows was a bit of a nightmare so they’re almost even. What’s really fascinating (and that’s why you shouldn’t make your lists if you still have new stuff to see) is that three (technically 4) of the productions I saw in December have made the cut!

First of all, I had to exclude Hamilton from the list because it’s virtually impossible for anything else to beat it and just not fair. Of course I loved it, of course it’s everything I wanted it to be. I won’t say anything about it that hasn’t been said before. My favourite song is still my favourite, my favourite line gets the biggest cheer and my favourite character is safe in Jason’s Pennycooke’s hands. Lin-Manuel Miranda created something that’s going to outlive him, and this show is definitely not to be missed, no matter what you think of musicals. Then there’s a matter of Sunny Afternoon UK Tour, but we all know that I loved it and that I’m still missing it and the cast A LOT, so yeah, it just goes without saying.

Now on to the actual list…

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Top 10 shows of 2017

 

10. Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Globe

One of the reasons for not putting Hamilton on this list was to give way to this production. I’ve seen several versions of this play, but Romeo and Juliet directed by Daniel Kramer is definitely my favourite and the one with I which I feel most connected. I booked it because I wanted to see the ever wonderful Kirsty Bushell and Edward Hogg on stage, but then I kept returning for the whole company and loved it more each time I was there.

9. An Inspector Calls, The Playhouse Theatre

One of my most favourite plays ever and it took me this long to finally see it on stage, which is even more surprising, considering how often Stephen Daldry’s production has visited London and toured the country. We all know the story: a well-off family celebrates engagement of their daughter and the son of one of their competitors when a mysterious man who introduces himself as Inspector Goole arrives. There’s nothing I didn’t like about this production: from set design to how well-paced it was to Liam Brennan as the Inspector. I’d gladly see it again, given a chance.

8. Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s last Shakespeare as the Globe’s AD was the most joyous Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen. I ended up seeing it 4 times, including Midnight Matinee when Debbie and I couldn’t stop giggling while clutching to the stage. It was good to see some familiar faces and to be introduced to a host of new ones. Katy Owen was hilarious as Malvolio, but that’s hardly surprising, considering it’s Katy. Lines-turned-songs were one of my most favourite things about this production and I still have them stuck in my head, nearly 6 months after last watching the play. Marc Antolin is definitely the one to watch for me now and I’m so glad I managed to catch him in more than one production this year.

7. A Christmas Carol, Old Vic

Apart from the fact that this production is just magical and delightful, it was good to see one of my favourite actors in a 3rd different production this year and being so well cast for a change. John made me cry again, which hasn’t happened since his Sunny Afternoon days. Dickens can be a bit boring, but not in this case. Mince pies and carols, wonderful company, stage adaptation that really works and two hours that fly by and no one leaves the theatre unmoved. It was also great to see Rhys Ifans on stage again. It’s a short run and I wish I had a chance to see it again, but I’m glad I managed it at least once.

6. Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

One last production for Emma Rice at the helm of The Globe. Considering the way she’d been treated by the board, but she showed pure grace and class by producing the only musical that’s made my Top 10 this year. It was wonderful to see Carly Bawden as the leading lady, with her impeccable comic timing and lovely voice. Her chemistry with Dominic Marsh is a joy to behold. Another couple of familiar Summer of Love faces made it even better: Marc Antolin is hilarious as ever and Gareth Snook really can sing. The show made this year a bit more bearable and I left the theatre feeling a bit happier, despite a cold December evening.

5. The Ferryman

I saw it 2 weeks ago, I’m still processing it and I’m gutted I never got to see the original cast with Paddy Considine or, indeed, the original Royal Court’s run. It’s one of those productions when no matter what you say about it, you won’t be able to do it justice. It’s well over 3 hours long, but it’s so gripping and intense you barely register it. There’s a live goose. And a live rabbit. And a live baby (which started wailing during its first appearance when I went to see it and was swiftly replaced by another one, a few months older by the looks of it). It’s hard to register The Ferryman’s sheer scale until the very end when the seemingly quiet rural life erupts like a volcano and puts everything that’s happened before in perspective. Mind you, I went to see Hamilton straight after that, so had very little time to be in a state of shock. I have a script I’m going to read, maybe that’ll help me process the whole thing at last and say something remotely coherent.

4. Ink, Almeida Theatre

I bloody love James Graham. Of the modern playwrights he’s definitely my favourite, and his name alone is enough to make me book tickets, no matter the cast and everything else. In this case, my eagerness to see the play was supported by a couple of actors I’m happy to see in everything because I know how good they are. Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle are just wonderful, with Coyle being the star of the production for me (and many others). Carvel is a chameleon and having seen him in a number of different roles over the last 5 or 6 years I can only applaud his ability to morph with the characters he gets to play. I have finally laid my hands on the script and am looking forward to reliving the experience of enjoying Graham’s writing again.

3. This House, Garrick Theatre

OK, I know I’m cheating here. It’s a bit of a delayed revival and I was sure I’d love it because I’d seen it a few times during its original run and both cast versions at the National, plus it’s another play written by James Graham and I’ve said many times that it’s one of my most favourite plays of the decade. Still, I saw it again in 2017, got to sit on the Labour bench on stage again, saw some of the same cast I’d loved first time around when it opened in 2012 – and I had the best of times. I’m confident that James Graham should just write everything (which is pretty much what he’s doing with 3 new plays in 2017 and one that’s due to open in Hull in 2018, plus stuff for the telly and so on) and looking forward to hopefully seeing This House on tour in 2018 – another Labour bench seat beckons, I think.

2. The Kite Runner, Wyndham’s Theatre and The Playhouse Theatre

Right, we’ve reached the most difficult part. The Kite Runner could’ve easily become number one but something else came along and it’s only number two. I’d watched the film when it came out a while ago but I’d never had time to read the book as it came out when I’d just started uni and I had other things to worry about, so I went to see the play in January only vaguely knowing that I’d probably cry for a couple of hours sitting in the front row. In the weeks that followed, I read all three of Khaled Hosseini’s books, talked a lot of people into seeing The Kite Runner with or without me and got attached to the wonderful cast that had been there since the show first emerged a few years ago and created those characters. The best thing about this production is that the main attraction is the story and it couldn’t have been more relevant now. I saw the new-ish cast when the show transferred to The Playhouse in June and was really looking forward to the tour but never got round to catching it this year. I’m curious to see the mostly new cast next year when the tour resumes although I’m still mourning the departure of people who’d been the best in their roles (and whom I’ve already seen in other productions – they’re not getting rid of me just yet.

1. Life of Galileo, Young Vic

How do I know I’m in trouble after I’ve seen a production? I start talking about it to everyone who would and wouldn’t listen and look at my schedule trying to figure out which shows I can ditch to see it again and again. Life of Galileo was an unlikely competitor for me: I’m not that fond of Brecht, don’t have a very good track record with the Young Vic (it’s one show I like for two shows that make me want to leave the auditorium not even halfway through), and Joe Wright as director has never been among my favourites (he’d worked on RTD’s Bob & Rose which I loved, so it’s not that bad). And yet… I ended up seeing it three times in one week, crying loads every time, being shaken to the core by the whole thing, trying not to blink and breathe sometimes so not to miss anything and barely noticing the running time close to three hours. It introduced me to Billy Howle and Brendan Cowell (and I even made sense when I was talking to both), and it was great to see some of the familiar faces, Anjana Vasan and Joshua James in particular, again. Plus music and the puppets. And don’t even get me started on all those projections. I’m gutted it never transferred anywhere, but it’s not easy to think of a bigger place where it’d feel so at home as in the Young Vic.

Like I said earlier, I never got to see a number of productions that would’ve been more than welcome on my list, but I hope to catch up in 2018. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to travel now as my new job takes a lot of time and I can’t take time off whenever I want it, but then it means I’ll be more careful in choosing things to see and next year’s list will be even more difficult to compile. I already have a couple of things booked to see the people I know and there’s  a few shows I need to book, mostly outside London, to my surprise. I hope that 2018 will be a good one theatre-wise. Stay tuned.

 

 

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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)