Theatre 2015: Mid-Year Review

So, as we arrive in the second half of 2015, I thought I’d take a moment or two to reflect on the first half of the year’s theatre offerings. I’ve probably seen less than I expected to, but 2015 is already shaping up to be a superb year for theatre, with some truly impressive productions and performances already on the list. I’m predicting my end of year top 10 review is going to be a tough one this year!

So, starting with the stats, I’ve currently seen 35 productions this year, seeing three of those more than once. As my post looking ahead to the year’s theatre suggested, there was lots to look forward to and from those I’ve already ticked off the list, 2015 certainly isn’t disappointing me so far. Some of the highlights are ones I expected to be high on the list, while others were unexpected gems that struck a cord with me and will become firm favourites for years to come. So here are my favourite productions and performances from the year so far, as well as the disappointments (thankfully not many so far).

Favourite productions of the year so far

Starting with the top of the tree are the productions that I absolutely loved and which will almost certainly make it in to my end of year top 10 list. It’s a varied mix, with new material, revivals of classics and a musical.

1. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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This may be an unexpected number one, but so far for me it’s easily Hello/Goodbye. Peter Souter’s new play ran at the Hampstead Theatre for a relatively short run last year and after missing it then I’m so pleased I caught it in the main space. In fact I loved it so much, I had to see it more than once. I knew nothing of the plot beforehand and its simple story of a couple’s relationship over a decade, told in two acts, struck a chord with me. Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison had a wonderful chemistry, thrown together when they both come to move in to the same flat. The script was witty, heartfelt, filled with unexpected curves in storyline and by the end I felt rather moved, as you were reminded of how the simplest of gestures are sometimes the most powerful. Read my full review here.

2. Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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This production of probably my favourite Shakespeare comedy become the best version of the play I’d seen immediately (sorry David Tennant!). The RSC is hard to beat when it comes to Shakespeare and this was certainly a production through which the home of the Bard truly shone. Bringing back some alumni from the 2008 season in the form of Ed Bennett and Sam Alexander (still two of my favourite actors), we were treated to a Much Ado set at the close of Word War One, in a stately home being used a hospital during the war. As the soldiers return from the Front, Beatrice and Benedick meet and sparks fly. Ed Bennett has truly grown as an actor over the years. As someone who was sitting tensely in the Novello during press night of Hamlet in 2008 when he took over for Mr Tennant, it’s been lovely to watch him develop and he is now a truly wonderful leading man and was a superb Benedick. Together with his sparkling chemistry with Michelle Terry, a strong ensemble (Sam Alexander creating the most three-dimensional Don John I’ve seen), wonderful music and an utterly gorgeous set that I could have lived in, this was a heartwarming three hours in Stratford-Upon-Avon. For those who missed it (it’s criminal there was no London run), the DVD on this and the equally lovely Love’s Labour’s Lost will be out later in the year. Read my full review here.

3. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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This revival of this musical at the Donmar Warehouse was another superb night at the theatre. The setting, both within the real world and the pages of the writer’s script was quirky and brought to life brilliantly by the design team, with the use of black and white/colour to depict them such an effective choice. It also had one of the strongest vocal ensembles I can imagine, with Rosalie Craig, Hadley Fraser, Tam Matu, Katherine Kelly and Samantha Barks to name just a handful, delivering perfect acting and singing. I’m still sad there was no West End run, not to mention no soundtrack released.

4. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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Jamie Lloyd’s second Trafalgar Transformed season continued with the return of James McAvoy, easily one of the best young British actors around at the moment. I had high expectations for this, which were only raised once the reviews and opinions of friends reached me. Thankfully The Ruling Class didn’t disappoint. It was very very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, entertaining, but also quite dark in places. All of which was driven at 100 miles an hour by McAvoy’s incredible performance. The part called upon him to give everything, mentally and physically – he sang, danced, screamed, cried, laughed and as an audience member you just couldn’t take your attention from him. Read my full review here.

5. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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Having just ended at the National Theatre, Rules For Living was a new play by Sam Holcroft, which wonderfully lays bare the dynamics of a family during Christmas Day. Rivalries become apparent, secrets are exposed and relationships become ever strained, all the while presented in this colourful, gameshow style set up, in which the audience gain an insight in to the psyches of the characters and the rules by which they live their lives. It has drama and awkwardness, but my lasting memory of this production was laughter, which I very much needed at the time and it’s final scenes are classics that I’ll remember for a long time. Read my full review here.

6. Tree (Old Vic)

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One of my highlights of 2014 was Daniel Kitson’s Analog.ue and this new play of his at the Old Vic was an early favourite of this year. A two hander between Kitson and Tim Key, this play sees two men discuss life, with one remaining up a tree throughout! Short and sweet. I loved every moment. Read my full review here.

Stand out performances of the year so far As well as productions, there have already been some impressive individual performances.

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1. James McAvoy in The Ruling Class I’ve already sang McAvoy’s praises above so there’s not much more I can add here. The cast as a whole was excellent in The Ruling Class, but McAvoy was spectacular.

2. John Heffernan in Oppenheimer A play about the history of the creation of the first atomic bomb may not immediately sound like a fun night at the theatre, but this RSC play managed to bring what could have been quite a dry, scientific story to the stage in an engaging and entertaining way (you can read my full review here). This was in no small way also helped by the utterly brilliant John Heffernan in the title role, whose performance of Oppenheimer was his most commanding role to date and his final speech at the play’s close, as his character reflects on his achievement was certainly very powerful to witness. His career continues to excite and I am eagerly awaiting his next role – Hamlet anyone?

3. Imelda Staunton in Gypsy I was lucky enough to see Imelda Staunton’s award-winning performance in Sweeney Todd and thought I’d seen her at her best. How wrong I was! The transfer of Chichester’s musical to the Savoy in London was a welcome one and you couldn’t fail to be impressed by Imelda’s performance as Mamma Rose. She isn’t a hugely likeable person, domineering and putting ever more pressure on her children, to fuel her own lost ambitions. However, you still can’t help but admire her strength and passion and hearing Imelda Staunton belt out those songs will stay with me for a long time to come. Book your tickets while you can! Read my full review here.

4. Ralph Fiennes in Man & Superman This revival of Bernard Shaw’s play intimidated me beforehand due to its lengthy running time (nearer 4 hours in the early days). It was certainly a strange play, shifting between one setting and the dream-like setting of hell for the third act and it certainly needed a strong actor in the lead role. Ralph Fiennes is someone I’ve always wanted to see on stage and this was certainly a good start, as he’s in almost every scene. How he remembered so much dialogue, most of which he delivered at rapid pace, I do not know! As someone who was in the audience for the night filmed live for NT:Live, it was perhaps even more impressive to witness Mr Fiennes bringing such a unique role to life.

Memorable moments of the year so far

There have also already been some wonderful moments on stage this year, whether a set, a scene or a line and here are my favourites.

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1. Watching the Treasure Island ship set rise up through its split levels on the Olivier stage 

The drum revolve of the Olivier stage was used to its full potential during this production, as we watched the entire ship rise up and through the cross section design, were able to see the rooms on all the levels. It was truly impressive.

2. So much incredibly colourful dialogue in The Motherf**cker With The Hat 

I saw this production recently (review on its way) and one thing that will stay in the mind is some of the incredibly colourful dialogue! A scene in which Veronica refers to Jackie’s mother is particularly memorable. I bet the play text makes for entertaining reading!

3. The final few minutes of The Red Lion

Another production I’ve seen recently was Patrick Marber’s latest football-related play at the National. I’m currently writing my review but suffice to say I thought it was a superb production, powerfully acted. However it was the final few moments of the play that will stay with me for, I imagine, quite some time. Go if you can.

Disappointments of the year so far

There always tend to be some disappointments, but so far there haven’t been too many this year. Other than the first one listed, I enjoyed aspects of the other three, whether the acting or the production values, but these are currently bottom of the pile for 2015.

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1. How To Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) I love Maxine Peake and she was the reason I booked this play. I don’t regret it in some ways as she was very good. However, as my review at the time made clear, this was simply not my cup of tea. From the moment early on, when a simple one night stand becomes a case of someone sleeping with a demon, I knew I was going to struggle to enjoy it. Although I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve, it was simply too strange for me.

2. Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) I’ve loved the recent run of Almeida productions (Mr Burns aside), but Simon Stephens’s reimagining of Carmen was another let down for me. At least unlike How To Hold Your Breath, I did enjoy aspects of the play – some wonderful performances by Jack Farthing and Noma Dumezweni as one example, but overall it just didn’t work as a whole and I left feeling quite dissatisfied.

3. Closer (Donmar Warehouse) I was unfamiliar with Patrick Marber’s most successful play, having never seen it or watched the film and perhaps part of my disappointment stems from expecting too much to begin with. The cast was my reason for booking, with Rufus Sewell, Oliver Chris and the glorious Nancy Carroll too good to miss. Although the cast was very good, I just didn’t really enjoy the play. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood on the day I went as it’s rather dismal view of relationships wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed.

4. Miss Saigon (Prince of Edward Theatre) So many people say Miss Saigon is the greatest musical of all time. I simply can’t agree (I doubt anything will beat Les Miserables for me). Although the sets were fantastic and the vocal performance of Eva Noblezada as Kim was incredibly impressive, I did not like the story at all. I found over night falling in love of Kim and Chris unconvincing and unlike Les Miserables ultimate message of hope, forgiveness and love, I just found Miss Saigon to be a depressing tale of a woman used by a man, who then is too much of a coward to face the consequences of his actions. Add to that the lack of any truly memorable songs (for me anyway) and it’s not one I’ll rush back to.

Looking ahead – Coming up during the rest of 2015!

After looking back, the adventure of a theatregoer never ends, with new productions opening and being announced all the time. So, it’s only right to look to what productions are on the horizon. It’s always an exciting feeling to wonder which ones will be as brilliant as you hope and which will be so much more than you could have anticipated. There is certainly a lot to choose from coming up, but for me, these are the productions I’m most excited or curious about seeing over the next few months.

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1. Hamlet (Barbican Theatre)

Yes, it may be the obvious choice for number one, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing Mr Cumberbatch take on the iconic role of Hamlet next month at the Barbican. It’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play and he has been one of my favourite actors for years, especially on stage. It’s an exciting ensemble cast (although it’s a shame none of my fantasy cast made the cut!) and I admit to having high hopes. All fingers are crossed!

2. Bakkhai (Almeida Theatre)

Coming soon to the Almeida is their next Greek play, bringing the combination of Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel together on stage. The Almeida has been bringing some truly inventive and exciting productions to London since Rupert Goold took charge and I’m sure this will be another success. More tickets go on sale soon.

3. Guys & Dolls (Savoy Theatre)

I missed this in Chichester and therefore I’m thrilled it’s transferring to the Savoy in December. The cast is yet to be announced, but I sincerely hope some of the Chichester cast come on board for this run. Time will tell.

4. The Winter’s Tale (Garrick Theatre)

This is perhaps the production from Kenneth Branagh’s season that I am most looking forward to. Opening in October, this production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale will include in its cast not only Mr Branagh but, more importantly for me, Dame Judi Dench. She is always wonderful to watch on stage and I’m sure this will delight many people during its run.

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So that’s the first six months of my theatre year in a nutshell. It’s now time to see what I’ll enjoy in the second half. One of the most thrilling things about being a regular theatregoer is never knowing what unexpected gems you’ll discover, whether an actor, writer, or play. See you at the end of the year for the final round up!

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