My 2018 Theatre Review – Productions of the Year!

Where has the last twelve months gone? I probably say that every year, but it means it’s time for me to look back on the last twelve months as a theatregoer. I’ll start by saying I’ve seen fewer productions this year than I expected to and I’ve seen far less regional theatre than I wanted to as well, which only gives me something to aim for next year.

That being said, my final total for 2018 was 60 shows, with revisits to six of those shows (including three Hamilton trips), resulting in a total number of theatre trips of 67. Not bad, but I’m well aware that I’ve missed a fair few shows I’d been hoping to see this year.

As I’ve already mentioned, my theatre trips outside of London have been low this year, with the exception of a theatre-packed NYC trip in the spring. London and New York aside, my regional visits have been limited to Chichester and Stratford-Upon-Avon and I fully intend to improve on this in 2019.

Finally, when choosing my favourites of the year, I think about which shows resonated with me on an emotional level, so I’m sure there are productions which appear on other lists, as ground-breaking or significant shows for other reasons, but which weren’t at the top of my list.

So, without further delay, here are my favourite productions of the last twelve months!

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1. The Inheritance (Noel Coward Theatre)

As in previous years, my list is in no particular order, with the exception of the top spot, which was clear to me as soon as I left the Noel Coward Theatre.

I’d had a ticket for a full Wednesday at the Young Vic to see The Inheritance, but due to work commitments, I had to give the tickets back. I was gutted at the time, as this promised to be something special and so the news of a West End transfer was wonderful.

I have been intending to write a specific review of this show ever since I saw it and yet I struggle to put in to words just how stunning it is on so many levels. I’m not a gay man, but nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to be moved by a story which reaches in to the past and connects it so beautifully with the present and the importance of a sense of community between the men on stage. Not only that, but the writing is just magical, as you are told a story of love, loss, compassion and forgiveness, which still captures moments of such fun and playfulness along the way and all of its 7+ hours is so superbly acted by the show’s cast. I laughed, I cried (many times) and having seen it twice, it continues to stay with me. I’ll be there for the final shows on 19th January and if you can go before it closes, you simply must. It’s that simple. (The Inheritance continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19th January 2019).

2. Summer & Smoke (Almeida & Duke of York’s Theatre)

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Credit: Marc Brenner

I was lucky enough to see this superb show during its initial run at the Almeida, before revisiting it in the West End only a couple of weeks ago, where I was still able to have a fabulous close-up view thanks to TodayTix. I wasn’t familiar with this play beforehand, having seen some of the better known and more regularly revived pieces by Tennessee Williams and yet I quickly fell under the spell of this hauntingly atmospheric production. I loved the simplicity of the set and the use of light to draw out the electricity between the two central characters. The stand out element though? An utterly compelling performance by Patsy Ferran, who I honestly felt transformed in to Alma before my eyes in such a nuanced portrayal of a character I was almost instantly invested in. Combined with strong support from Matthew Needham, Forbes Masson, Nancy Crane and all the cast, this again was a show that had a profound emotional impact on me and is one I won’t forget. (Summer & Smoke continues at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 19th January 2019).

3. Twelfth Night (Young Vic Theatre)

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Credit: Johan Persson

Twelfth Night is a Shakespeare play that I’ve seen quite often and I admit I was possibly a little tired of it. Yet, I’d heard so many glowing reviews about this production since it was staged in New York in 2016, that I couldn’t miss it when it arrived in London, as the first show during Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as artistic director of the Young Vic. It’s one of the best decisions I made all year and is, without question, the best interpretation of this play that I’ve seen to date. Turning this well known Shakespeare story in to a musical was bold in itself, yet this show was inventive, colourful, fun and fresh and is easily one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had in a theatre, which brought the story to life in an entertaining, yet accessible way. Although the whole cast was great, the stand out has to be Gerard Carey as Malvolio. He was simply perfect. I might never need to see another version of this play, as I doubt this one will be beaten.

4. The Watsons (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

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Credit: Manuel Harlan

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I travelled to Chichester to see Laura Wade’s latest play, but being a fan of her previous work and a lover of Jane Austen, I had high hopes that this would be right up my street and that certainly proved to be the case. I loved the cleverness of this script, as it’s not just an Austen story (one which Austen mysteriously never finished, despite it not being the last one she wrote), but it’s also a story about what it’s like to be a writer and it was this added element that really appealed to me, as an aspiring writer. I don’t want to give too much away for those not familiar with this play, as I’m certain it’ll have another life on stage before too long, but all I will say is that its mix of Austen and contemporary life resulted in a show that was a lot of fun to watch and had me leaving the theatre with a big smile on my face. All my fingers are crossed for a London transfer.

5. Three Tall Women (Golden Theatre, New York)

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Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Having seen her brilliant return to the stage as King Lear after 23 years in 2016, I couldn’t miss the chance to see Glenda Jackson’s second show, this time in New York, during my visit in April/May and it was certainly a highlight of my trip. With a cast of just three (Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill), Three Tall Women tells the story of one fierce woman, whose life is cleverly told by herself at three different ages. It may have been short, but it certainly packed a punch and seeing Broadway so in awe of Glenda Jackson was wonderful.

6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Donmar Warehouse)

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Credit: Manuel Harlan

Over the years Lia Williams has become one of my must-see actresses and I’ll book anything she’s in and in this year’s Donmar production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she yet again proved what an incredible artist she is on stage. Having not read the novel, nor seen the film made famous by Dame Maggie Smith, I wasn’t sure what to expect, yet found myself caught up in the world of her and her students, as her desire to inspire them starts to become questionable as the play progresses. I’m only sorry I didn’t have the chance to go back for a second time.

7. Fun Home (Young Vic Theatre)

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Credit: Marc Brenner

Fun Home had been on my list of shows to see when I was in NYC a few years ago, but I just didn’t have time and had been wondering if it would ever make its way across the Atlantic. It’s clearly been a strong year for me when it comes to the Young Vic, with this beautifully touching musical being the third show from the theatre on my list. In a way it didn’t feel like a musical, but more of a play with songs, but regardless of how you categorise it, the story of one girl’s relationship with herself, her sexuality and her father left me rather emotional by the end and a return visit was essential. I admit, I’m still surprised there hasn’t been news of a West End run for the show. Hopefully 2019 will rectify that.

8. A Monster Calls (Old Vic Theatre)

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Credit: Manuel Harlan

I only had to walk a few minutes down the road for a similarly emotional theatre outing, this time to see the Old Vic’s staging of Patrick Ness’s tale of love, grief and forgiveness. I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read the book, but I adored the recent film and found this adaptation equally powerful, as we see one young boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s illness and death and the confusing emotions they stir up within him. It’s not an easy story to stage, with so much resting on the fantastical stories the monster tells him, but this production truly evoked the same emotions through its imaginative staging. It wasn’t an easy show to watch, but it’s one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

9. I And You (Hampstead Theatre)

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Credit: Manuel Harlan

This was a lovely little surprise of a show at the Hampstead Theatre for me this year, which also saw the stage debuts of two wonderful acting talents, one I was very familiar with and the other I’ve now added to my “keep a look out for them” list. Lauren Gunderson’s play saw Maisie Williams, fresh from Game of Thrones as a sickly young teenager, cooped up in her room, who is forced to engage with the world through the arrival of one of her classmates, played superbly by Zach Wyatt, with a last minute poetry project centring around Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Yes, I worked out the ending quite quickly, but that didn’t take away from the emotional punch I felt at the end, as the lines from the poem they’d been discussing became so poignant. The production also saw the Hampstead Theatre testing out a new way of reaching new, younger audiences, when it was made available to stream for free on Instagram. Anything that encourages people to try theatre gets my support and the play was just as moving a second time on my small phone screen.

10. Girls & Boys (Royal Court Theatre)

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Credit: Marc Brenner

I’ve been hoping to see Carey Mulligan on stage for a few years now and this incredibly powerful one-woman play at the Royal Court finally gave me a chance to see her. This was another instance where I had no idea about the story before stepping foot inside the auditorium and what I loved most about this play was how it started as one thing and all of a sudden took a sharp turn down a much darker, devastating road. The power of such a play depends on the actress and Mulligan was simply outstanding as a mother telling the story of her life and that of her children to the audience, right down to the mimed interactions with her children, who I soon forget weren’t actually there on stage with her. This was yet another emotional experience and one that certainly stood out as a highlight this year.

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Special mentions also go to White Teeth at the newly reopened Kiln (formerly Tricycle) Theatre, which took me completely by surprise with how much fun it was, The Humans, which I was thrilled to see arrive at the Hampstead Theatre, complete with the full Tony Award-winning cast, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which provided the type of black comedic fun I expect from Martin McDonagh and some wonderful performances (all of which I enjoyed from a £10 front row seat!), Lobby Hero in NYC, with wonderful performances by Micheal Cera and Chris Evans in particular, Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, where the 2000 US setting felt just as relevant in 2018 Britain and The Madness of George III from the Nottingham Playhouse, which I was able to enjoy via NT Live.

Last year saw my list filled with plenty of musicals after a year in which I saw more than usual and although far fewer make the shortlist this year, there were certainly some musical highlights, in particular the recent NYC stagings of My Fair Lady and Carousel, the impressive Hadestown, here prior to its Broadway opening and the Old Vic’s much publicised Sylvia. Yes, it was rough and needs tightening up, but I expect the final form to be something rather special when it returns and it contained one of my theatre moments of the year (see my separate post for those coming soon).

Although I try and keep repeat trips to shows out of my annual favourites list, I couldn’t write this without giving special mention to some of the shows that I loved this year and which I’d already seen before. Top of this list was a joyous visit to Harry Potter & The Cursed Child in NYC, to see the original London seven back in their roles. Although I’ve enjoyed later West End casts, there’s something special about that group and in particular Jamie Parker as Harry and Anthony Boyle as Scorpius. My time in NYC also enabled me to revisit the National Theatre’s stunning production of Angels in America for a third time and spending another day wrapped up in these characters was a privilege. 2018 also saw Andrew Scott return to London in Sea Wall, which made my favourites list back in 2013 and was indeed a highlight of this year as well. It may be only 30 minutes long, but it remains one of the most emotional theatre experiences I’ve ever had. And of course, it would have been rude had I not returned multiple times this year to Hamilton, including the very special performance in August in aid of the charity Sentabale, attended by Harry & Meghan!

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So, that was my 2018 theatre year! Yes, I missed some shows that I wish I’d seen (The York Realist, Misty and Notes From The Field being at the top of that list), but overall, I enjoyed almost everything I saw this year and even those that I found disappointing had something I could appreciate (the Almeida’s current Richard II may not be my cup of tea, but Simon Russell Beale’s performance was very good and I may have found A Very Very Very Dark Matter disappointing, but the two central actors were great, as was the set). That’s certainly better than years when I’ve had a list of shows I’ve found truly painful!

Looking ahead, there are some fantastically promising shows arriving next year and I’ll be highlighting my 19 shows to see in 2019 in a separate post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your highlights from the last twelve months!

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My 2017 Theatre Review – Productions of the Year!

It’s hard to believe it’s that time again, when I look back at my theatregoing year and look forward to the year to come (that’s coming soon in another post). I’ve seen a slightly smaller number of shows in 2017, with a total of 56, but with repeat viewings of 13 shows, I’ve actually visited a theatre 80 times in the last twelve months, which isn’t too bad!

Although I’ve seen fewer productions, 2017 has struck me as a fantastic year in theatre land. I’ve seen far more hits than misses and choosing a top ten is practically impossible, so this list is going to run a little longer. The other interesting aspect of the year (well, for me anyway) is, as someone who tends to prefer plays to musicals, I’ve seen more musicals this year than any other, with a total of 12 of 2017’s list. This is undoubtably helped by my two trips to NYC, where Broadway continues to showcase far more musicals than plays.

So, after looking back through programmes, my reviews and most crucially, my memories, these are the standout productions for me in 2017!

1. Hamlet (Almeida/Harold Pinter) & Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre)

There was one production, for which I had huge expectations and on first seeing it in February, was so impressed by, that it seemed certain to claim my top spot. Well, that was until three weeks ago when I finally witnessed the newest musical to hit London. Therefore, this year’s top spot has to be shared between the Almeida’s utterly stunning production of Hamlet and Lin Manuel Miranda’s incredible musical, Hamilton. It was impossible to choose between them, as they both took my breath away in a way nothing else matched in 2017.

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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and Robert Icke’s production managed to exceed my expectations. You can read more thoughts in full on this here, but in short, it is a production that made Hamlet new again. It was thrilling, original, emotional and exciting, pulling new people to the theatre and Shakespeare and had me seeing scenes I know so well in a whole new light. Supported by a strong ensemble cast, led by the incredibly talented Andrew Scott, this was a sheer joy each and every time I saw it. It will be airing on the BBC in 2018, so don’t miss it!

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Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

And then there was Hamilton. Everyone has heard of it, whether you know all the words, or nothing other than the hype. Crucially for me, a Hamilton newbie on my first visit, it more than lived up to the hype. My first visit was the 2nd preview and already the cast was so good, you could believe they had been performing it for years. You can read my full review, but in summary, it’s an intelligent, exhilarating and unforgettable theatrical experience that you will want to relive over and over again.

2. Ink (Almeida Theatre)

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Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Next on my list is another success from the Almeida Theatre, which continues to go from strength to strength under Rupert Goold. Having missed this show in Islington, I’m so pleased it moved to the West End, as it’s just too good to miss. The play, written by James Graham, whose previous work I’d thoroughly enjoyed (This House, The Vote & Privacy), shines a light on the first year of  The Sun newspaper under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. You may not think it’s your cup of tea, but it’s a fascinating insight in to the creation of the tabloid, which manages to be sharp, gripping and incredibly funny during its running time. I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did and that’s thanks to the brilliant writing, but also the calibre of the acting, with two superb central performances by Richard Coyle as editor Larry Lamb and Bertie Carvel (who just doesn’t look like Bertie Carvel!) as Murdoch. It closes on 6th January, so if you can still make time to see it, I urge you to do so.

3. Angels In America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

There was huge anticipation before Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking American play returned to the NT 25 years after its original production, with tickets selling out almost instantly. I had never read it, nor seen the HBO miniseries, but I knew this was a must-see due to the casting choices and was lucky enough to experience two separate “two-play days” over its run. It was not a comfortable play to watch, set in America during the mid-1980s, as AIDs caused the deaths of so many in the gay community, but was a sweeping theatrical epic, told across eight hours, which laid bare the horrors of the disease, the pain of those suffering from it and those who love them, as well as highlighting the difficulty many had in accepting their sexuality.

Marianne Elliot, one of Britain’s finest directors, ensures this is a powerful production, which takes hold of your emotions and holds on to them until the very end. The cast was also a treat, with Nathan Lane shining as the equally humorous and vicious Roy Cohn, Russell Tovey impressing as the ambitious Republican lawyer confused and afraid of his true sexuality, together with Denise Gough as his fragile, yet often darkly humorous wife, James McArdle as the man struggling to cope with the possibility of watching his lover die, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the wonderfully supportive and witty friend Belize and Andrew Garfield, as Prior Walter, trying to cope with his diagnosis and illness, the loss of his partner and the strage dream-like visitations from a rather scary looking angel. It was sensational and I’m thrilled to be able to see it again on Broadway next spring (with most of the London cast). Ticket details can be found at: http://www.angelsbroadway.com

4. Dear Evan Hansen (Music Box Theatre, NYC)

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Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Dear Evan Hansen was another show I had heard a lot of buzz about, but had managed to avoid listening to, before my trip to NYC in May. Personally, I prefer to see a musical fresh, without knowing all the lyrics in advance. I therefore didn’t know what to expect and a few hours and a few tissues later, I had another highlight of my year in the bag. The story of the show may be a little uncomfortable when you hear it – a shy teenager, isolated from the world because he feels he doesn’t fit in, finds himself at the centre of a local tragedy and its aftermath, through which he is able to find his place and his voice, as well as love and a family environment he feels he has never had.

Why did I love it so much? Well, the songs are rather lovely, the acting is superb (I saw the original cast on both of my two visits) and its central message that no one is alone; that we just need to reach out for help, is one that is more important than ever in the crazy world we live in now. However, on top of all of that was the simply breathtaking Ben Platt as Evan. It was an emotionally raw, incredibly moving, vulnerable performance, during which you truly believed Evan was real. How Platt was able to give such a performance emotionally and vocally (his voice reminded me of the first time I heard Josh Groban on Ally McBeal) through tears, I will never know. Yes, I cried. A lot. It was a privilege to witness something that will be talked about for years to come. Read my full review if you want to know more.

5. An Octoroom (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

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Photo credit: The Other Richard

After years of meaning to visit, I finally made it to Richmond’s wonderful Orange Tree Theatre this year and what a show to start with! Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ play (more from him later) was one I heard about through word of mouth. Everyone I knew who saw it, loved it and it was easy to understand why. Shows like this one are what theatre is made for; a show that was so original, inventive, powerful and funny and which turned stereotypes on their heads and made you laugh one moment, before being deeply moved the next. The play uses the plot of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon to shine a light on identity, race and culture in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The cast were wonderful, including Ken Nwosu, who has three different roles to tackle, sometimes two at once, Celeste Dodwell as Dora and Iola Evans as Zoe. Luckily, for anyone who missed it (or, those of us desperate to go again), it will have a run at the National Theatre next year, so add it to your must book list!

6. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Another favourite from early in the year was Nina Raine’s new play, which dealt with the difficult and emotive subject of assault and the perceptions and attitudes that surround what is and what is not consent, made all the more fascinating by having the key characters be criminal barristers, now experiencing the issues from a very personal perspective. It was strongly written, superbly acted (including Anna Maxwell Martin and Adam James) and gave me plenty to think about for quite a while afterwards.

7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Otherwise known as Imelda Staunton’s first hit of 2017, this was my first time seeing a production of Edward Albee’s play and it will take some beating, as Staunton unleashed her incredible force on to the stage, as the domineering Martha. Her chemistry and interplay with Conleth Hill, as her husband George was at times deeply uncomfortable to watch, as they emotionally attacked each other, but three hours have never flown quite so quickly. You can read my full review for further thoughts.

8. Follies (Olivier, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

To say I’m not a huge musicals fan, the fact three are in this list says quite a lot about how much I enjoyed Follies, especially as, I admit, I’m not a huge Sondheim fan either! A musical that takes a nostalgic look back at a different time, through the eyes of its four central characters, I loved the blending of the past and present, to highlight young hopes and dreams and how life changes us, as we grow older. The central performances, particularly Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton were phenomenal, yet, it was the entire ensemble that brought the story to life so vividly on stage, from Tracie Bennett and Di Botcher, through to Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer’s incredible operatic duet. Combine this with a live orchestra and the glorious utilisation of the Olivier stage to put on a true spectacle and this was a show I enjoyed so much, that I had to go back and see it for a second time.

9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

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Photo credit: Marc Brenner

The second entry for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins in my list was the heart-stopping Gloria. With a pre-interval twist (well, I admit, I did see it coming) that required a sealed section in the programme, it provided one of the most shocking theatre moments of the year, whether you were expecting it or not. Jenkins’s writing brilliantly lays the foundations for that moment from the start (on a second visit, I was able to appreciate this even more), but this didn’t make it any less traumatic to watch, turning the second half in to an analysis of how we all deal with trauma differently. Would it break you, or would you capitalise on it for personal, monetary gain? This question is answered with dark humour, as we see how the characters are changed by what has gone before. Director Michael Longhurst did a superb job with the staging (including that pre-interval moment) and the acting was fantastic (including Colin Morgan and Kae Alexander to name just two). You can read both my spoiler and spoiler-free reviews for more details.

10. Oslo (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit:Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

I had wanted to see this Tony award-winning play in New York, but decided to wait for its arrival at the National Theatre, where a ticket would cost me a fraction of the price. It was certainly worth the wait, proving to be an insightful, intelligent, engaging play about the lead up to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine; a story I knew almost nothing about. It may have been long, but it certainly didn’t feel it, as JT Rogers’ script moved us through the ups and downs of the behind the scenes negotiations, where a Norwegian couple unexpectedly found themselves at the centre of such important talks. The acting was very good (putting aside Toby Stephens’ wavering accent) and I left the theatre keen to learn more about the subject matter, which, following recent world events seems more relevant than ever. Oslo finishes tomorrow (30th December), so you still have a couple of days left to catch it if you are quick.

11. The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre / Wyndham’s Theatre)

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

It’ll come as no surprise that Jez Butterworth’s latest play makes my list, as it is appearing on every 2017 theatre list at the moment and with good reason. Following the wonderful plays Jerusalem and The River, his latest success tells a powerful story, set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, which weaves The Troubles in to the history of one family and their struggle to confront the past and move forward. This may have been Paddy Considine’s stage debut, but he was superb and had fantastic chemistry with Laura Donnelly. I laughed, I gasped and held my breath as the tension grew. The Ferryman continues to run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until at least May 2018 and it is certainly worth a visit.

12. Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit:Jan Versweyveld

I had never seen the film the play is based on and so didn’t really know what to expect, my excitement peaked by the chance of seeing Bryan Cranston on stage and he certainly didn’t disappoint, as the news anchor, who has finally had enough of the world and decides to let everyone watching know exactly how fed up he is. The production’s staging is quirky, but the on-stage audience restaurant did feel a little unnecessary to me. However, with such a powerful, commanding central performance from Cranston, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Plus, hearing almost 1000 people shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in unison was quite a unique experience, which in 2017 couldn’t have been more timely. Although tickets are scarce, you have until 24th March to try and see this production.

13. King Lear (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

There had to be some Shakespeare in my top productions of the year list and this year it was Chichester’s production of King Lear, which I admit isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. However, this version, with such a brilliantly talented cast, managed to bring both intimacy and a sense of vast scope to the small space of the Minerva theatre. Ian McKellen was excellent in the lead role, clearly revelling in having a second chance to take on Lear and he had strong support from a cast that included Kirsty Bushell, Dervla Kirwan and Danny Webb.

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So, those are the productions that truly stood out for me in 2017 and which I’d happily see again in a heartbeat. Special mentions also to The Girls (a musical that deserved a longer London life), Jodie Prenger’s heartwarming Shirley Valentine and a final visit to Groundhog Day in NYC (Broadway, I’m still disappointed in you for letting this one go so soon).

I’d love to hear your highlights! Over the next couple of days I’ll be continuing by look back at the theatre year, with my most memorable theatre moments from the last twelve months and my favourite performances.

 

 

 

 

Mid-Year Theatre Review 2017

As we are now well in to July, my mid-year theatre review is well overdue. 2017 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year of theatre and there is still so much more to come (I’ll talk a bit about that at the end). I already anticipate my top ten of the year will be a difficult selection, so at least this way, more of the productions I’ve loved in 2017 will make it on to at least one of my lists!

So, these are the current highlights of my theatre year. They are in no particular order, as I always finding ranking productions that way quite difficult, unless something stands head and shoulders above the rest.

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1. Hamlet (Almeida / Harold Pinter Theatre)

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This production of Hamlet was probably my most anticipated show of 2017 and I’m thrilled it not only lived up to my expectations, but exceeded them, so much so that it’s probably my favourite Hamlet, a crown that has been Mr Tennant’s ever since 2008. It’s simply because Robert Icke’s decisions with the text and how to stage certain scenes is fresh and innovative. Watching this Hamlet had me experience the story and the motivations of certain characters in a whole new light. Thrilling, exhilarating and incredibly emotional, it’s ensemble cast are superb and it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever seen on a stage. You have until 2nd September to see it. Go, go, go! Read my first review of this production here.

2. An Octoroom (The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

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I bought a ticket to An Octoroom after reading so much praise for it on Twitter from theatregoers whose opinions I value more than any professional critic and I’m so pleased they brought it to my attention. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’s play was the complete theatre experience – surprising, inventive, powerfully emotive, yet funny in places too. The cast were superb (especially Celeste Dodwell as Dora) and the staging truly brought the play to life in the intimate space of the Orange Tree. I would love to see this have another life somewhere in the West End.

3. Dear Evan Hansen (Music Box Theatre, Broadway, NYC)

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Besides Hamilton, this is probably the most talked about show in New York at the moment and I was taken by surprise by how moved I was by it. It’s an emotional story about feeling alone, wanting to belong and giving people a hope that if they reach out, someone will help them and Ben Platt’s central performance is one I will never forget, so full of raw emotion, not to mention an impressive vocal. I don’t have the soundtracks to many musicals, but I listen to this one quite often. Read my full review here.

4. The Little Foxes (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Broadway, NYC)

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I was unable to see both versions of this play, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate the roles, but despite this, it remains one of the strongest productions I’ve seen so far the year. I chose to Cynthia as Regina and Laura as Birdie and I wasn’t disappointed. Nixon was truly cold and calculating in the role, while Linney brought the tragedy of Birdie’s life to the stage. With a beautiful set and a strong ensemble, particularly Richard Thomas as Regina’s husband, who no doubt would have been happier with Birdie, this was a joy to watch. It would be lovely to see this play come across to London soon.

5. Angels in America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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I have a second trip to this epic two play event next month and I certainly cannot wait to experience every moment of it again. Told across 8 hours, this seminal play is certainly not an easy one to watch, but its story is one that we should all see. The cast is one of the finest you could wish for, with Denise Gough bringing yet another raw and stunning portrayal to the stage, together with Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey and James McArdle. However, it was Andrew Garfield that blew me away as Prior Walter, a character so full of life, whose journey is the axis of the story. It will be a production talked about for years.

6. The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre)

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Jez Butterworth has already established himself as one of the best playwrights we have and he follows Jerusalem and The River with another powerful story, set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, which weaves The Troubles in to the story of one family and its struggles. Paddy Considine’s stage debut is certainly impressive and his chemistry with Laura Donnelly shines off the stage. You will laugh, cry and probably gasp before the three hours of The Ferryman has passed. Buy your tickets for its West End run (until January 2018) now.

7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

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There are only two words really needed to explain why this production is on the list – Imelda Staunton, who is utterly outstanding as the acid-tongued Martha! To be fair though, that doesn’t do justice to the other fine performances (especially Conleth Hill as her weary husband George). There was something darkly entertaining about watching Martha and George tear shreds off each other and some of the sharp, biting dialogue had me laughing out loud, even as I grew more and more uncomfortable. I can imagine it’s easy to overdo the dramatics in this play and yet director James Macdonald’s production didn’t do this. In fact, in a frightening way, it feels very believable. Read my full review here.

8. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)

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Another success from the National this year was Nina Raine’s latest play, which focused on the powerful subject of rape and consent, in the context of a group of criminal barristers, whose professional and personal lives become caught up in what is a difficult topic to think about. Intelligently written and superbly acted by its cast, I was gripped by Consent from start to finish and wish I’d had the chance to see it twice.

9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

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A second, but fully deserved, entry for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins is a play that has such a powerful end to Act One that the programme has a sealed spoiler section! I’ve already seen this twice to fully appreciate the sharp, biting dialogue, which makes you laugh one minute even when you shouldn’t, before making you gasp the next. You have until Saturday to catch it if you can. Read my spoiler-filled review here, or the spoiler-free one here.

10. Shirley Valentine (UK Tour at Lyceum, Sheffield)

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A trip with my parents to the theatre to see this revival of Willy Russell’s production surprised me for the simple fact that I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Effectively a one-woman show, in which Jodie Prenger brought the iconic Shirley Valentine to life, it made me laugh, but was also rather moving too, as this older woman bravely reaches for a fresh start in life. I left the theatre with a huge smile on my face and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

 

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Special mentions so far this year also need to go to the continued magic of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, whose original and new cast ensure the Palace is the happiest theatre atmosphere in town, The Glass Menagerie, which I managed to see before its run ended and a NYC return trip to the glorious Groundhog Day!

Coming up is Ben Whishaw back at the Almeida in Against, the arrival of the Follies at the National (even more Imelda Staunton!), the opening of a brand new London theatre in the Bridge Theatre, whose first show Young Marx stars Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris, Apologia with Stockard Channing and the arrival of the Tony Award-winning Oslo, to name just a few.

Yes, there’s no denying the end of year review is definitely going to be tough in 2017!

 

 

 

Q&A with the cast of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet (23rd March 2017)

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Following last Thursday’s performance of Hamlet, the majority of the cast and the Associate Director Daniel Raggett joined the audience for an engaging and insightful Q&A. I had specifically booked to see this performance in order to be there for the talkback session and as this production has left me wanting to ask so many questions, I was thrilled that at least some were answered during the evening. It was also hugely impressive to see so many of the cast attend the Q&A after a four hour performance (I’ve included a full list of attendees at the bottom).

This post sets out the questions asked and the responses as fully as I can.

Who do they (the cast) think should have ruled Elsinore in the end?

The cast all agreed that this was a great question and that it was hard to choose, but that the key was that these are exactly the types of questions Shakespeare is asking and for us to think about.

The cast was asked about the choice of music within the production.

The assistant director said that he couldn’t speak for the director Robert Icke, but commented on how he works instinctively and so he imagines it started with one Bob Dylan song and progressed from there. He also referred to Icke working alongside Laura Marling in considering the music to be used in the production.

What were their thoughts about the perception of time and reality in the production?

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(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Angus Wright (Claudius) discussed this from Claudius’s point of view, saying that in his mind it’s all about Hamlet taking a different time to him, particularly with his grief for his father. Claudius just wants him to hurry up and get over it!

Luke Thompson (Laertes) spoke of how for his character it’s all about it being the time to leave at the beginning. He is keen to return to France. He also agreed that Robert Icke had taken a specific attitude to time and raised how purpose is a slave to memory, in that the more you let thought in to something and spend time thinking about it, the harder it is to act. I certainly agree with him that this is something that affects a number of characters in the play.

Barry Aird (Gravedigger / Francisco) spoke about the sense that the Gravedigger is almost dreamlike; there is a sense that he is almost out of a different time to the other characters and he referred to it reminding him of the barman in the film The Shining.

The cast were also asked about their thoughts on the striking image used for the poster and why it was chosen. 

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Andrew Scott agreed with the audience member that there were links to Ophelia in the image (through the use of flowers strewn across Hamlet on the T-shirt) and he said that, in his opinion, there are a lot of similarities between Hamlet and Ophelia. He certainly believes that they really do feel love for each other and yet are forced to work out their parents’ problems, not theirs. He spoke about how cruel this is. He also made the important point that there can be no tragedy if there is no love (something in my mind that many productions of the play get wrong). Lastly, Andrew also made the point that the image could also signify either Hamlet (that is, the young man or his father) and the sense of stepping in to someone else’s shoes.

A question was also asked about whether the cast think that theatre is still allowing people to come and be transformed by what they see, which in turn may enable them to use that energy to create real change in the world?

Andrew Scott spoke about how it is important to Robert Icke that his plays are for now and mentioned the line from Hamlet which speaks of “the age and body of the time.” He also said how the play itself is full of love and compassion and how all of the cast is trying to understand each other and serve those emotions.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia) commented on this issue too, making the important statement that if art stops being brave and starts apologising then we’re in trouble (well, she used a stronger term than that!) and that art can stretch over everything and unify us, which received a round of applause from the audience.

Jessica Brown Findlay was then asked about why we don’t see Ophelia’s face as she speaks her last line (the person asking the question really wanted to see it).

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Peter Wight & Jessica Brown Findlay (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Jessica discussed how they had played around with the scene and that Ophelia looks around at all the people there. Ophelia has wanted to be heard her whole life and so this is her moment to be heard and look at all of those in her life. She hadn’t really thought about the fact the audience couldn’t see her at the moment, although Angus Wright (Claudius) said how it’s great for the other actors, as they can see her in that powerful moment.

It was also raised that the production seems to have used scenes / lines from different versions of Hamlet, with specific reference made to the scene between Horatio and Gertrude (a scene which is only included in Quarto 1 (the “bad quarto”).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio) spoke about this scene coming from the “bad quarto” which is allegedly written by the actor who originally played one of the other smaller characters in the play. He commented that without this scene, you are left with the scene in which Hamlet recites a letter from Hamlet (one which Barry Aird (Gravedigger) said is quite dull) and so when Robert Icke found this scene in quarto one, Elliot was pleased that they could instead have a scene which puts Gertrude on team Hamlet and gives Horatio an ally at that point in the play.

Joshua Higgott (Marcellus) also spoke about the importance of creating a world that fits the production and in this one, a scene about pirates wouldn’t have made much sense. Barry Aird (Gravedigger) also made the important point that Shakespeare should be treated as if a new playwright and I agree with him. The key to keeping Shakespeare’s work alive and relevant is to make it fresh for its audience and this production certainly does that.

Reference was also made to the production’s modern parallels, such as the images of war and the cast were asked whether anything had any particular resonances for them.

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Associate Director Daniel Raggett said that it is their job to ask the questions for the audience to think about, while Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) spoke about how she finds the setting of the production very domestic, which is important as it is about heart. She also commented that stories have the ability to span all political stories and events.

David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King) referred to the scene in which Hamlet sees the Poles defending the small patch of land and how those lines about war could apply to so many places in the world today.

Andrew Scott also talked about how wide-ranging a play Hamlet is, as it covers so much ground, from war, to grief, to love and so to drown it in one theme would be a tragedy. He also referred to people’s comments that the production was so long, saying that if it isn’t long, then you aren’t doing the play, as there is so much in it!

Sadly, we then had to let the cast escape, despite the fact we could all have spent so much longer asking questions about the production! The full list of cast members attending the Q&A alongside Associate Director Daniel Raggett was as follows: Andrew Scott (Hamlet); Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern); Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz); Luke Thompson (Laertes); Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia); Joshua Higgott (Marcellus); Marty Cruickshank (Player Queen); Peter Wight (Polonius); David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King); Barry Aird (Francisco/Gravedigger); Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio); Angus Wright (Claudius) and Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude).

Thanks very much to the cast and creative team of Hamlet for a brilliant evening. All productions photos used in this post are by Manuel Harlan.

Hamlet continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 15th April. Although advance tickets are sold out, seats occasionally pop up online and day seats are released each morning at 11 a.m, with returns also being a possibility closer to the show each day. The production is also transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9th June – 2nd September (albeit with some cast changes). For more information on the West End transfer, see the Almeida’s website here and the ATG website here.

Theatre Review – Hamlet starring Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre): devastatingly emotional, thrillingly original & impressive on every level

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Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and I’m always keen to see a new interpretation of this rich and powerful story. Over the years, I’ve never been quite as eager in advance of seeing it, as I was before my very first experience back in 2008 at the RSC. That was until the Almeida Theatre announced Andrew Scott would be taking on Shakespeare’s famous character in a production by one of theatre’s most exciting directors, Robert Icke. I knew this had the potential to be truly special and on Monday night, I was thrilled to discover that all my expectations had been met and surpassed!

The key for me has always been that a great production of Hamlet must have more than a talented lead actor. The whole cast and the vision of its director need to be strong enough to bring Shakespeare’s story to life anew for the audience and this production succeeds in bringing together brilliant actors throughout the cast and a talented creative team, who together deliver a truly devastatingly emotional and thrillingly original experience.

Before we talk about Andrew Scott (and there is much to say!), I therefore have to talk about some of the many other performances in the ensemble worthy of praise. Juliet Stevenson follows Mary Stuart (also at the Almeida) with a fantastic Gertrude. Too often Gertrude is left on the sidelines of the play, but not here. She is a fully realised, flawed woman. Thrilled with the idea that Claudius is attracted to her, she has been carried along by the passion of it and yet is still conscious of how Hamlet is suffering, in no small part because of her actions. The closet scene has always been a favourite of mine and in productions such a this, where Gertrude has a believable bond with her son, it is a joy to watch. Stevenson and Scott wring every ounce of emotion out of it and in a production where Hamlet feels truly capable of anything (frighteningly so in fact), the danger feels very real and Stevenson captures Gertrude’s fear for herself, as well as her heartbreak at her son’s mental state.

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Angus Wright (Claudius), Andrew Scott (Hamlet) & Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Interestingly, this production also places her firmly against Claudius before Hamlet’s return to Elsinore, as we see her realise and accept the King’s villainy when Horatio puts it in front of her. I have never seen such a scene included in Hamlet before and found that it made her choice to drink from the cup instead of Hamlet, a cup she knows with certainty to be poisoned, all the more tragic. Her last act is to show her loyalty to her son over Claudius.

The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is also given much more stage time than other productions I’ve seen, which gives far greater life and depth to their connection. Seeing her comfort a devastated Hamlet, who breaks down in her arms once they are alone after the wedding party scene was agonising, yet beautiful. It grounded their relationship in reality and was one of my favourite moments in the production, ensuring a greater emotional resonance to the tragedy of what’s to come. Jessica Brown-Findlay is a strong Ophelia, who has a truly loving relationship with her father, ensuring her spiral in to depression following his death is all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Her descent in to such despair is also handled sensitively. She isn’t a wild, whirling woman in these moments, but a young girl who has lost a father she adored and respected and at the hand of the man she loved.

Also and more so than in any other Hamlet I have seen, I found Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fascinating. For a start, they arrive much earlier than I am used to, which captured my attention! Hamlet has yet to “put on an antic disposition” when we first see them, suggesting that even before his father’s ghost appears to him, his behaviour is already causing concern. Not only that, but from the moment they arrive, there seems to be a tension between them and Hamlet, due to a potential love triangle.

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Andrew Scott (Hamlet), Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) & Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Amaka Okafor plays the female Guildenstern as a woman who clearly loves Hamlet and you have a sense that perhaps the two of them have a romantic history. Yet now it seems she is with Rosencrantz (played by Calum Finlay), which made for an interesting dynamic between the three. It also meant that certain lines carried much greater meaning, such as when Hamlet asks them to admit they were sent for if they love him, to which Guildenstern responds and also by giving Rosencrantz’s line “My Lord, you once did love me” to Guildenstern. Having two characters who are too often one-dimensional and marginalised actually catch my attention, is just one example of how Robert Icke’s production adds a fresh perspective to this well known story.

Angus Wright’s Claudius is a modern political manipulator. He is calm and collected and carries an air of suaveness that you can see would have turned Gertrude’s eye. I also didn’t believe for a moment that he felt any remorse for killing his brother, which became so evident in his “prayer” scene. He may not have the same commanding presence as actors such as Patrick Stewart had in the role, but Wright’s portrayal makes clear that the King is a threat to Hamlet, which is essential to maintain the underlying tension as the play progresses (and which I felt was lacking in Ciaran Hinds’s version).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell is a wonderful Horatio, who has a believable friendship and loyalty to Hamlet. Often their bond is lacking, resulting in a less satisfying, emotional ending, but not here. Luke Thompson’s portrayal of Laertes is also enjoyable. Laertes is often a weak link, yet Thompson ensures he is a character you sympathise with. David Rintoul’s Ghost was another performance I enjoyed. Although his initial appearance in front of Hamlet is quite eerie, he isn’t a frightening figure. In fact his interactions with Hamlet are much more affectionate than every other production I’ve seen and it only emphasises just what Hamlet has lost. In light of Rintoul’s portrayal, the choice to miss out the Ghost’s bellowing commands from below the earth (a moment I always find rather silly and certainly didn’t miss) was a wise one!

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The play within a play. Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

As you can see, I could say positives about this whole company (heck it even has the glorious Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen!), which is one of its biggest strengths. It does not have weak links, allowing the play to sing and for Icke and his cast to try new and imaginative ideas with the material.

So, we come to Andrew Scott. I have been waiting for him to tackle Hamlet for years and he is superb. He is such a versatile actor and this is a performance that covers the entire spectrum of human emotion; one moment his Hamlet is filled with [frenetic energy], exploding with anger, frustration and grief, the next fragile and broken, seemingly utterly adrift in the world. He is also both hugely vulnerable and frighteningly dangerous, which was thrilling to watch. You believe Hamlet to be capable of anything, which provides the production of this 400 year-old play with a fresh tension and energy.

Scott’s ability with the text is also fantastic. He may occasionally be a little too loud, but he found emphasis and humour in lines that I’ve never seen before (and in one particular case regarding Hamlet’s continual fencing practice, addressed a line that has always annoyed me, with perfect comedy). I have always found him to be a truly soulful actor in every role (especially on stage) and every soliloquy was so full of raw emotion that he held the whole audience under his spell. I found his delivery of the “readiness is all” lines particularly heartbreaking. His is absolutely a Hamlet you will never forget.

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An utterly unforgettable Hamlet (Andrew Scott). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Indeed, on leaving the Almeida, I was most struck by how original an interpretation Robert Icke has created. Having seen most of his previous work, it is always thrilling and thought-provoking and yet I was still surprised by how his version of Hamlet had me seeing scenes I know so well in a different light, which is a rare treat. Hamlet is such a rich story, that directors and actors always have the scope to play with it if they dare and it was exciting to see that Icke and his cast have done just that.

I don’t want to spoil the cleverness of this production, but I will say that there are moments where a simple change leads to a whole new context for events that follow. The scene in which Hamlet considers killing his uncle as he is praying is one such example. The choices made on the Almeida stage in this scene were totally new to me and resulted in Hamlet’s crazed, frustrated, wild behaviour in his mother’s room making even more sense than usual, while proving that this Claudius is worlds away from the weaker portrayals of the character I’ve seen in other productions.

Hamlet’s sense of loss is always evident from the outset and yet here it is added to further through his immediate awareness of the fact he is potentially losing Ophelia too, following her father’s command that she stay away from him. In a production where we have already seen him break down in her arms, this is another blow to him and you feel the weight of loss on Andrew Scott’s shoulders. It’s another example of where just a couple of small changes impact on the emotional heart of the characters in new and interesting ways.

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Jessica Brown-Findlay (Ophelia) & Peter Wight (Polonius) in rehearsal. Photo: Miles Aldridge

As for Polonius (played by Peter Wight), he is usually portrayed as either a comical old fool, or for actors unable to capture the comedy, a rather dry and dull character. He may not be my favourite Polonius, but I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Wight’s version fits neither of these images. He is a loving father and indeed a useful adviser to the king and in the scene in which he is usually most comical – his conversation with Hamlet in which he is called a fishmonger, the production does not take the obvious and well trodden route of Polonius talking to himself or the audience. Instead, here he becomes a shrewd player in the surveillance world of Elsinore and it’s a wonderfully clever way to make the scene and the character feel fresh. The fact that Hamlet makes clear that he knows precisely what is going on too is also very well executed.

The use of newsfeed-style footage for the scenes involving the Polish army and Fortinbras is also a wise choice, as these moments, although necessary for the wider plot, can drag the pace down. By including them in such a modern way, enables them to serve the plot, without losing the audience’s engagement. For example, we need Hamlet to see the Polish army in order for him to deliver the soliloquy it inspires, but here the focus is able to stay on Hamlet.

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Director Robert Icke

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is ideal for this production. There are no huge, ornate sets, filled with lots of furniture, which needs moving on and off stage during key moments (yes, I’m looking at you Barbican Hamlet). Instead, it is a very stripped back stage space that reminded me very much of Icke’s Oresteia. Divided in to two sections, the front half is kept quite bare, with minimal seating, while a sliding door separates it from the back half, where events such as the wedding party can continue in the background, without distracting from the play’s biggest moments. This split stage is also used to beautiful effect during the play’s final moments, where the sense of death and its stopping of our time on the earth are so poignantly conveyed.

I also loved the music choices made by the creative team. More dramatic moments were accompanied by a throbbing beat, which added to the sense of time running out for these individuals, while other scenes were accompanied by songs which captured the emotional heart of the moment. I especially liked the musical choice taken during the fencing scene, which again was something I’d never seen before in this play. As for the running time? Don’t be put off by it. Yes, it’s long, but as with some of his other plays, Icke’s three part, two interval structure and pacing ensures that you are swept along until the final scene.

Simply put, this is how Hamlet should be – thrilling, dramatic, poignant, funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. With such a strong, visionary director and talented cast, it made me see the play with fresh eyes and engage with Shakespeare’s tremendous work in new and exciting ways. I am sure it will be one that is discussed and remembered long in to the future and although the 2008 RSC production will always hold a special place in my heart, this production is the only one I have seen since that could go on to become my favourite. I am already excited to see it again, which is exactly how a production of Hamlet should make you feel.

If you already have tickets, you are in for a treat. If you haven’t, make the effort to get your hands on one. I promise you, you will not regret it.

Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre runs until 15th April 2016. Although tickets have sold out, there will be day seats on sale each morning at the box office and it is also worth trying for returns a few hours before each performance. Running time is 3 hours 45 minutes (including two 15 minute intervals). For more information, visit the theatre’s website here

 

Theatre Review – Mary Stuart starring Lia Williams & Juliet Stevenson (Almeida Theatre)

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Prior to Christmas, I made my last trip of the year to the Almeida Theatre to see its new production Mary Stuart. The show imagines what could have happened if, prior to Mary’s execution in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I had met with her during her imprisonment. Making the experience a little different for the audience, actresses Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternate roles and the decision of who plays who is determined on the spin of a coin at the start of each show.

There was only one way to guarantee seeing both versions of the show, which was to see both performances on a two-show day. On those days, the matinee roles are determined on the coin spin, with the evening being the opposite. As soon as the show was announced I wanted to see both interpretations, but I admit I was a little concerned that perhaps seeing the same three hour play twice in one day may be a challenge!

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I needn’t have worried as Friedrich Schiller’s play was not only a pleasure to watch on both occasions, but in fact made it in to my top ten productions of 2016 (you can read the rest here). Robert Icke is such a creative force and he brings his own distinct style to the direction of the production, which feels incredibly relevant in today’s turbulent political times. There is an excitement in the theatre as the show begins and the coin spins. Depending on how it falls, one woman shall be imprisoned while the other has the cast kneel before her.

The fact the actresses are dressed in similar clothes, with similar haircuts, all emphasises what these two British queens had in common and as Mary points out, who else can judge her but her sister and fellow queen, Elizabeth. One was destined for greatness and one was destined to die, but watching this play really brought home to me how really it could just as easily have been a role reversal. Like the spinning coin, history could have fallen a different way.

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Both actresses are superb, which knowing their stage work is no surprise. Having seen both, I felt each actress had a role for which they were better suited. In my view, Williams is a more convincing Mary, as she brings a vibrancy of spirit to the role that Stevenson doesn’t. She may appear smaller when face to face with Stevenson’s assured Elizabeth, but when she does unleash her fury it’s as powerful as her piercingly raw scream in Oresteia! 

Stevenson however did effectively convey Mary as a woman born a raised to be a Queen, as she exudes a status that fit for someone who has grown up in that world. Williams was also a superb Elizabeth; much more sexual in the role, as she strutted confidently around the stage and had a much more physical relationship with John Light’s Leicester. It was fun to see her Elizabeth light up a cigarette and create a very different, but as equally fascinating woman as Stevenson.

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There are also some strong supporting performances, particularly John Light, as Leicester dances between allegiances in order to protect his own position. Rudi Dharmalingam was also very good as Mortimer, whose loyalty to Mary is ultimately revealed by Leicester, as is Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. Being a Robert Icke production (again he adapts the play and directs it), it creates its own special atmosphere in the Almeida; there’s a buzz, as these people from centuries ago are put before us in a very contemporary style. This, as was the case with Oresteia, creates a world that feels current and fresh and as a result, thrilling. His direction of his two leads is also brilliant; the mirroring of their images, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finally succumbs to her fears and signs the death warrant, as Mary looks on from her mind’s eye, works so well and adds to the tension on the stage.

The Almeida lends itself to these historical pieces so well. Its bare brick walls and stark setting help immerse you in this world in a way not many spaces can and combined with Paul Arditti’s sound design, plus a new song from there is a pulse to the production that makes its 3 hour running time fly by.

This is another superb Almeida / Icke production, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It also serves to make me even more excited about what Icke will create in this theatre for Hamlet next month!

Mary Stuart continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 28th January. Check the Almeida’s website Almeida Theatre for more information and the limited seats that pop up there. The Theatre is also selling day seats every morning at 11 a.m. (get there early) as well as returns before each show (I recommend getting there at least 3 hours before the start for a good chance of getting one). Or you can call the box office on 020 7359 4404. Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).

 

 

Theatre to see in 2017!

Happy New Year!

I’ve looked back on my year of theatre in 2016, which means it’s now time to focus on what lies in store over the next twelve months. The good news is that there is already quite a lot to be excited about and below are 17 shows I’d put on your list for the new year!

1. Hamlet (Almeida Theatre, 17th February – 8th April)

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There is so much I’m excited about regarding the  forthcoming Almeida production of Hamlet. It’s my favourite Shakespeare play, directed by probably my favourite director at the moment, Robert Icke, whose Oresteia and current Mary Stuart productions are some of the finest plays I’ve seen and it will see Andrew Scott take the title role. He may be best known for playing Moriarty in Sherlock, but he is also a superbly versatile stage actor and I cannot wait to see what he and Icke come up with for this production.  All it needs is a strong ensemble cast, which it is well on the way to having wth Juliet Stevenson and Jessica Brown Findlay and this has the potential to challenge the RSC’s 2008 production as my favourite. Can you tell I’m excited?!

2. Angels In America (National Theatre, from 11th April)

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Ever since the National’s 50th anniversary celebration featured a scene from this play, I’ve been hoping it would return to the London stage and 2017 sees that happen. It’s such an iconic award-winning play, which made such an impact originally in the 90s and this revival promises to be very special with actors including Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey announced and directed by Marianne Elliot. Tickets will go quickly for this. You have been warned!

3. Don Juan In Soho (Wyndham’s Theatre, 17th March – 10th June)

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2017 also sees David Tennant return to the stage and this time it’s not Shakespeare. For me, he is one of the finest stage actors we have in the UK and I’m very excited to finally see him live on stage performing a non-Shakespeare role. Patrick Marber’s play is described as a savagely funny and filthy play, which has me intrigued to say the least! Directed by Marber and also starring the brilliant Adrian Scarborough, the only question for me is just how many times I’ll see this show over its run!

4. Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre, from November)

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The juggernaut that is Hamilton finally arrives in London late this year at the Victoria Palace (which is undergoing refurbishment in advance of becoming the hottest theatre spot in town). I have heard so much about this show, but have resisted the urge to listen to any music from it before I see it. With crazily expensive tickets for the New York run, hopefully the London production will be a little easier to get in to!

5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre, 22nd February – 27th May)

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After her performances in Sweeney Todd in 2012 and Gypsy in 2015, I’d go and see the incredible Imelda Staunton in anything! Next on her list before Gypsy heads to Broadway is this production of Edward Albee’s play. Also starring Conleth Hill (now better known as Varys in Game of Thrones), this promises to be another gem in the 2017 calendar.

6. the ferryman (Royal Court Theatre, 24th April – 20th May)

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The Ferryman makes the list even though it is technically already sold out. This does not mean it should be ruled out however (I for one will be queuing as long as it takes for returns after failing to book this fast enough)! Jez Butterworth’s reputation for brilliant and exciting theatre was established with Jerusalem, but I also loved The River and I’m intrigued to see what is next. The production will also mark the Royal Court directorial debut of Sam Mendes.

7. Obsession (Barbican Theatre, 19th April – 20th May)

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This year also sees Ivo Van Hove, whose recent productions of A View From A Bridge and The Crucible both made quite an impression on anyone who saw them (including me) directing one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions at the Barbican. Jude Law leads a cast of Dutch and British actors in Visconti’s drama where two people’s attraction to each other leads them to plot murder. This season as a whole is on my must-see list, but I’m rather intrigued by this one in particular.

8. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 24th March – 24th June)

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Spring also sees two of Britain’s finest actors, Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo together on stage in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Described as a dark comedy, I am rather excited about seeing these two together and directed by Ian Rickson too!

9. Woyzeck (Old Vic, 6th May – 24th June)

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Woyzeck isn’t a play I’ve seen before and therefore I’m thrilled to be able to have a chance to tick this highly regarded piece of literature off my list. Set in 1980s Berlin, John Boyega (now of Star Wars fame) tackles the story of a young soldier on the border of East and West trying to build a better life for his family. This new version of Georg Buchner’s classic has been written by Jack Thorne, whose recent hits include This Is England for the screen and the Harry Potter play.

10. Speech & Debate (Trafalgar Studios, 22nd February – 1st April)

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Stephen Karam’s play The Humans was one I’d hoped to see next time I was in NYC (sadly I’ll miss it), but I will at least be able to see Speech & Debate when it arrives in London in February. Billed as the story of three misfits, brought together at school by a sex scandal, with hilarious consequences, I’m looking forward to seeing Douglas Booth and Tony Revolori (Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) tackle this play.

11. 42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 20th March – 22nd July)

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I can tick another classic musical off my list this year with the arrival of 42nd Street, the story of a young woman who, after joining the chorus line of a musical, may get her chance of stardom when the leading lady lady suffers an injury. Starring Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, this production will also be directed by Mark Bramble, the co-author of the original book of the production. I’ll be curious to see where this ranks in my list of musicals.

12. The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre, 26th January – 29th April)

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I’ve still yet to see The Glass Menagerie on stage and so I’m pleased this version of Tennessee Williams’s play is transferring from Broadway at the end of this month. Director John Tiffany’s (also director of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child) production was highly regarded in New York and will again star Cherry Jones as the matriarch Belle Amanda Wingfield.

13. Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Lyric Hammersmith, 20th April – 13th May)

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Regarded as a seminal American novel, I’m looking forward to a trip to the Lyric to see this new adaptation, which is billed as using ground-breaking stagecraft, projection, magic and illusion to tell the story of a reclusive crime writer who becomes drawn in to a thriller after receiving a call in the middle of the night from someone in need of a private detective.

14. Touch (Soho Theatre, 6th July – 26th August)

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I didn’t get to see Fleabag last year, but after the acclaim it received, as well as for the BBC series based on the play, I’m certainly adding Touch to my 2017 list, as it is by the same creative team. Starring Amy Morgan, it’s the story of a 33 year old woman trying to find her way in London.

15. Tribes (Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 30th June – 22nd July)

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I thoroughly enjoyed the original run of Nina Raines’s play at the Royal Court in 2010 and so I am looking forward to seeing this new regional premiere in Sheffield over the summer. The story of family life, where the son is deaf is very funny, but also incredibly moving and explores perfectly the desire we all have to be heard and understood.

 

 

16. Antony & Cleopatra (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 11th March – 7th September)

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I’ve always struggled a bit with this play, but I’ll certainly be heading to Stratford-Upon-Avon for this production, which will see one of my favourite RSC actors, Antony Byrne take on Marc Antony. Byrne was wonderful in the original Richard II in 2013 (and very much missed by me in its revival this year) and also in Henry IV and V and it’ll be fantastic to see him again performing Shakespeare.

17. Sex With Strangers (Hampstead Theatre, 27th January – 4th March)

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The Hampstead Theatre has certainly come a long way since Edward Hall took the helm in 2010 and I’m very much looking forward to seeing its first production of the new year. Laura Eason’s comedy sees two people, very much opposites of each other, stuck together in a B&B in the snow, who find themselves undeniably drawn to each other. I enjoyed Emilia Fox’s performance in Rapture, Blister, Burn at this theatre in 2015 and so it’ll be lovely to see her back, in a production that also stars Theo James.

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So, those are some of my suggestions for this year on stage. I could have picked so much more, with theatres including the Bush Theatre and the Young Vic already setting out exciting seasons. Then of course there are all the shows yet to be announced! Finally, there are some shows that opened last year, but which are well worth a trip if you can see them before they close. A few examples are:

  • Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing (Theatre Royal Haymarket) until 18th March – the London transfer of the RSC’s gorgeous double-bill is not to be missed. With a lot of the cast returning, including Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, they are perfect at this time of year. Go, go, go!
  • This House (Garrick Theatre) until 25th February – This superb National Theatre production sees a new run in the West End. Set in the 70s as Labour cling on to power before Thatcher, it’s a brilliantly sharp and funny glimpse in to Westminster. Having seen the current cast in Chichester over the autumn, I can say it’s just as strong as it was originally. Review here.
  • Hedda Gabler (National Theatre) until 21st March – My review will be up laster this month for this exciting modernisation of Ibsen’s play. Ruth Wilson is yet again superb and there are also wonderful performances from Rafe Spall and Kyle Soller. This was so close to being in my top 10 of 2016, so I urge you to go. Yes, it’s sold out, but there is the option of Rush tickets on sale on Fridays for the following week’s shows and returns will pop up, so keep checking.
  • Mary Stuart (Almeida Theatre) until 21st January – One of my highlights of last year was this play which sees Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson swap roles as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I. It’s an exciting production from director Robert Icke and is another must-see. Again, it’s sold out, but there are day seats of every performance and I’ve usually been successful in the returns queue at this theatre in the past.

Hopefully there is something on the list that you are interested in. As always, I’ll be adding reviews of shows as I see them and so please do pop back any time!