2016 Theatre Review – My Top Performances of the Year!

In previous years I’ve only written one theatre review post. However, after it was suggested to me by a friend, I’ve decided to split my review of the theatre year this time. I’ve already posted my top 10 productions of 2016 (here for those interested) and so this post will focus on my favourite performances from the last twelve months. You can also read about my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.

Please do let me know your highlights in the comments below.

2016 – A Year of Strong Female Performances

As my top ten post highlighted, it’s been a strong year for women on stage, with so many stand-out female performances. Below is just the tip of the iceberg!

Lia Williams (Mary Stuart)

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After her incredible performance in Oresteia last year, Lia Williams is yet again one of the highlights of the year, in not one, but two roles. After being lucky enough to watch both versions of Mary Stuart back to back, what stood out the most for me was that no matter which version I was watching, the character Williams was portraying seemed to be the larger role. She was a vibrant Mary, unnerving Juliet Stevenson’s Elizabeth and yet she was also a strong, confident and sexy Elizabeth. I cannot wait to see what roles she will take on in the future, but I’ll be there for every one of them!

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler)

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It’s always a joy to see Ruth Wilson on stage and she is currently delivering a superb Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. She isn’t very likeable, but I couldn’t help admiring her character’s ability to be say whatever she wanted, regardless of the consequences! She is someone desperate for control and yet by the end we see her utterly at the mercy of Brack. In another powerful production by Ivo Van Hove, this is a must-see event.

Denise Gough (People, Places & Things)

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I’ve already gushed about how much I loved Denise Gough in this show and how she absolutely blew me away with such an emotionally, heartbreaking performance. It’ll stay in my mind for many years to come.

 

Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard)

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The iconic Glenn Close finally brought her portrayal of Norma Desmond over 20 years after she performed it on Broadway. I had high hopes, but was nervous that perhaps she’d struggle to impress the way she did back then. It turned out she was spectacular and was still able to deliver the vocals. Yes, her voice may not have been as powerful, but it added a layer of reality to the character.

Billie Piper (Yerma)

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Billie’s performance in Yerma was one of the most emotionally draining trips to the theatre I had in 2016, so goodness knows how she performed it day after day! Modernising Lorca’s tale of a woman desperate to have a child worked perfectly for today’s world and as the play unfolded Piper her character from a young, vibrant woman to a lost, broken soul. Powerful and unforgettable.

 

Janet McTeer (Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

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It was hard to leave this production off my top ten and that was in large part due to McTeer’s portrayal of La Marquise de Merteuil. She was so devious and sexy and her chemistry with Dominic West really worked. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to New York to see the Broadway transfer, but if you have a chance to go before it finishes towards the end of January, it’s certainly worth the effort.

The cast of Eclipsed (NYC)!

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With Eclipsed it wasn’t just one strong performance, but five, with each of the five actresses in Danai Gurira’s play creating a memorable character and together the result was one of my theatre highlights. Lupita Nyong’o seemed years younger, depicting the young wife who yearns for a different life; Pascale Armand was a scene-stealer as Bessie, whose comic lines made me laugh out loud; Saycon Sengbloh brought a strength and motherly figure to the stage as Helena; Zainab Jah’s portrayal of the wife-turned soldier, who refuses to be a victim of any man was a moving one and Akosua Busia added an outside perspective as Rita, the woman determined to help the women of the camp leave this life. A remarkable play, that I hope to see in the UK soon.

Helen McCrory (The Deep Blue Sea)

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If I hear Helen McCrory is doing a play, I’ll book it without caring what it is. She is just so good. Her turn as Medea is still clear in my mind two years on and she was equally impressive as Hester Collyer, a woman trapped in life, who feels suicide is her only way out. A moving and powerful production for 2016.

Glenda Jackson (King Lear)

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25 years since she was last on stage, Glenda Jackson took on one of the most well known roles in Shakespeare – King Lear. I was rather surprised by how much power she brought to the stage. She may be older, but she still commanded the stage and although, I didn’t have the emotional reaction to the play’s ending that I sometimes do, I still left the Old Vic sure of the fact I’d seen one of the performances of the year.

Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple, NYC)

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I was sorry to miss The Color Purple during its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and so it was high on my list for my trip to NYC this year. I’d heard so much about Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie, the young girl, who overcomes so much to achieve happiness and independence in her life. There were two famous US actresses on stage, but the star was Erivo and hearing her sing “I’m Here” live was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled she won the TONY this year.

The men weren’t half bad either in 2016!

It may be a year when the female-led shows grabbed my attention, but there were certainly some excellent performances by the men too!

Andy Karl (Groundhog Day)

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Ahh Andy Karl. I loved Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. As he’s better known in the US, I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his future projects from now on. As someone who wasn’t a fan of the original film, his portrayal of Phil Connors was a major factor in how much I loved this production. He was able to convey both his rude, arrogant attitude and his later kinder self with equal weight and by the end I was rather choked each time I saw it. If I needed just one reason to go back to NYC next year, this is it!

Anthony Boyle (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Undoubtably the most anticipated production of the year (and possibly the decade), the next story in the world of Harry Potter had a lot to live up to. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and all five of us in my group agreed that the show-stealer was Anthony Boyle as Scorpius Malfoy, the unlikely son of Draco, who forms a friendship with Harry’s son Albus. He was brilliant in the role; he is funny, brave, emotional and an utter joy to watch.

James Norton (BUG)

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James Norton is surely one of the most versatile actors we have at the moment. Able to be both the charming, gentleman and terrifying killer on screen, I was thrilled to see him perform this year in the intimate space of FOUND111. Tracy Letts’s play is one of growing claustrophobia, where Norton’s character, Peter, starts as a shy young man, who acts as a source of comfort to Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, before slowly unravelling before our eyes. A hugely physical and emotional role, Norton demonstrated yet again why he is on my must-see list.

Jonjo O’Neil (Unreachable)

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I’ve been a fan of Jonjo O’Neil’s since I first saw him in the RSC company in Stratford-Upon-Avon (his Mercutio is yet to be beaten from those I’ve seen) and it was brilliant to see him take on such a quirky role as that of Ivan The Brute in Anthony Neilson’s new play. With the play taking shape during the rehearsal process, he was clearly able to bring so much personality to the character and I don’t think I’ve laughed that much in a theatre in a long long time (if indeed ever). It was an utterly bonkers performance that stole the show.

Simon McBurney (The Encounter)

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The Encounter was unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage. A one-man show, written and performed by Simon McBurney, it told the story of a National Geographic photographer who in 1969 travelled to, and became lost in, the Amazon rainforest. Through the use of innovative technology and the audience all wearing headphones, we were transported in to a sensory experience like no other. McBurney could not have put any more in to his performance, physically and mentally and if I could go again I wouldn’t hesitate.

Jamie Parker (Guys & Dolls / Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Jamie Parker had to be on this list as I loved both roles he had on stage in 2016. I started the year watching him bring Sky Masterson to life in Guys & Dolls. He was superb and, in my view, one of the show’s biggest strengths, able to carry off the suave character and deliver the required vocals. Then it was on to Harry Potter. Harry isn’t the young man he was in the books/films and Parker convincingly portrays how his early life and experiences have impacted on him and indeed on his relationships as a husband and a father. Some of the most heartfelt moments in the play for me were those in which Harry is dealing with emotions and I can’t think of anyone better to play him.

James McArdle (Young Chekhov – Platonov & Ivanov)

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Having a chance to see the Young Chekhov trilogy at the National Theatre after missing its original run in Chichester was an added theatre bonus this year and my favourite of the three was undoubtably Platonov. This was largely down to James McArdle’s performance in the title role. Seeing the plays back to back also provided an even stronger contrast between his role in Platonov and that of the serious doctor in Ivanov.

 

Ian McKellen (No Man’s Land)

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I’ve been lucky enough to see Ian McKellen on stage a couple of times before (in No Man’s Land and The Syndicate) and what stands out most of me about McKellen’s stage work is that he simply becomes a new person. Despite being hugely famous for some iconic roles, you always see the character on the stage and not the actor and that was the case again in No Man’s Land.

Rafe Spall (Hedda Gabler)

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Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack in the National Theatre’s current production of Hedda Gabler really stood out for me. He is a man that starts the play as a rather playful, flirty friend to Hedda and yet by the end he had chilled me to the bone. Not every actor could do that, but through his previous work, Spall has demonstrated his ability to tackle characters on both sides of the moral spectrum. I certainly hope to revisit this production before the end of its run.

Jasper Britton (RSC Richard II / Henry IV)

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Anyone who knows me (or indeed has read this blog before) will know I’m a David Tennant fan and therefore a return trip to the RSC’s Richard II at the Barbican in January was never in doubt. The biggest thrill for me of the combined King and Country cycle was Jasper Britton. He brought a new dynamic to the Richard/Bolingbroke relationship and having the same actor as both characters enhanced the overall cycle. I particularly enjoyed seeing Bolingbroke’s relationship with Hotspur, which perfectly set up the events of the Henry IV Part One.

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What a year it’s been! Feel free to let me know which performances impressed you this year in the comments section.

2016 Theatre Review – My Favourite Productions of the Year!

Although there are a few days of 2016 left, I’ve very likely been to the theatre for the last time this year and so it’s time for one of my favourite posts – my theatre review. It’s always lovely to reflect on another year of theatregoing and all the wonderful productions I’ve been lucky enough to see over the previous 12 months.

Due to a few weeks with a bad cough during which I didn’t go to the theatre (I refuse to be that person coughing through a show!), 2016’s final tally was just 70 different productions; 12 of which were musicals (a record I think for me), with the rest being plays. As with any year there are always some repeat visits and in 2016 I saw 11 shows more than once. Although this year saw me take a long overdue trips to New York for 11 days of theatre (that seems to be the magic number for me this year doesn’t it?), I’ve actually been to very little regional theatre in 2016 and I’m determined to improve this over the next twelve months.

2016 has been a very strong year of theatre for me, with those containing a strong female performance particularly standing out. I’ve seen very little that has truly disappointed and nothing that will be added to my all-time worst production list. So, below is my top ten productions of the year. Before the year is out, I’ll also be posting my list of 17 shows to see in 2017 so please do pop back to have a look and let me know what your theatre highlights have been this year!

Productions of the Year – My Top 10!

1. Groundhog Day (Old Vic)

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There could only be one show at the top of my 2016 list and that’s Groundhog Day, the new musical based on the film, which premiered this year in London, before departing after only its ten week run to prepare for Broadway (previews start in March). I had been sceptical about a musical of this 1993 film (one that I’d not been a huge fan of to begin with). On seeing it for the first time however, I knew this was something very special indeed and I loved it every time I went (well if any show warrants repeat trips it’s this one). The colourful sets helped bring the community of Punxsutawney to life, and the book by Danny Rubin with Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics were a joy. It managed to be both very very funny and deeply moving over the course of the show, as Phil Connors gradually becomes a better man. Of course, the show needed a strong lead to anchor it and Andy Karl was utterly superb as Connors. He was able to portray a man who was both irritating, but still likeable and someone you were rooting for by the end. Yes, I intend to go to NYC to see it, but in the meantime, Mr. Minchin, please release a cast recording! You can read my full reviews here and here.

2. People, Places & Things (Wyndham’s)

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I missed this play during its original run at the National Theatre, but was able to see it when it reached the West End earlier this year. It certainly lived up to the hype, with Denise Gough giving one of the finest stage performances I’ve ever witnessed. As Emma, the young woman dealing with a drug and alcohol addiction, Gough pulled you in to her world and didn’t let go until the end. Very few theatre performances have as strong an emotional impact as this one and her Olivier win in April was truly deserved. I know this will be a performance I talk about for years to come. Full review here.

3. Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum)

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This time last year, one of the most anticipated events of the 2016 theatre calendar was Glenn Close’s return to the role of Norma Desmond, one she performed on Broadway over 20 years ago (and one she will take back to NYC in 2017). I’d never been to the Coliseum, but it was the ideal venue for this unique staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. “Semi-staged”, there was very little set; instead the focus was on the performances and the full ENO orchestra on stage. Fred Johanson was excellent as Norma’s loyal butler, as was Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis. However, this was always going to be Close’s show and she was superb. In fact I loved it so much I had to go again and being on the front row that second time is an experience I will never forget. Full review here.

4. Eclipsed (John Golden, NYC)

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My trip to NYC this year was designed to be a theatre-fuelled holiday and it certainly was! I saw some excellent productions during my time there, but the one that stands out and makes this top ten is Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed, which centres on the lives on five women during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play was able to capture the perfect balance of serious hard-hitting material and humour. For a play that has some moments that are quite difficult to watch, it was also remarkably funny too. On top of that, all five women in this play were superb (made clear by the raft of nominations it received). Lupita Nyong’a seemed so much younger in her role, which commanded your attention until the final moments, while Pascale Armand made me laugh with her witty remarks. I’m so pleased I was able to see this. Full review here.

5. Mary Stuart (Almeida)

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Last weekend I was at the Almeida for a double day of Mary Stuart. Seeing this new show twice in one day was the only way to guarantee I’d see both actresses in each of the lead roles of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. I’m still writing up my review (watch this space), but needless to say that it’s inclusion on this list tells you exactly what I thought of it! The Almeida has such a unique atmosphere and you can feel the energy in the room as the coin spin takes place to determine who will play each part. On seeing both versions, I was thoroughly impressed by both actresses, although Lia Williams brought something extra to the stage whether as Mary or Elizabeth. It’s an exciting, powerful and absorbing production that you should see if you can.

6. Unreachable (Royal Court)

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After having to return a ticket for earlier in the run, I’m so pleased I managed to see the final performance of this brilliant new play by writer and director Anthony Neilson, although due to the unique structure of the creative process, it would have been great to have seen it more than once, as Neilson uses the rehearsal process to mould the story and relies on improv from the cast. Story-wise, it’s about a group of creative people coming together to make a film, with the director intent on capturing the right light (played by Matt Smith) and one of the actors, Ivan the Brute, an unpredictable lunatic (Jonjo O’Neil)! All the actors were excellent, but special credit must go to these two, who had me in stitches throughout, particularly Jonjo. It’s a character and performance I won’t forget in a hurry!

7. Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)

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2016 also saw the arrival of the juggernaut that is the new Harry Potter play and I feel very lucky to have already been able to see it, knowing that some people have tickets for 2018! Set 18 years after the end of the seventh book in the series, we get to see Harry, Hermione and Ron as adults with children of their own off to Hogwart’s and the story focuses on the friendship of Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. It’s a superb show, with magical trickery, lovely sets, a story with a positive message for us all and some brilliant actors. Special mention to Jamie Parker (one of my favourites on stage who really does bring something new to Harry) and Anthony Boyle who deserves as much recognition as possible for stealing the show as Scorpius. Review here.

8. Yerma (Young Vic)

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Billie Piper has established herself in recent years as a fine stage actress and her lead role in the Young Vic’s modern interpretation of Lorca’s Yerma is the best I’ve ever seen her. In a one act play, she simply left me speechless and a bit of a wreck through her portrayal of a young woman driven to despair by her inability to conceive a child. In this modern world where people like to think we can have it all and where woman are putting off having children until later, this play has an added emotional resonance. Brendan Cowell was also fantastic as her husband, struggling to keep their marriage together as his wife slowly breaks down. It was an emotionally draining experience, but a theatrical tour de force that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Full review here.

9. Richard II (RSC, Barbican, London & BAM, NYC)

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Okay, okay, anyone who reads this blog may notice that this production has been on this list before, but technically the 2016 version did have a largely different cast and therefore I think I cab get away with it! David Tennant remains one of my favourite actors and a brilliant Shakespearean actor. Returning to Richard after a break of almost two years meant he was able to bring much more weight to it than he did originally. This was a stronger, more confident performance. Add to that the inspired addition of Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke, a role he made his own and a performance I preferred to Nigel Lindsay. Top marks also need to go to Sam Marks, who stepped in to Oliver Rix’s shoes as Aumerle and brought even more emotional depth than I could have hoped for. I was also lucky enough to travel to NYC to see the final two performances of Richard, meaning that I was able to see not only the first preview, but the very last show. Full review here and reflection on the full King and Country cycle here.

10. The Dazzle (FOUND111)

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Picking a tenth production for this list has been quite difficult and has left me torn, but in the end I had to choose a production I first saw last December and returned to in January of this year and that’s The Dazzle. With only a cast of three and staged in the intimate setting of FOUND111 (one of the venues of the year in my view), this was a show that was both humorous and deeply moving, as we see the bond between the Collyer brothers. Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Langley, whose strange ways are an increasing strain on his brother. However, it was David Dawson’s performance as Homer that floored me and by the final scene I was a wreck. Full review here.

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So, that’s my top 10 from another year of theatre. That was quite tough! Had I had more space, other productions I loved this year included Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar), The Encounter (Barbican) and the returns of the RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much About About Nothing (at Chichester, but which are now currently finally in London) and This House (also now in London).

It always frustrates me that there are things I miss, but ultimately you can’t see everything. That being said, I’m determined to go to more regional theatre, but also more new venues next year. It’s a little exciting to wonder what memories I’ll be looking back on this time next year! After a suggestion from a friend, my picks for top performances of the theatre year are in a separate post here, as are my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.

Thanks for reading!

 

Theatre Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! (Spoiler-free)

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The end of last week had been highly anticipated by my group of friends, as 11 months after buying our tickets, we were going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child! Having managed to stay spoiler-free, we were all excited to see what direction these hugely popular characters would take almost 20 years after we last saw them. As a newcomer to the Potter phenomenon (having only just read the books and watched all the films this summer), this world created by  J.K Rowling was very fresh in my mind as I arrived at the Palace Theatre, ticket in hand.

I’m conscious that many others don’t wish to have the secrets told before they experience the show for themselves and so this review will avoid spoilers. If you want those, read the play script!

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and was relieved it, to a large extent, lived up to the hype. First and foremost, the acting is on the whole very strong indeed. I’m already an admirer of Jamie Parker (Harry Potter) and Noma Dumezweni (Hermione) due to their previous stage roles and they were both excellent as usual. Noma brings a strength and confidence that is perfect for Hermione, especially in the career we find her in at this stage of her life. Together with Paul Thornley as Ron, they are a great pairing and carry the spirit of Ron and Hermione to the stage. Ron is one of my favourite characters from both the books and films and Thornley is brilliant at conveying his ability to lighten the mood with a witty line. Crucially too, he and Noma have great chemistry.

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Jamie Parker as Harry Potter (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Completing the iconic trio, Jamie Parker is a superb Harry Potter. It’s not an easy role as in my view he isn’t an easy character (I admit, I find him a little irritating in the books), but Parker’s portrayal of Harry almost 20 years on, struggling to relate to his son and to be a good father is very believable. You see how everything he went through in his early life continues to affect him, but it’s also lovely to see him grow and heal as the story unfolds. Some of my favourite moments centre on Parker, particularly a lovely scene in Part 2 in which he turns to a portrait of Dumbledore for guidance.

I was also surprised by how much I liked Draco Malfoy, which is in large part down to Alex Price’s excellent performance. I found Draco fascinating, especially in later books, as the sense of his conflicted emotions between which side he really wanted to be on, came to the forefront. Here we see a man still haunted by his family’s past, who is determined to be the best father he can be to his only child. I also loved the tension between him and Harry.

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The Malfoys: Alex Price as Draco & Anthony Boyle as Scorpius

As for the younger cast members, we saw one of the understudies for Albus Potter, Tom Mackley. He may not be the lead actor in this role, but he was very good indeed; a lot like Harry as a child, in that he is a rather frustrating character at times, who is reminded by his friend Scorpius that he doesn’t have nearly as bad a life as he thinks! A lot of his most emotional scenes are with Parker and the two had a lovely on-stage relationship as father and son, which made you invest in them and hope they would find a way to see how much the other loves them.

The acting highlight for me though has to be Anthony Boyle as Scorpius Malfoy. He is simply brilliant in the role and the result is that he is by far and away my favourite character in the production (as was the case too for my four friends). Unsurprisingly, being Draco Malfoy’s son hasn’t made his life very easy and the friendship that forms and strengthens between Scorpius and Albus is genuinely lovely. I’m a sucker for stories about the power of friendship and so I found this element of the play particularly moving. Boyle brings so much to the role. He is clumsy, awkward, geeky, funny (his comic timing and mannerisms reminded my friend of a young Rowan Atkinson) and he grows so much from the nervous, introvert Albus meets on the Hogwart’s Express. I’m certainly already looking forward to following Boyle’s career following what is his West End debut.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

The production’s effects and illusions, across both parts, by Jamie Harrison are fantastic, with certain moments still a mystery to me as to how they do it. The cast must do a lot of running backstage that’s for sure! For anyone worried that the magic of the wizarding world wouldn’t come across on stage, where effects have to be practical, fear not. There’s plenty of magic to marvel at on display. My highlight – the trick with the phone box entrance to the Ministry. It’s brilliant! There has clearly been a great deal of work involved in convincingly bringing a world where spells and magic are commonplace to life and it was much more impressive than I expected.

Christine Jones’s set is inventive, transforming from a busy train, to the staircases of Hogwart’s and even an underwater lake and the costumes too by Katrina Lindsay are a treat (special mention to Jamie Parker’s cloak – I want one!). Combined with some suitably atmospheric music by Martin Lowe and choreography by Steven Hoggett (the opening of Part 2 being a particular highlight), the overall experience is a joy to watch.

As for the story? Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and J.K Rowling have created a great new chapter in the Harry Potter universe and overall I enjoyed it, although the main goal that Albus and Scorpius are trying to achieve was one I didn’t initially see the point of (it’s hard to write much without spoilers). However, I liked how the past stories of books one to seven are interwoven wonderfully with this new beginning, as well as providing glimpses of the past that make you smile and the inclusion of a few much-loved (and in some cases, feared) familiar faces adds to the magical atmosphere.

If you don’t yet have a ticket, it’s certainly worth the effort to try and secure one (see below for some tips). If you are lucky enough to have tickets, then I’m sure you’ll have a truly wonderful time back in the world that J.K Rowling brought to life. You’ll laugh, you may occasionally be a tiny bit scared and you’ll also likely  even shed a tear or two too. Now I just have the challenge of getting tickets to go and watch it all over again!

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues to run at the Palace Theatre. Tickets are largely sold out, but there are still ways to pick up a ticket if you are truly dedicated. Here are a few suggestions, plus visit the official website for more information: https://www.harrypottertheplay.com/ticket-information/

  • Friday Forty – the least effort option is the weekly online lottery. Click on the enter button at 1 p.m. every Friday to be entered in to the ballot for £40 tickets for shows in the following week.
  • Weekly Premium Seat Release – a limited number of premium seats at £95 (or £190 for both parts) are apparently released weekly on the website, so keep an eye on it if you can afford the higher prices.
  • Popping by the box office – If you are flexible as to when you go, then it’s worth calling or popping by the box office and checking if there are any odd seats available. I know someone who asked if there was anything at all for July and picked up a stray seat. This will clearly be easier for solo theatregoers or those willing to sit separately.
  • Returns – the Palace has 1,400 seats so the chances of returns are good. Picking up a return will involve a queue, so take a flask of hot tea, a blanket, a stool and head for the theatre. I know people who’ve queued in the early morning for any returns released as soon as the box office opens. Others are also queuing during the day, where there is more chance to pick up returns the nearer it gets to the start of the show as people arrive with spares.