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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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!

 

 

 

Theatre Review – Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway, New York): Heartbreaking & hopeful, it reminds us we are never alone

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Dear Evan Hansen is undoubtably the show that everyone is talking about in New York and demand to see it is now resulting in people queuing overnight for the chance to get in, just as they still do with Hamilton.

I’ve yet to see Hamilton (I’m waiting for its London arrival), but curiosity had me buying a ticket to see Dear Evan Hansen during my recent NYC theatre trip, especially with its much-praised original cast. Was the hype justified? Absolutely yes and its success and ability to affect so many people, so profoundly, is something special that doesn’t come around very often.

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Connor (Mike Faist) & Evan (Ben Platt). Photo source: Matthew Murphy

Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a shy, socially awkward seventeen year-old, Evan, who struggles to fit in and seems isolated from the people around him. Evan’s life changes when one day, a fellow teen at his school, Connor, commits suicide and the note of Evan’s he stole from him the day before, suggests to Connor’s grieving parents that their son had a friend they never knew about, one who may be able to help them learn about the son they struggled to connect with. What follows is a truly heart-wrenching journey of a young man, who is caught up in a lie, but who along the way, gives all of the characters, all of us watching and indeed himself a sense of hope and the comforting message that we are never alone, no matter how hopeless life seems. It may sound cheesy, but I promise you that the emotional response you’ll have to this story will be very real indeed.

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Evan (Ben Platt) & Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss). Photo source: Matthew Murphy

So relevant to today’s society is the story and the emotional experiences that the characters experience, that you could easily forget that they are indeed characters. It is an incredibly believable story, coming at a time when, despite the increased amount of ways we have to communicate with each other, so many people feel that they have no voice and are incredibly alone. The show has certainly captured the hearts of a generation of young people, who see themselves in Evan. However, the brilliance of this musical is that it has the ability to connect with all ages. Whether you are a teenager, or in your mid-30s, or older, we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve struggled to keep going, to ask for help, or have been scared that no one is there for us. For this reason and the richness of its characters other than Evan, Dear Evan Hansen connects with everyone.

Steven Levenson (book writer), together with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and its director Michael Greif, have created a brilliantly contemporary show, drawing on the social media world we live in (which is also woven wonderfully in to the set). The characters within it are fully realised individuals. Evan is at its heart, but each one adds to the overall magic of the show and that is strengthened by the superb ensemble that brings them to life.

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The superb cast of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo source: Nathan Johnson

Rachel Bay Jones is wonderful as Evan’s mother, doing her best to raise him alone, while Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson portray Connor’s parents sensitively and with such realism, dealing with their grief in different ways. As Connor’s sister, Laura Dreyfuss has the complex role of a girl trying to reconcile grief with the fact she didn’t really like her brother as a person, while Mike Faist portrays two versions of Connor, the person he was before his death and then who he is in Evan’s imagination, ensuring he remains an important part of the story. The show could have become much too sad and so the inclusion of Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) classmates of Evan, is vital as they bring a great amount of humour to the show (especially Jared, with Will Roland’s performance being one of my favourites).

Then of course, there is Ben Platt at its core. He was the reason I wanted to see the show and his performance exceeded all of my expectations. Having been involved with the character of Evan since the workshop stage of this musical, means that he is intrinsically linked with him and as you watch him on stage, you sometimes forget it is a performance. Every nuance of Evan’s character, from his shy awkward mannerisms to the tone of his voice is perfectly crafted and seem to come from deep inside Platt. It’s a heartbreaking, visceral and yet at times funny performance, that truly brings Evan to life before the audience and the sheer force of the emotion he gives on stage took my breath away.

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Ben Platt as Evan Hansen – a performance I will never forget. Photo source: Matthew Murphy

I’m not a big musicals fan and so for me to truly connect with one requires not just a good story and strong characters, but also songs that really resonate with me and Dear Evan Hansen’s soundtrack is one of the few that I can listen to in its entirety. Every song has an emotional truth to it because each one fits the point in the story in which it falls, but also crucially feels natural coming from the character singing it in that moment. They never feel shoe-horned in for the sake of it and move the story forward without losing any of their emotional power. From Ben Platt’s superb opening in “Waving Through a Window”, to the playful fun of “Sincerely, Me”, to the uplifting anthem that is “You Will Be Found” (a song I’ve started playing when I need a pick-me-up), to “So Big/So Small”, it’s a truly beautiful collection of songs and I am not ashamed to admit that I shed tears through almost all of them (and it seemed everyone else in the Music Box Theatre did too).

I cannot recommend Dear Evan Hansen enough and if you are able to see this original cast, then don’t hesitate. I feel very lucky to be seeing it again in October and am so pleased that, in this case, all of the praise and superlatives I’d heard about it were fully justified. It’s a show that will definitely make you cry, but it’s also one that is giving people a sense of togetherness and the hope that everything will be alright, which is surely a message we all need to hear.

Dear Evan Hansen continues to run at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). There is limited availability for the rest of 2017, but if you can treat yourself to the premium band, those tickets come up last minute, so keep checking Telecharge. A small number of standing room tickets are released each morning at the box office (the queue starts early) and there is also a daily online lottery for $40 rush tickets. For more information, visit the website here.

 

Theatre Review – Come From Away (Broadway, New York): an uplifting story of the good we are all capable of showing to others

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“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

I recently spent a week in New York, specifically to see as much theatre as possible and one of the shows on my must-see list was Come From Away. I read about the show months ago when it was playing in Washington D.C and had been looking forward to finally seeing it for myself. It was therefore the first show I saw on this trip and was a wonderfully uplifting first night on Broadway.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Come From Away is set on 11th September 2001 and yet, despite all of us being so aware of the terrible events of that day, the story of the people brought to the stage in this new musical are very likely unknown to most of us. Set in Gander, which lies on the northeastern tip of North America, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, we discover that amid the tragedy of 9/11, in this small remote community, the good we are all capable of was shining through, when 38 planes, carrying 6,579 passengers and crew had to land at Gander following the closure of U.S airspace.

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The cast of Come From Away

Personally, I had never thought about the immediate ripple impact of the tragedy for other aircrafts in the sky that morning and I was stunned by how this small community and those of the surrounding area, pulled together to help the stranded passengers and crews, who effectively doubled their population within hours. From providing food, clothing, medicine, shelter and someone to talk to, it’s incredible to see just how much was done to welcome an international group of strangers to their island. Indeed, it carries more resonance at a time when refugees from around the world are facing greater barriers and hostility to settling elsewhere.

Through Come From Away, we see the lives of people thrown together, far away from home and without any of their possessions (bags remained on the planes, as these were all initially viewed as potential bombs), who over the next five days form friendships, relationships and a special bond between themselves, but also with the people of Gander, that continues to thrive to this day; there are reunions and Newfoundland is the only place outside the USA which has steel from the World Trade Centre.

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Sharon Wheatley & Lee Macdougall

 

Writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff interviewed thousands of people and have skilfully woven these stories together to create a musical that provides moments of joy, hilarity and fun, as well as its emotional moments. With so many stories available to them, the small cast of just 12 find themselves switching roles (and dialects) multiple times in order to provide us with a glimpse in to the forms of generosity that took place during those days in September. Whether playing the locals going about their daily lives until everything changed, to the passengers left cut off and unaware of what was happening (remember back then, fewer people had mobiles), to the captain of one of the planes, the strength of this ensemble is a huge asset of the show.

Each actor brings something special it and is likely to portray a character you will remember. There are too many to talk about them all, but I particularly enjoyed Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa’s lovely portrayal of a gay couple, whose relationship is gradually put under strain due to how 9/11 has affected them, Petrina Bromley’s vet, who took it upon herself to ensure that any animals being transported on the planes were cared for and Lee Macdougall and Sharon Wheatley whose characters include American Diane and Brit David, who were on the same plane and through such tragedy find love. There is also Q. Smith’s moving performance of a mother desperately waiting to her news of her son, a firefighter in New York, which felt even more emotional seeing the show in the heart of the city and Jenn Colella’s lovely performance as Captain Beverley Bass, a female pilot trying to comprehend that her beloved planes have been used to create such horror.

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Jenn Colella

Such a story needed to be told with the right balance of entertainment and sensitivity and this is something the creators certainly achieve. There are moments of great humour  intermingled with moments that have you shedding a tear and I particularly loved the smaller moments of human kindness, such as a local man who communicated to a non-English speaking couple not to be afraid through highlighting passages in their bible.

What also struck me about Come From Away was that it’s not your typical musical, which is something I loved about the show. It doesn’t have your typical musical structure. There aren’t show tunes between spoken scenes as such, but a series of stories that happen to be told through moments of spoken verse and singing. I’ve heard some people comment that the show needn’t have been a musical, but I disagree, as it is through the musical element that the emotional depth of these individuals and what they experienced can be truly told. Having the characters sing how they are feeling allows them to express to us emotions that would have not have come across as vividly through just words. It also means we are treated to the talent of the musical’s band, who through drum, fiddle and pipes bring Newfoundland’s signature style of music to life for a wider audience.

I thoroughly enjoyed Come From Away and would recommend it to anyone making a trip to NYC, especially those who perhaps don’t usually like musicals. Having won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical this week, it is also a strong contender in this year’s Tony Awards and I for one think that there is no better time than now, to see a show that reminds us of the goodness in the world and how even in the face of tragedy, people will always come together to give each other strength and love.

Come From Away is currently running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes. For more information and ticket availability, visit its website here. $38 rush tickets are available from the box office every morning.

 

 

Theatre Review – Blackbird (Broadway, New York)

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Another play I managed to have time to see during my New York theatre holiday was the Broadway premiere of David Harrower’s play. I knew very little beforehand, but was an admirer of the work of both actors.

Set in a break room of a dreary office building, Una (Michelle Williams) has arrived at the workplace of Ray (Jeff Daniels) having not seen him for 15 years. However, this is not an ordinary meeting and it very quickly becomes clear that Ray was a former neighbour and that the two of them had a sexual relationship. What makes this more shocking is that, at the time, Ray was 40 and Una was only 12 years old. After being released from prison, Ray has moved away, changed his name and started again (the offence having been committed before the sex offenders register existed). Tonight however, Una is determined to make him face her and the consequences of his actions.

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Over the course of 80 minutes, we watch as these two damaged people unleash their pent up emotions and the more they do, the more the lines blur regarding how they each view what happened and how they now feel about one another. It proves to be a thought-provoking experience for the audience.

The two actors are very good indeed. Michelle Williams, dressed in a floaty dress, designed to make her seem more childlike, plays Una’s jumble of emotions wonderfully. She is a complex character, whose childhood has understandably affected her whole life. She is like an unstable chemical element, which you expect to explode at any moment. In certain moments she speaks of how many men she’s slept with and yet in others she regresses to more childlike behavior, suggesting someone still on some emotional level trapped in the past. She wants to be in control of this meeting, stalking Ray around the room and seemingly enjoying just how scared he is of her and her unexpected reappearance in his life.

In a role he played during its original Off-Broadway run in 2007, Jeff Daniels takes his lead from her, as Ray struggles to try and explain the past from his perspective. Although I felt myself focusing on Williams’s performance, Daniels convincingly plays a man haunted by Una, who despite his larger frame at times appears small and weak in her presence. It’s not an easy role and it’s a testament to the actor that you sometimes forget that he is a criminal.

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I’ve seen some comments as to whether this was love or abuse. I think this is too simplistic a question. For me, it is perhaps more unclear for Ray and Una from their perspectives than from mine as an audience member. There is clearly a connection between the two of them and they are still drawn to each other, which seems to excite and terrify them in equal measure. However I never questioned the inappropriateness of Ray’s actions. Una was a child, not even a teenager, but a pre-pubescent 12 year-old girl.

He spends a lot of time trying to make clear that he isn’t one of those men, that he doesn’t have those urges towards children and that he didn’t set out to have sex with a child. You are never truly sure if he really believes this or if it’s what he’s been telling himself ever since to move on. This uncertainty about Ray is brought home even more by the play’s powerfully unresolved conclusion, which in one moment made me shudder.

To add to the emotional complexity, as the play continues, you realise that Una’s anger stems more from a feeling of abandonment by Ray than from what he actually did. Ultimately the tragedy for these two people is had they met later in life, things could have been very different.

The strongest section of the play is when Una is reliving their last night together and its aftermath for her. The stage lighting changes gradually growing dimmer as she delves further in to those past events. So powerful is Williams here that you feel as if you are reliving it with her. You can see it in your mind’s eye and feel jolted when brought back to the present. It was hugely effective and the most powerful part of the production.

Certain aspects didn’t work for me. I grew to find the stilted, clipped dialogue of the early part of the play frustrating. Also the throwing around of rubbish by these two people at that point in proceedings didn’t, for me, achieve anything. All the verbal and sometimes physical sparring and outpouring of emotions beforehand were much more interesting.

Blackbird is not a comfortable play to watch by any means and although it didn’t impress me as much as other productions I saw in New York, it was certainly a powerful, thought-provoking and at times disturbing experience.

Blackbird continues its run at the Belasco Theatre (111. West 44th St.) until 11th June 2016. Running-time: 80 minutes approx. (no interval). $32 rush tickets are available each morning at the box office. For more information visit the website.

 

Theatre Review – The Color Purple starring Cynthia Erivo (Broadway, New York)

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The Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of The Color Purple was one of those productions that I tried but failed to see in London in 2013. Thankfully, my recent New York trip provided me with an opportunity to see it during its hugely successful Broadway transfer.

As someone who hasn’t read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (a literary crime I know) or seen the 1985 film version, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this musical. Set in Georgia, beginning in 1909, the story centres on Celie, who we see grow up from a young girl abused by her step-father (resulting in two children who he then takes from her), passed off to a cruel older husband who treats her like his slave, to a strong, independent and confident business woman. Despite everything she endures, Celie remains strong; a woman you deeply admire and care about.

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The phenomenal Cynthia Erivo as Celie

A strong actress was certainly needed to play her and to lead this production. Luckily for me, British actress Cynthia Erivo has travelled with the show to New York and she is absolutely stunning as Celie. An unknown actress to American audiences on her arrival there, she is certainly a force of the Broadway theatre stage now and all the praise she has received for the role over the years is justified.

Erivo conveys every emotion Celie experiences over her life perfectly and by the time she hits the final, powerful notes of her solo song I’m Here, the rapturous reception she received from the audience felt as though it had been building for the last couple of hours! It’s simply one of the finest stage performances I’ve seen and Erivo clearly gives it her heart and soul.

The production also contains some other fantastic performances. Danielle Brooks (from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black) plays Sophia with so much humour and a fire that had my audience cheering her along all the way, with every “Hell no” she uttered. The wife of Harpo, son of Celie’s husband, she is the opposite of the young Celie; she will not be treated as a slave by her husband and is without a doubt the boss of their relationship. Kyle Scatliffe (who impressed me in 2013 in the Young Vic’s The Scottsboro Boys), is wonderful too as Harpo and despite their arguments, the bond of affection they share is never in doubt.

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Jennifer Hudson was still in the cast playing Shug Avery during my visit and she did a fantastic job. Shug is a fascinating character; one who enters as Celie’s husband’s former lover. You don’t expect to like her and yet you do and the love between her and Celie grows. Ultimately it is Shug who helps Celie to forge a new life for herself, free from anyone else’s control. Heather Headley will, I’m sure, continue to make the role shine.

Although not every song is a memorable one, there were some musical numbers within this production that I thoroughly enjoyed and the soundtrack is worth the investment for I’m Here alone. Seeing The Color Purple in America also certainly added to my enjoyment and experience, with the audience’s responses and reactions far greater than I imagine they were in London. Their love of this production was something you could feel in the auditorium.

Powerful, moving, funny and inspiring, The Color Purple was a wonderful night at the theatre and is something not to be missed, particularly for Erivo’s performance, which will be one of the greats to remember.

The Color Purple continues its run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th St.) and is currently booking until 2nd October 2016. $35 rush tickets are available in the morning at the theatre each day. Running-time is 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval). For more information, visit its website.

Theatre Review – American Psycho (Broadway, New York)

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Another production I was keen to see during my trip to New York was the Broadway transfer of the Almeida Theatre’s musical version of American Psycho. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the show when it opened in London in 2013, seeing it a few times during its brief run. Having purchased the cast recording prior to my holiday, that production felt fresh in my memory on arriving at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

It was an entertaining afternoon and also fascinating to see the changes that had been made to the show since its original run. Some of these changes I very much welcomed, while I missed other elements that have been changed.

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Benjamin Walker as Patrick Bateman

The most noticeable difference from the start was the change to the arrangement of some of Duncan Sheik’s songs, to the extent that they sounded quite different from when I’d last heard them, which threw me a little. Such changes relate to Opening, Selling Out, Killing Time and Not A Common Man. On an initial viewing my immediate view is that I prefer the original versions, but perhaps if I’d had a second opportunity to see the show maybe they would have grown on me. However my least favourite song of the production has also disappeared. I was not a fan of “Oh Sri Lanka” during Patrick Bateman’s birthday and felt it jarred the flow of the story. Its removal, with instead a great moment with Bateman “cutting” his birthday cake is funny and in-keeping with the show.

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The staging and style of Rupert Goold’s American Psycho were two of the aspects I’d loved best and these continue to impress on Broadway. The show looks great, with Es Devlin’s set able to have a little more space than the Almeida could provide, which enables it to open out even more, especially in the second half, with the whole side of the stage opening in to separate doorways, through which various cast dressed in white and covered in blood appear as Bateman’s killing spree ratchets up. Whether a decision of the cast or creative team, the Broadway cast also spend much longer in their underwear! Indeed, Benjamin Walker’s Bateman spends all of the opening shirtless, while visiting the video store on route to work etc. (with a quick detour in to the aisles, to spray the audience with money from spray guns) and a good portion of the second half in just his underwear.

The depiction of the violence of Bateman’s secret life is also heightened in the visual imagery on display. There is much more blood on Broadway! One of the aspects of the original show I was dissatisfied with was how relatively tame Bateman’s acts seemed. It made him less dangerous. Here, we see him truly attack his rival Paul Owen, which thanks to a screen separating the stage from the front rows, means they can be more generous with the fake blood. This continues in the second half when during one of my favourite songs from the show the bodies literally pile up!

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Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano & Alice Ripley

I also thought it was an interesting directorial decision to stage some of the scenes of the second half with Bateman just his underwear, covered in blood. He chats with Jean in his office and encounters Luis in Barney’s all while in this state, but they treat him as normal, giving the audience a sense that perhaps not everything in this world is real. For me, this plays in to the conclusion of the show very well indeed and is a great change.

From a cast perspective, personally there were some positives and some disappointments. One of my favourite characters from London was Jean, the kind and caring assistant in love with Bateman and the nicest character in the whole show. Jennifer Damiano plays her well, but vocally Cassandra Compton was much stronger in the role, with songs such as “A Girl Before” standing out. Damiano didn’t hit the top notes as strongly in my view, which did disappoint me. Susannah Fielding also seemed to find a greater to depth to the character of Evelyn than her Broadway counterpart Helene Yorke. I did particularly enjoy Theo Stockman’s portrayal of Bateman’s friend Tim Price. He was quite different from Jonathan Bailey and was a wonderful dry-humoured element of the production, in a role expanded on Broadway. Tim Price’s breakdown in Tunnel and subsequent disappearance felt odd to me and his reappearance towards the end distracting from the build up to the show’s conclusion. By cutting this plot point and having Tim remain a part of the show throughout was a much better decision.

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Broadway’s American Psycho is much bloodier than London!

A lot hangs on the performance of Patrick Bateman himself and Benjamin Walker is the Broadway production’s biggest asset. He is superb in the role. He brings humour, energy and crucially a predatory darkness at all the right points to the character. Walker is able to be both charming and dangerous and his audience interaction is always on point. It is a different Bateman from Matt Smith’s portrayal in London. I liked both in different ways. If not vocally brilliant, by the end of the show I always felt truly sorry for Smith’s Bateman; he seemed to be someone trapped in a miserable and ultimately fantasist life, in which his wedding felt more akin to a funeral for him. I didn’t have the same reaction to Walker in the role. He seemed more frustrated by his inability to fit in than Smith’s Bateman did and perhaps that meant the end didn’t seem quite as hopeless for Broadway’s Patrick Bateman.

I still really enjoyed American Psycho. Its design, direction, choreography and soundtrack as a whole (despite my preference for the London song arrangements) remain as thrilling and entertaining as they did two years ago. I worry that it may have been more at home in the intimate space of the Almeida and may not enjoy a long life on Broadway, but I hope I’m wrong and that New York audiences go along for the ride. I’m thrilled I was able to see both versions of this production, especially as on reflection they did seem like two quite different shows.

American Psycho continues its run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th St.). Running-time: 2 hours 40 minutes (including one interval). $37 rush tickets are available each day at the box office, with a limited amount of $45 tickets available via a digital lottery. For more information, visit its website. For anyone interested in listening to the London cast recording, you can stream it for free here. The original London production can also be viewed for free (by advance appointment only) at the V&A Museum’s Theatre & Performance Archive in London.