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.

 

 

 

 

Theatre Review – A majestic King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

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(All photos credited to: Manuel Harlan)

Ten years ago, I hadn’t yet become the theatre addict I am today and so, as a result, I missed out on seeing Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear at the RSC, having to make do with watching it on DVD. Undoubtably a theatre legend and one of the actors I now never fail to see on stage, there was no way I was missing out a second time and last night saw me back in Chichester to see McKellen’s return to this iconic Shakespearean role. Seating only 283 people and running for just over a month, I certainly felt lucky to have a ticket.

It’s the second time I’ve seen him perform in the intimate space of the Minerva Theatre (the first being 2011’s The Syndicate) and it’s clear that he thrives on the added power that comes from being so close to the audience and the play itself also benefits from the intimacy of the venue; drawing you in and holding your attention, despite the lengthy running time (just over 3 hours, plus an interval in this case).

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However, Jonathan Munby’s production is much more than its leading actor, boasting an incredibly talented ensemble cast. Sinead Cusack is a highlight as the Countess of Kent, whose loyalty and love of her King causes her to follow him in disguise, despite his cruel treatment of her, after so many years of service, in the opening scene (so brilliantly staged here, with Lear playfully taking great delight in cutting up the map of the UK with a pair of scissors – Scotland to Goneril, Northern Ireland & Wales to Regan, and England, the last third, which is then ripped in two, if you were wondering).

The strength of the female roles in King Lear is always one of my favourite aspects of the play and this production did not disappoint. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with a poise and maturity the comes from being the eldest sibling, exasperated by her father’s behaviour and slowly driven further and further down a path that doesn’t seem natural to her. Interestingly, in this production I never truly despised Goneril and by the end, I still did not believe her capable of the murder of her sister. She just did not seem dark enough for such actions in Kirwan’s hands.

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Kirsty Bushell’s Regan on the other hand, thrives on the darkness that descends; dancing around to music during the torture of the Earl of Gloucester, clearly turned on by the whole twisted experience. Bushell is excellent throughout this production, using her sexuality to manipulate and control those around her, before being foiled by her sister’s jealousy of her seduction of Edmund.

I always have the most sympathy for the Earl of Gloucester (how could you not?!) and this production was no different with  Danny Webb delivering a strong, moving performance, particularly in his scenes with Jonathan Bailey as Edgar/Tom. Bailey is fantastic as the loyal, loving son, wronged by his father and brother, in the same way as Cordelia is wronged by Lear and her sisters (and Bailey’s Edgar seems to care a great deal about her, based on Bailey’s reactions to her casting off and later death). He doesn’t go too far with the pretence of madness either; it’s always just a means to an end and his counterpoint, Edmund, is also wonderfully portrayed by Damien Molony. I’ve seen more evil portrayals; more devious ones too, but Molony comes across as extremely believable throughout the play.

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The Minerva may be a small space, but Paul Will’s set is never lacking; creating multiple locations with ease and enhancing the power of key moments in the story (especially when combined with Ben and Max Ringham’s music and sound). I particularly loved how the red carpeted dias began to resemble a pool of blood, expanding outwards from beneath McKellen’s feet, as the rain from the storm lashed down on him. This Lear may keep his clothes on (unlike his 2007 performance), but the scene is no less powerful.

Some aspects of the production didn’t quite work for me. After a promising first scene, Phil Daniels’ Fool seems to fade away in to the background and is forgotten much too quickly when compared to others that I’ve seen. Also, despite strong performances from both McKellen and Tamara Lawrance individually, the love between father and daughter never really shone through, resulting in Cordelia’s death and Lear’s grief lacking depth for me. Having said that, King Lear never draws from me the same emotional response as say, a powerful production of Hamlet, which has been known to bring me to tears. Perhaps it’s the fact I never really feel sorry for Lear, feeling he brings his miseries on himself, or perhaps some plays resonate more with some audience members than others.

However, McKellen’s portrayal throughout the production of a man clearly starting to feel his age, resulted in a much more believable ending. All the moments of him trying to catch his breath, as if on the verge of a heart attack and the added wheezes, meant that his sudden death during the play’s final moments seemed inevitable, rather than out of the blue.

King Lear will never be my favourite Shakespearean tragedy. However, this production is one of the strongest I’ve seen. It was engaging, engrossing and a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience. Making your way to Chichester to try for a returned ticket is absolutely worth the effort.

King Lear continues its run at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 28th October 2017. Running time: 3 hours (or just over), plus a 20 minute interval. Although sold out, keep an eye on the website for returns or head to the theatre on the day to join the returns queue. For more information, visit the website.

Theatre Review – Travels With My Aunt (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

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During my weekend trip to Chichester, as well as An Enemy of the People (running until Saturday 21st May) I also had time to see a matinee of Travels With My Aunt. With a book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, this is a new musical based on the 1969 novel by Graham Greene.

It’s a simple (and rather ridiculous) story in which Henry Pulling (Steven Pacey) is perfectly happy with his quiet, uneventful retirement. He has his garden and his dahlias and that’s quite enough for him. However, his life soon takes an unexpected and more adventurous turn when, at his mother’s funeral, he meets his Aunt Augusta. Before he knows it, he is fleeing police and on a flight to Paris where his travels with his aunt are only just beginning.

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Patricia Hodge as Aunt Augusta

This isn’t the greatest, slickest musical by a long way. It was however quite a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in Chichester and certainly seemed to go down very well with its target audience.

There were aspects of the story that didn’t work for me and which I think highlight the era in which the original book was written, dating the piece as a whole. There is a lot of cliché and cheesy stereotypes on display, such as the under-developed character of Wordsworth, Augusta’s black lover from Sierra Leone. Also Henry’s growing closeness to Tooley (Haley Flaherty), a young hippie they meet along the way, didn’t appeal to me at all and unfortunately I never saw this as romantic, but rather just a bit creepy. It’s nicely played by both actors, but I couldn’t take it seriously. Also, although the songs do contain some rather witty lines throughout, none of them are particularly memorable.

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Haley Flaherty, Steven Pacey, Hugh Maynard & Patricia Hodge (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Having said all of that, I did enjoy this production for what it was – a quaint, old-fashioned story, which tries to make its audience realise that you are never too old to do anything. The set design has been well thought through by Colin Falconer, who manages to pack a lot in to the small space he has in the Minerva. The use of the centre box as bar, waiting room and entry to Augusta’s flat all worked well and minimal props do a great job of transporting us to each new location on the journey.

The strongest aspects of the show are the performances of Steven Pacey as Henry and Patricia Hodge as Augusta. Pacey plays Henry’s strait-laced English gentleman very well and you do quite like him, finding yourself amused by his exasperation at what he sees as his Aunt’s recklessness. Hodge is wonderful as Augusta. In her smart, colourful, stylish outfits she is a lot of fun and I couldn’t help thinking I wouldn’t mind being that free-spirited in my old age! You admire her passion for life, although imagine if you were Henry, she’d drive you crazy too. They two do have a lovely chemistry that really works here and I found that scenes which focus on them were much stronger than some of the others and it is them who keep you engaged.

So, overall, I wouldn’t say you should make a special trip to Chichester just to see this production. It is however perfectly pleasant for anyone in the area looking to escape from the real world for a couple of hours.

Travels With my Aunt continues its run at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester until 4th June 2016. Running-time is 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval). For more information visit the website.

 

 

Theatre Review – An Enemy of the People (Festival Theatre, Chichester)

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It’s been a few years since I last made it to Chichester’s theatre festival and so it was lovely to go for my first visit of the year this weekend. With only one week left to run, you still have time to see An Enemy of the People, currently playing in the larger Festival Theatre. Having never seen the play on stage before, I was interested in adding another Ibsen to my list.

Set in a quiet Nordic spa town, the story revolves around Dr. Stockmann, the Bath’s medical officer and pillar of the community. Taking pride in doing his job properly, when his tests of the water and soil prove his suspicions – that the baths are a health risk, he is pleased to have made such a discovery, particularly as this proves him right and his brother the Mayor wrong with regards to how the Baths were constructed. With the help of the local liberal newspaper, whose editor Hovstad is more than a little happy about the idea of bringing upset to the wealthy owners and investors of the Baths, Stockmann is determined to bring his findings and the risks the Baths pose, to the public’s attention. He sees himself of the hero of the people by doing so.

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Hugh Bonneville & cast (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

However, Ibsen’s play highlights how quickly opinions can change and the risk of speaking out. Indeed, a play concerning the suppression of corruption by those with power and influence, the instinct for self-interest and the idea of whistle-blowing are all incredibly current issues in the world we live in.

The play itself involves a great deal of talk and could have been quite dry to watch. However, Christopher Hampton’s translation and the production itself were very engaging, with some strong performances. I was also surprised how much humour was within the show, much more than any other Ibsen I’ve seen (I go to his plays aware that they are never going to be the happiest!). As this is the only production of this play that I’ve seen, whether this was down to the original text or Hampton’s translation I’m not sure, but it was a very welcome element, which was no doubt enhanced by the actors themselves.

Howard Davies’s production is also perfectly suited to the Festival Theatre’s space, particularly for the later public meeting scene. The decision to stage this within the auditorium, with the majority of the cast within the audience and only the speakers on the stage, added to the atmosphere. The shouts and sense of a whole community turning on one man felt far more authentic than had we the audience simply been observers.

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Adam James (Photo by: Manuel Harlan)

It was also fascinating in that the motivations of Stockmann did not always appear to be clear-cut. He did have a desire to take the moral ground and expose the truths others were trying to suppress. However, when you see the animosity and deep-rooted rivalry between him and his brother, the Mayor and the person leading the opposition to his cause, his motivations could be seen in a different light. Is an element of his motivation to highlight that he was right and his brother wrong? His cause does pose a risk of personal loss to his whole family (his father-in-law’s tannery being a large part of the pollution problem, but also the source of future financial stability for his wife and children), which makes such petty rivalries unlikely to be his sole reason. However it was still an interesting aspect of the production that, for me, added to the complexity of Stockmann’s character.

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Jonathan Cullen, William Gaminara & Hugh Bonneville (Photo by: Manuel Harlan)

Now more famous for playing a wealthy aristocrat, it was satisfying to see Hugh Bonneville in a different role. He is very good as Stockmann (his first stage role since 2004). He is the man you see as the champion of the truth, who begins to lose his credibility (and indeed his good name) in his community when his public pleas become an attack on the rights of the unintelligent majority and the intellectually weak. He decision to make such declarations showed his naivety – surely anyone would see that insulting the public’s intelligence and threatening the source of the whole town’s income (the tourism from the Baths) would not be the root to success?

Surrounding Bonneville’s central performance, Adam James (a favourite actor of mine since 2010’s Blood & Gifts) is on fine form as usual as the side-changing newspaper editor, who is swift to drop his support of Stockmann the moment he realizes what he has to lose. William Gaminara is wonderful as Stockmann’s pompous brother, who as Mayor, is smart enough to know how to appeal to the community’s sense of self-interest in order to keep his failings hidden and Alice Orr-Ewing’s portrayal of Stockmann’s daughter is lovely, whose outspoken and independent spirit shines through, as does her admiration of her father’s cause.

It’s unexpected humour and ability to bring Ibsen’s ideas to a modern audience in such an engaging and relevant way meant that this was an enjoyable evening at the theatre for me, but if you were planning to see it, you only have until Saturday to buy a ticket!

An Enemy of the People continues at the Festival Theatre in Chichester until Saturday 21st May 2016. Running-time is 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval). For more information visit the website.

Theatre Review – Guys & Dolls at the Savoy Theatre

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It’s been a few years since I last saw Guys & Dolls and after failing to get to Chichester in 2014 to see this production due to injury, I’m pleased it has transferred to the Savoy for a West End run.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, with Gordon Greenberg’s production delivering on colour, sparkle and fun. It’s a relatively simple story – two gamblers who are scared of settling down, each ultimately realise every Guy needs a Doll.

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Jamie Parker is fantastic as Sky Masterson

Coming to London with the production are two of the main Chichester leads – Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide and Jamie Parker as Sky Masterson. I admit my main reason for seeing this show was Mr. Parker, who has become a favourite stage actor of mine over recent years, able to play straight plays, Shakespeare and musicals. He is great as Sky – the suave, sexy, gambler, with a twinkle in his eye and a sharp suit. I understand why Miss Sarah would fall for him! He also has a fantastic voice, essential for any lead in a musical. It’s a shame this will also be his last role for a while, as his next engagement is playing Harry Potter in the new stage play, which I imagine will keep him occupied for some time.

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Sophie Thompson is wonderful as Miss Adelaide

Sophie Thompson is wonderful as Miss Adelaide. I admit the initial casting had surprised me as, I’m ashamed to admit, I imagined someone younger would always play the role of the woman who dances at the Hot Box and dreams of one day marrying Nathan Detroit (they have been engaged for 14 years after all). However Ms. Thompson brings so much personality to the role that she steals every scene. Not to mention her voice, with songs such as Sue Me, being both vocally powerful as well as emotional. It’s lovely to see another strong woman commanding the Savoy stage following Imelda’s powerhouse performance in Gypsy.

Completing these two pairs is Daniel Haig as Nathan Detroit and Siubhan Harrison as Sarah Brown. David Haig grew on me as the production went along, although I thought he was lacking in the sparkle that Thompson and Parker have. Finally Siubhan Harrison plays Sarah, the girl who steals Sky’s heart. She was good, but I felt she was only at her best in scenes with Jamie Parker, as the two worked well together. In other scenes I found her a bit forgettable.

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The first half seemed quite slow in pace and it took me a while to be engaged by the show itself. I’d also forgotten that the memorable songs from this musical come in the second half, namely Luck Be A Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat. The latter is superb, delivered with power, glitz, passion and joy by the cast, but particularly Gavin Spokes’s Mr Nicely Nicely Johnson, who makes this number one to remember.

The set design by is full of glitz and glamour and the choreography by Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright is very good (I loved a scene in the sewer where the men formed a human set of stairs for another to run up).

Is this the greatest musical I’ve ever seen? No, it isn’t, but it provides fun, laughter and a great night’s entertainment, which is the ideal tonic for anyone suffering from the January blues.

Guys & Dolls continues its run at the Savoy Theatre until 12th March 2016, before embarking on a UK tour. Running time: 2 hours and 40 mins (including a 20 minute interval). For further information visit its website.

 

Theatre review – Imelda Staunton’s Incredible Gypsy (Savoy Theatre)

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Gypsy was one of the productions on my Chichester list last year but it was one that I failed to see. I had a second chance last week, due to the show recently opening in London’s West End at the Savoy Theatre, to universal praise.

It is certainly a less light hearted musical in comparison to many of the big name shows in London at the moment and to some extent, is a lesser known show in the UK (it has not been seen in the West End since its premiere in 1973). The show is based on the memoirs of famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, turned in to a musical by Stephen Sondheim, with music by Jule Styne. However the musical’s focus is on her early life as a childhood vaudeville performer, together with her younger sister June, steered by their mightily determined mother Momma Rose (Imelda Staunton). It’s certainly not an easy life, fighting for every booking to make money, which becomes even more intense as the vaudeville scene starts to fade and June, her mother’s favourite and focus, leaves the act. It is then that she (real name Louise, played by Lara Pulver), becomes the central focus for her mother’s ambitious plans.

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Lara Pulver & Imelda Staunton

I admit I did find it rather slow to begin with, but the sheer force of Imelda Staunton soon had me drawn in. She is absolutely brilliant in this production. I thought she was at her finest in Sweeney Todd, but clearly not – some of the songs she belts out and the notes she hits are astonishing! Rose is not really a likeable character – she’s domineering, pushy, quite cruel (in her lack of affection towards Louise), but you cannot help but admire her determination, fiery spirit and nerve to take a risk and with Staunton in the role, you are even touched by her vulnerabilities and are cheering for her by the end (almost certainly standing up with the rest of the theatre).

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Peter Davison & Imelda Staunton

Lara Pulver handles the character of Louise well, although it’s a bit of a strange role, as she spends quite a lot of time being overshadowed and in the background, which makes her feel a bit flat as a character. It’s when she comes in to her own as Gypsy that she becomes much more interesting and I wish the musical had spent more time on this part of the story. However Pulver has a great voice and chemistry with both Staunton and Peter Davison’s Herbie, their loyal agent. Davison doesn’t have the strongest voice (but I knew that from Legally Blonde). However, he has a charm and a tenderness that works well for Herbie, who at times you’re astonished is willing to put up with Momma Rose’s single-mindedness.

The sets aren’t as elaborate as some musicals, but they certainly work wonderfully at helping to capture the essence of vaudeville at that time and the musical has some lovely musical numbers.

I can’t say it’s the best musical I’ve ever seen, but it’s a superb production of this, perhaps, lesser known show and I’d recommend everyone try and see Imelda Staunton in what will no doubt be another (deservedly) award-winning performance.

Gypsy continues its run at the Savoy Theatre in London until 28th November 2015. For more information and tickets, visit the show’s website.