2016 Theatre Review – My Favourite Productions of the Year!

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

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

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

Productions of the Year – My Top 10!

1. Groundhog Day (Old Vic)

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

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

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

3. Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum)

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

4. Eclipsed (John Golden, NYC)

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

5. Mary Stuart (Almeida)

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

6. Unreachable (Royal Court)

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

7. Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)

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

8. Yerma (Young Vic)

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

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

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

10. The Dazzle (FOUND111)

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

 

Theatre Review – The Dazzle starring Andrew Scott & David Dawson

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This review is long overdue, but as this production has the rest of January to run, I thought it still deserved to be written. On hearing that two of my favourite theatre actors were to be in a play together, in such a small venue, I was very excited to see this new play towards the end of last month.

Richard Greenberg’s play introduces us to the Collyer Brothers, who lived in Harlem for decades in the early 20th century and by the end of their lives in seclusion. Little is known about their day to day lives for that reason, but Greenberg takes what is known about them (that they became hoarders and died within the apartment, found buried under 140 tonnes of junk) and uses this as a basis for imagining what lives they may have led. It’s certainly a fascinating insight in to the bond between two very quirky and ultimately tragic characters.

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David Dawson & Andrew Scott

Langley (played by Andrew Scott) is an accomplished pianist, who at the start of the play is growing ever more frustrated with and distant from the world. The world for him moves at a much slower pace; a very different rhythm to society around him and you soon sense that the less he has to do with it, the better. It is left to his brother, Homer (played by David Dawson), a lawyer by trade, who has taken it upon himself to act as his brother’s financial adviser, but as time goes on he effectively becomes his carer, doing almost everything for Langley. Their relationship is a complex one; they clearly care a great deal for one another, but also grow ever more frustrated with each other.

In to this dynamic enters a young, attractive New York heiress Milly (played by Joanna Vanderham). She is infatuated with and fascinated by Langley, much to Homer’s annoyance, although as the play goes on, you begin to suspect his hostility towards Milly masks other feelings he may have for her. Hers is a difficult role, as Milly is not as developed as the brothers and is used as a way of provoking reactions and situations between Langley and Homer, as without her, you could imagine them sitting in silence, saying and doing very little indeed. Vanderham is very good in her role, bringing a youthful innocence and hopeful optimism in to the play, which is a nice contrast to the characters of both Langley and Homer.

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However, the play’s success depends on the strength of the two male leads and both Andrew Scott and David Dawson are very good indeed. More importantly, they have a convincing chemistry on stage, bringing the eccentricities of the brothers to life as well as their bond to each other. It’s not difficult to imagine them as brothers, which is pivotal for this story and its emotional depth.

Andrew Scott is in familiar territory here, playing another quirky character. Through his performance we see Langley’s withdrawal from society, as he becomes more and more reclusive and it’s certainly sad to watch. Scott knows exactly how to turn a line to bring out the humour, frustration or sadness that Langley is feeling, as well as adding little nuances, expressions and mannerisms to his performance to imbed the sense of someone whose mind works on a different plain to everyone else.

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Andrew Scott & Joanna Vanderham

However it was David Dawson who moved me when watching The Dazzle. One can imagine Homer may have had a much more sociable and happy life were it not for his brother and there are moments, as the junk accumulates around him, that you truly feel his sense of being trapped in his life. However, there is never any doubt that he’ll leave Langley and his tenderness towards him despite his frustrations is lovely to watch. It is through this impressive performance that he carries the emotional weight of the play’s conclusion, something he achieves superbly. From first seeing him on stage at the RSC as Romeo in 2009, he has never disappointed me and certainly didn’t in The Dazzle.

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The claustrophobic mood of the play is perfectly captured and enhanced by Ben Stiles’s set design. Located at FOUND111 on Charing Cross Road in the old Central St Martins School of Art, the theatre is located at the top of this warehouse-style building, in an incredibly intimate space. The set is simple to begin with – chair, chaise longue, piano and some lamps, papers and clutter. In such a small space, as an audience member you feel part of the Collyer’s apartment, sitting on wooden chairs on three sides of the space, observing their existence. As the amount of junk accumulates for the second half, so does the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that came to signify their lives.

The play certainly wasn’t what I had expected. I think the title had made me think it would be a light-hearted, humourous play. There are moments of humour (mainly coming from Scott) which help alleviate the tragic inevitability of their lives, but I cannot tell you this is an easy play to watch. It’s challenging, but also fascinating and with two such strong actors within a few feet of you, conveying such emotion, it felt like a privilege to watch them. Plus with day seats at only £10, it really is a bargain to see such talent. I’m looking forward to seeing it again towards the end of the run to see how it has developed.

The Dazzle continues its run at FOUND111 on Charing Cross Road until 30th January. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including a 15 minute interval). Although advance tickets have sold out, days seats are available at 6 p.m. before each performance, along with any returns. Visit the website for more information.