Theatre Review of the Decade!

Having just reflected on my top 10 shows of the year, as I do every year, I couldn’t start a new decade without looking back on my favourite shows, performances and moments in theatre over the last ten years.

Although I’d been a theatregoer prior to 2010 and had started to go to more shows the year before, it was the start of 2010 when I think I can officially say that I became a regular theatregoer, seeing more shows that year than I ever had in other years. From then on, it truly became a passion and the more I immersed myself in theatre, the more I realised just how much there was to see!

So, starting with the numbers, for those curious about such details, over the decade I visited theatres 732 times, seeing 596 shows (and seeing 67 of those shows more than once). My total includes 75 musicals and 2 walk outs at the interval (and a few I wish had had an interval so I could escape!). The show I saw the most times was the RSC’s Richard II, with David Tennant in the title role (although I’ll keep the number I times I saw it to myself)!

It’s been an incredible decade for theatre and looking back on it for my blog has been a fantastic experience, bringing back memories I’d not thought about in some time.

So, let’s start with my favourite shows of the decade. I considered picking one from each year, but that felt wrong, as some years offered better shows than others and a top 10 should be a top 10!

Top 10 Shows of the Decade!

1. After The Dance (National Theatre, 2010)

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Despite the years of theatre that followed it, I’ve known for some time that the top of this list would almost certainly be the National Theatre’s 2010 production of Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance. Where do I even start with this production? There’s so much to say (so I’ll direct you to my previous writings on it), but ultimately it takes first place because it was one of the first productions I saw that truly affected me.

I will never forget crying as Nancy Carroll struggled on stage to hold back her pain from the husband she was too afraid to tell she loved, after years of their marriage carrying on as if a playful game. Carroll was the reason I’d booked to see the show and yet it also introduced me to actors who have since become firm favourites – John Heffernan, Adrian Scarborough and Benedict Cumberbatch (who was on the cusp of fame, with Sherlock airing during the run of the show).

It was beautifully acted, Thea Sharrock’s directorial choices truly drew out the heart of each scene and the set (an expensive London living room in the pre-war 1930s) was one I wanted to move in to. Having adored it, there was no other option but to queue for day seats for the final performance, seeing me outside the theatre at 6 a.m. and being rewarded with the last pair of front row stalls tickets. A combination of a superb, unforgettable show and some special personal memories mean this will likely be at the top of my lists for years to come.

2. Hamlet (Almeida Theatre / Harold Pinter Theatre, 2017)

The end of the last decade was crucial in showing me that Shakespeare could be far more enjoyable than I’d ever found it while at school and that was all down to my first Hamlet at the RSC with David Tennant. As I saw more Hamlets, none could match it for the quality of production and overall ensemble (having just a great Hamlet isn’t enough for me).

That was until I saw Robert Icke’s production at the Almeida in 2017 (which later thankfully transferred to the West End for further visits). Why was it so special? It took a play I am very familiar with and played with certain scenes in new, exciting, refreshing ways, resulting in me seeing certain actions and characters in a different light. I’ve written plenty on this before, but it’s simple changes to the final duel, which paint Laertes in a totally differently light is just one example. As with the 2008/2009 RSC production, the ensemble was also strong. Yes, it had a big name lead in Andrew Scott, but he didn’t carry the show. It wasn’t all about him and that strengthened the piece as a whole. Add in the fact its final moments remain some of my favourite minutes I’ve ever experienced in a theatre and this show had to be in second place.

3. Groundhog Day (Old Vic, 2017)

I’m fussy when it comes to musicals. Some are perfectly enjoyable, but don’t stay in my mind and for me, I need the songs to be memorable and serve a purpose for the story. As I’ve already said above, I’ve seen a fair few in the last decade, but the one that I think on the most fondly and which I’d still be booking to see monthly were it still here in London, is Groundhog Day.

I admit, I thought I’d hate it, having not been a fan of the film, but having loved Matilda and with Tim Minchin attached, it was enough to draw me to the Old Vic. As my reviews at the time explained in much more detail (you can read here and here), this was an unexpected gem for me. It was a musical that made me happy. It was funny, moving and ultimately hopeful. The music and lyrics from Minchin were both clever and perfect for the show and Andy Karl’s leading performance was a highlight too. The fact it was here for so short a time, before heading to NYC where it wasn’t really appreciated, will always frustrate me. Maybe it’ll be back one day. I hope so.

4. The Inheritance (Noel Coward Theatre, 2018 / 2019)

Few theatre experiences have affected me as profoundly as The Inheritance. Over the course of its two parts and 7+ hours, I was completely absorbed in the characters in front of me, similar to when I’m pulled in to a good book. The use of Howard’s End and indeed its author, to help tell a multi-generational story, weaving the past and the present together, while also asking some important questions about community, resulted in this being a play that I found hard to forget. I’ve never cried as much in a theatre as I did during this story and the performances by its cast were superb. Having recently seen the Broadway transfer in NYC, I still prefer the London ensemble, but the emotional power of this play remained as strong as it was the first time. An unforgettable theatre experience.

5. Hello / Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre, 2015)

This is perhaps going to be a surprise for some people. It wasn’t a big West End show, or one that drew lots of attention, but it struck a chord with me and has stayed with me over the last five years. Its story of a couple, moving through their relationship from the first meeting, through their romance, to more difficult painful times, felt very real and Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison ensured that you felt connected to their characters. I cared about them and wanted them to come out the other side together and on each of the three times that I saw it, its story brought a tear (or two) to my eye. You can read my original review here.

6. King Charles III (Almeida Theatre, 2014)

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

A second show on the list for the Almeida (which has seen some truly superb productions on its stage this decade, especially since Rupert Goold took over) and one by a favourite contemporary playwright of mine, Mike Bartlett. This was another show that I first went to see having no idea quite what to expect. Could a play looking in to a possible future reign of Prince Charles really work?

The answer for me was yes and Bartlett’s decision to write the play in the style of a Shakespeare History play was inspired. The future set in the style of the past, added to the authenticity of the play as a whole. It also posed some interesting questions about the role of the monarch and the dynamic between them and the government. Yes, a certain ghost did make me cringe, but a Shakespeare-style play needs one and other than that it didn’t feel like a soap opera and some of the scenes were incredibly compelling, thanks to strong performances led by the late Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, and Lydia Wilson. I wasn’t as big a fan of the BBC adaptation, but at least it means this show has been preserved in a form that I can have on my shelf at home! You can read my original review of the show here and of the BBC adaptation here.

7. Richard II (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre; Barbican Theatre & BAM, NYC, 2013 & 2016)

I’ve seen a fair few Shakespeare productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company over the last ten years, but my favourite is Richard II, which I first saw in 2013 and then again (with a couple of cast changes) when it returned as part of the King & Country cycle in 2016. Yes, I am a huge David Tennant fan, especially his stage work and will always be enthusiastic about such productions, but interestingly, I didn’t love Richard II immediately. It took a bit of time for the ensemble (and indeed Tennant himself) to find its feet and really start to impress. Yet, by the end of each run, impress me it did.

Bringing RSC veterans such as Oliver Ford Davies and Jane Lapotaire together with young upcoming talents, was thrilling to watch, with the performances of first Oli Rix in 2013 and then Sam Marks in 2016 in the role of Aumerle truly standing out. Their characters’ relationship with Richard, strengthened by their chemistry with Tennant, resulted in another theatre highlight of this decade – the simply beautiful Flint Castle scene. I’ll never forget it and thankfully, with the release of the DVD, I at least can experience one version of this any time I want. You can read my original reviews here and here and also my review of the superb understudy performance in which Oli Rix played Richard II here.

8. A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic, 2014 & St. Ann’s Warehouse, NYC, 2016)

Photo Credit: Nigel Norington

Another highlight of the decade has to be the Young Vic’s production of Tennessee William’s play, which I was lucky enough to see again two years later in Brooklyn. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or has read this blog in the past, that the big draw of this for me was Gillian Anderson, an actress I admired throughout my teens and beyond due to The X-Files.

Thankfully she regularly appears on the stage here, but it is her role as Blanche DuBois in Benedict Andrew’s production that raised her to the next level for me. It was a towering performance. Yet, Anderson wasn’t the only strength here, as the cast also included another longstanding stage favourite of mine, Vanessa Kirby, whose star continues to rise following her portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown and Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski. You can read my original review here.

9. Once (Phoenix Theatre, 2014)

Once is another musical that I loved from the minute I first saw it. It almost doesn’t feel like a musical, but a love story that happens to have songs thrown in. Based on the film of the same name, I actually think the show is better (which doesn’t happen often), adding depth to the characters, the story and the world in which it is set and the pairing of Zrinka Cvitesic and Arthur Darvill truly brought it to life in a beautiful way. I’m still sad this show is no longer in the West End. You can read my original review here.

10. Much Ado About Nothing (Wyndham’s Theatre, 2011)

Photo Credit: Nigel Norrington

The last entry on my list is another Shakespeare starring Mr Tennant and that’s Much Ado About Nothing. Yes, I know many didn’t enjoy this, finding the setting a bit naff, but honestly, I loved it every single time. Bringing Tennant together with Catherine Tate, with whom he already had such a strong acting chemistry resulted in a great deal of fun for both the actors and the audience. They bounced off each other wonderfully in the roles of Beatrice and Benedict, bringing a smile to my face, while the soundtrack left me humming long after I’d left the theatre (and always makes me smile when it pops up on my playlist shuffle). Throw in some other entertaining performances, particularly from Adam James (still my favourite Don Pedro) and this show helped my through some personal ups and downs in 2011 and I will always remember it very fondly.

My Favourite Actors of the Decade!

There have been so many wonderful performances over the last ten years, from actors I’ve long admired, to newcomers who, over the decade, have gone on to wider recognition. It’s always fun to be able to say you were aware of them before they were famous! Which actors were favourites this decade? There are certainly a few that I’ll book to see in anything.

Top of that list is Andrew Scott. He may now be famous as the Hot Priest, but it’s also been a busy decade of stage roles for Andrew Scott and I’m fortunate to have been able to see all eight of them! The variety of production and role perfectly highlight his versatility and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve seen so far. I can’t wait to see what he’ll choose next.

Another “must-book to see” actor ever since 2010’s After The Dance is John Heffernan who has tackled everything from monarchs, to physicists and I’ll watch him in anything. David Tennant will always hold a special place in my heart, as the actor who helped me to see how wonderful and accessible Shakespeare can be and seeing him on stage will always be an event for me. Jamie Parker is another favourite actor of mine, who seems able to take on anything – musicals; plays; Shakespeare, as well as making me a Harry Potter fan! Benedict Cumberbatch is now a worldwide star, but he’s been on this list ever since After The Dance blew me away a decade ago. He was superb in both roles in Frankenstein and was the main strength of his Hamlet. Hopefully screen roles won’t keep him off the stage for too long.

It’s not just the men on the must-book list of course. I’ll be in the theatre for anything Imelda Staunton appears in, after 3 incredible musical theatre performances and one play this decade and thankfully she’s back in 2020 (see my post of tips for 2020). As I’ve already mentioned, I adore Gillian Anderson and she’s a superb stage actress and I feel lucky that she still continues to regularly return to the theatre. Following After The Dance (now you see why it’s at no.1!), Nancy Carroll is another name I look for when booking shows. She’s wonderful in absolutely everything. Vanessa Kirby is a great example of an actress I’ve admired for years, who is now getting the wider recognition she deserves and I look forward to her next stage appearance.

Stand Out Performances of the Decade

The decade has also seen me have a chance to witness some truly remarkable performances / roles, which have stood out from the rest. These are just some of the highlights.

  • Ben Platt – I’ve only seen him on stage in one role so far, but it’s easily one of the highlights of the decade for me. That role was Evan in Dear Evan Hansen in 2017 and he was so astonishing I booked to go back on a later trip to NYC.
  • Andy Karl – The fact that I so loved 2016’s Groundhog Day is in large part due to Andy Karl’s performance as irritating weatherman Phil Connors, who you can’t help but love by the end. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
  • Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow in 2011 was simply astonishing. The voice, the emotion, the physicality. She became her character so completely.
  • Lia Williams’s compelling performance in 2015’s Oresteia was a night in the theatre that stayed with me for a long time afterwards. She’s taking it to NYC in 2020 too, so go if you can!
  • Bertie Carvel – another superb actor, but as the original Miss Trunchball in the RSC’s Matilda in 2010/2011, he set the tone for that role.
  • Anthony Boyle was another example of an actor creating a blueprint for a role. His superb performance as the original Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child was the first subject my friends and I talked about after leaving the theatre.
  • Cynthia Erivo thankfully transferred to NYC with The Color Purple, which meant I had a second chance to catch it and she was even better than I’d imagined.
  • David Dawson’s performance in The Dazzle is another performance that I’ve not been able to forget. Both he and Andrew Scott were superb, but for me, Dawson was the emotional heart of the show.

Memorable Moments of the Decade!

Before I start looking towards 2020’s theatre offerings, I also wanted to mention just a few of my memorable theatre moments of decade. Most happened on stage, but a few are personal to me.

  • A superb food fight that I wanted to join, during Rules for Living at the National Theatre.
  • John Simm superbly using Hamlet’s speech about the stupidity of theatre audiences to show his displeasure about the man on the front row of The Crucible in Sheffield whose phone rang three times!
  • Some impressive sets including My Fair Lady in NYC, Design For Living, Treasure Island and the details of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man and Sleep No More.
  • Sitting in a hotel suite bedroom watching Tobias Menzies’s impressive performance in The Fever, while Andrew Scott was sitting on a cushion at my feet!
  • Adam James’ unscripted antics during Much Ado About Nothing one night, causing him to chuckle so much, that he spat out his champagne all over David Tennant, as Adam stood behind him. Only those who’d been before truly appreciated how funny this was!
  • The sheer surreal experience that was the RSC/Wooster Group’s Troilus & Cressida. I still can’t quite believe I witnessed such a nightmare!
  • The day I spent 8 hours (there were breaks) as the entire text of The Great Gatsby was performed so magnificently during GATZ.
  • The Flint Castle scene from the RSC’s Richard II. It was truly magical every time.
  • Being reminded of the importance of cherishing the past thanks to Daniel Kitson’s Analog.Ue at the National Theatre.
  • The end scene of Part 1 of The Inheritance. I’ve never been quite so emotional in a theatre.
  • Having the chance to see so many admired actors perform, especially British greats such as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and others from TV shows I’ve adored, such as Allison Janney; Richard Schiff; Elisabeth Moss; Josh Charles and Ben Whishaw.

I could go on, but I better not (is anyone still reading?!), so I’ll wrap up by saying that it’s been a wonderful decade for theatre and I look forward to many more memories from the next one!

My 2017 Theatre Review – Memorable Moments

I’ve already set out my favourite productions of 2017, so this post will look back on the my most memorable moments, whether a performance, a scene, or a personal experience during a show, these are the moments that I’ll remember most from the last 12 months of theatregoing.

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1. David Tennant declaring he was “magnificently f*ckable” as Don Juan in Don Juan in Soho!

A theatre year is always a little more special for me when Mr Tennant is on the stage and earlier this year he took on the lothario Don Juan. It may not have made my favourite productions list, but he had some wonderful dialogue, this being my personal highlight!

2. The continued excitement and joy of the audience at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Next spring Broadway will finally welcome the Harry Potter play to the stage (with me in the audience), but until then the only place to see it remains London and being lucky enough to return to see the show a few times this year (including the final show of the original cast and a trip to see the new one), I continue to love the atmosphere in the Palace Theatre. It’s one of the two happiest theatres in town and you can feel the buzz of excitement from everyone around you. It’s simply magical.

3. Realising about 15 minutes in to Hamilton that I was under its spell

The Palace is one of the two happiest theatres in town and since early December, the other is the Victoria Palace Theatre, now home to the mighty Hamilton. You can read my review and my end of year review for thoughts, but I will always remember the feeling of knowing that not only was the hype justified, but that I was watching something very special indeed.

4. Getting to see another of my favourite actors on stage for the first time

I made two trips to NYC this year, but the first was driven by one aim – to see Josh Charles on stage! I’ve been a fan of his film and TV work for quite a while now and couldn’t miss the chance to see him in The Antipodes at the wonderful Signature Theatre. And the cherry on the cake – getting a chance to speak to him afterwards, plus an autograph and photo. He was one of the most genuine actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak to and it made my trip!

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5. A final trip to Groundhog Day and frustration that Broadway didn’t appreciate it more

Poor poor Groundhog Day. If only it had stayed here in London. I know it’ll be back here soon enough, but I’ll always be a little sad that Andy Karl won’t get longer in the role of Phil Connors. He really was wonderful and I’m so pleased I had one last chance to see it earlier this year in NYC.

6. Ian McKellen bringing Gandalf back to life for a few minutes on stage!

In July, Ian McKellen helped raise money for the Park Theatre in London through a week of special performances on a one-man show about his life and career. It was a very special experience, the highlight being the opening: a pitch black theatre, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score playing and the voice of Gandalf, as if back in the Mines of Moria, coming out of the darkness as McKellen walked on to the stage. Unforgettable!

7. Being on the front row of the first official performance at the new Bridge Theatre!

I’ve been looking forward to this new theatre opening ever since it was announced and being able to be at the first official performance (there were two soft opening performances put on early) of a new London theatre was quite a thrill. The smell of fresh paint and new leather and a whole new building to explore. I look forward to many more visits to come.

8. My front row seat experience for Network and having Bryan Cranston look me straight in the eyes from mere inches away

Network is on my list of favourites of the year and not only did I enjoy the play and its commanding lead actor’s performance, but this was made all the more special, when Mr Cranston ended up sitting behind me during one of the scenes, resulting in him giving a direct performance to those of us sitting around him for a few minutes.

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9. The brilliance of the final scene of Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road at the Trafalgar Studios

I won’t ruin it for those yet to see this lovely show, but the final moments were so clever and fun that it had me smiling long after I’d left the building. It’s a show that I’m so pleased I didn’t miss.

10. The OTT reaction of the Broadway audience to Bette Midler in Hello Dolly

Now, first things first, I enjoyed the show and I thought Bette Midler was fantastic, but what wasn’t quite as enjoyable was the reaction of the audience during the show. I know the NYC custom is to applaud the famous names on their first appearance on the stage (as annoying as I find it), but every time she appeared, everything she said or did, was met with prolonged applause and cheers. Ultimately it distracted me from the show and drove me crazy!

11. Witnessing Ben Platt sob his way through “Words Fail” in Dear Evan Hansen

Hello Dolly may have been a less than satisfying theatre experience, but the same couldn’t be said for Dear Evan Hansen (on both visits). I will never forget watching Ben Platt’s performance and Words Fail in particular, as he managed to sing so beautifully through sobs, as the audience sniffled along with him.

12. The thrill of the unexpected in Robert Icke’s Hamlet, particularly Laertes in that final duel

I’ve talked enough about how much I loved this production, but it was filled with moments that surprised me, despite having seen Hamlet quite a few times now. No moment sums up the freshness of this production more than when I realised that Laertes doesn’t want to have the duel at the end! I have never seen an interpretation where Laertes has had second thoughts and when asking for a new foil is wanting to swap the poisoned one for another. It changed how I saw that character and made the end so much more powerful. Such unexpected thrills at the theatre are what make it such a wonderful experience.

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13. The RSC’s sound effect of the year that made an auditorium gasp

I only made one trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon this year, which was to see the RSC’s latest production of Julius Caesar and the moment I have not been able to forget was the moment a young boy seemingly had his neck broken. Yes, I know nothing is real on stage, but the sound effect used to create the illusion of murder in that moment was quite shocking!

14. Andrew Garfield bringing a tear to my eye, as he bid the audience a final farewell at the last performance of Angels in America in London

I loved this production, as I’ve already mentioned in my annual round-up and it was very special to be in the audience for the last performance (I was in good company as Mr Cumberbatch was there too). It’s a powerful piece of theatre, but watching Andrew Garfield give those final lines as Prior Walter, talking directly to us, was something I’ll never forget: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

15. Experiencing the wonderful staging of The Great Comet from a stage seat

I didn’t love The Great Comet as a musical, but I could certainly appreciate the staging and the fun of the interaction with the audience when I watched the show from a banquette seat earlier this year. I wasn’t in a position to be picked on, thank god, but I did enjoy some fresh bread to eat and my own little egg shaker to join in with the percussion during the show, not to mention a close up seat for Josh Groban’s gorgeous singing!

16. My horror at the result of my audience’s vote on letting latecomers in to The Majority at the National Theatre

The Majority was a fun theatre experience, requiring each of us in the audience to engage directly in the journey of the performance through a series of votes on our keypads. The most horrifying for me? The narrow victory of those who voted to let latecomers in to the auditorium once the show had started! Fools!

17. My first ever time leaving a show at the interval

I know some people do this often, but I’ve never left a show early. I usually hold on, in the hope I’ll enjoy the second half more. However, on one trip this year, I just couldn’t face it. Ironically, Travesties was a show most people loved and many will no doubt say it was a travesty that I left, but it just wasn’t funny to me and I was bored. Maybe it caught me on an off day.

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So, what were your most memorable, personal theatre moments this year? I’d love to hear them and look forward to finding out what’s in store next year in theatre land!

Photo credits (besides me!): Don Juan In Soho = Helen Maybanks; The Antipodes = Joan Marcus; Groundhog Day/Hamlet = Manuel Harlan; Ian McKellen = Mark Douet; Network = Jan Versweyveld; Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road = Gavin Watson; Dear Evan Hansen = Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Julius Caesar = the RSC; The Majority = Ellie Kurttz; Angels in America = Jason Bell; 

 

 

 

 

 

My 2017 Theatre Review – Productions of the Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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

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Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

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

2. Ink (Almeida Theatre)

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Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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

3. Angels In America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

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

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

5. An Octoroom (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

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Photo credit: The Other Richard

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

6. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

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

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

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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

8. Follies (Olivier, National Theatre)

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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

9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

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Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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

10. Oslo (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit:Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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

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

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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

12. Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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Photo credit:Jan Versweyveld

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

13. King Lear (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

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Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Mid-Year Theatre Review 2017

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

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

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1. Hamlet (Almeida / Harold Pinter Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Angels in America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

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

6. The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre)

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

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

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

8. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)

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

9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Director Robert Icke

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Theatre Review 2015!

I can hardly believe it’s the end of the year already! Time to look back at another twelve months of theatregoing and reflect on what was brilliant, what was unexpected (whether in a good or bad way!) and what I wish I hadn’t bought a ticket for. Thankfully there aren’t too many in the latter category!

Starting with the numbers, I’ve seen 63 productions, of which I’ve seen seven more than once, giving a total of 76 theatre trips in 2015. Not too shabby, although still an amateur compared to others I know! Overall, it’s been a very strong year and the thrill of seeing a new play, visiting a new venue or seeing an actor I was unaware of grab my attention, remains just as addictive as in previous years.

Productions of the Year – My Top 10

Without further ado, here are my top ten productions of the year. Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree!

  1. Oresteia (Almeida / Trafalgar Studios)

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Perhaps a rather predictable number one this year is the Almeida’s new interpretation of Aeschylus’s 2,500 year old Greek tragedy. I missed it at the Almeida, but thankfully made it to the West End transfer. Simply put, this will remain one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen for a long time to come. Writer and director Robert Icke (now at the top of my must-see list) made such an ancient play current, while also delivering an exhilarating, powerful, intense and spellbinding production. The 3.5 hours flew by, as the whole audience seemed to hold its breath. Superbly acted, directed and designed, with set, lights and haunting sound combining to achieve something remarkable. It’s productions like this that remind me how incredible theatre can truly be.

2. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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This may not make anyone else’s top ten of 2015 but I adored this production of Peter Souter’s play, having missed it in 2014. Maybe it was my mood in February, but it tapped in to my emotions and was a story that truly moved me by the end (yes, I cried). Miranda Raison and Shaun Evans had a wonderful chemistry as they brought the story of the evolution of two people’s love for one another (even when they can no longer see it) over a decade to life in such a believable way. I’d see it again tomorrow if I could. Read my full review here.

3. Love’s Labour’s Won (aka Much Ado) (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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I still find it criminal that this beautiful RSC production didn’t transfer to London. Together with Love’s Labour’s Lost they made a wonderful bookend of stories around World War I, but this was my favourite of the two. The set was gorgeous, the costumes sublime and the cast excellent, led by a brilliant Beatrice (Michelle Terry) and Benedick (Edward Bennett). Ed has grown so much since stepping in to David Tennant’s Hamlet shoes in 2009 and is now a leading man in his own right. He was charming, funny and cocky and I loved every moment, making this my favourite Much Ado to date (sorry DT!). The DVD is available if you missed it and you can read my full review here.

4. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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I have a friend to thank for my ticket to this musical revival and how very grateful I am for her queuing skills! The songs were all fantastic and delivered with strength, confidence and power (where on earth is the cast album?!) and the design concept visually wonderful. I especially loved the use of black and white, against colour for the two worlds depicted and the strength of the cast was superb. Everyone made the whole production better, whether Hadley Fraser’s author, Tam Matu’s private eye or Katherine Kelly’s sexy black widow to name but a few. A truly impressive show and my favourite musical of the year.

5. Hangmen (Royal Court / Wyndham’s Theatre)

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Another production I managed to see on its transfer was Hangmen. I thought it was terrific. Martin McDonagh’s script is of the highest quality, filled with brilliant one-liners and exchanges and a twisting, turning story, during which  you never quite know where it is leading. The cast are all superb, especially David Morrissey, but the standout is Johnny Flynn as the mysterious southern stranger, whose motives are unclear, but who makes you feel distinctly uneasy. Combined with a fantastic set (not to mention that first set change) and this should certainly be one your 2016 list if you haven’t seen it already. Read my full review here.

6. Tree (Old Vic Theatre)

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My top ten of 2014 included my first experience of a production by Daniel Kitson and this year sees him back on my list with Tree. It was such a simple concept. Two men spend the duration of the play talking about their lives and what has brought them to be there (one waiting for a date, the other living high up in the branches!). Performed by Kitson and Tim Key it was funny, sad, inappropriate at times, but incredibly moving by the end and certainly made me think for a long time afterwards. Read my full review here.

7. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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Seeing the return of James McAvoy to this venue, again directed by Jamie Lloyd, I had no idea what to expect from this play (last seen in London in 1968). My lasting memory of it will be how utterly bonkers it was, but oh what a joy to watch! A superb, satirical look at the upper classes of privileged families I was captivated for the entire performance. Then of course there was James McAvoy himself, whose performance was one of the best I’ve seen all year. He had so much to do – crazed, vulnerable, angry, affectionate, flirty and disturbing, as well as taking on so much physicality. A production and performance I will never forget. Read my full review here.

8. Farinelli & The King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / Duke of York’s Theatre)

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I saw this new play by Claire van Kampen in both venues this year and I loved it each time. Part play, part music concert, it was one of the most enchanting and captivating productions I saw this year. Based on the true story that a famous singer who helped the depressed King of Spain in the 18th century, we were treated to the stunning voice of Iestyn Davies as Farinelli and the legend that is Mark Rylance. His King Philippe is one of a quiet disposition, but who is capable of moments of violent anger and intense sadness. He is also incredibly funny and I’d forgotten how funny this play was until I saw it again. Proving yet again that Mark Rylance on stage is something never to be missed, this was a gem of the theatre year. Read my full review here.

9. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Doorman)

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My first trip to the refurbished Cottesloe Theatre was to see this new play by Sam Holcroft and what a joy it was. I admit that it came at a time in the year when I really needed something to make me laugh and this ridiculous glimpse in to one family’s dysfunctional Christmas did the trick. I hadn’t laughed that much for quite a while. Seeing how our own internal rules govern our behaviour and responses to others, highlighted so cleverly through the gameshow style scoreboard was a wonderful concept and gave the audience the pleasure of knowing more than some of the characters. Plus the final food fight was brilliant! It’s just a shame this isn’t back at the National for Christmas! Read my full review here.

10. Husbands & Sons (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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Picking a final choice was quite difficult, but this tremendous new adaptation of three D.H Lawrence’s plays really did impress me (runner-up mention has to go to the RSC’s Henry V which I also very much enjoyed). Ben Powers’s play weaves the themes of all three plays together so perfectly, as we see the ongoing cycle, as women go from being the frustrated new wife unable to live up to the mother, to the mother being too protective and then jealous of the girl whom her son falls for, a role she perhaps once had herself years before. I loved seeing all three stories unfolding on stage at the same time and each was so well acted, containing some wonderful performances including Louise Brealey and Anne-Marie Duff. The staging and set were effective, suggesting each story occurring behind closed doors in one village and the use of the lightning rig to evoke a sense of the mine was a great touch. Crucially it’s a production I’ve continued to think about long after seeing it and one I would love to see again. Read my full review here.

Disappointments of the Year

There are bound to be some shows that sit at the bottom of the pile each year, but thankfully there haven’t been too many I’ve really disliked in 2015 and even those had aspects that I can appreciate even if they didn’t appeal to me. Having said that, my theatre year would have been fine had I not seen any of the below productions!

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  • How to Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) – Nothing else could beat this Royal Court show to take the title of worst of 2015 for me. Ten minutes in, I knew this wasn’t for me and it didn’t improve. I can appreciate some of the ideas and Maxine Peake was (as usual) very good, but it remains 90 minutes I’ll never get back. Read my full review here.
  • Matchbox Theatre (Hampstead Theatre) – The concept of combining lots of little vignettes in to one production could have been entertaining, but too many of these pieces were just boring or not that funny. I did like the one about stage management as nocturnal animals and the member of the orchestra with barely any part, but overall this felt incredibly pointless.
  • Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) – This is another production for which I enjoyed some elements, but as a whole it just didn’t work for me. There were some strong performances (particularly Jack Farthing’s Carmen and Noma Dumezweni’s moving portrayal of a mother estranged from her children), but I found myself wishing I was instead just seeing Carmen. Read my full review here.

Productions I Was Sorry To Miss

Despite my best efforts, I never see everything on my list each year and 2015 has been no exception. These are the ones I’m most sorry I didn’t see this year.

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  • Young Chekhov (Chichester Festival Theatre) – I heard such wonderful things about this triptych of plays, with its wonderful cast. I hope the rumours of a London transfer prove to be true!
  • The Wars of the Roses (The Rose Theatre, Kingston) – Another triple bill I missed was Trevor Nunn’s restaged histories, which included one of my favourite actors Alex Waldmann.
  • People, Places & Things (National Theatre) – I had a ticket and couldn’t go to this highly praised production. However all is not lost, as it transfers next year to the West End and thankfully leading actress Denise Gough does too!

Performances of the Year

2015 has been an impressive year for individual performances, across musicals and plays and it almost seems unfair to only highlight a few. Below are my top leading and supporting performances of the year.

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Leading

  • Imelda Staunton (Gypsy) – a truly incredible performance as Mama Rose Lee, Imelda brought everything to this role and the way she hit those huge notes was astonishing! Watch it on BBC4 on 27th December if you can.
  • James McAvoy (The Ruling Class) – as I have already said, his performance was in another league to most others this year. Captivating throughout.
  • Ralph Fiennes (Man & Superman) – I’ve never seen anyone speak as fast and fluid as Fiennes here. The time of this play flew by despite the long running time and his performance was magnetic and incredibly memorable.
  • Lia Williams (Oresteia) – Lia’s performance as Clytemnestra was astonishing. Both a woman of strength and vulnerability, seeing her finally take the revenge she had stored for so many years against her husband was so intense and her scream of relief and anger was spellbinding.
  • Tobias Menzies (The Fever) – This one man monologue play in the Mayfair Hotel was an intense story and one I still don’t fully understand, but Tobias Menzies was superb and it was a privilege to watch him.
  • Susannah Fielding (The Merchant of Venice) – Rapidly becoming one of my favourite actresses, she was superb as Portio in this RSC/Rupert Goold production.

Supporting

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  • Johnny Flynn (Hangmen) – The standout of this play, Johnny’s performance is unnerving and darkly entertaining throughout.
  • Mark Gatiss (Three Days in the Country) – This performance was full of humour and fun and the scene in which he attempts to propose while also doing his back in was utterly brilliant.
  • Judi Dench (The Winter’s Tale) – I love Judi and she is excellent in this Shakespearean tale, bringing a gravitas to the production and effortlessly speaking the Bard’s words.

Memorable Moments of the Year

Each year also brings individual moments, which remind me why I love going to the theatre. It’s these that make live theatre unique – no one else will experience that moment in quite the same way. Here are my top theatrical moments from 2015:

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  • The daring nature of The Vote at the Donmar – a very British comedy, which was wonderful to see live and then watch again as it transmitted in real-time on television on Election Night.
  • Ophelia’s final exit in the Barbican Hamlet – this was the most emotional moment of the Cumberbatch Hamlet for me. Sian Brooke’s Ophelia felt very real; truly broken by grief and seeing her break down at the piano and then turn and walk off up the slope in to the light, as if towards heaven, as Jon Hopkins’s score played, was incredibly powerful and visually and emotionally beautiful.

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  • The split-level ship set rising up during Treasure Island – I was a little disappointed by this National Theatre show, but the ship set rising up from the drum revolve was a wonderful sight.
  • The final moments of The Red Lion – I thought this Patrick Marber play was very good, but it was the power of the final few minutes that I will remember. So poignant and powerful.
  • Experiencing The Fever in a Mayfair hotel suite with Andrew Scott sitting at my feet – okay, so this is more a memorable audience moment for me, but seeing such an intense play, with the added experience of having Andrew Scott sitting at my feet is something I won’t forget in a hurry!
  • A stage full of inflatable sex dolls – Shakespeare and sex dolls were a combination I never imagined I’d see, but it actually worked in this Young Vic production of Measure For Measure! Unexpected and surreal.

So, that’s my round-up of my theatre year and hopefully 2016 will bring even more special productions, performances and memories. My recommendations for 2016 will follow in the next few days! Thanks for reading!