Letters Live – Union Chapel, 9th March 2019

Regular readers of my blog will perhaps be aware of my previous trips to Letters Live events over the last five years and last night I was back for another evening, appreciating the brilliance of the written word, this time back at Union Chapel in North London.

For those unfamiliar with the events, they are such a simple, yet beautiful concept. A selection of letters, some from decades ago, others from today, are read aloud by a group of actors and performers. You don’t know what letters you’ll hear, nor who will read them. Despite its huge rise in popularity, I still love that the creative team behind Letters Live don’t reveal who the performers are beforehand. The night is, after all, about the magic of the letters, letter writing and the emotions they convey. It’s not meant to be about the famous stars reading them.

The Letters of Note books

As I have done following my previous trips to Letters Live, I thought I’d talk a bit about last night’s show and set out a full list of readers and their letters (although, as Letters Live still don’t give you a list of the letters, or it seems tweet them anymore, I’ve had to rely on my notes and some online research once I arrived home to fill in the details).

Saturday night’s show included a mix of poignant and humorous letters, giving us an insight in to the lives of their writers across the decades. Taking to the stage over the course of the evening were Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been involved with Letters Live since the very beginning), Juliet Stevenson, Noel Fielding, Katherine Ryan, Thom Yorke, Lesley Manville, Jordan Stephens, Fatima Bhutto, Niamh McGrady and Denise Gough, with musical interludes by the superb Tom Odell (who also read a letter too).

Every time I go to Letters Live, there are some letters that move me a little more than others and my personal highlights this time included Denise Gough’s moving reading of Patton Halliday Quinn’s letter to her unborn daughter, which is actually a letter to all young women, from one generation to the next, Juliet Stevenson’s remarkably accurate channelling of Margaret Thatcher and Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the world in 2088 (100 years in the future for him) (read by Benedict Cumberbatch), in which some of his concerns about our planet remain frighteningly relevant.

The event also always manages to include some truly funny moments and the funniest by far for me were Benedict Cumberbatch’s hilarious reading of Fred Allen’s letter to his insurance company, detailing a hilarious series of unfortunate accidents and Lesley Manville and Denise Gough reading both the letter to a Dublin agony aunt column and the response. They proved once again that putting things down in writing often preserves some truly wonderful gems of the past.

As well as the letters, these events also always include music too. In the past I’ve seen Rag N Bone Man, before he became the huge name he is and last night I was thrilled to once again see Tom Odell at Letters Live. He’s always superb live and it was no different this Saturday, with him performing three songs, including perhaps his best known one, Another Love, although I also loved his rendition of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Love Letter.

To The Letter, the other book behind these events

My one slight gripe about Saturday’s event was that there were moments when the fact we were all there for the letters seemed to be forgotten by certain performers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for comedy and adding fun in to the night, but in my view, you can do this without making it about you and there were times when Noel Fielding (and to a lesser extent, Katherine Ryan), seemed to forget this wasn’t one of his shows, repeatedly stopping mid-way through reading the letters to make a quip or give his own commentary on it to the audience. For me, it became rather tiring and took away from the letters that we were there to hear and appreciate. It’s the first time I’ve found myself thinking this whilst at Letters Live.

However, that aside, it was another enjoyable evening and I still cannot recommend these events enough. There is something for everyone and you will travel through history and emotion as you listen to words that were written, some so long ago, but which meant so much to both writer and receiver.

As happens every time I leave Letters Live, it inspires me to put pen to paper and get in touch with someone the old fashioned way and as I’ve done in previous reviews, I’ll end by encouraging everyone to do the same. You may never know how much a letter will mean to the person who receives it.

The performers take a bow at the end of Saturday’s show

Tonight’s List of Letters & Music – Saturday 9th March 2019

  • Performance by Tom Odell
  • “Ladies & Gentleman of A.D. 2088” – Kurt Vonnegut (1988) to the future (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Dame of what?” – Doris Lessing to the Prime Minister’s office (2007) (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • Letter from Salvador Dali to Frederico Garcia Lorca (19**) (read by Noel Fielding)
  • Letter from Calamity Jane (Jane Cannary Hickok) to the daughter she gave up (1884) (read by Katherine Ryan)
  • Letter to the Daily Telegraph regarding autocorrect and the meaning of life (2015) (read by Thom Yorke)
  • Letter from Diana Athill to her friend, regarding being unmarried (2015) (read by Lesley Manville)
  • Letter from Prince to Tom Moon at Rolling Stone magazine (1994) (read by Jordan Stephens)
  • Letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Indira, written from prison (1930) (read by Fatima Bhutto)
  • “I write for myself & I’ll say anything I damn well please” – An angry mum’s letter to the band Green Day and their response (1996) (read by Niamh McGrady & Tom Odell)
  • An Open Letter to All of the Daughters – Patton Halliday Quinn to her as yet unborn daughter (2015) (read by Denise Gough)
  • Letter from Hunter S. Thompson replying to a complaint received by Rolling Stone magazine from a 91 year old accidental subscriber (read by Katherine Ryan & Noel Fielding)
  • Letter to Henry Miller (1934) (read by Niamh McGrady)
  • Letter from Nick Cave to a young fan (2018) (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Love Letter” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, performed by Tom Odell
  • INTERVAL
  • “Another Love” performed by Tom Odell
  • Letter from US comedian Fred Allen to his insurance company (1932) (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • Dear Friend” – Letter from a theatregoer to Hermione Gingold and her response to “A. Friend” (1950) (read by Jordan Stephens & Niamh McGrady)
  • Letter by an Austrian to their noisy neighbours (2014) (read by Noel Fielding)
  • Letter from Simone de Beauvoir to Nelson Algren (1950) (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • Letter to the Guardian (2016) (read by Thom Yorke)
  • Letter from Joan Rivers’ daughter, Melissa, to her mother, which was later read at her funeral (read by Katherine Ryan)
  • Letter from Yuri Gagarin to his family, two days before his 1961 space mission (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • Letter to the Dublin paper, the Metro Herald, from Karen needing advice & the printed response (2014) (read by Lesley Manville & Denise Gough)
  • “P.S. This is my favourite memo ever” – Matt Stone’s memo to the MPAA regarding the final cut of the South Park film (read by Jordan Stephens)
  • Letter from Margaret Thatcher to a young girl, upset about her parents’ impending divorce (1981) (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • Letter to the FT regarding Brexit (2017) (read by Noel Fielding)
  • “I know, Mother, I know” – Anne Sexton to he 15 year-old daughter (1969) (read by Lesley Manville)
  • Letter written and read by two young activists regarding the danger of global warning (introduced by Benedict Cumberbatch & read by the two young women who wrote it, Anna Taylor & Ivi Hohmann). This is linked to the planned walkout next week by students across the world to protest about this vital issue, that affect us all.

The wonderful books, To The Letter, Letters of Note, More Letters of Note are available through the usual stockists. For more information about Letters Live, visit the website here: http://letterslive.com

You can read my previous reviews of Letters Live events through the following links:

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

 

Theatre Review – Mary Stuart starring Lia Williams & Juliet Stevenson (Almeida Theatre)

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Prior to Christmas, I made my last trip of the year to the Almeida Theatre to see its new production Mary Stuart. The show imagines what could have happened if, prior to Mary’s execution in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I had met with her during her imprisonment. Making the experience a little different for the audience, actresses Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternate roles and the decision of who plays who is determined on the spin of a coin at the start of each show.

There was only one way to guarantee seeing both versions of the show, which was to see both performances on a two-show day. On those days, the matinee roles are determined on the coin spin, with the evening being the opposite. As soon as the show was announced I wanted to see both interpretations, but I admit I was a little concerned that perhaps seeing the same three hour play twice in one day may be a challenge!

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I needn’t have worried as Friedrich Schiller’s play was not only a pleasure to watch on both occasions, but in fact made it in to my top ten productions of 2016 (you can read the rest here). Robert Icke is such a creative force and he brings his own distinct style to the direction of the production, which feels incredibly relevant in today’s turbulent political times. There is an excitement in the theatre as the show begins and the coin spins. Depending on how it falls, one woman shall be imprisoned while the other has the cast kneel before her.

The fact the actresses are dressed in similar clothes, with similar haircuts, all emphasises what these two British queens had in common and as Mary points out, who else can judge her but her sister and fellow queen, Elizabeth. One was destined for greatness and one was destined to die, but watching this play really brought home to me how really it could just as easily have been a role reversal. Like the spinning coin, history could have fallen a different way.

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Both actresses are superb, which knowing their stage work is no surprise. Having seen both, I felt each actress had a role for which they were better suited. In my view, Williams is a more convincing Mary, as she brings a vibrancy of spirit to the role that Stevenson doesn’t. She may appear smaller when face to face with Stevenson’s assured Elizabeth, but when she does unleash her fury it’s as powerful as her piercingly raw scream in Oresteia! 

Stevenson however did effectively convey Mary as a woman born a raised to be a Queen, as she exudes a status that fit for someone who has grown up in that world. Williams was also a superb Elizabeth; much more sexual in the role, as she strutted confidently around the stage and had a much more physical relationship with John Light’s Leicester. It was fun to see her Elizabeth light up a cigarette and create a very different, but as equally fascinating woman as Stevenson.

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There are also some strong supporting performances, particularly John Light, as Leicester dances between allegiances in order to protect his own position. Rudi Dharmalingam was also very good as Mortimer, whose loyalty to Mary is ultimately revealed by Leicester, as is Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. Being a Robert Icke production (again he adapts the play and directs it), it creates its own special atmosphere in the Almeida; there’s a buzz, as these people from centuries ago are put before us in a very contemporary style. This, as was the case with Oresteia, creates a world that feels current and fresh and as a result, thrilling. His direction of his two leads is also brilliant; the mirroring of their images, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finally succumbs to her fears and signs the death warrant, as Mary looks on from her mind’s eye, works so well and adds to the tension on the stage.

The Almeida lends itself to these historical pieces so well. Its bare brick walls and stark setting help immerse you in this world in a way not many spaces can and combined with Paul Arditti’s sound design, plus a new song from there is a pulse to the production that makes its 3 hour running time fly by.

This is another superb Almeida / Icke production, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It also serves to make me even more excited about what Icke will create in this theatre for Hamlet next month!

Mary Stuart continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 28th January. Check the Almeida’s website Almeida Theatre for more information and the limited seats that pop up there. The Theatre is also selling day seats every morning at 11 a.m. (get there early) as well as returns before each show (I recommend getting there at least 3 hours before the start for a good chance of getting one). Or you can call the box office on 020 7359 4404. Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).

 

 

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.

…….

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!

 

Review – Letters Live, Freemason’s Hall (Tuesday 15th March 2016)

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After such an enjoyable night on Sunday (review here), tonight saw me back at the Freemason’s Hall for the final show of this run of Letters Live. It was certainly a brilliant night, with so many more varied letters. Some were incredibly funny and some were deeply poignant, each delivered by another set of talented actors and writers, together with two more musicians/singers who I’d not come across before.

Tonight’s performers were: Benedict Cumberbatch, his father Timothy Carlton, Jude Law, Matt Berry, Rory Bremner, Nick Moran, Edna O’Brian, Tuppence Middleton, Mariella Frostrup, Juliet Stevenson and Hassan (a Syrian refugee), with musical interludes from the brilliant singer Rag N Bone Man and Mercury Prize 2015 winner, singer/pianist Benjamin Clementine.

What were my favourites tonight? It’s hard actually as there were quite a few to choose from. Timothy Carlton covered all aspects of the emotional spectrum through his readings of a letter between producers of Monty Python’s Holy Grail containing some colourful language and then a deeply powerful letter written by the Argentine poet Juan Gelman in a newspaper to his grandchild, who he had never met and was trying to find (they met 5 years later). Timothy himself seemed moved by it too. Then there was the powerful letter to the people of Europe from a refugee, read out by an English teacher and fellow Syrian refugee, which certainly seemed to move the audience this evening.

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Tonight’s view for Letters Live

Jude Law was fantastic , particularly his reading of the letter from the American NASA astronaut in space during 9/11, in which he conveyed his feelings about the world and what was happening as he looked down from above the Earth. Tuppence Middleton read a letter from Lili Elbe, which after recently watching The Danish Girl resonated with me. More laughs came via Juliet Stevenson’s reading of a letter from a 97 year-old lady in a nursing home and Matt Berry and Benedict Cumberbatch took on the Mehmed IV exchange with the Zaparozhian Cossacks, with Matt clearly enjoying the insults he got to read out. Then there was Benedict’s superb delivery of Sol Lewitt’s 1965 letter to Eva Hesse “DO” which required him to read a breathless list of fast paced thoughts, which he did with incredible depth and character. The writer seemed to come alive and leap from the page. Indeed, on pausing for breath after the first part he deservedly received a round of applause! Top marks to both Benedict and Jude Law too who made a conscious effort to address every side of the room, including those sitting behind them.

I was also impressed with tonight’s singers Rag N Bone Man and Benjamin Clementine, the latter also playing the piano. I was particularly drawn to the incredible voice of Rag N Bone Man and will certainly be looking in to his music. It’s wonderful that Letters Live has perhaps brought lesser known artists to a wider audience through these shows.

As I did before, below is a full list of tonight’s letters and music.

List of Letters & Music (Tuesday 15th March 2016)

  • “In My Time of Dying” performed by Rag N Bone Man (song)
  • “Five accidents in two minutes” – Fred Allen to the State of New York Insurance Department in 1932 (read by Jude Law)
  • “He is not a forgiving cat” – John Cheever to Josie Herbst in 1963 (read by Rory Bremner
  • “Don’t expect me to be sane anymore” – Henry Miller to Anais Nin in 1932 (read by Nick Moran
  • “Like a tree in full bearing” – Charlotte Bronte to her publisher W.S Williams following her sister Emily’s death (read by Edna O’Brian)
  • “I found your wallet” – Anonymous to Reilly Flaherty in 2016 (read by Matt Berry)
  • “This wretched comedy as a man” – Lili Elevens (Lili Elbe) to “Christian” (read by Tuppence Middleton)
  • “I would like to retain Fart in your general direction” – Mark Formatter to Michael White in 1974 (read by Timothy Carlton)
  • “In the event of Moon Disaster” – William Safire to H.R. Haldeman in 1969 (read by Rory Bremner)
  • “Tears don’t flow the same in space” – Frank Culbertson to Earth in September 2001 (read by Jude Law)
  • “The Matchbox” – Sylvia Townsend Warner to Alyse Gregory in 1946 (read by Mariella Frostrup)
  • “Dear People of Europe” – from a refugee today (read by fellow refugee Hassan)
  • “[Bothering Heights]” performed by Benjamin Clementine (song / piano) – I am not sure of the title of this song but am hoping someone can confirm it for me. It was something along these lines anyway!
  • INTERVAL
  • “1st of July” by Rag N Bone Man (song)
  • “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Nick Moran)
  • “I’ve got a hunch” – Thomas Wolfe to Maxwell Perkins in 1938 (read by Jude Law)
  • “Fortunately I had my new radio” – Edna Johnson to Ontario School in 1982 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • “I would like to give you your own history” – Juan Gelman to his grandchild in 1995 (read by Timothy Carlton)
  • “Look for me in the sunset” – Emmie to Sumner (on a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts (read by Mariella Frostrup)
  • “You Babylonian Scullion” – Mehmed IV to the Zaparozhian Cossacks and response in 1675 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Berry)
  • “Dear One” – Rachel Carson to Dorothy Freeman in 1962 (read by Edna O’Brian)
  • “I see no beauty in lopsided true love” – Elisabeth Smart to George Barker in 1946 (read by Tuppence Middleton)
  • “To All Reporters” – A Newspaper Editor to his staff (read by Matt Berry)
  • “I see him in the stars” – Emily Dickenson to sister-in-law Susan Dickenson in 1883 (read by Juliet Stevenson)
  • “DO” – Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse in 1965 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Gone” preformed by Benjamin Clementine (song/piano)

So that’s all from Letters Live for now. At least it’s clear that these events will always return. Their popularity only seems to grow and I look forward to lots more evenings like this one to come.

For news and information visit Letters Live’s website, or for more lovely letters visit the Letters of Note website. The brilliant books that have inspired these events: Letters of Note, More Letters of Note, To The Letter and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.