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.

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

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

Thanks for reading!