Review – Bold and daring television from the BBC – King Charles III, from stage to screen

 

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So, tonight saw the airing of the BBC’s adaptation of 2014’s critically acclaimed stage play, King Charles III. It was one of my theatre highlights of that year (you’ll find my original review here) and I was thrilled to hear that such a daring and though-provoking drama was to be brought to the screen, particularly with most of the original main cast.

Now it has aired and after reading such diverse comments about the programme on Twitter,  it seemed only right to review this new version and compare it to my experience of Mike Bartlett’s original material.

On seeing it for the first time in the theatre, I imagine I had the same thoughts many tuning in to BBC Two had; starting off with unease and discomfort at what I was watching. These are after all, some of the most familiar people in our lives in Britain. However, the cleverness of the style, structured as if a History play by Shakespeare, in verse, means that although real people, the drama is a step removed from reality, allowing the audience to be absorbed by the characters in front of them, rather than focussing on who they were based on.

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Many are also saying that it is disrespectful, but I disagree. I support the Royal Family by and large (especially the Queen and the younger members) and yet I loved this play and equally enjoyed the screen version. It isn’t autobiographical – after all it’s set in the future! Like any good drama, it causes its audience to discuss and debate its content. It requires you to focus and engage with the questions it raises. None of us know what will happen when the Queen passes away and the crown moves to Charles and yes, this is a heightened reality, which I doubt would ever come to pass. However, as a drama, it asks some intriguing questions – Would Charles, who we know has given his political views in the past, resist giving his assent to a law he personally disagreed with? If he did, what would William do? Would he say nothing, or would he in fact do what was necessary in order to preserve the future of the Monarchy if it was put at risk by his father’s actions? Should we even still have a Monarchy, or does the stability of the Monarch actually hold Britain together?

Ultimately these are simply people, just like the rest of us and King Charles III treats them as such, as people with flaws, weaknesses, ambitions and desires. Yes, there are aspects I remain uncomfortable with (in particular, putting words in to the mouths of William and Harry about their mother), but I cannot take offence at something that isn’t claiming to be anything but fiction. In fact, I find myself thinking about the actual Royal Family and their lives in a whole new light.

As for the transition from stage to screen, overall, Mike Bartlett has done a great job in adapting his play for television. There have of course been cuts, mainly to long soliloquies to save time and certain scenes have changed locations (Jess no longer comes to the Palace after her first night on the town with Harry, which I actually think makes much more sense), but on the whole the text and the spirit of the play remains the same, something that I was a little worried may not translate from the stage. Director Rupert Goold (who also directed the play) is perfectly placed to ensure the Shakespearian tone of the piece remains – dramatic in places, mildly comedic in others. I also loved the moments in which characters spoke to camera, preserving the sense of theatre (which is becoming more common on television, with dramas such as House of Cards) and the use of the original music from the play, particularly the haunting Latin singing during the Coronation (which in the theatre gave me goosebumps).

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Although, I did prefer the stage play due to my love of theatre and the powerful atmosphere the play brought to the stage, there are elements that, in my opinion, work better, or are improved by this adaptation. The biggest example is the ghostly presence of Diana. I never enjoyed this on stage, finding it rather cheesy and uncomfortable (even though I understood that a Shakespearean History play needs a ghost to steer the fates of the characters). Rather than a woman walking across a stage, here through the use of lighting and echoing voices, these moments actually work much better. Also, the inclusion of scenes showing the rest of the family’s reactions to Charles’ dissolution of Parliament were also welcome television additions, raising the stakes of the unfolding drama.

The acting remains strong in this 90 minute drama, with the key players from the stage stepping back in to their roles (Charles, William, Harry, Camilla and the Prime Minister all the same). I’ve seen a fair amount of comments on social media criticising the acting, but, in my opinion, to think that is to miss the complexity of this piece. This is after all a fictional story, depicting a family we all know incredibly well. Therefore the actors had to find a balance between conveying a realistic portrayal of those we know, but without becoming caricatures of them. This isn’t after all Spitting Image, which would indeed have been cheesy!

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Central to this is the incredible performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, whose recent death makes watching this even more poignant. He brings to the screen a man whose whole life has been geared towards this one job and on finally getting it, he faces choices which affect the stability of the whole country. It’s interesting that the law he opposes is one restricting freedom of the press, which may be seen by some as admirable. Yet, the monarch’s role is not to stop laws, but to give their ceremonial assent and it is this decision, followed by his dissolution of a Parliament that he feels opposes him, that results in civil unrest. Over the course of the story, you move from admiration, to frustration and then to deep sympathy for Charles and this is thanks to the rich depth of Pigott-Smith’s performance. The last few scenes are heartbreaking and remind me how much he will be missed.

My favourite role on stage was that of Kate and she is just as strong here (with Charlotte Riley replacing Lydia Wilson). Kate is strong and an equal partner to her husband and her soliloquy to camera captures that strength of resolve. I’m not sure I agree with the Lady Macbeth comparisons, but every Shakespearean History needs an expert manipulator! Oliver Chris also does a fantastic job at playing a conflicted William. He loves his father and yet, ultimately has no choice but to effectively betray him, in order to restore stability. I’ve never seen them as evil as many are saying tonight, as although cruel to Charles, their actions seem necessary to preserve the monarchy that the current Queen has worked decades to protect above all else. This drama now includes their two children and by having William hug his son, as he is faced with the such a hard choice, added an extra layer of emotion to the story. Crucially, the final confrontation between William and Charles was just as powerful to watch on screen, which is all due to the work of the actors.

Adam James (a favourite of mine for years), is back as the Prime Minister, placed in an impossible situation and privy to the later emotional scenes. His interactions with Pigott-Smith and Oliver Chris remain very believable. Margot Leicester provides strong support as Camilla, while Richard Goulding returns to the role of Harry. His was a difficult role on stage, as Harry’s plot line acts as the less weighty aspect of the drama and because of that, comes across as weaker and a bit farfetched. However, the more you think about it, the more sad it is, to see someone adrift and ultimately forced to give up what may have made him happy. It’s a performance that I think you have greater appreciation for the more you watch it. The newcomers to the main cast, Tamara Lawrence as Jess and Priyanga Burford as the Opposition leader were also very good too and I particularly liked the gender switch, meaning the Conservative leader here was also a woman!

Clearly, this drama won’t have appealed to everyone and will have its critics, which is fine by me, provided all those criticising it have actually watched it. It’s also true that theatre will never have the same impact on screen as it does live. However, I applaud the decision of Mike Bartlett, Rupert Goold and the BBC to be bold enough to take such a daring piece of theatre and make it available to a wider audience, while ensuring that those of us who loved the play get to see it again in a new form, for which personally, I’m extremely grateful!

King Charles III is now available in the UK on BBC iPlayer. It will also air in the USA on Sunday 14th May on Masterpiece on PBS. The text of the play is available from Nick Hern Books here.

 

 

My Top Television of 2015

The year is almost over so it’s time for another annual television review. How time flies! It’s been a mixed year, however, there were still some brilliant programmes during 2015 and these are the ones that stood out for me, which I couldn’t wait to rewatch and will no doubt tune in to again in the future.

Wolf Hall (BBC)

Wolf Hall was a truly superb achievement, highlighting the quality that the BBC produces effortlessly. As someone who had only recently seen the RSC stage productions and started reading the books after watching a BFI preview of this series, it met every expectation I had for it. The screenplay was a perfect adaptation of the books, the locations and costumes were gorgeous and the direction and choice of lighting was inspired. The scenes lit purely by candlelight truly captured the sense of England in another time. Then of course was the acting, with a strong ensemble bringing these famous characters to life, all led by Mark Rylance, one of my favourite actors. His Cromwell manages to capture all the internal thinking of the man. You can see that so much is going on in his head, even when no word is spoken and it’s lovely more people have become aware of his brilliance through this drama. I certainly hope that the third book will also be adapted once it’s released.

Broadchurch (ITV)

I’m aware that a lot of people were disappointed by the second series of Broadchurch, but I wasn’t one of them and actually think the series was underrated and very worthy of a revisit for those who only watched it on transmission. Yes, series one was superb, partly due to the unexpected quality of the story and the way it captured the nation’s interest. It was always going to be difficult to repeat. However, series two has a lot of brilliant elements that the first didn’t (and couldn’t) have. The bond and relationship between Hardy and Miller was stronger and gave David Tennant and Olivia Colman more scope to build on what had gone before. They are friends here and able to be a team in a way they couldn’t be in those early episodes before the trust had been built. On top of that you had two stories at once. Perhaps the weakness of this series was too many little plots (the barrister’s son as an example), but the mix of the court case with, for me, the more interesting plot of Sandbrook always kept me guessing. It also gave us one of the most interesting characters on television this year – Eve Myles’s Claire Ripley. One minute you liked her, then you suspected her, then you worried for her. She was a whirlwind of emotions and personalities and was always wonderful to watch. I’m a little worried a third series may be unnecessary, but I’m intrigued to see what Chris Chibnall has in mind.

Doctor Strange & Mr Norrell (BBC)

Another quality BBC drama was this adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s fantasy novel and I still think it received much less fuss than it deserved, being a brave and exciting choice of drama for the BBC to make. The cast were wonderful, with Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan doing fantastically as the title characters, with Marc Warren truly creepy as The Gentleman. Beautifully shot and with some impressive special effects (that sand horse scene in episode two was truly fantastic on first viewing for a television show). If you didn’t watch it, I’d encourage you to give it a try. It really is magical.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

I imagine Game of Thrones will make this list every year unless it does something spectacularly wrong before it ends! Series five also marked the year in which those of us who’d read the books finally moved on to new material! Anything is possible now! Ayra Stark’s development continues in fascinating ways and Maisie Williams only gets better each year, but let’s face it the pinnacle of series five was Hardhome. It felt like a scene from The Lord of the Rings and I’d love to see it on a cinema screen. The vast, epic and powerful scope of those 20 minutes were incredible. I’m very excited to see what will be coming next.

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

I admit that I came to Jessica Jones as a David Tennant fan rather than a Marvel fan, but I’m very pleased indeed that I did, with Jessica Jones being one of the one most fascinating characters on television this year, wonderfully played by Krysten Ritter. It may be part of a comic universe, but this is not what you’d normally expect from a superhero series, with that aspect of the show seeming secondary to the dark, adult themes that it contains. Tennant’s Killgrave is also a truly chilling villain, his ability to make anyone do anything, frightening in its possibilities. With strong writing and an excellent supporting cast, this was one of the strongest first series of a show I’ve seen in a long time. Read my full review here.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

I admit I tend to watch more dramas than comedies, but this new Netflix series was recommended by so many of my friends I had to try it. What a brilliant series it is and series two cannot come quickly enough! The premise may seem bonkers, but the writing is sharp and funny and the characters immediately likeable. Kimmy Schmidt is so full of naive, innocence and Ellie Kemper is wonderful in the role. Not many characters have made me laugh as much as Titus Andromedon (played by Tituss Burgess) did this year and it’s always lovely to see Jane  Krakowski on screen. You couldn’t fail to be cheered up, no matter how naff you felt when you watched this series and that’s a rare achievement.

Arrow / The Flash (Sky)

I may be cheating a little counting two shows as one, but due to the crossover nature of the worlds of Arrow and The Flash it seems justified (look at the great promos they can do for them both now)! I’ll always love Arrow, as the characters have bedded in and let’s face it, it has Felicity Smoak (and yes, Stephen Ammell…), but The Flash really did a  brilliant job in its first year of settling in so quickly. After only a few episodes the characters felt developed and were people you were genuinely interested in watching. I’ve not enjoyed series two of The Flash so far as much as the first, but together these two shows do a brilliant job of combining the fantasy/superhero elements with interesting, well-rounded characters and stories.

The Blacklist (Sky Living)

In my view, series three of The Blacklist is its best yet. Initially the plots felt a bit silly and the FBI characters laughable in their ineptness, but it was the brilliance of James Spader’s performance as Raymond “Red” Reddington that hooked me. He was enigmatic, charming, funny and with an edge that made you know you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him! Series three has seen him and Agent Keen work even more as a team, as she continues to be on the run from the very colleagues she used to work with. It has given the series an interesting new angle and given Megan Boone as Keen some much more interesting material to work with.

Doctor Foster (BBC)

Mike Bartlett is one of my favourite playwrights, currently on a role with his stage successes both here and on Broadway and with Doctor Foster he has brought his ability to write human emotions and behaviour to the small screen as well. Over the course of this series, the tension that developed as the truths of the characters unravelled was brilliant. Bertie Carvel was very good as the cheating husband who you couldn’t completely despise (well not initially anyway!), Adam James was on fine form as the sleezy neighbour, but Suranne Jones is utterly superb as Doctor Foster. Her performance is magnetic, as we watched her move ever closer to confronting her husband and the final episode was certainly nail-biting. It’ll be interesting to see where series two finds her.

Peter Kay’s Car Share (BBC)

It was actually my parents who told me how good this series was. This recommendation was quite unusual, as I wouldn’t have expected them to be watching this type of comedy and so curiosity meant I had to tune in. It’s such a gem of a series and so brilliantly written by Peter Kay. How he comes up with some of these ideas I do not know, but it made me laugh more than most series have this year. The central chemistry between him and Sian Gibson, as his colleague and friend Kayleigh Kitson is perfect and has so much potential. I’m very much looking forward to a second series, which surely must be coming soon.

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So those are my television highlights of 2015. There has certainly been a lot to see this year and I have a list of things to catch up on that I couldn’t fit in. I hope 2016 proves to be just as entertaining (well it already has The X-Files so will be off to a spectacular start!). My top picks for 2016 will follow soon.

Olivier Awards 2015 – Winners Announced!

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The Olivier Awards is a strange awards ceremony. As a celebration of theatre, rather than film or television, it’s the one for which I am able to form a better view of who I think should win and who I think should have been nominated. Then again, although it’s the most prestigious theatre awards in the UK, it doesn’t cover national theatre, or even all London theatre. To be eligible for the Olivier Awards, a show has to be on for at least 30 performances in London, but at either a SOLT (Society of London Theatre) theatre or an “affiliate theatre”. As it’s always hard to know which theatres are included in the list for consideration, it’s therefore always hard to know what has been snubbed, or what was simply ineligible! I personally still think there needs to be a ceremony for theatre like the BAFTAs for film and television – one that covers all British theatre, but that’s a fantasy I know will almost certainly never happen.

Grumblings aside, anything celebrating theatre on television is guaranteed to get me excited and I was thrilled to be able to see the highlights of this year’s ceremony on ITV, albeit on so late that I already knew all the winners! From the highlights show this evening, it looked to be a wonderful celebration of London’s status as the greatest city for theatre in the world and the musical numbers were lovely to see. As someone who missed out on seeing her as Grizabella in Cats this year, I thought Nicole Scherzinger was fantastic singing Memory and medleys from Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon were fun too. I was very disappointed that the performance by the City of Angels cast was cut from the televised show, but we did at least get to see Kevin Spacey bring the house down with his rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water with Beverly Knight. I certainly hope the stages of London won’t be without him for long after he leaves the Old Vic.

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Kevin Spacey & Beverley Knight close the ceremony with a bang!

As for the awards themselves were there any surprises? Perhaps a couple and of course such awards will always be subjective, with a clear winner for some not the same for others. With that in mind, my thoughts are based on the shows and performances from the last year that I loved and felt deserved to win.

Best New Play = King Charles III – I’m thrilled that Mike Bartlett’s superb new play about the Royal Family post Queen Elizabeth II was awarded Best New Play. Without a doubt it was my favourite production last year, one which had me leaving the theatre, after just its second preview, knowing I’d seen something truly exciting and different (you can read my full thoughts on the play here).

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Best New Play (and my favourite of 2014!) – King Charles III by Mike Bartlett

Best New Comedy = The Play That Went Wrong – Perhaps a surprise winner is that of best new comedy, with The Play That Went Wrong beating two shows that perhaps were given a higher profile, Handbagged and Shakespeare In Love. It’s a play I’ve been meaning to see and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has now been reminded that they must book a ticket while it’s still running!

Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre = Bull – Of the four nominees in this category (one which I’m not hugely clear about whom is eligible!), I’d only seen Bull so I’m pleased Mike Bartlett picked up his second award of the night for this production. I saw its premiere in Sheffield and also its London transfer to the Young Vic (which is on a roll for productions these days). It may only have been 50 minutes long, but it’s a play filled with powerful and uncomfortable performances, highlighting the very worst in office politics and certainly deserved this recognition (you can read my full review here).

Best Actor = Mark Strong (A View From The Bridge) – For me this was the toughest set of nominees, while still missing out the brilliant Ben Miles for Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies, whose performance of Thomas Cromwell should have been nominated. All four performances were outstanding and among some of the finest I’ve seen to date on stage. I was torn between James McAvoy’s incredible turn in The Ruling Class (you can read my full review here) and Mark Strong (with Richard Armitage close behind for The Crucible!) and so I’m happy that one of them was successful. A View From The Bridge was a production of the highest quality and his performance was breathtaking. If there is another chance to see an NT:Live Encore cinema screening of it – go!

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A worthy winner in a tough shortlist – Mark Strong

Best Actress = Penelope Wilton (Taken At Midnight) – I have to admit that this was one of the surprises of the night for me, on top of the surprising fact that Helen McCrory was not nominated for Medea. I did not see Penelope Wilton in this role, but I am genuinely amazed that the award did not recognise Gillian Anderson for A Streetcar Named Desire or Kristin Scott Thomas for Electra, both of which demonstrated just how important strong, powerful roles are for women on stage. Had I been voting, I’d have picked Gillian. Yes, I’m an X-File / long-term Gillian fan, but that’s not the main reason. Personally, hers was the performance which left me at the end feeling emotionally exhausted and buzzing the way only a truly fantastic night at the theatre can make me. She gave everything in to the role of Blanche. Perhaps she’ll have better luck at the Tony Awards after the show appears on Broadway next year.

Actor in a Supporting Role = Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies) – Nathaniel’s interpretation of King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies was very good and a worthy winner. However, I think my vote would have gone to Richard Goulding, whose performance as Prince Harry grew in depth and quality over the course of the run of King Charles III, resulting in a believable and multi-layered character, with whom you felt true sympathy by the end of the play.

Actress in a Supporting Role = Angela Lansbury (Blithe Spirit) – It seemed a foregone conclusion to me that Angela Lansbury would win in her category. She is 89 years old, performing 8 shows a week in a London run and has never won an Olivier before. They couldn’t not give it to her! She was wonderful in Blithe Spirit, entertaining and full of fun and with a clear love of her job, but she wasn’t the best of the nominees in my opinion. All four nominees were excellent, whether the chillingly disturbing girls in The Nether or Phoebe Fox in A View From The Bridge. However, I would have loved to have seen Lydia Wilson win for her role as Kate in King Charles III, a performance which was full of confidence and charisma and stood out in a production filled with cracking performances. Her Kate Lady Macbeth-style power behind the man performance was wonderful to watch and I’ll certainly expect to see her nominated more at these awards in the future.

Best Director = Ivo Van Hove (A View From The Bridge) – The director shortlist was another incredibly tough choice, with all four helping bring to the stage some of the best theatre of the year. I was lucky enough to see all four productions and I’m not sure I’d have been able to choose a clear winner, or would have changed my mind as soon as I’d voted! I’m not surprised that Ivo Van Hove took the award though, as his claustrophobic, stark vision of Arthur Miller’s classic received glowing reviews from audiences and critics alike and through it he was able to generate some truly breathtakingly powerful performances.

Best Lighting Design = City of Angels – A thoroughly deserved win for Josie Rourke’s Donmar revival. All four productions were worthy nominees, as the lightning of each certainly added to the drama and quality of each one, creating such unique atmospheres, whether the candlelit Almeida, the Tudor halls of Wolf Hall or the stark atmospheric mood of A View From The Bridge. However, City of Angels would not have been the show it was without Howard Harrison’s lighting, creating the glitz and colour of one world, compared to the black and white of the other.

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Fantastic use of lighting in the Donmar’s City of Angels, also winner of Best Musical Revival

Best Costume Design = Wolf Hall & Bring Up The Bodies – As a regular visitor to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’m so pleased that its brilliant and dedicated costume team won for their contribution to the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning books. The costumes certainly helped bring Tudor history to life in sumptuous, beautiful detail and I can’t think of a better choice from this shortlist.

Best Set Design = The Nether – Until a few weeks ago my choice for this category would have likely been City of Angels. However, that was before I saw the Royal Court’s production of The Nether, currently playing in the West End. It is without a doubt one of the most unique and impressive sets I have ever seen and one which had an incredibly difficult task, bringing the virtual world and the real world together so convincingly. Each time we, as an audience, enter The Nether you genuinely believed you were entering another realm. The combination of set and video graphics were perfect and it would have been a crime had it not won.

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The incredible set from The Nether

I didn’t see most of the nominated musicals so it would be unfair for me to comment on the winners and losers in most of these categories, with the exception of the revival and audience award. I must try and see the Hampstead Theatre’s Sunny Afternoon (currently in the West End), which took best new musical, best actor and supporting actor in a musical. The night has also fuelled my intention to finally buy a ticket for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (winner of best actress and supporting actress in a musical) and I’m thrilled for Katie Brayben, who was fantastic in both American Psycho and her smaller roles in King Charles III.

Best Musical Revival = City of Angels – First of all, I still think it’s criminal that none of the actors in this Donmar production were nominated in either main or supporting musical categories! This is already one of the highlights of this year’s theatregoing calendar for me – wonderful songs, incredible sets and lighting, an engaging story and some truly excellent acting and vocal performances, from some of the finest talents in musical theatre. Due to these omissions, I’m thrilled the show won Best Musical Revival. Now, if only it could have a West End transfer too!

This Morning Audience Award = Wicked – Akin to the Radio Times Audience Award at the TV BAFTAs, this award is an opportunity for the public to vote for its favourite musical (why it can’t also include plays I do not know). Musicals of course attract loyal fans, who go to see them again and again and these awards are a chance for them to show their support for such long-running shows. Of the shortlisted four, my vote went to Matilda, a musical I hoped would go on to greater success after I first saw it one snowy Saturday afternoon in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, but I’m not surprised Wicked won, as it probably has the strongest fan base of the four nominees.

With already some strong performances and productions hitting the stage in 2015, I’m sure the Olivier Awards will continue to generate discussion and debate when next year’s nominations are announced. One thing that isn’t in debate however is that we should all be very proud of the level of quality found in the theatres of London, but also around the rest of the country. Maybe one day my wish for an all-encompassing set of national theatre awards will become a reality.

Theatre review – Bull by Mike Bartlett at the Young Vic

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As my theatre going has increased over the last few years, one of the playwrights whose work has stood out has been Mike Bartlett, ever since Earthquakes In London in 2010 (more recently known through the success of his brilliant play King Charles III). I was therefore not going to miss the premiere of his new play, Bull, in Sheffield in February 2013, especially as one of my favourite actors was in the cast! Bull became a highlight of my theatre year and following a run in New York in 2014, I had to see it again during its first London run at the Young Vic (a theatre on a roll at the moment).

Little has changed since Sheffield and Bull remains a fantastic piece of theatre, which truly gets under your skin. Tony, Isabelle and Thomas are in a fight to keep their jobs in a time of cutbacks – one must go, the question is which one? Over the 50-55 minutes, we witness the cruel tormenting of Thomas by the other two and what’s most effective and also affecting about Bartlett’s writing here for me is how the discomfort builds for the audience. It all seems to be silly banter at first, but grows more and more uncomfortable, forcing you to think about where the line is between banter and bullying.

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Neil Stuke & the cast of Bull. Image by Carol Rosegg

The staging is perfectly designed for the play, as we see events unfold within a boxing ring-shaped office, enhancing the animalistic fight taking place, as the stronger turn on the weaker to survive. It was also wonderful to see the Young Vic’s Maria full, including the standing audience around the ringside itself, which certainly added to the atmosphere. Having seen it before, it was interesting for me to observe other audience members and watch as their reactions / responses to the play altered as it unfolded, resulting in a much quieter room by the end, as you feel almost duplicitous with Tony and Isabelle simply by being there.

The cast remains fantastic. Adam James (on my must see actor list since Blood and Gifts in 2010) plays Tony so well – charming yet devious, playful yet cruel, as he has his fun at the expense of Thomas. The sad truth is you know people like him really do exist! Eleanor Matsuura has the tough task of playing a truly horrid character as Isabelle’s tormenting of Thomas intensifies. For me, it seemed all the more dreadful because she was a woman acting this way and their two-hander scene is a true highlight of the play.

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Eleanor Matsuura, Adam James & Sam Troughton

Sam Troughton, also reprising his role, is wonderful as Thomas and carries much of the emotional pull of the hour and by the end you really do feel sadness for him, as you imagine yourself in the same position. Neil Stuke’s role as their boss (replacing Adrian Lukis from the original cast) may be brief, but it still carries weight and is very believable. I imagine there are many bosses throughout the country (and the City in particular) who would share his attitude.

Bull is not an easy play to watch, but it remains a short but incredibly powerful piece of theatre. If you have an hour to spare and can get a ticket to see this at the Young Vic, then don’t hesitate.

Bull continues its run at the Young Vic’s Maria theatre until 14th February 2015. More information can be found here or by calling the box office for ticket availability on 020 7922 2922.

Looking Ahead to Theatre in 2015

With a new year almost here, it’s that time of year for theatregoers to start looking forward to all the exciting and intriguing prospects announced, as well as planning strategies to nab tickets for those sold out or hot tickets! After four months out of the theatre loop, I’ve needed to do my research this year more than ever to make sure I know what’s coming in 2015. This year has been very strong and it looks like 2015 is shaping up to be just as thrilling, in London and the regions.

So, here are the productions I’m most looking forward to in 2015.

15 to see in 2015

1. Hamlet (Barbican, 5th August – 31st October)

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There couldn’t really be anything else at number one for me than the upcoming Hamlet at the Barbican starring Benedict Cumberbatch. As one of my favourite stage actors, ever since I saw After The Dance in 2010, it seemed only a matter of time before such a brilliant actor would want to take on Shakespeare’s most challenging role and I admit my expectations are already rather high! He’s now had a good amount of time to contemplate his Hamlet and I’m intrigued to see the choices he and Lyndsey Turner make as to setting and staging. With the run of 89 performances selling out as soon as public booking opened, this is certain to be the theatre event of the summer. I just hope that, as David Tennnat did with me in 2008, Benedict brings a whole new audience to Shakesepeare, who then become addicted to it! If you didn’t succeed in acquiring tickets earlier this year, then 100 £10 seats will be released for each performance nearer the time. Now to find out who else will be in this production. I’ve chosen my fantasy cast here and I really hope at least one of them could happen. Time will tell.

2. Oppenheimer (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 15th January – 7th March)

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Another actor who I would watch in absolutely anything and who I also first saw on stage in After The Dance is the brilliant John Heffernan, whose stage work just seems to get more and more exciting (with recent success in The Hot House and Edward II to name just two). This play centres around the development of atomic fission in 1939, as J Robert Oppenheimer (Heffernan) races to win the battle to create the first nuclear bomb as World War II continues across Europe. It may sound a bit heavy for some people, but with such a talented lead actor, I’m certain this will be a highlight of 2015.

3. Closer (Donmar Warehouse, 12th February – 4th April)

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Although I’ve still never watched the 2004 film version of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, whose star-studded cast of Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts and Jude Law had lots of people talking before its release, it was still the film I was aware of raher than the 1997 play and so I’m thrilled it is being revived by the Donmar. For theatre fans the cast for the upcoming production is even more thrilling: Nancy Carroll (yet another After The Dance cast member!), Oliver Chris (fresh from his success in King Charles III) and Rufus Sewell (most recently seen in Old Times) are joined by recent RADA graduate Rachel Redford. Due to the Donmar’s size, the only ticket availability is now through the Barclays Front Row Scheme or returns, but this is certainly promising enough to make it worth the effort if you have yet to nab a ticket.

4. Bull (Young Vic, 8th January – 7th February)

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This year has been a great one for Mike Bartlett and 2015 could be just as successful, with two productions included in this list. I first saw Bull during its premiere run in Sheffield in 2013 and I’m thrilled it’s finally getting a London run at the Young Vic, with three of the four original cast (Neil Stuke replaced Adrian Lukis for the Broadway run and continues in the role in London). It’s short and sharp at only 50 minutes long, but its powerful office dynamics certainly pack a punch and Adam James, Sam Troughton and Eleanor Matsuura are bound to bring the same quality as I saw at the Crucible. One not to miss.

5. Tree (Old Vic, 5th – 31st January)

2850My first experience of a Kitson production was this year’s unique and moving Analog.ue, which has left me very excited to see his next idea brought to life at the Old Vic for its London premiere (following a staging at the Manchester Royal Exchange). The overview simply says this is about dissent, commitment, two people and a tree. I’m sufficiently intrigued and after finding the simple beauty of Analog.ue, both in terms of story and how it was told, incredibly moving, there is no way I can miss this.

6. Game (Almeida, 23rd February – 4th April)

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It’s another entry for Mike Bartlett, as he brings his latest play to the Almeida. The simple summary on the Almeida’s website gives very little away. We know this is a play about the current housing crisis and what price people are willing to pay to have a home of their own. Even more intriguing is the staging, with four different zones offering “equal, yet subtly different” perspectives on the action. The Almeida is certainly incredibly versatile for such a small theatre and this is shaping up to be yet another exciting viewing experience. Now to wait and see who will be in it – yes I admit I’m hoping for Adam James (who seems to be a staple part of Bartlett’s shows)!

7. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios, 16th January – 11th April)

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Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed season at the Trafalgar Studios has, in such a short time, established itself as must-see theatre after so many brilliant productions since it began with McAvoy’s Macbeth last year. Coming next is a play I’m not very familiar with – The Ruling Class, a satire which looks at the foibles of English nobility after a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex, inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney when his father passes away in a bizarre accident. Directed by Lloyd and starring James McAvoy, tickets are selling fast for this production, which sounds perfect for such a skilled actor. If you want a bargain, hold off for the £15 Mondays (the tickets for the Mondays of each month are released on the second day of each month at just £15 each).

8. The Hard Problem (Dorfman, National Theatre, 21st January – 16th April)

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Its been nine years since Tom Stoppard wrote a new play and this one arrives at the National Theatre’s newly refurbished Dorfman (it’ll still be the Cottesloe to me) in time to be the last production to be directed by Nicholas Hytner before he steps down as Artistic Director. All we know is that it centres on Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brain-science institute, who is asking herself the “hard problem” – if there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness? With a cast that includes Olivia Vinnell (whose work in the NT’s Othello and King Lear have proven she is someone to watch) and Anthony Calf, I’m very much looking forward to this one.

9. The Vote (Donmar Warehouse, 24th April – 7th May and live on More 4 on 7th May)

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I’ve included this production here despite the fact I hold out little hope of seeing it in the theatre itself! James Graham has earned a great deal of praise with the political drama This House and this year’s Privacy, which shone a spotlight on technology and online security. The Vote could possibly combine the two, set in a fictional polling station during the last 90 minutes of polling day for 2015’s General Election. Will it be the same each show? Who knows, but what makes this even more thrilling and unique is that it will also be shown live on television (on More 4) on election night, so we can see it play out in real time on 7th May! You can’t get much more current than that! Tickets for the rest of the run will be available via a ballot, but at least we’ll all get to see it from the comfort of our sofas on 7th May!

10. Carmen Disruption (Almeida, 10th April – 23rd May)

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Another playwright whose work always impresses and excites me is Simon Stephens (whose Birdland made this year’s top ten for me and whose other recent work includes Seawall and the adaptation of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night Time). This could be a thrilling run for the Almeida, as this UK premiere follows Mike Bartlett’s latest offering and is said to be a reimagining of Bizet’s opera Carmen. From rock and roll in Birdland to opera? If anyone can do it, Simon Stephens can – I don’t suppose Andrew Scott can be in it can he?!

11. American Buffalo (Wyndam’s, 16th April – 27th June)

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I first heard that this production would be arriving in the spring of 2015 from the lead actor himself, when Damian Lewis excitedly announced it at the Times Talks interview earlier this year. Now more famous for his television success in Homeland (and soon to be seen in the BBC’s Wolf Hall as King Henry VIII), Lewis has not been on stage since 2009 and as I was unable to get to The Misanthrope, I won’t want to miss American Buffalo, a play about a pair of junk-shop workers plotting to steal a valuable coin collection. Directed by Daniel Evans, who has done such wonderful work in recent years as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, I’m very excited to see this production.

12. Bugsy Malone (Lyric Hammersmith, 11th April – 1st August)

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Just when I thought a musical wouldn’t make the list, I hear about the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Bugsy Malone! What a fantastic way to reopen the theatre after its redevelopment! The Jodie Foster film from 1976 is certainly very well known and it will be thrilling to see this gangster musical set in the Prohibition era of the 1920s brought to life with, as the theatre says, “a cast of exciting young talent.” 2014 has been a tough year for musicals, so I hope this one proves to be a success.

13. Death of a Salesman (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 26th March – 2nd May)

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2014 has seen me tick off two more Arthur Miller classics from my list of plays to see and thanks to the RSC next year, I’ll also be able to add Death of a Salesman to that list. To be directed by the brilliant Greg Doran (whose plays seem to be brought to life in such an accessible and clear way) and with a cast that includes well established stars Antony Sher and Harriet Walter alongside younger RSC talent such as Alex Hassell (currently Prince Hal in Henry IV) and Sam Marks, I’m looking forward to planning a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon for this.

14. A View From A Bridge (Wyndam’s transfer, 10th February – 11th April)

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It would have been criminal not to include the transfer of the Young Vic’s utterly incredible production of another Arthur Miller classic. Mark Strong was one of the best performances of 2014 as Eddie, whose complex relationship with his family, particularly his niece drives the play. You cannot take your eyes off him and I have no doubt it will be the same when this production begins at the Wyndam’s in February. The main cast are all back for its West End transfer, including Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox as his wife and niece. Get your tickets fast!

15. My Night With Reg (Apollo transfer, 17th January – 11th April)

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Another West End transfer coming soon is the transfer of the recent Donmar production of Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg. Set in a flat in 1985, everyone I know who saw this funny, yet bittersweet play loved it and so I’m so pleased I have another chance to catch it.

Sold out shows to keep an eye on

There are also a couple of exciting prospects which are already sold out, but I’ll be trying to get a return or day seat for if I can (the things you miss booking when in hospital!). So if you’re willing to not let the words “sold out” get in your way, keep these productions on your radar!

Man and Superman (Lyttelton, National Theatre, 17th February – 17th May)

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I’m not familiar with this Bernard Shaw play, but the description sounds very unusual and interesting and it marks the return to the stage of Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, together with Faye Castelow (yet another After The Dance alumni!) and Nick Hendrix (last at the NT in The Light Princess).

Farinelli & the King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 11th February – 8th March)

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Another production I’m wishing I’d booked, especially due to its short run, is Farinelli and the King at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. A true story about the world’s most famous castrato Farinelli, who is sent for to sing to the King of Spain to help his insomnia and depression, this production sees the return to the stage of Mark Rylance. I’m really going to need a strategy to get to see this now. Wish me luck!

Catch them before they close!

Of course there are also some productions that are already running and continue in to next year and which deserve a mention here too.

King Charles III (Wyndam’s, until 31st January) – My top production of 2014 by Mike Bartlett is worth catching if you can.

The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick, until 21st February) – I saw this at the Young Vic before its transfer and loved it. It is full of wonderful songs and dancing, while managing to movingly convey this true story of injustice in 1930s America.

Cats (until 28th February) – I still need to grab a ticket to this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline musical. I saw it years ago and loved it and it’s certainly getting praise this time too. Former Pussy Cat Doll, Nicole Scherzinger, appears until 7th February.

Once (Phoenix, until 21st March) – Another one of this year’s top ten for me. If you have yet to see this utterly beautiful musical, you have until 21st March before it leaves London. I’m no Boyzone fan, but even I plan on going while Ronan Keating is in it in order to see it once again while I can.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Gielgud) – As long as this play runs in London, it will always make my theatre recommendations list. It’s just that good. I’ve seen it in every theatre so far in London, so I’ll have to add the Gielgud to my list in 2015.

So, hopefully this list will include something for everyone, whether Shakespeare, or a short 50 minute show. There is already so much to look forward to and who knows what other productions will be announced as we start the year. Happy theatre-filled New Year everyone!!!

My 2014 Theatre Review

As 2014 is almost over, it’s time for my look back at my theatregoing year. I’ll start by saying it’s been far shorter than I’d have liked, as due to breaking my ankle, I’ve not been able to get to a theatre since August. As I try not to think about the productions I had to miss, I can at least look back at a nine months filled with some truly superb shows. In 2014, I managed to make it to 38 live productions, of which I returned to see 7 productions more than once, giving a total of 58 theatre trips. I also managed to tick another two productions off my archive list, by visiting the V&A archive to see the RSC’s 2011 production of Cardenio and the Royal Court’s 2007 production of Rhinoceros.

After much thought and in no particular order (apart from my number one, as ranking them further would be too big a challenge!), my top ten is below.

Top 10 Favourites

1. King Charles III (Almeida Theatre)

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Photo: Johan Persson

Top of my list this year is the superb King Charles III, which I saw during its original run at the Almeida. I’m a big fan of both Mike Bartlett’s work (his recent play Bull made it on to last year’s list!) and Rupert Goold and found this to be a refreshingly new and exciting play (see my full review here). A bit of a slow burner, but as the story progressed I became absorbed by it, wondering what direction Bartlett had chosen to take in this alternate United Kingdom. The brilliance here is also structuring it in the style of a Shakespearian History play! Filled with fantastic performances, particularly Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Chris, Adam James and Lydia Wilson, I loved that it dared to do something different and the ending was incredibly powerful. I must try and see the current cast at the Wyndams Theatre before it ends in January if I can.

2. The Pass (Royal Court Theatre)

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed to the Royal Court Upstairs in February for The Pass. However, it didn’t take long for me to know that this was something very special indeed. The Pass centres on two friends at the early start of their professional football careers and follows their different paths, while also superbly raising the issue of what it would be like to be in such a world and perhaps by unsure as to what you really wanted in life and what really will make you happy, sexually or otherwise. Russell Tovey was truly incredible as Jason and commanded the stage throughout.

3. Birdland (Royal Court Theatre)

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More from the Royal Court, this time downstairs for Simon Stephens’s (whose Seawall topped last year’s list) new play Birdland. We are drawn in to the world of Paul, an international rock star whose 15 month world tour is reaching its conclusion. He can have anything or anyone he desires, but is that really enough anymore? Andrew Scott is always mesmerising on stage and he gave an absolutely phenomenal performance as Paul, tackling every imaginable emotion over the course of the play. He effortlessly moved from lighter moments to those which suggest a dangerous, darker side to Paul lurks just below the surface. It takes great skill to be able to be both emotional and emotionless in so short a time and Andrew Scott was more than up to the task. The set was also very clever and I left the theatre feeling very excited at seeing something new and powerful (feel free to read my full review here).

4. Once (Phoenix Theatre)

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I’d always quite liked the sweet indie film Once and had been meaning to go and see the stage version. Unbelievably it took me over a year but I’m so pleased I made it this year, especially during the time of Zrinka Vitesic and Arthur Darvill. They were both utterly superb. Zrinka had been in Once in London since it opened and this year justifiably won the Olivier award for her portrayal of this heart-warming character. She brought a perfect blend of playful humour, bossiness and tender emotion to the role and you instantly connect with her as soon as she steps foot on the stage. Arthur was also excellent as the Guy, who is at first bewildered by this whirlwind of a woman who has entered his life. After playing the same role on Broadway for a number of months he clearly understood the soul of the character and his chemistry with Zrinka was beautifully tender and romantic. Its warmth and magical spirit will make you laugh, smile and cry and will leave you feeling deeply moved. Try and see it if you can (my full review is here).

5. A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)

Gillian Anderson is superb as Blanche
Photo: Johan Persson

It’s been a fantastic year at the Young Vic and the two standout productions for me both make my top ten. First is Tennessee Williams’s classic production starring Gillian Anderson and Vanessa Kirby. I’d never seen Streetcar before and this was certainly a superb production to start with. I loved the staging. As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective, voyeuristic quality too, due to the rotating stage. I’ve admired Gillian Anderson for years and she was absolutely incredible. She drew the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance (my full review is here).

6. A View From A Bridge (Young Vic)

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Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Another incredibly powerful night at the Young Vic this year was for the stunning production of Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge. Everything about this production was superb – the claustrophobic box set, the lighting, but above all the performances of the cast. Nicola Walker does a fantastic job as Eddie’s wife, who is growing ever more concerned about his attachment to their niece (also wonderfully played by Phoebe Fox). However, the standout performance is by Mark Strong, who is breathtakingly intense as Eddie. It is such a nuanced performance, through which we really see the depths of his character and he is certainly one of the finest actors I have seen on stage. This production is transferring in to the West End next year, so make sure to grab a ticket fast.

7. The Crucible (Old Vic)

Richard Armitage's Proctor confronted by the sinister children of Salem.
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From the Young Vic, to the Old Vic up the road for another Arthur Miller classic (and another first for me – my full review is here). This superb production also stands out for me as it was the last production I was able to see before breaking my ankle! South African Director Yael Farber’s powerful production particularly benefited from the current configuration of the Old Vic stage. Playing such an intense story on a smaller stage, surrounded by the audience was an inspired decision. Its deeply atmospheric, sparse staging by Soutra Gilmour, the effective use of light and shadow by Tim Lutkin, mist-covered entrances and terrifyingly eerie music score by Richard Hammarton, are all enhanced greatly by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere created by having faces gathered all around the stage. Richard Armitage has an incredibly powerful presence on stage and you could not fail to be moved by his portrayal of Proctor, as he moves from moments of sorrow, to weakness, intense anger, rage and delicate emotional vulnerability.

8. Rapture, Blister, Burn (Hampstead Theatre)

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Photo: Alastair Muir

I thoroughly enjoyed Gina Giofriddo’s latest play, focusing on the choices available to women today – career or family? marry or remain single? – and whether any of these possible choices will make you feel fulfilled or whether the grass is always greener. I found the scenes in which the history of feminism, the role of women and their relationships with men are debated incredibly absorbing and thought provoking and the performances of all five actors were excellent. However it was Shannon Tarbet as Avery who stole the show with some truly sharp and witty one-liners and who you couldn’t fail to like. A highlight I wasn’t expecting too much from before I went (my review is here).

9. Wolf Hall (RSC, Swan Theatre)

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Photo: Alastair Muir

I have owned Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels for a few years now and have never had time to read them. However I was thrilled to hear that Mantel herself was to adapt them, together with Mike Poulton for the RSC and what a brilliant production it was. I preferred Wolf Hall out of the two, but both this and Bring Up The Bodies were excellently acted, directed and conceived for the stage. On the smaller stage of the Swan, the plays seemed even grander, almost too big for the space, while keeping a wonderfully intimate feel. Ben Miles was utterly superb as Cromwell, who for each 3 hour production barely leaves the stage. I hope this finds just as much success on Broadway next year.

10. Analog.ue (National Theatre, Lyttelton) 

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Choosing a final production has proved quite difficult, with so much I’d enjoyed this year. In the end the top ten had to include Daniel Kitson’s latest part theatrical, part art installation show at the National Theatre as it was certainly a highlight for me and one which has stayed with me ever since. It was a unique story, which weaved together memories from the past with the present. It was incredibly moving and beautifully reminded me of the power of memory and how important memories of our past will be to us as we grow older or to those who come after us, offering them a glimpse in to a time long past. I even dug out an old recording of my grandparents, which I hadn’t listened to for years after seeing this. My full review is here.

Narrowly missing out on the Top 10

These are the productions that almost made it in to the top ten.

  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle (The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) – A quirky, comic and fun production from the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Having the grocer and his wife within the audience throughout is such a brilliant device, especially in such an intimate setting and truly engages the audience in a whole new way. You can read my full review here.
  • Richard III (Trafalgar Studios) – Martin Freeman’s intelligent Richard simmered with menace in another great Shakespeare adaptation from Jamie Lloyd.
  • Clarence Darrow (Old Vic) – Kevin Spacey was superb yet again as human rights lawyer Darrow in this impressive one-man show (see my review here)
  • 1984 (Almeida Theatre) – Another brilliant production for Rupert Goold’s theatre, as Headlong perfectly brought such an atmospheric and iconic book to the stage.
  • Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse) – Another of the Bard’s plays ticked off my list in an engaging production with a strong cast led confidently by Tom Hiddleston.
  • Red Velvet (Tricycle Theatre) – After missing it the first time around, I loved Adrian Lester’s passionate performance as Ira Aldridge (see my review here).

Wonderful repeats from previous years

There are always productions I can’t help but see again another year, although this year there were only two, both of which were on last year’s top ten:

  • American Psycho (Almeida Theatre) – Rupert Goold’s first production in charge of the Almeida was a gloriously refreshing and exciting production, brilliantly led by Matt Smith. I still wish there had been a cast recording!
  • Richard II (RSC at Barbican Theatre) – This was certainly a production that grew over its run and by the time it reached London the cast were on fine form. David Tennant may not have been as strong as he was in Hamlet, but his Richard II was still wonderful to watch. Although for me, the stand out performance remains that of Oliver Rix as Aumerle.

Disappointments of the Year

  • A Small Family Business (Olivier, National Theatre) – Although there were some good performances, this play was too dated and dull for me and far too long.
  • Mr Burns (Almeida Theatre) – Although I enjoy seeing something that dares to be different, the third Act of Mr Burns was just too weird for me, making me wish I’d left after Act 2.
  • Slava’s Snowshow (Royal Festival Hall) – I was simply bored by this. Perhaps it’s more for kids.
  • The Mistress Contract (Royal Court Theatre) – Another production that was just a bit dull for me, despite two good performances.

Memorable moments in Theatre

There have been some wonderful moments that I’ve witnessed or experienced at the theatre during 2014, which included:

 A West End return – Seeing Angela Lansbury’s return to the West End stage at the age of 88 in Blithe Spirit and from the front row for only a tenner too!

 Martin Freeman commits brutal murder – Just when Martin Freeman’s Richard III didn’t seem that frightening, he kills his wife by strangling her over a desk with a telephone cord! After watching him cruelly stalk her around the room, watching him finally kill her was very chilling (especially from my stage seat).

 Kevin Spacey captivating an audience – Watching how at home Kevin Spacey looked, sitting in an armchair, at the centre of the Old Vic, surrounded by a rapt audience.

– The thrill of a first preview – Attending the first performance of Birdland and being reminded yet again how incredible Andrew Scott is on stage.

 Discovering a new young talent – Discovering Shannon Tarbet in Rapture, Blister, Burn, who I’m excited to watch in lots more to come.

 Site specific theatre in gorgeous surroundings – Experiencing voyeuristic theatre at the Langham Hotel for The Hotel Plays.

 The thrill of knowing you’ve seen something new and utterly brilliant – By the end of my first trip to King Charles III (on the second preview), it was thrilling to feel the excitement of seeing a superb new play, especially by the time it reached the glorious last scene.

 Visiting a new, fantastic theatre – My first trip to the Park Theatre, a theatre I’m sure I’ll be visiting a great deal in the years to come.

 Saying an emotional farewell – Joining in the emotional applause at the final performance of Once for Arthur Darvill and Zrinka Vitesic from the front row.

 Enjoying phones being used in a theatre – Enjoying the quirk of actually using your mobile phone during a production at the Donmar for Privacy. I doubt I’ll ever think that again!

All in all it’s been a fantastic, if somewhat curtailed year of theatre for me, in which I’ve seen some wonderful moments on stage by some of the finest actors working today. I am thoroughly looking forward to what surprises 2015 will bring (and I’ll post my top choices for 2015 soon)!

Mike Bartlett stages An Intervention at the Watford Palace Theatre

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As his brilliant new future history play King Charles III (see my other post) rides high at the Almeida, another Mike Bartlett play premiered in London in the last few weeks at the Watford Palace Theatre (which has been co-produced by Paines Plough) and I managed to catch it before it closed on 3rd May.

An Intervention is a two-hander between Rachel Stirling and John Hollingworth, which asks the audience, through different situations, to consider when is it right to intervene and when should we keep our opinions to ourselves. The first is military intervention through an unspecified war in the Middle East, which Stirling’s character (“A”) opposes but Hollingworth’s (“B”) feels is the best action to take morally, a stance which horrifies her. The others are of a more personal nature – should you speak up if your friend is with the wrong person? Should you intervene if you think your friend has an addiction, in this case A’s dependency on alcohol?

Staged like an old fashioned variety-style comedy act for the most part, the play is a funny, touching look at friendship. We have all certainly known friends who have at least some of A’s traits and Mike Bartlett presents scenarios we may all have been in in same form, for example, the uncomfortable first meeting with a friend after a row or if you can’t bear your friend’s partner and have to let them know or worry that your friend needs help but have no idea how to help them.

The staging is simplistic – there is only a bare minimum of set/props used for each act (divided wonderfully by the actors carrying signs across the stage flagging the next chapter). This simplicity enables the focus to be on the performances, which were both excellent. Rachel Stirling in particular is incredibly impressive, dancing across the stage and talking at 1,000 miles an hour to convey her character’s manic, scatty, playful but also vulnerable personality. She is also quite physical in the role, using hand gestures and movements to exaggerate some of the moments (plus top marks for catching endless M&Ms in her mouth too)! Although a little irritating initially, her character’s wit, charm and vulnerability mean that as an audience you are drawn to her and root for her. John Hollingworth is also very very good and perhaps has the harder task as his character’s calmer and to some extent colder personality needs to carry the same weight in scenes as Stirling’s and he does this brilliantly.

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Although filled with playful moments, the play has a darker side, which is brought out as we see the more vulnerable side of A as it becomes clear her wild, flighty persona is a mask for the sadness she feels and her awareness of her alcohol problem. We also see just how important their friendship is to both of them. By the end of its 90 minute running time I found it to be an unexpectedly moving piece and the end was touching and superbly staged for full emotional effect on both a comedic and poignant level.

One of the things I enjoy most about Mike Bartlett as a playwright is his ability to convincingly create large scale theatre productions (such as Earthquakes In London) but also smaller, more intimate theatre as well (most recently Bull at the Sheffield Crucible). No matter which style, I always find them to have a powerful message , which leaves me with plenty to think about. I certainly hope the play reaches a wider audience in the future and would certainly see it again.