It’s hard to believe it’s that time again, when I look back at my theatregoing year and look forward to the year to come (that’s coming soon in another post). I’ve seen a slightly smaller number of shows in 2017, with a total of 56, but with repeat viewings of 13 shows, I’ve actually visited a theatre 80 times in the last twelve months, which isn’t too bad!
Although I’ve seen fewer productions, 2017 has struck me as a fantastic year in theatre land. I’ve seen far more hits than misses and choosing a top ten is practically impossible, so this list is going to run a little longer. The other interesting aspect of the year (well, for me anyway) is, as someone who tends to prefer plays to musicals, I’ve seen more musicals this year than any other, with a total of 12 of 2017’s list. This is undoubtably helped by my two trips to NYC, where Broadway continues to showcase far more musicals than plays.
So, after looking back through programmes, my reviews and most crucially, my memories, these are the standout productions for me in 2017!
1. Hamlet (Almeida/Harold Pinter) & Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre)
There was one production, for which I had huge expectations and on first seeing it in February, was so impressed by, that it seemed certain to claim my top spot. Well, that was until three weeks ago when I finally witnessed the newest musical to hit London. Therefore, this year’s top spot has to be shared between the Almeida’s utterly stunning production of Hamlet and Lin Manuel Miranda’s incredible musical, Hamilton. It was impossible to choose between them, as they both took my breath away in a way nothing else matched in 2017.
Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and Robert Icke’s production managed to exceed my expectations. You can read more thoughts in full on this here, but in short, it is a production that made Hamlet new again. It was thrilling, original, emotional and exciting, pulling new people to the theatre and Shakespeare and had me seeing scenes I know so well in a whole new light. Supported by a strong ensemble cast, led by the incredibly talented Andrew Scott, this was a sheer joy each and every time I saw it. It will be airing on the BBC in 2018, so don’t miss it!
And then there was Hamilton. Everyone has heard of it, whether you know all the words, or nothing other than the hype. Crucially for me, a Hamilton newbie on my first visit, it more than lived up to the hype. My first visit was the 2nd preview and already the cast was so good, you could believe they had been performing it for years. You can read my full review, but in summary, it’s an intelligent, exhilarating and unforgettable theatrical experience that you will want to relive over and over again.
2. Ink (Almeida Theatre)
Next on my list is another success from the Almeida Theatre, which continues to go from strength to strength under Rupert Goold. Having missed this show in Islington, I’m so pleased it moved to the West End, as it’s just too good to miss. The play, written by James Graham, whose previous work I’d thoroughly enjoyed (This House, The Vote & Privacy), shines a light on the first year of The Sun newspaper under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. You may not think it’s your cup of tea, but it’s a fascinating insight in to the creation of the tabloid, which manages to be sharp, gripping and incredibly funny during its running time. I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did and that’s thanks to the brilliant writing, but also the calibre of the acting, with two superb central performances by Richard Coyle as editor Larry Lamb and Bertie Carvel (who just doesn’t look like Bertie Carvel!) as Murdoch. It closes on 6th January, so if you can still make time to see it, I urge you to do so.
3. Angels In America (Lyttelton, National Theatre)
There was huge anticipation before Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking American play returned to the NT 25 years after its original production, with tickets selling out almost instantly. I had never read it, nor seen the HBO miniseries, but I knew this was a must-see due to the casting choices and was lucky enough to experience two separate “two-play days” over its run. It was not a comfortable play to watch, set in America during the mid-1980s, as AIDs caused the deaths of so many in the gay community, but was a sweeping theatrical epic, told across eight hours, which laid bare the horrors of the disease, the pain of those suffering from it and those who love them, as well as highlighting the difficulty many had in accepting their sexuality.
Marianne Elliot, one of Britain’s finest directors, ensures this is a powerful production, which takes hold of your emotions and holds on to them until the very end. The cast was also a treat, with Nathan Lane shining as the equally humorous and vicious Roy Cohn, Russell Tovey impressing as the ambitious Republican lawyer confused and afraid of his true sexuality, together with Denise Gough as his fragile, yet often darkly humorous wife, James McArdle as the man struggling to cope with the possibility of watching his lover die, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the wonderfully supportive and witty friend Belize and Andrew Garfield, as Prior Walter, trying to cope with his diagnosis and illness, the loss of his partner and the strage dream-like visitations from a rather scary looking angel. It was sensational and I’m thrilled to be able to see it again on Broadway next spring (with most of the London cast). Ticket details can be found at: http://www.angelsbroadway.com
4. Dear Evan Hansen (Music Box Theatre, NYC)
Dear Evan Hansen was another show I had heard a lot of buzz about, but had managed to avoid listening to, before my trip to NYC in May. Personally, I prefer to see a musical fresh, without knowing all the lyrics in advance. I therefore didn’t know what to expect and a few hours and a few tissues later, I had another highlight of my year in the bag. The story of the show may be a little uncomfortable when you hear it – a shy teenager, isolated from the world because he feels he doesn’t fit in, finds himself at the centre of a local tragedy and its aftermath, through which he is able to find his place and his voice, as well as love and a family environment he feels he has never had.
Why did I love it so much? Well, the songs are rather lovely, the acting is superb (I saw the original cast on both of my two visits) and its central message that no one is alone; that we just need to reach out for help, is one that is more important than ever in the crazy world we live in now. However, on top of all of that was the simply breathtaking Ben Platt as Evan. It was an emotionally raw, incredibly moving, vulnerable performance, during which you truly believed Evan was real. How Platt was able to give such a performance emotionally and vocally (his voice reminded me of the first time I heard Josh Groban on Ally McBeal) through tears, I will never know. Yes, I cried. A lot. It was a privilege to witness something that will be talked about for years to come. Read my full review if you want to know more.
5. An Octoroom (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)
After years of meaning to visit, I finally made it to Richmond’s wonderful Orange Tree Theatre this year and what a show to start with! Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ play (more from him later) was one I heard about through word of mouth. Everyone I knew who saw it, loved it and it was easy to understand why. Shows like this one are what theatre is made for; a show that was so original, inventive, powerful and funny and which turned stereotypes on their heads and made you laugh one moment, before being deeply moved the next. The play uses the plot of the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon to shine a light on identity, race and culture in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The cast were wonderful, including Ken Nwosu, who has three different roles to tackle, sometimes two at once, Celeste Dodwell as Dora and Iola Evans as Zoe. Luckily, for anyone who missed it (or, those of us desperate to go again), it will have a run at the National Theatre next year, so add it to your must book list!
6. Consent (Dorfman, National Theatre)
Another favourite from early in the year was Nina Raine’s new play, which dealt with the difficult and emotive subject of assault and the perceptions and attitudes that surround what is and what is not consent, made all the more fascinating by having the key characters be criminal barristers, now experiencing the issues from a very personal perspective. It was strongly written, superbly acted (including Anna Maxwell Martin and Adam James) and gave me plenty to think about for quite a while afterwards.
7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Otherwise known as Imelda Staunton’s first hit of 2017, this was my first time seeing a production of Edward Albee’s play and it will take some beating, as Staunton unleashed her incredible force on to the stage, as the domineering Martha. Her chemistry and interplay with Conleth Hill, as her husband George was at times deeply uncomfortable to watch, as they emotionally attacked each other, but three hours have never flown quite so quickly. You can read my full review for further thoughts.
8. Follies (Olivier, National Theatre)
To say I’m not a huge musicals fan, the fact three are in this list says quite a lot about how much I enjoyed Follies, especially as, I admit, I’m not a huge Sondheim fan either! A musical that takes a nostalgic look back at a different time, through the eyes of its four central characters, I loved the blending of the past and present, to highlight young hopes and dreams and how life changes us, as we grow older. The central performances, particularly Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton were phenomenal, yet, it was the entire ensemble that brought the story to life so vividly on stage, from Tracie Bennett and Di Botcher, through to Josephine Barstow and Alison Langer’s incredible operatic duet. Combine this with a live orchestra and the glorious utilisation of the Olivier stage to put on a true spectacle and this was a show I enjoyed so much, that I had to go back and see it for a second time.
9. Gloria (Hampstead Theatre)
The second entry for Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins in my list was the heart-stopping Gloria. With a pre-interval twist (well, I admit, I did see it coming) that required a sealed section in the programme, it provided one of the most shocking theatre moments of the year, whether you were expecting it or not. Jenkins’s writing brilliantly lays the foundations for that moment from the start (on a second visit, I was able to appreciate this even more), but this didn’t make it any less traumatic to watch, turning the second half in to an analysis of how we all deal with trauma differently. Would it break you, or would you capitalise on it for personal, monetary gain? This question is answered with dark humour, as we see how the characters are changed by what has gone before. Director Michael Longhurst did a superb job with the staging (including that pre-interval moment) and the acting was fantastic (including Colin Morgan and Kae Alexander to name just two). You can read both my spoiler and spoiler-free reviews for more details.
10. Oslo (Lyttelton, National Theatre)
I had wanted to see this Tony award-winning play in New York, but decided to wait for its arrival at the National Theatre, where a ticket would cost me a fraction of the price. It was certainly worth the wait, proving to be an insightful, intelligent, engaging play about the lead up to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine; a story I knew almost nothing about. It may have been long, but it certainly didn’t feel it, as JT Rogers’ script moved us through the ups and downs of the behind the scenes negotiations, where a Norwegian couple unexpectedly found themselves at the centre of such important talks. The acting was very good (putting aside Toby Stephens’ wavering accent) and I left the theatre keen to learn more about the subject matter, which, following recent world events seems more relevant than ever. Oslo finishes tomorrow (30th December), so you still have a couple of days left to catch it if you are quick.
11. The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre / Wyndham’s Theatre)
It’ll come as no surprise that Jez Butterworth’s latest play makes my list, as it is appearing on every 2017 theatre list at the moment and with good reason. Following the wonderful plays Jerusalem and The River, his latest success tells a powerful story, set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, which weaves The Troubles in to the history of one family and their struggle to confront the past and move forward. This may have been Paddy Considine’s stage debut, but he was superb and had fantastic chemistry with Laura Donnelly. I laughed, I gasped and held my breath as the tension grew. The Ferryman continues to run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until at least May 2018 and it is certainly worth a visit.
12. Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)
I had never seen the film the play is based on and so didn’t really know what to expect, my excitement peaked by the chance of seeing Bryan Cranston on stage and he certainly didn’t disappoint, as the news anchor, who has finally had enough of the world and decides to let everyone watching know exactly how fed up he is. The production’s staging is quirky, but the on-stage audience restaurant did feel a little unnecessary to me. However, with such a powerful, commanding central performance from Cranston, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Plus, hearing almost 1000 people shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in unison was quite a unique experience, which in 2017 couldn’t have been more timely. Although tickets are scarce, you have until 24th March to try and see this production.
13. King Lear (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)
There had to be some Shakespeare in my top productions of the year list and this year it was Chichester’s production of King Lear, which I admit isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. However, this version, with such a brilliantly talented cast, managed to bring both intimacy and a sense of vast scope to the small space of the Minerva theatre. Ian McKellen was excellent in the lead role, clearly revelling in having a second chance to take on Lear and he had strong support from a cast that included Kirsty Bushell, Dervla Kirwan and Danny Webb.
So, those are the productions that truly stood out for me in 2017 and which I’d happily see again in a heartbeat. Special mentions also to The Girls (a musical that deserved a longer London life), Jodie Prenger’s heartwarming Shirley Valentine and a final visit to Groundhog Day in NYC (Broadway, I’m still disappointed in you for letting this one go so soon).
I’d love to hear your highlights! Over the next couple of days I’ll be continuing by look back at the theatre year, with my most memorable theatre moments from the last twelve months and my favourite performances.