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!

 

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My Theatre Review 2015!

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

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

Productions of the Year – My Top 10

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

  1. Oresteia (Almeida / Trafalgar Studios)

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

2. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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

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

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

4. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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

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

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

6. Tree (Old Vic Theatre)

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

7. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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

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

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

9. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Doorman)

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

10. Husbands & Sons (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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

Disappointments of the Year

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

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

Productions I Was Sorry To Miss

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

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

Performances of the Year

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

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Leading

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

Supporting

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

Memorable Moments of the Year

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

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

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

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