2016 Theatre Review – My memorable theatre moments the year!

Having already chosen my top ten productions of the year and my favourite performances of the year, for my last 2016 theatre review post I wanted to look back on my most memorable moments at the theatre in the last twelve months. These are the moments that have stayed in my mind, whether a set, scene or personal experience while seeing a show.

The mind-bending set change at the end of Wild (Hampstead Theatre)

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I had heard so many people talk about the staging of Mike Bartlett’s Wild before I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre and that final set change was certainly a sight to be seen! Watching one set change in to another, much starker one was already impressive and then it started to rotate! I admit I was a little distracted from the actual scene itself. Top marks to the set designer and stage management team for this feat.

Watching the cast of Unreachable do all they could to make each other corpse during their final show (Royal Court)

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I’d hoped to see Unreachable twice, but had to miss my earlier trip, meaning my only visit was to the final show. Seeing the final performance seemed to heighten the hilarity, as a number of times the cast, particularly Jonjo O’Neil, were trying to throw their fellow cast members off. It was very very funny and one of the most fun trips I’ve had to the theatre.

My return to the wonderful world of Punchdrunk (Sleep No More, NYC)

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A Punchdrunk show is always an experience to remember and Sleep No More in NYC was no exception. From the first moments of making my way in to the venue in darkness, to exploring the eerie and intricate rooms and levels, where I sampled the sweets in the shop and leafed through the books on the shelves, right through to my own one-on-one experience with one of the cast, I had a great time. I only hope it’s still there on my next trip.

Genuinely feeling as though someone was behind me blowing in my ear at The Encounter (Barbican)

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From immersive theatre to sensory theatre with my trip to Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter. Using special technology (including the head in the photo), he was able to transport us in to the rainforests of Brazil. The moment he had us close our eyes and then created the effect that someone really was behind my right ear, blowing on it, was astonishing. The possibilities for audience interaction in future shows is very exciting indeed if such experiences can now be created.

The magical illusions in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)

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The most eagerly awaited show on the planet was just as much fun as I’d hoped (and I’m not even a huge Potter fan) and one of the biggest thrills of the theatre year for me was seeing the illusions achieved in this production. I especially loved the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. The cast must be on skates or something  backstage to get from one part of the stage to another so fast! A treat for young and old alike.

Watching Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard from the centre of the front row (London Coliseum)

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Glenn Close as Norma Desmond was a performance I’d been looking forward to since it was announced and on seeing it, I just had to go back for a second time. I’m still amazed that this wasn’t a total sell out, but the fact that a week before, I was able to buy a front row ticket was unbelievable. Having Close stand so close to me and deliver that performance was a real thrill for me in 2016.

 

Saying goodbye to War Horse and Groundhog Day at their final London performances (New London and Old Vic)

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I was lucky enough to be at the final London performances of both War Horse at the New London Theatre and Groundhog Day at the Old Vic in 2016. The first show was closing after over nine years, during which it has delighted and moved so many audiences and it was lovely to hear author Michael Morpurgo’s words of thanks to its cast and crew. On the other hand, we’d barely had Groundhog Day in theatreland before it was off to prepare for Broadway. I loved the show (it’s my favourite of 2016) and being able to say a fond farewell to it, from the front row no less, was a joy.

Experiencing the enthusiasm of New York audiences for Shakespeare during the RSC’s King and Country tour (BAM, NYC)

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This year also saw my first trip to NYC since 2012 and it was filled with a great deal of wonderful theatre. However, one of the things that truly stood out was during my time at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, where the RSC was showcasing its King and Country cycle. Having seen it in both Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, I was surprised to experience the plays in a new environment. Antony Sher has talked about how the New York audiences were more enthusiastic and I agree with him. There was a new kind of excitement in the venue and lines received an audience response they hadn’t in the UK, which in turn had an effect on the actors. From chatting to other audience members, many had read the plays before coming and had a genuine enthusiasm for the plays. It was wonderful to be a part of it.

Being given a reminder of how precious time and life is by Gavin Plimsole (Greenwich Theatre)

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One of the new theatres I visited during 2016 was the Greenwich Theatre and I was rather moved by its show The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole. As we journey through the last part of Gavin’s life, depicted by marbles dropping through a chute after a certain number of heartbeats, the audience was reminded of how precious life is and how we should not take it for granted. At the end of the show, we each opened a box. Mine had a marble in it for me to keep. I have kept it in my handbag ever since. Sometimes it is the smallest shows that make the biggest impression.

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There were so many special moments for me in theatres this year, but those are the ten that have stayed with me the most as I sit here and reflect on the last twelve months. Next I’ll be looking ahead to the productions I’m most excited about in 2017, which I hope to post very soon. If you have some moments that have stood out for you, let me know about them in the comments!

 

 

2016 Theatre Review – My Top Performances of the Year!

In previous years I’ve only written one theatre review post. However, after it was suggested to me by a friend, I’ve decided to split my review of the theatre year this time. I’ve already posted my top 10 productions of 2016 (here for those interested) and so this post will focus on my favourite performances from the last twelve months. You can also read about my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.

Please do let me know your highlights in the comments below.

2016 – A Year of Strong Female Performances

As my top ten post highlighted, it’s been a strong year for women on stage, with so many stand-out female performances. Below is just the tip of the iceberg!

Lia Williams (Mary Stuart)

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After her incredible performance in Oresteia last year, Lia Williams is yet again one of the highlights of the year, in not one, but two roles. After being lucky enough to watch both versions of Mary Stuart back to back, what stood out the most for me was that no matter which version I was watching, the character Williams was portraying seemed to be the larger role. She was a vibrant Mary, unnerving Juliet Stevenson’s Elizabeth and yet she was also a strong, confident and sexy Elizabeth. I cannot wait to see what roles she will take on in the future, but I’ll be there for every one of them!

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler)

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It’s always a joy to see Ruth Wilson on stage and she is currently delivering a superb Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. She isn’t very likeable, but I couldn’t help admiring her character’s ability to be say whatever she wanted, regardless of the consequences! She is someone desperate for control and yet by the end we see her utterly at the mercy of Brack. In another powerful production by Ivo Van Hove, this is a must-see event.

Denise Gough (People, Places & Things)

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I’ve already gushed about how much I loved Denise Gough in this show and how she absolutely blew me away with such an emotionally, heartbreaking performance. It’ll stay in my mind for many years to come.

 

Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard)

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The iconic Glenn Close finally brought her portrayal of Norma Desmond over 20 years after she performed it on Broadway. I had high hopes, but was nervous that perhaps she’d struggle to impress the way she did back then. It turned out she was spectacular and was still able to deliver the vocals. Yes, her voice may not have been as powerful, but it added a layer of reality to the character.

Billie Piper (Yerma)

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Billie’s performance in Yerma was one of the most emotionally draining trips to the theatre I had in 2016, so goodness knows how she performed it day after day! Modernising Lorca’s tale of a woman desperate to have a child worked perfectly for today’s world and as the play unfolded Piper her character from a young, vibrant woman to a lost, broken soul. Powerful and unforgettable.

 

Janet McTeer (Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

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It was hard to leave this production off my top ten and that was in large part due to McTeer’s portrayal of La Marquise de Merteuil. She was so devious and sexy and her chemistry with Dominic West really worked. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to New York to see the Broadway transfer, but if you have a chance to go before it finishes towards the end of January, it’s certainly worth the effort.

The cast of Eclipsed (NYC)!

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With Eclipsed it wasn’t just one strong performance, but five, with each of the five actresses in Danai Gurira’s play creating a memorable character and together the result was one of my theatre highlights. Lupita Nyong’o seemed years younger, depicting the young wife who yearns for a different life; Pascale Armand was a scene-stealer as Bessie, whose comic lines made me laugh out loud; Saycon Sengbloh brought a strength and motherly figure to the stage as Helena; Zainab Jah’s portrayal of the wife-turned soldier, who refuses to be a victim of any man was a moving one and Akosua Busia added an outside perspective as Rita, the woman determined to help the women of the camp leave this life. A remarkable play, that I hope to see in the UK soon.

Helen McCrory (The Deep Blue Sea)

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If I hear Helen McCrory is doing a play, I’ll book it without caring what it is. She is just so good. Her turn as Medea is still clear in my mind two years on and she was equally impressive as Hester Collyer, a woman trapped in life, who feels suicide is her only way out. A moving and powerful production for 2016.

Glenda Jackson (King Lear)

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25 years since she was last on stage, Glenda Jackson took on one of the most well known roles in Shakespeare – King Lear. I was rather surprised by how much power she brought to the stage. She may be older, but she still commanded the stage and although, I didn’t have the emotional reaction to the play’s ending that I sometimes do, I still left the Old Vic sure of the fact I’d seen one of the performances of the year.

Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple, NYC)

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I was sorry to miss The Color Purple during its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and so it was high on my list for my trip to NYC this year. I’d heard so much about Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie, the young girl, who overcomes so much to achieve happiness and independence in her life. There were two famous US actresses on stage, but the star was Erivo and hearing her sing “I’m Here” live was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled she won the TONY this year.

The men weren’t half bad either in 2016!

It may be a year when the female-led shows grabbed my attention, but there were certainly some excellent performances by the men too!

Andy Karl (Groundhog Day)

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Ahh Andy Karl. I loved Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. As he’s better known in the US, I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his future projects from now on. As someone who wasn’t a fan of the original film, his portrayal of Phil Connors was a major factor in how much I loved this production. He was able to convey both his rude, arrogant attitude and his later kinder self with equal weight and by the end I was rather choked each time I saw it. If I needed just one reason to go back to NYC next year, this is it!

Anthony Boyle (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Undoubtably the most anticipated production of the year (and possibly the decade), the next story in the world of Harry Potter had a lot to live up to. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and all five of us in my group agreed that the show-stealer was Anthony Boyle as Scorpius Malfoy, the unlikely son of Draco, who forms a friendship with Harry’s son Albus. He was brilliant in the role; he is funny, brave, emotional and an utter joy to watch.

James Norton (BUG)

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James Norton is surely one of the most versatile actors we have at the moment. Able to be both the charming, gentleman and terrifying killer on screen, I was thrilled to see him perform this year in the intimate space of FOUND111. Tracy Letts’s play is one of growing claustrophobia, where Norton’s character, Peter, starts as a shy young man, who acts as a source of comfort to Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, before slowly unravelling before our eyes. A hugely physical and emotional role, Norton demonstrated yet again why he is on my must-see list.

Jonjo O’Neil (Unreachable)

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I’ve been a fan of Jonjo O’Neil’s since I first saw him in the RSC company in Stratford-Upon-Avon (his Mercutio is yet to be beaten from those I’ve seen) and it was brilliant to see him take on such a quirky role as that of Ivan The Brute in Anthony Neilson’s new play. With the play taking shape during the rehearsal process, he was clearly able to bring so much personality to the character and I don’t think I’ve laughed that much in a theatre in a long long time (if indeed ever). It was an utterly bonkers performance that stole the show.

Simon McBurney (The Encounter)

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The Encounter was unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage. A one-man show, written and performed by Simon McBurney, it told the story of a National Geographic photographer who in 1969 travelled to, and became lost in, the Amazon rainforest. Through the use of innovative technology and the audience all wearing headphones, we were transported in to a sensory experience like no other. McBurney could not have put any more in to his performance, physically and mentally and if I could go again I wouldn’t hesitate.

Jamie Parker (Guys & Dolls / Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Jamie Parker had to be on this list as I loved both roles he had on stage in 2016. I started the year watching him bring Sky Masterson to life in Guys & Dolls. He was superb and, in my view, one of the show’s biggest strengths, able to carry off the suave character and deliver the required vocals. Then it was on to Harry Potter. Harry isn’t the young man he was in the books/films and Parker convincingly portrays how his early life and experiences have impacted on him and indeed on his relationships as a husband and a father. Some of the most heartfelt moments in the play for me were those in which Harry is dealing with emotions and I can’t think of anyone better to play him.

James McArdle (Young Chekhov – Platonov & Ivanov)

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Having a chance to see the Young Chekhov trilogy at the National Theatre after missing its original run in Chichester was an added theatre bonus this year and my favourite of the three was undoubtably Platonov. This was largely down to James McArdle’s performance in the title role. Seeing the plays back to back also provided an even stronger contrast between his role in Platonov and that of the serious doctor in Ivanov.

 

Ian McKellen (No Man’s Land)

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I’ve been lucky enough to see Ian McKellen on stage a couple of times before (in No Man’s Land and The Syndicate) and what stands out most of me about McKellen’s stage work is that he simply becomes a new person. Despite being hugely famous for some iconic roles, you always see the character on the stage and not the actor and that was the case again in No Man’s Land.

Rafe Spall (Hedda Gabler)

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Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack in the National Theatre’s current production of Hedda Gabler really stood out for me. He is a man that starts the play as a rather playful, flirty friend to Hedda and yet by the end he had chilled me to the bone. Not every actor could do that, but through his previous work, Spall has demonstrated his ability to tackle characters on both sides of the moral spectrum. I certainly hope to revisit this production before the end of its run.

Jasper Britton (RSC Richard II / Henry IV)

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Anyone who knows me (or indeed has read this blog before) will know I’m a David Tennant fan and therefore a return trip to the RSC’s Richard II at the Barbican in January was never in doubt. The biggest thrill for me of the combined King and Country cycle was Jasper Britton. He brought a new dynamic to the Richard/Bolingbroke relationship and having the same actor as both characters enhanced the overall cycle. I particularly enjoyed seeing Bolingbroke’s relationship with Hotspur, which perfectly set up the events of the Henry IV Part One.

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What a year it’s been! Feel free to let me know which performances impressed you this year in the comments section.

Letters Live – Freemason’s Hall (Sunday 13th March)

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Almost a year since my last visit I was back at the Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden tonight for another wonderful evening at Letters Live.

It’s brilliant how successful this idea has become since it started and it’s such a simple, yet beautiful concept. Hearing letters, conveying such a range of emotions read aloud never fails to make me want to put pen to paper and send some thoughts out to the people in my life. This year at Letters Live, the campaign to encourage more of us to connect via a letter has been stepped up. Rhodia, a notebook company, was on hand giving out free notebooks and postcards. Their promise – write a postcard and post it in the box and they will cover the postage, no matter how far it’s going. Then there’s the Letters Live programme itself, which as well as containing some lovely letters, includes a pull out letter/envelope for you to write to your hero.

I’ve already booked to go again on Tuesday, but I thought I’d do as I did last year and talk a bit about each night and set out a full list of readers and their letters (seeing as this is still not contained within the programme, although is tweeted by @letterslive).

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In my seat ready for Sunday’s show

Tonight’s show included a mix of poignant and humorous letters, giving us an insight in to the lives of their writers across the decades. A few hours before the show it was announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (who has been involved with Letters Live since its beginning) would be taking part tonight, which was an added bonus! Taking the stage alongside Benedict tonight was: Louise Brealey, Sophie Hunter, Oscar Isaac, Jeremy Paxman, Geoffrey Palmer, Sarah Snook, Simon McBurney, Hanif Kureishi and David Nicholls, with musical interludes by Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini.

There are always letters that touch me a little more than others at each Letters Live and tonight those I found most special included Oscar Isaac’s moving reading of Richard Feynman’s love letter to his late wife, Benedict’s final reading of Robert Falcon Scott’s letter to his wife as he neared death in 1912 following his team’s successful journey to the South Pole, from which he would never return and Helen Keller’s letter to the NY Symphony Orchestra. Being blind and deaf, her ability to feel the vibrations of their Beethoven concert was wonderfully read by Sophie Hunter. Then there was the letter from the Connell family in Lockerbie to the family of Frank Cialla, a victim of the plane disaster, who they found in their garden.

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The latest addition to the book series – More Letters of Note

There was of course humour and laughter tonight too. Oscar Isaac was the perfect choice to read Alec Guinness’s letter in which he criticises Star Wars and moans about the young actors treating him as if he were 106! Geoffrey Palmer (as he did last year) read Evelyn Waugh’s wonderfully funny letter to his wife about an exploding tree, as well as Dalton Trumbo’s scathing complaint to a hospital. Then of course there was the wonderful pairing of Louise Brealey & Benedict reading more from Chris & Bessie (who have become a signature for Letters Live in my view).

I hadn’t heard of either of tonight’s musical performers but both Nitin Sawhney and Emiliana Torrini added an extra element to the show. All in all it was a fantastic evening. I still cannot recommend these events enough. There is something for everyone and you will be transported through history and emotion as you listen to words that were written so long ago, but meant so much to both writer and receiver. As Canongate CEO said at the start of the night, the words in such letters show us our shared humanity. In years to come I hope there will still be letters such as these for future generations to cherish.

So – if there is someone you’ve been meaning to get in touch with – delete that short text or tweet and pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Write to them. You never know it might just make their day.

Tonight’s List of Letters & Music – Sunday 13th March 2016

  • Tides by Nitin Sawhney (piano)
  • “What great births you have witnessed” – Mark Twain to Walt Whitman (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Dear Friend” – Hermione Gingold to A. Friend in 1950 (read by Louise Brealey & Sophie Hunter)
  • “Nothing is ours except time” – Lucius Anmaeus Seneca to Lucilius Junior (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “My Dungeon Shook” – James Baldwin to his nephew in 1963 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The most astonishing thing” – Madame de Sevigne to Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges in 1670 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “Stupidity is a crime” – Dalton Trumbo to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in 1960 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “Reputed Bantling” – F.Scott Fitzgerald to Andrew Turnbull in 1932 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “To All Reporters” – Newspaper editor to his staff (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “I love my wife. My wife is dead.” – Richard Feynman to his late wife Arline (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My dear little Grandfather” – Marcel Proust to his grandfather (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Autumn Sun” by Emiliana Torrini (song)
  • INTERVAL
  • “Prophecy” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar)
  • “My Dear Bessie” – Chris Barker and Bessie Moore! (read by Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey)
  • “Your type is dime a dozen” – Hunter S. Thompson to Anthony Burgess in 1973 (read by Hanif Kureishi)
  • “The appalling horror” – Florence Nightingale to Dr. William Bowman in 1854 (read by Louise Brealey)
  • “This is quite true” – Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura in 1942 (read by Geoffrey Palmer)
  • “New Rubbish Dialogue” – Alec Guinness to Anna Kaufman in 1976 (read by Oscar Isaac)
  • “My heart almost stood still” – Helen Keller to the NY Symphony Orchestra in 1924 (read by Sophie Hunter)
  • “We all feel like that now and then” – Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Reginald Pembroke in 1943 (read by Jeremy Paxman)
  • “Our Frank” – The Connell Family to the Cialla Family (read by Simon McBurney)
  • “I embrace you with all my heart” – Albert Camus to his old teacher Louis Germain in 1957 (read by David Nicholls)
  • “Ought women not to be abolished” – Clementine Churchill to The Times in 1912 (read by Sarah Snook)
  • “To My Widow” – Robert Falcon Scott to his wife in 1912 (read by Benedict Cumberbatch)
  • “Sunny Road” by Nitin Sawhney (guitar) & Emiliana Torrini (vocal)

Letters Live has two performances left on Monday and Tuesday. For ticket availability see the website here. The wonderful books, To The Letter, Letters of Note, More Letters of Note and My Dear Bessie are available through the usual stockists.