Over the last decade, as theatregoing became an even greater passion, I’ve had the privilege of seeing so many of the iconic British greats on stage. Yet, there was always one that I wished I could see and yet I thought I’d missed my chance. That person was Dame Maggie Smith. She’s an actress intrinsically linked to my ’90s childhood through her film career of that period and someone whose stage career in past decades had me wishing I had a time machine! I remember reading in Nick Hytner’s book, Balancing Acts, that his biggest regret during his time running the National Theatre was not finding a role for Maggie Smith.
It was therefore unbelievable news to hear that he’d finally been able to right that regret at his new theatre, the Bridge Theatre and last week I finally ticked the biggest item off my theatre bucket list.
A German Life is a one-woman show, in which Smith plays Brunhilde Pomsel, who through unplanned twists and turns in her life found herself working in the Nazi Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels and over the course of 1 hour 40 minutes, we hear the story of her life, from young girl, determined to make her own way through a job, to a woman who ended up spending five years after World War Two interned by the Russian authorities.
The play starts with Smith entering the 1970s-style Germn kitchen set and taking a seat in a chair and what follows in Christopher Hampton’s new play is drawn from the testimony Pomsel gave to documentary filmmakers Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer, who turned it in to the film A German Life. It isn’t clear if she’s talking to them, to an imaginary person, or simply to us, the audience, but by the end I felt as if she’d been talking directly to me; that it was just us sitting in that kitchen, as she told the story of her life.
Pomsel confesses early on that she tends to forget things now, which was an effective way too of giving a nod to the fact that some of the audience (including, I admit, myself) were wondering how, at 84, Dame Maggie Smith would cope with carrying a show on her own. We needn’t have worried, as she is simply superb, so inhabiting the woman whose story we are hearing that you almost forget this isn’t just Maggie Smith talking about herself.
Over the piece, you laugh with her at some of the anecdotes she’s remembered, while also gaining a chilling insight in to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s and how ordinary citizens were drawn in to their rhetoric. Knowing what we know now, it seems unbelievable that people could allow such dark and horrifying events to come to pass and yet, A German Life, feels frighteningly relevant to today’s world; a world in which intolerance, division and growing hostilities within our societies only seem to be getting worse. Part of the power of this play and Smith’s frank and honest performance is that you leave questioning whether you could have ended up in her shoes, caught up in events the way Brunhilde Pomsel was and for which she states she feels no guilt; she was simply a typist in an office doing a job. the fact it was in the Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels doesn’t make her responsible for the atrocities carried out by the regime she worked for and her attitude felt very authentic and refreshingly honest.
With just one person talking constantly for 100 minutes, in the wrong hands it could feel dull, or drawn out, but Smith demonstrates what an incredible performer she still is and all without moving from her chair. Yet, the fact Smith is in the same seat for the duration of the show doesn’t mean she doesn’t move, thanks to the clever set design from Anna Fleischle. It’s a testament to Smith’s performance, drawing me in so completely and the subtlety of the set design, that it took me over an hour to notice that the floor of the kitchen was moving forward, bringing the actress closer and closer to the audience as the play progressed. It only added to the feeling that you were being pulled in to this woman’s life and allowed Smith to engage with the 900-strong audience without having to move.
This certainly isn’t a comfortable show due to the story being told, but thanks to Smith’s superb performance, it is one that elicits so many emotions, from laughter, to sadness, to horror and more importantly, leaves you questioning what you would have done, while also leading you to realise that as the world seems to grow more extreme, we haven’t learnt nearly enough from that period of history as we should have. We may tell ourselves we’d never let it happen again, but A German Life tests that belief and leaves the audience considering the truth of that statement and feeling deeply uncomfortable at the answer.
Seeing Dame Maggie Smith on stage was a dream come true for me and she didn’t disappoint. If you are able to pick up a ticket, I urge you to do so.
A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11th May 2019. Although the show is “Sold out,” £15 day seats will be available from the theatre box office each morning from 10 a.m. (one per person), TodayTix is running a £20 lottery each morning too and a returns queue will start from 6 p.m. before every show. I also know of friends calling up the box office and being sold returns for later dates, so that’s always worth a try too. For more information, visit the theatre’s website: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/#overview
The Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End has been home to an ambitious exploration and celebration of the work of Harold Pinter over the last  months and last night I made a trip to see the final production in the Pinter at the Pinter season. Clearly, this is a highly anticipated show due to the casting of Tom Hiddleston, whose popularity has continued to skyrocket thanks to his involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and who was last seen on stage (for more than a handful of people successful in the RADA Hamlet ballot) in 20’s Coriolanus and I was keen to see whether it would meet my expectations.
I admit, I struggle with some of Pinter’s work, but Betrayal is a play I genuinely enjoy and Jamie Lloyd’s production is a superbly executed interpretation of what is always an emotionally complex story, as we venture in to the lives and histories of its three characters.
The story structure is also one that I find particularly engaging; the play starts not at the beginning of events, instead dropping the audience in to these lives and expecting it to catch up, which adds a very real element to the experience. Life isn’t neat and tidy and Pinter’s structuring of this play highlights that fact. It’s painful and awkward and very human.
It also quickly becomes apparent that we are seeing their lives backwards, gradually moving back through the previous nine years, pausing to witness key moments that shape their relationships with each other. It’s a fantastic way of pulling the audience in and when handled correctly, results in a much more powerful and emotional punch.
The good news is that this production delivers an incredibly satisfying and compelling 90 minutes of theatre, thanks to the combination of a simple set from Soutra Gilmour, which emphasises the raw emotions on display. There are no distractions, which means your focus remains solely on the actors from start to finish and indeed my audience last night was so engaged by the performances that you could have heard a pin drop (or annoyingly, the occasional mobile phone ring – seriously turn them off theatregoers!). It’s also wonderfully lit by Jon Clark, often silhouetting the performers against the pale backdrop in such a way that you could be looking at a wall in an art gallery and I found myself admiring the artistic choices the creative team had taken to add to the emotion. The music is also kept to a minimum, yet compliments the simplicity of the staging.
The success of Betrayal depends on the strength of its three actors and each of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox are superb at not only brining their own characters to life, but also at creating very believable connections with each other, adding to the tension and emotion of the piece and none of them stand out as the lead, each bringing equal weight to the story.
It quickly becomes apparent that Ashton’s character, Emma, is married to Robert (Hiddleston), but for a number of years until relatively recently, was having an affair with his best friend Jerry (Cox). What Jerry doesn’t realise though, is that Robert not only knows, but he’s known for some time. Over the course of the play, Pinter offers us glimpses in to their past as a trio, how they feel about each other and how that changes, how they deceive each other, sometimes in surprisingly comic ways and how they each suffer betrayal in one way or another.
Jamie Lloyd holds the tension throughout, in no small part by his decision to keep all the actors on stage for the duration, a revolve helpfully moving them around as if pieces on a game board, as their lives cross paths over the years. This staging choice also adds great weight to the betrayal at the heart of the play; seeing Emma and Jerry together, as Robert sits silent and motionless on a chair, sometimes right beside them (and in one heartbreaking instance, cradling his daughter), is a very strong image and Tom Hiddleston does a superb job of conveying Robert’s pain once he becomes aware of their deceit. The scene in which he discovers the truth is handled so beautifully, with quiet surprise and hurt, rather than anger and the combination of Jamie Lloyd’s direction and two excellent actors, truly heighten the tragedy of the moment for the audience as well as the characters.
It could’ve been easy to portray Emma and Jerry as the villains of the story, yet Pinter’s play is much more complex than that, instead presenting us with people making very human choices and the strength of the performances by both Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox mean they are compelling characters to watch and over the course of Betrayal your emotions shift depending on the scene, for example, Jerry’s sense of betrayal on discovering Emma has told Robert feels very authentic, despite the fact he is just as guilty as she is!
The story structure also allows the audience to have more insight than the characters, heightening the tension in key scenes, particularly the excruciating scene in which Robert and Jerry have lunch, neither of them fully realising the extent of knowledge the other has and Cox and Hiddleston play it perfectly, as if it’s the game of squash their characters keep intending to play. Full marks also to Hiddleston’s “angry eating’ talents! This scene is also an example of how Betrayal is able to move from sadness and pain, to moments that are surprisingly comedic and indeed very much needed by the audience due to the emotional weight of the playas a whole. This again captures the realities of real life and when the story ends we are left unsure of what the future will hold for any of them. Life will go on without us there to witness it.
This is a fantastic way to end Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious season of Pinter and more than lived up to the high expectations I had. If you haven’t picked up a ticket yet, I strongly recommend you do so and quickly!
Betrayal continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 1st June 2019. For more information, visit the website. I will also be posting a separate post of helpful (hopefully!) tips for visitors coming to the show who are new to London, including places to eat, theatre information and my thoughts on the stage door.
Having looked back on my favourite theatre productions of 2018 and a little later than I planned (sorry about that!), I’m taking a look at some of the exciting theatre already announced for 2019. It’s worth bearing in mind that at this time of year, we still don’t know what shows will be arriving in many theatres in the back half of the year, but there are already a number of productions on the horizon that should be on your radar. I also admit that my list is always weighted towards London, as it’s my base, but I’m always keeping an eye on regional theatres and have included some I’m planning to see within this list (as well as a few NYC highlights).
So, here’s my snapshot of 19 shows I’m excited to see in theatreland in 2019!
1. All About Eve (Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd Feb – 27th April)
Top of the list for 2019 for me is All About Eve, which moves in to the Noel Coward Theatre next month. There are a number of reasons I’ve been looking forward to this production. First and foremost, I’m a huge Gillian Anderson fan and having seen her in A Doll’s House and A Streetcar Named Desire (both here and in NYC), it’ll be thrilling to see her on stage once again. Throw in to the mix the director, Ivo van Hove, whose work I always find thrilling and I’m counting the days until my first visit.
2. Death of a Salesman (Young Vic, 1st May – 29th June)
Arthur Miller seems to be the trendy choice in London theatres this year, with a couple on this list as well, but I’m probably most excited about the Young Vic’s new production of Death of a Salesman, an Arthur Miller classic that I confess I’ve never seen. Director Marianne Elliott’s work is always superb (from Curious Incident, to Angels in America and rewriting Sondheim for the new production of Company), plus the cast includes Wendell Pierce (which is exciting for me as a Suits fan) and Sharon D. Clarke (who is certainly having a busy theatre year; more from her later). The Young Vic is producing such brilliant work at the moment, that I’m sure this will be another hit.
3. All My Sons (Old Vic, 15th April – 8th June)
The Arthur Miller continues just down the road at the Old Vic, which has assembled an impressive cast for London’s latest production of All My Sons, which includes Sally Field, Bill Pullman, Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman. I always enjoy this play (the David Suchet one from 2010 my current favourite), so it’ll be fun to see how this one compares. If you’re hoping to pick up a cheaper ticket for this, then register for emails about the PwC previews, which will go on sale five weeks before the show starts, offering £12 tickets for the first few previews.
4. Three Sisters (Almeida, 8th April – 1st June)
The Almeida is another one of my favourite theatres right now and I’m incredibly excited that the dream team of director Rebecca Frecknall and actress Patsy Ferran are back together again for their new production of Chekhov’s play, following the superb Summer & Smoke (which finishes on Saturday, so you still have a couple of days to see it).
5. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (Barbican, 25th March – 13th April)
There’s always something I was intending to book and then forget, only to find myself hoping for returns, or day seats later and on this list that award goes to Grief is The Thing With Feathers. I’d been tempted to try and go and see this in Dublin last year, so I’m kicking myself that, for the moment, this is sold out for its Barbican run. Cillian Murphy is a fabulous actor and I’d suggest that, like me, you keep your eyes peeled for tickets for this.
6. Betrayal (Harold Pinter Theatre, 5th March – 1st June)
I admit, I’m not a huge lover of Pinter, but I actually rather enjoy Betrayal and having enjoyed his performance in Coriolanus at the Donmar, I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Hiddleston back on stage again (no, I don’t count the RADA Hamlet that was near impossible to get tickets for!) and directed by Jamie Llloyd. This will hopefully be a strong end to the current Pinter at the Pinter season.
7. Dear Evan Hansen (Noel Coward Theatre, TBC)
Dear Evan Hansen was one musical I’d heard so much about and in 2016 I was fortunate to see it twice in NYC. It’s an emotional story, with a powerful message that no matter how low you feel, you’re never truly alone, if you reach out for support and I’m thrilled it’s finally making its way across the Atlantic. I’m sure the British cast will be fantastic and the musical’s message is universal, but I admit, as someone who saw Ben Platt in the lead role, I find it difficult to picture anyone else in the role of Evan.
8. Emilia (Garrick Theatre, 8th March – 15th June)
Emilia was another production that I missed during its first run at Shakespeare’s Globe which, thanks to a West End transfer, I now get to enjoy. Everyone I know who saw this story about Elizabethan poet, Emilia Bassano, (who I confess I knew very little about before this play arrived in 2018), loved it. Bassano wrote the first published work of poetry by an Englishwoman and is rumoured to be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, yet her life is just as fascinating and worthy of exploration and attention. I certainly won’t be missing out on this show again!
9. Blues In The Night (Kiln, 18th July – 7th September)
Currently wowing audiences at the Playhouse in Caroline Or Change, Sharon D. Clarke is heading back to North West London (having opened Caroline Or Change at the Hampstead Theatre last spring), to the Kiln (formerly Tricycle) Theatre later in the year, to star in this revival of Sheldon Epps’ musical, which was last seen in London 30 years ago. This is after she’s stopped by the Young Vic for a previous entry on this list, so she’s certainly keeping busy! She has an incredible voice and the Kiln continues to be a wonderful venue following completion of its transformation work, so this should be a treat for the summer.
10. When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other (National Theatre – Dorfman, 16th January – 2nd March)
I have mixed feelings about this entry. It’s absolutely one of the most talked about productions of 2019, which caused a great amount of grumbling when tickets were only available by ballot. The combination of Martin Crimp, Katie Mitchell and Cate Blanchett is intriguing though and having been lucky in the ballot, I’ll be seeing what all the fuss is about next week. A limited number of day seats are available from the National each day.
11. Dear Elizabeth (Gate Theatre, 17th January – 9th February)
This new play by US playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose In the Next Room (or “The Vibrator Play”) I saw a few years ago, has just started its run at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre. The play will tell the story of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, who exchanged regular letters for decades. The production is also choosing to switch its cast, with two different actors taking on the play each performance. The list includes some brilliant talent including Alex Jennings, Jonjo O’Neil and Tamsin Greig.
12. A Very Expensive Poison (Old Vic, TBC)
No clear dates yet, but this forthcoming new play already sounds very promising and is certainly addressing current global tensions. It’s written by Lucy Prebble, whose wonderful work includes The Effect and ENRON and is set to tackle the story of the death of Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko. This is certainly one to keep an eye on for further details.
13. Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre, from 30th January)
Another Broadway musical opening shortly in London is Come From Away, which I thoroughly enjoyed a couple of years ago in NYC. Through just 90 minutes, it tells the heartwarming story of the community of Gander in Newfoundland, Canada which, on 11th September 2001, found itself the temporary home of thousands of stranded airline passengers. The link to 9/11 may make you think twice about booking, but it’s a lovely show, that reminds us of the goodness we are capable of, which is these crazy times, is something everyone needs to be reminded about.
14. Mother Courage and Her Children (Manchester Royal Exchange, 8th February – 2nd March)
Manchester’s Royal Exchange is collaborating with the theatre company Headlong for this new adaptation of Brecht’s work, which will see Julie Hesmondhalgh taking on the role of Courage. The website suggests that this production will bring the story “bang up to date” and I’m intrigued to see exactly what they have in mind.
15. Standing At The Sky’s Edge (Crucible, Sheffield, 15th March – 6th April)
I’m a huge fan of Sheffield Theatres, which continues to produce some fantastic shows and the one I’m most looking forward to from its upcoming season is Standing At The Sky’s Edge, which is a new musical about Sheffield itself, telling the story of the residents of Park Hill flats over 50 years (Doctor Who fans will recognise the buildings from the latest season too). Having grown up in the city, it’ll be fun to see a musical all about the lives of people in Sheffield!
16. Peter Gynt (National Theatre – Olivier, 27th June – 8th October)
Further details of this production have been released today, but this is a show that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. No, I haven’t seen Peer Gynt before, but I have seen James McCardle on stage a number of times and he’s such a superb actor that I’ll see him in anything and this will see him take on one of Ibsen’s most famous characters in a new “radical” adaptation by David Hare. I imagine I’ll be seeing this one more than once!
The Barber Shop Chronicles is another show that I was stupid enough to miss during both its runs at the National Theatre (I know, I know, I’m rubbish), but this regional tour will mean others, as well as me, will be able to see this story about a group of African men, gathering and exchanging stories in barber shops in six different cities across the world. The tour will visit Manchester, Leicester, Bristol, Sheffield and London’s Roundhouse.
18. Richard III (Tour – multiple venues, 1st March – 25th May)
Theatre company Headlong will be bringing their new production of Shakespeare’s Richard III to multiple venues this year. I’m a big fan of the work of Headlong, as they tend to find original ways of telling classic stories. In addition, this production is also stopping at the newly restored theatre at Alexandra Palace, which is a venue I’ve been waiting to be finished. It’ll be thrilling to step foot in the space, now it’s been restored to its former Victorian glory. The play will visit Bristol, Northampton, Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford and will finish at Alexandra Palace.
19. The Color Purple (Curve Theatre, Leicester, 28th June – 13th July & Birmingham Hippodrome, 16th July – 20th July)
That’s already a promising list, with many more I could have included.
.…….And I haven’t even mentioned New York, although the first ones that spring to mind across the pond are:
(1) To Kill A Mockingbird, adapted for stage by Aaron “The West Wing” Sorkin, which continues its successful run until November;
(2) Ben Whishaw & Renee Fleming in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, at new arts venue The Shed;
(3) Oklahoma at The Circle in the Square, which I’ve only heard good things about, following its run last year at Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse; and
(4) Hilary and Clinton, in which Laurie Metcalf and Nigel Lithgow, explore the dynamics of a certain political couple during 2008’s Presidential Primaries.
There’s also of course the transfer of the Almeida’s superb Ink, which I loved and of course, surely it’s only a matter of time before the incredible The Inheritance makes it way across to NYC?! If it does, I’ll certainly be following it (queue for day seats this Saturday for its final day in London if you can. You won’t regret it!).
Excited yet? Hopefully there’s plenty on the stage this year to appeal to everyone. I’ll be getting back to reviewing more theatre in 2019, so keep an eye on the blog for my latest reviews!
Where has the last twelve months gone? I probably say that every year, but it means it’s time for me to look back on the last twelve months as a theatregoer. I’ll start by saying I’ve seen fewer productions this year than I expected to and I’ve seen far less regional theatre than I wanted to as well, which only gives me something to aim for next year.
That being said, my final total for 2018 was 60 shows, with revisits to six of those shows (including three Hamilton trips), resulting in a total number of theatre trips of 67. Not bad, but I’m well aware that I’ve missed a fair few shows I’d been hoping to see this year.
As I’ve already mentioned, my theatre trips outside of London have been low this year, with the exception of a theatre-packed NYC trip in the spring. London and New York aside, my regional visits have been limited to Chichester and Stratford-Upon-Avon and I fully intend to improve on this in 2019.
Finally, when choosing my favourites of the year, I think about which shows resonated with me on an emotional level, so I’m sure there are productions which appear on other lists, as ground-breaking or significant shows for other reasons, but which weren’t at the top of my list.
So, without further delay, here are my favourite productions of the last twelve months!
1. The Inheritance (Noel Coward Theatre)
As in previous years, my list is in no particular order, with the exception of the top spot, which was clear to me as soon as I left the Noel Coward Theatre.
I’d had a ticket for a full Wednesday at the Young Vic to see The Inheritance, but due to work commitments, I had to give the tickets back. I was gutted at the time, as this promised to be something special and so the news of a West End transfer was wonderful.
I have been intending to write a specific review of this show ever since I saw it and yet I struggle to put in to words just how stunning it is on so many levels. I’m not a gay man, but nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to be moved by a story which reaches in to the past and connects it so beautifully with the present and the importance of a sense of community between the men on stage. Not only that, but the writing is just magical, as you are told a story of love, loss, compassion and forgiveness, which still captures moments of such fun and playfulness along the way and all of its 7+ hours is so superbly acted by the show’s cast. I laughed, I cried (many times) and having seen it twice, it continues to stay with me. I’ll be there for the final shows on 19th January and if you can go before it closes, you simply must. It’s that simple. (The Inheritance continues at the Noel Coward Theatre until 19th January 2019).
2. Summer & Smoke (Almeida & Duke of York’s Theatre)
I was lucky enough to see this superb show during its initial run at the Almeida, before revisiting it in the West End only a couple of weeks ago, where I was still able to have a fabulous close-up view thanks to TodayTix. I wasn’t familiar with this play beforehand, having seen some of the better known and more regularly revived pieces by Tennessee Williams and yet I quickly fell under the spell of this hauntingly atmospheric production. I loved the simplicity of the set and the use of light to draw out the electricity between the two central characters. The stand out element though? An utterly compelling performance by Patsy Ferran, who I honestly felt transformed in to Alma before my eyes in such a nuanced portrayal of a character I was almost instantly invested in. Combined with strong support from Matthew Needham, Forbes Masson, Nancy Crane and all the cast, this again was a show that had a profound emotional impact on me and is one I won’t forget. (Summer & Smoke continues at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 19th January 2019).
3. Twelfth Night (Young Vic Theatre)
Twelfth Night is a Shakespeare play that I’ve seen quite often and I admit I was possibly a little tired of it. Yet, I’d heard so many glowing reviews about this production since it was staged in New York in 2016, that I couldn’t miss it when it arrived in London, as the first show during Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as artistic director of the Young Vic. It’s one of the best decisions I made all year and is, without question, the best interpretation of this play that I’ve seen to date. Turning this well known Shakespeare story in to a musical was bold in itself, yet this show was inventive, colourful, fun and fresh and is easily one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had in a theatre, which brought the story to life in an entertaining, yet accessible way. Although the whole cast was great, the stand out has to be Gerard Carey as Malvolio. He was simply perfect. I might never need to see another version of this play, as I doubt this one will be beaten.
4. The Watsons (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I travelled to Chichester to see Laura Wade’s latest play, but being a fan of her previous work and a lover of Jane Austen, I had high hopes that this would be right up my street and that certainly proved to be the case. I loved the cleverness of this script, as it’s not just an Austen story (one which Austen mysteriously never finished, despite it not being the last one she wrote), but it’s also a story about what it’s like to be a writer and it was this added element that really appealed to me, as an aspiring writer. I don’t want to give too much away for those not familiar with this play, as I’m certain it’ll have another life on stage before too long, but all I will say is that its mix of Austen and contemporary life resulted in a show that was a lot of fun to watch and had me leaving the theatre with a big smile on my face. All my fingers are crossed for a London transfer.
5. Three Tall Women (Golden Theatre, New York)
Having seen her brilliant return to the stage as King Lear after 23 years in 2016, I couldn’t miss the chance to see Glenda Jackson’s second show, this time in New York, during my visit in April/May and it was certainly a highlight of my trip. With a cast of just three (Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill), Three Tall Women tells the story of one fierce woman, whose life is cleverly told by herself at three different ages. It may have been short, but it certainly packed a punch and seeing Broadway so in awe of Glenda Jackson was wonderful.
6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Donmar Warehouse)
Over the years Lia Williams has become one of my must-see actresses and I’ll book anything she’s in and in this year’s Donmar production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she yet again proved what an incredible artist she is on stage. Having not read the novel, nor seen the film made famous by Dame Maggie Smith, I wasn’t sure what to expect, yet found myself caught up in the world of her and her students, as her desire to inspire them starts to become questionable as the play progresses. I’m only sorry I didn’t have the chance to go back for a second time.
7. Fun Home (Young Vic Theatre)
Fun Home had been on my list of shows to see when I was in NYC a few years ago, but I just didn’t have time and had been wondering if it would ever make its way across the Atlantic. It’s clearly been a strong year for me when it comes to the Young Vic, with this beautifully touching musical being the third show from the theatre on my list. In a way it didn’t feel like a musical, but more of a play with songs, but regardless of how you categorise it, the story of one girl’s relationship with herself, her sexuality and her father left me rather emotional by the end and a return visit was essential. I admit, I’m still surprised there hasn’t been news of a West End run for the show. Hopefully 2019 will rectify that.
8. A Monster Calls (Old Vic Theatre)
I only had to walk a few minutes down the road for a similarly emotional theatre outing, this time to see the Old Vic’s staging of Patrick Ness’s tale of love, grief and forgiveness. I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read the book, but I adored the recent film and found this adaptation equally powerful, as we see one young boy’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s illness and death and the confusing emotions they stir up within him. It’s not an easy story to stage, with so much resting on the fantastical stories the monster tells him, but this production truly evoked the same emotions through its imaginative staging. It wasn’t an easy show to watch, but it’s one I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
9. I And You (Hampstead Theatre)
This was a lovely little surprise of a show at the Hampstead Theatre for me this year, which also saw the stage debuts of two wonderful acting talents, one I was very familiar with and the other I’ve now added to my “keep a look out for them” list. Lauren Gunderson’s play saw Maisie Williams, fresh from Game of Thrones as a sickly young teenager, cooped up in her room, who is forced to engage with the world through the arrival of one of her classmates, played superbly by Zach Wyatt, with a last minute poetry project centring around Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Yes, I worked out the ending quite quickly, but that didn’t take away from the emotional punch I felt at the end, as the lines from the poem they’d been discussing became so poignant. The production also saw the Hampstead Theatre testing out a new way of reaching new, younger audiences, when it was made available to stream for free on Instagram. Anything that encourages people to try theatre gets my support and the play was just as moving a second time on my small phone screen.
10. Girls & Boys (Royal Court Theatre)
I’ve been hoping to see Carey Mulligan on stage for a few years now and this incredibly powerful one-woman play at the Royal Court finally gave me a chance to see her. This was another instance where I had no idea about the story before stepping foot inside the auditorium and what I loved most about this play was how it started as one thing and all of a sudden took a sharp turn down a much darker, devastating road. The power of such a play depends on the actress and Mulligan was simply outstanding as a mother telling the story of her life and that of her children to the audience, right down to the mimed interactions with her children, who I soon forget weren’t actually there on stage with her. This was yet another emotional experience and one that certainly stood out as a highlight this year.
Special mentions also go to White Teeth at the newly reopened Kiln (formerly Tricycle) Theatre, which took me completely by surprise with how much fun it was, The Humans, which I was thrilled to see arrive at the Hampstead Theatre, complete with the full Tony Award-winning cast, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which provided the type of black comedic fun I expect from Martin McDonagh and some wonderful performances (all of which I enjoyed from a £10 front row seat!), Lobby Hero in NYC, with wonderful performances by Micheal Cera and Chris Evans in particular, Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse, where the 2000 US setting felt just as relevant in 2018 Britain and The Madness of George IIIfrom the Nottingham Playhouse, which I was able to enjoy via NT Live.
Last year saw my list filled with plenty of musicals after a year in which I saw more than usual and although far fewer make the shortlist this year, there were certainly some musical highlights, in particular the recent NYC stagings of My Fair Lady and Carousel, the impressive Hadestown, here prior to its Broadway opening and the Old Vic’s much publicised Sylvia. Yes, it was rough and needs tightening up, but I expect the final form to be something rather special when it returns and it contained one of my theatre moments of the year (see my separate post for those coming soon).
Although I try and keep repeat trips to shows out of my annual favourites list, I couldn’t write this without giving special mention to some of the shows that I loved this year and which I’d already seen before. Top of this list was a joyous visit to Harry Potter & The Cursed Child in NYC, to see the original London seven back in their roles. Although I’ve enjoyed later West End casts, there’s something special about that group and in particular Jamie Parker as Harry and Anthony Boyle as Scorpius. My time in NYC also enabled me to revisit the National Theatre’s stunning production of Angels in America for a third time and spending another day wrapped up in these characters was a privilege. 2018 also saw Andrew Scott return to London in Sea Wall, which made my favourites list back in 2013 and was indeed a highlight of this year as well. It may be only 30 minutes long, but it remains one of the most emotional theatre experiences I’ve ever had. And of course, it would have been rude had I not returned multiple times this year to Hamilton, including the very special performance in August in aid of the charity Sentabale, attended by Harry & Meghan!
So, that was my 2018 theatre year! Yes, I missed some shows that I wish I’d seen (The York Realist, Mistyand Notes From The Field being at the top of that list), but overall, I enjoyed almost everything I saw this year and even those that I found disappointing had something I could appreciate (the Almeida’s current Richard II may not be my cup of tea, but Simon Russell Beale’s performance was very good and I may have found A Very Very Very Dark Matter disappointing, but the two central actors were great, as was the set). That’s certainly better than years when I’ve had a list of shows I’ve found truly painful!
Looking ahead, there are some fantastically promising shows arriving next year and I’ll be highlighting my 19 shows to see in 2019 in a separate post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your highlights from the last twelve months!
I’ve already set out my favourite productions of 2017, so this post will look back on the my most memorable moments, whether a performance, a scene, or a personal experience during a show, these are the moments that I’ll remember most from the last 12 months of theatregoing.
1. David Tennant declaring he was “magnificently f*ckable” as Don Juan in Don Juan in Soho!
A theatre year is always a little more special for me when Mr Tennant is on the stage and earlier this year he took on the lothario Don Juan. It may not have made my favourite productions list, but he had some wonderful dialogue, this being my personal highlight!
2. The continued excitement and joy of the audience at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Next spring Broadway will finally welcome the Harry Potter play to the stage (with me in the audience), but until then the only place to see it remains London and being lucky enough to return to see the show a few times this year (including the final show of the original cast and a trip to see the new one), I continue to love the atmosphere in the Palace Theatre. It’s one of the two happiest theatres in town and you can feel the buzz of excitement from everyone around you. It’s simply magical.
3. Realising about 15 minutes in to Hamilton that I was under its spell
The Palace is one of the two happiest theatres in town and since early December, the other is the Victoria Palace Theatre, now home to the mighty Hamilton. You can read my review and my end of year review for thoughts, but I will always remember the feeling of knowing that not only was the hype justified, but that I was watching something very special indeed.
4. Getting to see another of my favourite actors on stage for the first time
I made two trips to NYC this year, but the first was driven by one aim – to see Josh Charles on stage! I’ve been a fan of his film and TV work for quite a while now and couldn’t miss the chance to see him in The Antipodes at the wonderful Signature Theatre. And the cherry on the cake – getting a chance to speak to him afterwards, plus an autograph and photo. He was one of the most genuine actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak to and it made my trip!
5. A final trip to Groundhog Day and frustration that Broadway didn’t appreciate it more
Poor poor Groundhog Day. If only it had stayed here in London. I know it’ll be back here soon enough, but I’ll always be a little sad that Andy Karl won’t get longer in the role of Phil Connors. He really was wonderful and I’m so pleased I had one last chance to see it earlier this year in NYC.
6. Ian McKellen bringing Gandalf back to life for a few minutes on stage!
In July, Ian McKellen helped raise money for the Park Theatre in London through a week of special performances on a one-man show about his life and career. It was a very special experience, the highlight being the opening: a pitch black theatre, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score playing and the voice of Gandalf, as if back in the Mines of Moria, coming out of the darkness as McKellen walked on to the stage. Unforgettable!
7. Being on the front row of the first official performance at the new Bridge Theatre!
I’ve been looking forward to this new theatre opening ever since it was announced and being able to be at the first official performance (there were two soft opening performances put on early) of a new London theatre was quite a thrill. The smell of fresh paint and new leather and a whole new building to explore. I look forward to many more visits to come.
8. My front row seat experience for Network and having Bryan Cranston look me straight in the eyes from mere inches away
Network is on my list of favourites of the year and not only did I enjoy the play and its commanding lead actor’s performance, but this was made all the more special, when Mr Cranston ended up sitting behind me during one of the scenes, resulting in him giving a direct performance to those of us sitting around him for a few minutes.
9. The brilliance of the final scene of Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road at the Trafalgar Studios
I won’t ruin it for those yet to see this lovely show, but the final moments were so clever and fun that it had me smiling long after I’d left the building. It’s a show that I’m so pleased I didn’t miss.
10. The OTT reaction of the Broadway audience to Bette Midler in Hello Dolly
Now, first things first, I enjoyed the show and I thought Bette Midler was fantastic, but what wasn’t quite as enjoyable was the reaction of the audience during the show. I know the NYC custom is to applaud the famous names on their first appearance on the stage (as annoying as I find it), but every time she appeared, everything she said or did, was met with prolonged applause and cheers. Ultimately it distracted me from the show and drove me crazy!
11. Witnessing Ben Platt sob his way through “Words Fail” in Dear Evan Hansen
Hello Dolly may have been a less than satisfying theatre experience, but the same couldn’t be said for Dear Evan Hansen (on both visits). I will never forget watching Ben Platt’s performance and Words Fail in particular, as he managed to sing so beautifully through sobs, as the audience sniffled along with him.
12. The thrill of the unexpected in Robert Icke’s Hamlet, particularly Laertes in that final duel
I’ve talked enough about how much I loved this production, but it was filled with moments that surprised me, despite having seen Hamlet quite a few times now. No moment sums up the freshness of this production more than when I realised that Laertes doesn’t want to have the duel at the end! I have never seen an interpretation where Laertes has had second thoughts and when asking for a new foil is wanting to swap the poisoned one for another. It changed how I saw that character and made the end so much more powerful. Such unexpected thrills at the theatre are what make it such a wonderful experience.
13. The RSC’s sound effect of the year that made an auditorium gasp
I only made one trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon this year, which was to see the RSC’s latest production of Julius Caesar and the moment I have not been able to forget was the moment a young boy seemingly had his neck broken. Yes, I know nothing is real on stage, but the sound effect used to create the illusion of murder in that moment was quite shocking!
14. Andrew Garfield bringing a tear to my eye, as he bid the audience a final farewell at the last performance of Angels in America in London
I loved this production, as I’ve already mentioned in my annual round-up and it was very special to be in the audience for the last performance (I was in good company as Mr Cumberbatch was there too). It’s a powerful piece of theatre, but watching Andrew Garfield give those final lines as Prior Walter, talking directly to us, was something I’ll never forget: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
15. Experiencing the wonderful staging of The Great Comet from a stage seat
I didn’t love The Great Comet as a musical, but I could certainly appreciate the staging and the fun of the interaction with the audience when I watched the show from a banquette seat earlier this year. I wasn’t in a position to be picked on, thank god, but I did enjoy some fresh bread to eat and my own little egg shaker to join in with the percussion during the show, not to mention a close up seat for Josh Groban’s gorgeous singing!
16. My horror at the result of my audience’s vote on letting latecomers in to The Majority at the National Theatre
The Majority was a fun theatre experience, requiring each of us in the audience to engage directly in the journey of the performance through a series of votes on our keypads. The most horrifying for me? The narrow victory of those who voted to let latecomers in to the auditorium once the show had started! Fools!
17. My first ever time leaving a show at the interval
I know some people do this often, but I’ve never left a show early. I usually hold on, in the hope I’ll enjoy the second half more. However, on one trip this year, I just couldn’t face it. Ironically, Travesties was a show most people loved and many will no doubt say it was a travesty that I left, but it just wasn’t funny to me and I was bored. Maybe it caught me on an off day.
So, what were your most memorable, personal theatre moments this year? I’d love to hear them and look forward to finding out what’s in store next year in theatre land!
Photo credits (besides me!): Don Juan In Soho = Helen Maybanks; The Antipodes = Joan Marcus; Groundhog Day/Hamlet = Manuel Harlan; Ian McKellen = Mark Douet; Network = Jan Versweyveld; Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road = Gavin Watson; Dear Evan Hansen = Sara Krulwich/The New York Times;Julius Caesar = the RSC; The Majority = Ellie Kurttz; Angels in America = Jason Bell;
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.
Ever since Hamilton burst on to the New York theatre scene in 2015, with such universal praise and adoration, I have been intrigued. After ticket lottery failures when I’ve been in NYC and the rising Broadway ticket prices, I decided to wait for the London transfer to see the show for myself. So, before Thursday night, two weeks ago, I had not heard a single second of its soundtrack and I knew only the very basic historical facts. You couldn’t be more of a newcomer to this musical than I was.
The big questions people are now asking me: Could anything live up to the level of hype that Hamilton has (remember it has already won 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize)? Would I want to go and see it again?
By the time I emerged from the Victoria Palace Theatre later on that Thursday night, the answer to both questions was a resounding YES!! In fact, I was so desperate to go again sooner than April (when I have my next ticket booked), that I bought a single ticket for the following Saturday’s first matinee to relive it all again! And now, on the eve of press night I’ve seen it four times (yes, I may have a slight problem….)!
Seeing four previews, also means that I have been lucky to already see both Alexander Hamiltons twice (Jamael Westman and Ash Hunter, including Hunter’s first two performances), so I can give my thoughts on both interpretations, which have formed more, the more I have seen the show.
So, for the uninitiated like me, inspired by the biography by Ron Chernow, Hamilton tells the lesser known story of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean, who arrived in New York and went on to become one of the most vital individuals in the shaping of the foundation of the U.S.A; from his determination to help secure freedom from the British, to his defence of the new Constitution, to his creation of a financial system for a new nation as its first Treasury Secretary. It’s the story of a man who strived to achieve so much and has been, to a certain extent, overlooked by history.
Until now, that is! In fact, one of the finest achievements of Hamilton is that it is informing thousands of audience members about a period of history they may know little about, especially if they aren’t American. It’s the best history lesson you’ll ever have!
Why is it so incredible? Hamilton executes every element of the show to perfection. You may be thinking that the style of music isn’t for you, but you’ll likely by thrillingly surprised. It’s genuinely impossible to choose a favourite song, as the show moves so smoothly from one to the next that it’s hard to separate them. Each one adds to both the progress of the story and the emotional depth of the show. Very few musicals manage this, which is why very few truly capture my imagination. In this case, I left the theatre and immediately downloaded the soundtrack to listen to it all over again and to marvel at the intelligence, wit, passion and power of Lin Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics. Heck, I now know a good few of them off by heart.
As an ensemble, the Hamilton London company is also one of the slickest, most cohesive units I’ve ever seen on stage and that was even from their 2nd performance and two weeks later, they are even stronger! It’s as though they have been playing these roles together for years, which is a testament to their abilities!
The style of the music of Hamilton, which blends hip-hop, rap, RnB and more traditional-style musical numbers, dictates that the pace of the show is incredibly fast and yet, there is not a moment where the actors, detailed choreography, lighting or sound effects falter; all coming together under director Thomas Kail to bring to life so vividly what is the strongest production on any stage at the moment.
What is it that makes stories about revolutions so compelling to watch as musicals I wonder?! My all-time favourite has always been Les Miserables and Hamilton is the only one to rival it, in terms of its sheer power and emotional range it presents on the stage. Certain numbers gave me the same chill of excitement as Les Mis and that was a huge surprise for me. It’s a truly thrilling, exhilarating, exciting, emotional and uplifting experience, that very few shows will ever match. I honestly never expected it to, so decisively, exceed my expectations.
As the cast are all so strong, it’s difficult to pick out individual performances and each audience member will have their favourites. I loved the character of Angelica, who was the first one to bring a lump to my throat during “Satisfied”; a song which reveals something about her that I hadn’t expected. Rachel John is both a superb vocalist (having already impressed me in The Bodyguard) and actress in the role and really stands out in this show. Giles Terera’s charismatic portrayal of, as he says himself, the villain of the story, Aaron Burr, is also very good indeed, with “The Room Where It Happens” being some of my favourite moments in the production. His Burr feels much older than Hamilton and his friends and Terera brilliantly plays his growing frustration on the trajectory of his own life. Much like the best characters, he isn’t simply a villain, but a man who ultimately makes a tragic mistake.
Obioma Ugoala’s George Washington is a strong and likeable commander, who also commands the stage whenever he is at it centre, while Jason Pennycooke brings the humour and wit of Lafayette and then Thomas Jefferson to life. Although I preferred Angelica as a character to Eliza, who is far less interesting, I did find “It’s Quiet Uptown” between Hamilton and Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza very moving, capturing two people dealing with loss in such a poignant way. Then of course there is the small, but hugely memorable role of King George, here played sublimely by Michael Jibson, who received huge applause from the audience after each brilliant appearance and is one of the highlights of the show.
As for the lead role, having already seen both actors who will be taking on that responsibility in London twice, the good news is that whether you see Jamael Westman or Ash Hunter, you will see a first-class performance. They both bring their personalities and little personal touches to the character, but are equally strong. Westman’s Hamilton is perhaps the grittier, cockier, big brother, when compared to Hunter’s younger Hamilton. He also perhaps more charismatic and has already settled down in to the role with confidence since I saw him two weeks ago. Ash Hunter however perhaps elicited a more emotional response from me; his Hamilton coming across as less arrogant and a little gentler. What really matters though, is that they are both already strong, confident and overflowing with enthusiasm, which shines on the stage.
So, to sum it up. At 7:29 p.m. on Thursday 7th December, I was a Hamilton newcomer, sceptical about the hype and fully prepared not to see the magic that seemingly captured every audience member who experiences it. Two weeks, four performances and multiple listens to the soundtrack later, I’m a fully paid up member of the revolution! My next pre-booked ticket for the show isn’t until April but, just like Aaron Burr, I want to be in the room where it happens far sooner than that!
Do anything you can to see this show. The ticket prices in London are nowhere near as steep as New York and the impressively tight ticket arrangement will hopefully limit the success of any extortionate secondary market. I’ll be writing a further post with information and tips for those either coming to London for the show, or for those looking for tickets, but my main message – Buy a ticket now and if you can, book two performances in one go, as you’ll undoubtably want to go back!
Welcome to London, Hamilton! Now that we have you and Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, we officially have the two happiest theatres in the world in this incredible city! If you do decide to come and are looking for tips for your visit, or are looking for tips getting tickets, I have also written a separate post that I hope will prove useful: Tips for First Time Visitors to the Victoria Palace Theatre for Hamilton
Hamilton continues its run at the Victoria Palace Theatre, with press night tomorrow (on 21st December 2017). There is limited availability until June 2018, with the next block of tickets to go on sale soon. For more information, visit the website here: http://www.hamiltonthemusical.co.uk