2016 Theatre Review – My Favourite Productions of the Year!

Although there are a few days of 2016 left, I’ve very likely been to the theatre for the last time this year and so it’s time for one of my favourite posts – my theatre review. It’s always lovely to reflect on another year of theatregoing and all the wonderful productions I’ve been lucky enough to see over the previous 12 months.

Due to a few weeks with a bad cough during which I didn’t go to the theatre (I refuse to be that person coughing through a show!), 2016’s final tally was just 70 different productions; 12 of which were musicals (a record I think for me), with the rest being plays. As with any year there are always some repeat visits and in 2016 I saw 11 shows more than once. Although this year saw me take a long overdue trips to New York for 11 days of theatre (that seems to be the magic number for me this year doesn’t it?), I’ve actually been to very little regional theatre in 2016 and I’m determined to improve this over the next twelve months.

2016 has been a very strong year of theatre for me, with those containing a strong female performance particularly standing out. I’ve seen very little that has truly disappointed and nothing that will be added to my all-time worst production list. So, below is my top ten productions of the year. Before the year is out, I’ll also be posting my list of 17 shows to see in 2017 so please do pop back to have a look and let me know what your theatre highlights have been this year!

Productions of the Year – My Top 10!

1. Groundhog Day (Old Vic)

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There could only be one show at the top of my 2016 list and that’s Groundhog Day, the new musical based on the film, which premiered this year in London, before departing after only its ten week run to prepare for Broadway (previews start in March). I had been sceptical about a musical of this 1993 film (one that I’d not been a huge fan of to begin with). On seeing it for the first time however, I knew this was something very special indeed and I loved it every time I went (well if any show warrants repeat trips it’s this one). The colourful sets helped bring the community of Punxsutawney to life, and the book by Danny Rubin with Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics were a joy. It managed to be both very very funny and deeply moving over the course of the show, as Phil Connors gradually becomes a better man. Of course, the show needed a strong lead to anchor it and Andy Karl was utterly superb as Connors. He was able to portray a man who was both irritating, but still likeable and someone you were rooting for by the end. Yes, I intend to go to NYC to see it, but in the meantime, Mr. Minchin, please release a cast recording! You can read my full reviews here and here.

2. People, Places & Things (Wyndham’s)

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I missed this play during its original run at the National Theatre, but was able to see it when it reached the West End earlier this year. It certainly lived up to the hype, with Denise Gough giving one of the finest stage performances I’ve ever witnessed. As Emma, the young woman dealing with a drug and alcohol addiction, Gough pulled you in to her world and didn’t let go until the end. Very few theatre performances have as strong an emotional impact as this one and her Olivier win in April was truly deserved. I know this will be a performance I talk about for years to come. Full review here.

3. Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum)

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This time last year, one of the most anticipated events of the 2016 theatre calendar was Glenn Close’s return to the role of Norma Desmond, one she performed on Broadway over 20 years ago (and one she will take back to NYC in 2017). I’d never been to the Coliseum, but it was the ideal venue for this unique staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. “Semi-staged”, there was very little set; instead the focus was on the performances and the full ENO orchestra on stage. Fred Johanson was excellent as Norma’s loyal butler, as was Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis. However, this was always going to be Close’s show and she was superb. In fact I loved it so much I had to go again and being on the front row that second time is an experience I will never forget. Full review here.

4. Eclipsed (John Golden, NYC)

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My trip to NYC this year was designed to be a theatre-fuelled holiday and it certainly was! I saw some excellent productions during my time there, but the one that stands out and makes this top ten is Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed, which centres on the lives on five women during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play was able to capture the perfect balance of serious hard-hitting material and humour. For a play that has some moments that are quite difficult to watch, it was also remarkably funny too. On top of that, all five women in this play were superb (made clear by the raft of nominations it received). Lupita Nyong’a seemed so much younger in her role, which commanded your attention until the final moments, while Pascale Armand made me laugh with her witty remarks. I’m so pleased I was able to see this. Full review here.

5. Mary Stuart (Almeida)

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Last weekend I was at the Almeida for a double day of Mary Stuart. Seeing this new show twice in one day was the only way to guarantee I’d see both actresses in each of the lead roles of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. I’m still writing up my review (watch this space), but needless to say that it’s inclusion on this list tells you exactly what I thought of it! The Almeida has such a unique atmosphere and you can feel the energy in the room as the coin spin takes place to determine who will play each part. On seeing both versions, I was thoroughly impressed by both actresses, although Lia Williams brought something extra to the stage whether as Mary or Elizabeth. It’s an exciting, powerful and absorbing production that you should see if you can.

6. Unreachable (Royal Court)

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After having to return a ticket for earlier in the run, I’m so pleased I managed to see the final performance of this brilliant new play by writer and director Anthony Neilson, although due to the unique structure of the creative process, it would have been great to have seen it more than once, as Neilson uses the rehearsal process to mould the story and relies on improv from the cast. Story-wise, it’s about a group of creative people coming together to make a film, with the director intent on capturing the right light (played by Matt Smith) and one of the actors, Ivan the Brute, an unpredictable lunatic (Jonjo O’Neil)! All the actors were excellent, but special credit must go to these two, who had me in stitches throughout, particularly Jonjo. It’s a character and performance I won’t forget in a hurry!

7. Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)

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2016 also saw the arrival of the juggernaut that is the new Harry Potter play and I feel very lucky to have already been able to see it, knowing that some people have tickets for 2018! Set 18 years after the end of the seventh book in the series, we get to see Harry, Hermione and Ron as adults with children of their own off to Hogwart’s and the story focuses on the friendship of Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. It’s a superb show, with magical trickery, lovely sets, a story with a positive message for us all and some brilliant actors. Special mention to Jamie Parker (one of my favourites on stage who really does bring something new to Harry) and Anthony Boyle who deserves as much recognition as possible for stealing the show as Scorpius. Review here.

8. Yerma (Young Vic)

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Billie Piper has established herself in recent years as a fine stage actress and her lead role in the Young Vic’s modern interpretation of Lorca’s Yerma is the best I’ve ever seen her. In a one act play, she simply left me speechless and a bit of a wreck through her portrayal of a young woman driven to despair by her inability to conceive a child. In this modern world where people like to think we can have it all and where woman are putting off having children until later, this play has an added emotional resonance. Brendan Cowell was also fantastic as her husband, struggling to keep their marriage together as his wife slowly breaks down. It was an emotionally draining experience, but a theatrical tour de force that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Full review here.

9. Richard II (RSC, Barbican, London & BAM, NYC)

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Okay, okay, anyone who reads this blog may notice that this production has been on this list before, but technically the 2016 version did have a largely different cast and therefore I think I cab get away with it! David Tennant remains one of my favourite actors and a brilliant Shakespearean actor. Returning to Richard after a break of almost two years meant he was able to bring much more weight to it than he did originally. This was a stronger, more confident performance. Add to that the inspired addition of Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke, a role he made his own and a performance I preferred to Nigel Lindsay. Top marks also need to go to Sam Marks, who stepped in to Oliver Rix’s shoes as Aumerle and brought even more emotional depth than I could have hoped for. I was also lucky enough to travel to NYC to see the final two performances of Richard, meaning that I was able to see not only the first preview, but the very last show. Full review here and reflection on the full King and Country cycle here.

10. The Dazzle (FOUND111)

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Picking a tenth production for this list has been quite difficult and has left me torn, but in the end I had to choose a production I first saw last December and returned to in January of this year and that’s The Dazzle. With only a cast of three and staged in the intimate setting of FOUND111 (one of the venues of the year in my view), this was a show that was both humorous and deeply moving, as we see the bond between the Collyer brothers. Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Langley, whose strange ways are an increasing strain on his brother. However, it was David Dawson’s performance as Homer that floored me and by the final scene I was a wreck. Full review here.

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So, that’s my top 10 from another year of theatre. That was quite tough! Had I had more space, other productions I loved this year included Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar), The Encounter (Barbican) and the returns of the RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much About About Nothing (at Chichester, but which are now currently finally in London) and This House (also now in London).

It always frustrates me that there are things I miss, but ultimately you can’t see everything. That being said, I’m determined to go to more regional theatre, but also more new venues next year. It’s a little exciting to wonder what memories I’ll be looking back on this time next year! After a suggestion from a friend, my picks for top performances of the theatre year are in a separate post here, as are my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.

Thanks for reading!

 

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Theatre Review – Yerma (Young Vic) starring Billie Piper

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Simon Stone’s modern adaptation of Yerma, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 play, is one of those nights at the theatre I’ll never forget. Productions such as this latest offering from the Young Vic (a venue that continues to excite with its programming), are exactly why I love the live theatre experience. Simply put, you don’t just watch this production, you feel its intensity and it stays with you long after you’ve left.

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Brendan Cowell & Billie Piper. Photo: Johan Persson

The story revolves around its central character, played by Billie Piper, in what is undoubtedly her finest stage performance to date. Set in today’s London (complete with references to Sadiq Khan, Brexit and Boris), her life is falling in to place perfectly. Together with her boyfriend John, she has just bought a house and they both have successful careers, and so she turns to the next, logical path in their life together – having a child. It’s apparently not something he thought she wanted, but at 33, in a world where women are constantly reminded about their ticking biological clocks, she is starting to think differently about the future. Over the course of the play, we witness how what begins as a seemingly casual idea becomes the all-consuming focus of her life and how that affects not just her, but everyone around her.

It’s a timeless story, which will no doubt resonate with its audience and in this 21st century interpretation, Piper could so easily be any young, professional, modern woman in her early 30s, which is highlighted by her lack of a name (the programme simply referring to the role of “Her”). With so much opportunity and choice on offer to us today, it’s incredibly harrowing to watch as something out of her (and indeed all of our) control, can so devastate someone’s world.

With no interval, time passes quickly, sometimes by hours, sometimes by years, signposted by the two small screens above the stage, on to which chapters, complete with short descriptions, appear. Initially, this style felt a little jarring, but you soon adjust to its rhythm and as time moves forward and each scene faded to black, I found I was bracing myself for what I might see next before me. As is the case when watching some of the Greek classics, you sense tragedy is inevitable.

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Billie Piper is utterly incredible. Photo: Johan Persson

I admit that I hadn’t heard of the play before and having now seen it, I understand why it is described as one of the greatest female roles in drama. Indeed, I’m surprised it hasn’t been performed more and following in the footsteps of recent strong female roles including Medea at the National Theatre and Electra at the Old Vic, it’s a role that results in an astonishing performance from Ms. Piper, which together with recent stage successes in The Effect and Great Britain, mark her out as a truly talented actress. Her character is so very human and painfully believable that you could forget this isn’t real life unfolding before you, as she experiences the gauntlet of human emotion from love and happiness, to anxiety, fear, despair, jealousy, anger and indeed deep sadness and grief. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t pause to catch its breath.

Lizzie Clachan’s set also adds to this intensity, as the audience sits on either side of a long, rectangular, perspex box. We observe the lives of the characters, seemingly trapped within its confines. It’s as if they are under the microscope and as Piper begins to unravel, the closed off nature of the stage setting enhances our sense of her isolation.

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John MacMillan as Victor. Photo: Johan Persson.

Although, Piper is the focus of Yerma, she is not the only one giving a strong performance in this production. Maureen Beattie is very good as her emotionally distant mother, who although she clearly loves her two daughters, is not very good at demonstrating it openly. John MacMillan brings a gentleness to her former boyfriend Victor, whose reappearance in her life a decade later brings with him the painful reminder of the child she chose not to keep when she didn’t think it was the right time.

However it’s Brendan Cowell’s moving portrayal of her partner John that stands out. He may seem rather unsupportive early on, focusing on his job more than his relationship, but as the play progresses you find yourself growing more and more sorry for him, as he watches the person he loves changing while he can do nothing to stop it. His chemistry with Piper is intense throughout, whether in the lighter, passionate early days, or in the darker, painful years that follow and their raw emotion is incredible, if not difficult to watch.

Simon Stone has done a fantastic job of updating the source material from its rural, farmland setting in Spain, to 2016’s London, in which although women’s place in society is very different, the struggles many face to conceive remain unchanged. He has made some changes to the underlying story. One in particular is very interesting and, although I won’t spoil it for those familiar with the play  was, in my view, a logical change that made perfect sense given Piper’s character’s emotional state. I also loved that some of the dialogue felt as though it was improvised by the actors in the moment, which again added to the realism of the piece.

In short, Yerma is a superb production and will without a doubt be one of my theatre highlights of the year. It is immensely powerful and manages to capture moments of wit, humour and love, as well as anger, sadness and despair and within which Billie Piper commands the stage in a performance worthy of all the accolades it will surely receive. It may be a difficult subject, which is sometimes painful and indeed heartbreaking to watch, but theatre of this standard should not be missed. Book your tickets now while you still can.

Yerma continues its run at the Young Vic until 24th September 2016. Running time is approximately 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval. Prices range from £10 – £35. For more information and availability visit the website here.