My 10 favourite shows of 2017

Well we made it, just. 2017 passed by with just the 346 visits to the theatre, I don’t really know why I do it to myself! Out of those, 33 were return visits to shows I’d already seen and I got out of London for 32 shows, not too bad considering I don’t do Edinburgh and no-one is covering my travel expenses!
For the round-up, I’ve not included Roman Tragedies (which would have been very high indeed) as I’d seen it before and ranked it #1 that year. (Conversely, I didn’t include Hamilton when I saw that last year, which is why it is on this year’s list – my blog, my inconsistent rules!). And changing things up a little in reflection of what I want to the site to be, I’m not going to be doing a least-favourite list, nor a Leading Man feature – make of that what you will.
  1. The Revlon Girl, Park

    Getting to revisit this show after attending a reading a couple of years ago was an enormous privilege. And knowing in advance what it was going to do made it all the more achingly poignant in its study of life after Aberfan, I didn’t cry like that in another theatre all year long, I didn’t ovate like that either. One to watch out for should it ever return.

  2. A Little Night Music, Watermill

    Maybe I’m biased – this is where the blog gets its name from after all – but Paul Foster’s production at the gorgeous Watermill Theatre was masterly. Actor-musicianship at its best, Josefina Gabrielle elevating ‘Send in the Clowns’ to the gods, a sexy man in uniform…what more do you want from your Sondheim?!

  3. Barber Shop Chronicles, National

    A show that utterly transformed what it felt like to sit in the Dorfman. I could watched two hours of the pre-show entertainment in all honesty, it was so entertaining, but Inua Ellams’ study of black masculinity was a vital piece of writing  

  4. Hamilton, Victoria Palace

    If I hadn’t seen it on Broadway this would probably have been #1. As it is, the gap between this top 4 was infinitesimal and there’s no doubting that Hamilton is an extraordinary success that will hopefully live long at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace.

  5. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible/Apollo

    Whilst I’m delighted it is doing so well in London, it felt important to see this show in Sheffield, its spiritual home as well as its literal setting, new musical theatre writing that is forward-thinking in so many ways, not least its presentation of diversity.

  6. An Octoroon, Orange Tree

    And speaking of diversity, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins made us all think a lot harder than we’re used to about race and how it is presented on our stages. A triumph for the Orange Tree and the deserved recipient of a NT transfer in the summer.

  7. Follies, National Theatre

    The head-dresses! The costumes! Every aspect of the design! 
    The Dee! The Quast! The Staunton!
    This may not be a perfect show but this was the perfect production of it.

  8. Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

    Emma Rice bade farewell to the Globe in the most Emma Rice-ish way possible, with a glorious new musical that brought sound, light and chocolate-making into the Sam Wanamaker like never before (and probably never again!).

  9. Hamlet, Almeida

    A thought-provoking, modern interpretation that showed Robert Icke (after last year’s Mary Stuart) really establishing his place as one of our most exciting, innovative directors. Andrew Scott wasn’t bad either…

  10. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory

    I really thought this warm-hearted British musical would have given the Menier another West End transfer but apparently it wasn’t to be. A real shame as it was really rather good.
    Shows 11-25 below the cut

  11. Yank! A WWII Love Story, Charing Cross
  12. Girl From The North Country, Old Vic
  13. a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), Royal Court
  14. The Ferryman, Royal Court
  15. King Lear, Minerva
  16. Frankenstein, Brockley Jack
  17. Trestle, Southwark Playhouse
  18. Little Women the Musical, Hope Mill
  19. The Glass Menagerie, Duke of York’s
  20. Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange
  21. Beginning, National Theatre
  22. Caroline or Change, Minerva
  23. Network, National Theatre
  24. The Life, Southwark Playhouse
  25. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Wyndham’s

My 10 favourite shows of 2016

I started the year intending to see fewer shows than in 2015, when I made 304 visits to the theatre but somehow, I seem have crept up to 332 for 2016. The only consolation is that it is still some way off the high water mark of 2014…383. Anyway, here’s my selection of the shows that made me sit up and sometimes stand up this year, the ones that truly stood out in a crowded diary and on whom I look back most fondly. (For reasons best known to myself, I’ve decided not to include my NY trip on here, on which case Hamilton would have been in first place, second place, third place etc etc…).


1 Mary Stuart

I always feel slightly guilty about putting a play I’ve seen in December on this list but Robert Icke’s adaptation of Schiller’s queen-off was pretty much everything I want from theatre. A director influenced by van Hove but making his own mark too, two of the best actors in the country in Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, plus a company and creative team on fire. I went back the next week, got the same casting arrangement but still enjoyed it just as much, if not even more. If there’s tickets left, for love of God book now!

2 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A titanic production by Dominic Cooke of August Wilson’s classic, which set the tone for a superb year at the National Theatre, making a mockery of those who too easily decried the opening salvos of Rufus Norris’ reign. Startling performances from O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati kept the drama pinsharp, invaluable contributions from Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey herself kept it unpredictable, its racial commentary feels only too pertinent in the light of this tumultuous year. 

3 Minefield

Much of the LIFT 2016 programme was fascinating but Lola Arias’ examination of what we ask of our armed forces was unexpectedly enlightening and thoroughly unmissable. Working with veterans from both sides of the 1982 Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict, the melding of documentary theatre with something more, well, theatrical was piercingly strong and one of the most emotionally true things of the year.

4 Escaped Alone

So much of this production has etched itself onto my mind, I barely need to go and see it again when it returns to the Royal Court in January: “terrible rage”, Miriam Buether’s Jekyll and Hyde design, “terrible rage”, that amazing cast, “terrible rage”, Churchill’s vivid imagery, “terrible rage”.

5 A Raisin in the Sun

My first time seeing Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece in an interpretation from Sheffield-based Eclipse and what a powerhouse of a play it is. I spent the journey home googling the amazing casts who have previously performed it but to my mind, the slightly ramshackle nature of this touring production suited it down to the ground perfectly.

6 Pink Mist

I described this as “as much dramatic poem as pure drama, a deeply lyrical response to the war on terror” and I can’t think of any better way to reword it. A striking combination of powerful source materials, physical theatre, stunning design and a (if there’s any justice) star-making lead performance from Phil Dunster.

7 Steel Magnolias

I was a little nervous seeing this as the film is so beloved and the previous stage adaptation didn’t quite hit the mark but in the (literal) sweatbox intensity of the Hope in high summer, all the joy and tragedy of Robert Harling’s tale came vibrantly to life. And given the intimacy of the space, it was brilliantly almost an immersive production, the company’s laughter and tears at one with our own, it was all I could do not to embrace them and then get onstage for a shampoo and set.

8 The Grinning Man

This macabre Victor Hugo adaptation was a jewel in Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary celebrations and it must surely, surely, have future life whether in this theatre or another. Musically interesting, dramatically thrilling and altogether exhilarating, this was the kind of exciting musical theatre that makes me glad that I get myself out of London every now and then. 

9 Jess and Joe Forever

Achingly, delicately tender yet seriously committed to the sensitivities of its subject matter, Zoe Cooper’s coming-of-age two-hander just blew me away. Derek Bond’s nuanced direction of two deeply soulful performances from young actors Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones made this a tear-soaked winner, I only wish I’d gone earlier in the run so I could have seen it again.

10 BU21

Another show returning in 2017, as it transfers to the Trafalgar Studios, and Stuart Slade’s adventurous writing is certainly deserving of the wider attention it will get, examining the ways in which society responds to times of crisis, both in terms of those directly affected and those who have to join in via social media,

11-25

And my least favourite shows…
Under new ownership, the St James will become The Other Palace next year as a home for new musical theatre and here’s hoping it avoids anything as cringeworthy as Miss Atomic Bomb
No amount of drugs could induce me to go back to The Painkiller, an embarrassing throwback that formed part of Kenneth Branagh’s residency at the Garrick 

A flawed take on Gatsby
Against the popular trend I know but I’ve never known as quickly that a comedy was not for me as The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
And last but by no means least, Bill Kenwright’s most shameful hour in hanging Sarah Harding out to dry in Ghost

My 10 favourite shows of 2015

So here we are, 304 plays later (nearly a hundred less than last year doncha know!) and it’s time to reflect and put them in some kind of order, because that’s what we do at this time of year. Overall, I think it was a good rather than exceptional year of theatre, there didn’t seem to be the same degree of breathtaking moments as in 2014. Which made ordering this list really hard, I could honestly say the top 10 were all of a standard and could easily have swapped places with each other…

Anyhoo, here’s my selection of my favourite productions of 2015 (small order of business – eligibility is based on when I saw the show first, so Gypsy and In the Heights both fall into last year’s cohort, and it’s pronounced fos-tîr’ē-ən ;-))
I saw this around the same time as the all-white, all-male American Buffalo and the difference could not have been more pronounced. Danai Gurira’s excoriatingly powerful writing bristled with truths barely-acknowledged in the wider world, the complex way in which wars (here the Second Liberian Civil War) are fought and ‘won’, ignoring the inconvenient reality of lives on the ground. For the women of this rebel army base, the consequences of their different choices were undeniably compelling and outstandingly performed by a cracking ensemble (Letitia Wright and T’Nia Miller particularly memorable), well directed by Caroline Byrne for the Gate, securing its reputation as one of the best places to go for new writing in the UK.
 

I don’t think anyone dared imagine that the #AlmeidaGreeks season would be this good but from the off, Robert Icke’s boldly contemporary adaptation of Aeschylus’ trio of tragedies had an incendiary quality that burned bright all season long. Key to Oresteia’s power was foregrounding Iphigenia’s sacrifice, making us watch a father kill his little girl reframed Klytemnestra’s rage and its consequential outpourings most effectively and in Lia Williams’ hands, devastatingly.
Not a million miles away from Eclipsed in subject matter, but an altogether different theatrical beast. Jude Christian’s production of Cordelia Lynn’s scorching new play thrust the audience into a dangerously playful environment (I’ll never look at candy floss in the same way again) and then kept us tumbling further into the darkness of the rabbit-hole. Unforgettable stuff.
One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to be unabashedly personal when the mood strikes, and so it was with this most beloved of shows from my childhood. Little Shop… was actually the Royal Exchange’s festive show from last year but I only made it up in January and boy, was I glad I did.
You can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to debbie tucker green’s choice of stylisation but no matter where you stand on capital letters, there’s no denying the power of hang. Taut, intelligent, slippery and challenging, and with an uncompromising Marianne Jean-Baptiste at its heart – powerful stuff
I’ve not always totally loved Philip Ridley’s writing but frequent director David Mercatali has become increasingly keenly attuned to its hypnotic rhythms, making it a more appealing prospect . And with this (slightly) more playful piece, which allowed acting tours-de-forces from Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey, nailed it for me.
Small but perfectly formed, this touring two-hander from Box of Tricks thoroughly broke my heart. You felt every twist of Ella Carmen Greenhill’s keenly observed writing and with the devastating power of Remmie Milner and Jamie Samuels’ acting, the show wielded an extraordinary power.
Martin McDonagh’s long-awaited return to the theatre didn’t disappoint, brilliantly mining a mordantly dark vein of tragicomedy (even if audiences do seem to be focusing exclusively on the latter part, in their determination to have a hilariously good time!)
Everybody say yeah, yeah! YEAH!
One of Daniel Evans’ many innovations during his time in Sheffield has been to turn it into a hotspot for some cracking regional premieres – shows like Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, Deborah Bruce’s The Distance and next year’s Contractions by Mike Bartlett have ensured exciting new writing doesn’t remain the province of London theatres and in the case of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, actually gave us an utterly gorgeous production that improved on the original.
11-25

And my least favourite shows…
The unthinking cultural insensitivity of Thoroughly Modern Millie
The baffling West End bow for The Mentalists
The well meaning but misguided cancer musical Happy Ending
The show that did exactly what it said on the tin, The Trial
and the best worst thing I saw, Flames, the show that made me laugh the most, though I really don’t think it was their intention

2011 Best New Play + Best New Musical

Best New Play

As the first full production in the Bush Theatre’s new premises, expectations for The Kitchen Sink were fairly substantial and in Tom Wells’ new play, they were met and then some. An intimate family drama, full of tender personal moments and a sense of humour that provided several laugh out loud moments. An interesting set design indicates just how interestingly flexible the new Bush space will be but it is writing of this calibre, performed by acting of top quality, that will ensure the Bush remains at the vanguard of new writing in London.

Honourable mention – For Once

Completely unexpected as I had no expectations or preconceptions about this play, the debut from Welsh playwright Tim Price. For Once displayed an excellent grasp of story-telling, interleaving three narratives in the aftermath of a shocking car crash to powerful, emotional effect. The Hampstead Theatre’s downstairs space has been a hotbed of new writing talent, the only downside to their ‘no critics’ policy is that these shows aren’t necessarily receiving the publicity they deserve.

13,

7-10

Best New Musical

There’s hardly anything more I can say about Matilda, so read these three reviews – of the first time I saw the show, how I fell in love with the soundtrack and then revisiting the show once it had transferred into London – and follow how I completely and utterly tumbled for this musical which is surely destined to become a classic.

Honourable mention: London Road

So close for this one, I was even tempted to make it joint first, but the sheer joy of Matilda won out in the end. But London Road made its quite considerable mark by successfully carving out its own identity as something quite new and different, unique even, as a verbatim musical dramatising the experiences of a group of Ipswich residents dealing with the impacts of the serial killings of 5 prostitutes. Revisiting the show as the riots hit the country in the summer, I was struck at how powerful its message was, about how mutually beneficial coming together as a community can be, and how strong it is musically – indeed, the soundtrack is now available to buy and is definitely worth a punt.

2011 Best Play Revival + Best Musical Revival

Best Play Revival

I decided not to create a separate category for Shakespeare productions, and in the final analysis I’m glad as it meant that I was comparing the merits of them against the other plays that I saw in a much more rigorous fashion. And the revival that impressed me the most was Cheek By Jowl’s Russian production of The Tempest at the Barbican. Nothing less than a radical reinvigoration of the text that set the bar too high for any of the other Tempests I saw this year, it made complete sense from start to finish – no mean feat for Will – and exuded a bracing energy that had me recommending this to people from the moment I left the theatre and got about 14 people along to see it – Barbican, I await my commission!

Honourable mention: Comedy of Errors (Propeller)

I still make no apology for the Shakespeare-heaviness as Propeller’s interpretation of The Comedy of Errors managed that rare thing of creating genuine laughter and proper comedy in a ‘Comedy’. Absolutely jam-packed with innovations and funny business both clever and puerile, this was never less than hilarious from start to finish. And I’ve just about recovered from being snubbed, twice, by Dominic Tighe, my proposals of marriage were not sufficiently enticing 😉

7-10

Best Musical Revival

A show that simply filled my heart with glee from its very first moments, Andrew Wright’s choreography kicking into top gear from the off and the evergreen score of such classic songs, striking a wondrous chord of unfettered joy. I never thought I’d ever be so happy to get splashed as much as I did in the theatre and I am so happy that the show will be transferring into the West End very soon: I’m not sure if I’ll go again though as the memory I hold of the show from my front row set is just perfect.

Honourable mention: Company (Crucible)

The last show I saw in 2011 but what a cracker. A top-notch ensemble, crowned by Daniel Evans’ musical debut at the theatre where he serves as Artistic Director, made magic on the open stage of the Crucible in a production which whilst firmly rooted in the 1970s, breathed a fresh new vitality into the show making it a great year for regional Sondheim’s, alongside Chichester’s Sweeney Todd.

Top 25 shows of 2010

And just to recap, here’s the top 25 shows, plays and musicals combined, for 2010.
1. Tribes
2. You Me Bum Bum Train
3. Palace of the End
4. Love Love Love
5. After the Dance
6. Once Upon A Time at the Adephi
7. Love Story
8. Les Misérables
9. All My Sons
10. Nevermore
11. Salad Days
12. Holding the Man
13. Broken Glass
14. The Man
15. The Drowsy Chaperone
16. Legally Blonde The Musical
17. Henry IV Part I&II
18. The Glass Menagerie
19. State Fair
20. Iolanthe
21. The Road to Mecca
22. Clybourne Park
23. Richard III
24. The White Guard
25. Romeo & Juliet (RSC)

2010 Best Play & Best Musical

Best Play



1. Tribes
This won’t really be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog as Nina Raine’s Tribes is one of those plays that will surely stay with me forever, with its immense personal resonance to my own experiences, some beautiful staging ideas, an incredible ensemble and as perfect and sympathetic a representation of the issues it covered than one could have hoped for. This was theatre at its best: thought-provoking, highly emotional and truly life-changing.

2. You Me Bum Bum Train
As brilliant an introduction to immersive theatrical experiences as one could have hoped for. Booked on a random whim without knowing anything about it, this was one of the most fun things I have ever done, yet the moments before I entered into this world were ones of genuine fear as I really had no idea whatsoever to expect and was terrified at the prospect of getting into the wheelchair that started the journey. Keep an eye out for their next adventure, it will be definitely worth it.
3. Palace of the End

A stunningly affecting evening of three monologues about Iraq that was rarely easy viewing but vitally important and intensely compelling: a triumph for the Arcola.
4. Love Love Love

Mike Bartlett proving himself as one of the most interesting playwrights in the UK and tackling current issues with an incisive touch and one of the best ears for sharply observed dialogue.
5. After the Dance
Classy National Theatre production of this relatively unknown Rattigan play with a great ensemble, great dresses and whetting the appetite perfectly for the centenary of his birth in 2011.

6. All My Sons
7. Holding The Man
8. Broken Glass

9. The Man

10. Henry IV Part I & II


Just missing out…
The Glass Menagerie, The Road To Mecca, Clybourne Park

Best Musical



1. Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi
An unexpected pleasure and one of the few times that I deliberately booked to see a show for a second time within the month. Phil Wilmott’s show was an exuberant experience, full of hummable tunes, fantastic choreography and a moving storyline bringing laughs and tears, this was sheer delight for me and perfectly suited to the Union Theatre, a real force on the South Bank and genuinely challenging the Menier for the go-to theatre for exciting and interesting musicals.

2. Love Story

A rarity in the West End in being a new British musical and a classy, understated and simply gorgeous one at that. Taking the well known story and fashioning a string-laden chamber musical out of it and featuring some stunning singing, great chemistry between its leads and onstage pasta sauce making (whilst singing), it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible so book your tickets now!
3. Les Misérables
A fantastic makeover of an old favourite that was surprisingly effective and a fitting tribute for its 25th anniversary celebrations.

4. Nevermore
A curious little Canadian musical about Edgar Allan Poe which was eerily atmospheric and utterly captivating: deserves to be brought back by the Barbican.

5. Salad Days
6. The Drowsy Chaperone

7. Legally Blonde The Musical

8. State Fair

9. Iolanthe
10. Midsummer [a play with songs]

Just missing out…Spend! Spend! Spend!, Into the Woods, Just So

2009 Best Play/Best Musical


Best Play

The Roman Tragedies, Barbican
On paper, it shouldn’t have worked: 6 hours of 3 Shakespeare plays back-to-back performed in Dutch, but this was one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences one could have imagined. Genuinely innovative: using live-video footage effectively and creatively, inviting the audience onto the stage to watch from sofas there, but supplemented with acting of a first-rate degree, often so good you didn’t even need the surtitles to understand what was being said. On top of that, it made three of Shakespeare’s longest plays feel fresh, new and directly relevant to issues of the nature of democracy in our world today: it must come back!
Honourable mention
Our Class, National Theatre
One of the most important new plays written in recent years: a painful, brutal account of the horrors perpetrated in wartime but also of how those actions continue to reverberate through the years and most importantly a reminder of what humans are capable of when caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Beautifully staged, hauntingly acted, this is a play that will remain with me for a long time.

Arcadia, Duke of York’s
Cock, Royal Court
A Streetcar Named Desire, Donmar Warehouse
When the Rain Stops Falling, Almeida
Best Fringe* Play
Public Property, Trafalgar Studios 2Sam Peter Jackson’s dark comedy managed the rare feat of being exactly that: both dark and comic in the right measure and in plentiful supply. In the intimate space of the Trafalgar Studios basement, the rapid-fire quips left me constantly in stitches whilst the manipulative, duplicitous plot raised questions about the celebrity-hungry world in which we now live, a play which has improved in my estimation since seeing it.

Honourable mention
The Spanish Tragedy, Arcola
It is well-established that fringe theatre is generally more daring and able to take creative risks than the West End, but rarely is it done with such elan and style as by this Mitchell Moreno-directed version of The Spanish Tragedy. Utilising elements of Japanese puppet theatre and video sparingly enhanced this sparse production to a new level, and a range of inventive ways to suggest the extreme levels of gore found a strange beauty amongst all the horrific death.
Frank’s Closet, Hoxton Hall
The Last Five Years, Duchess
The Pietà, St John’s Piccadilly
Edmond, Wilton’s Music Hall
Best Musical
Hello, Dolly!, Regents Park Open Air Theatre
As happy and delightful as musicals can get. Completely old-school and refreshingly free of any postmodern ironic touches, I saw this outdoors on a unseasonably cold, rainy late August night and it filled me with such warmth and joy I could have sat right through it again (though perhaps with a blanket!)

Honourable mention
La Cage aux Folles, Playhouse Theatre
Run a close second with Priscilla, but any musical that can tempt me back time after time (3 trips for me this year) has to be acknowledged. With some canny casting decisions that kept audiences coming back and regular changes to arrest any flagging numbers, this musical remained a delight for me. A happy, proud show but with as sweet a love story at the centre of it as ever you will see. Such a shame that it is now closed but I hope it does well on Broadway.
The Last Five Years
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Sister Act
Sweet Charity