My 10 favourite shows of 2019

I barely saw 250 shows this year, quiet by my standards! And as is the way of these things, here’s a rundown of some of the productions that moved me most…

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse
I haven’t lost it in a theatre as much as this in a good long while. I cry at all sorts but this superlative musical had me trying, and failing, to choke back huge, hacking sobs. And I can still sing some of the songs – it has to come back, surely. “It’s all just a matter of time…”

2. Call Me Fury, Hope Theatre
“This is the history we should be teaching, these are the stories we should be sharing”, this striking and soulful piece gave voice to so many whom history have ignored, and was bloody entertaining with it. 

3. West Side Story, Curve Leicester
A musical I love, in a production that I simply adored. Getting to see two WSSs in one year was a privilege and for me, it was the emotional heart of Nikolai Foster’s production that won out.

4. As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
The second year of the Public Acts programme comes up trumps once again with this gorgeous musical version of the Shakespeare classic, community theatre at its finest.

5. Islander, Southwark Playhouse
The magic of musical theatre distilled into two voices and a loop pedal – a marvellously inventive and endlessly moving. 

6. Amélie the Musical, Watermill Theatre/UK Tour/The Other Palace
As sweet-sharp as a diabolo grenadine, something truly gorgeous emerges from this film adaptation that simply demands you come up with better words than quirky to describe it.

7. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre
Tell me why… About as much fun as you can have in the West End right now, this is a particularly fine example of the jukebox model and I want it that way.

8. Sexy Lamp, VAULT
A standout piece in a standout festival, Katie Arnstein’s brutally honest monologue about navigating the patriarchy may be lightened with songs and sweets but is no less effective for it.

9. Karaoke Play, Bunker Theatre
Deeply confessional and subtly magical, Annie Jenkins’ inter-connected monologues combined to become so much more than the sum of their parts.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre
A magical family tale, perfect for kids of all ages. Not even reading the exit poll as I left could ruin the feeling! 

Shows 11-25 under the cut

Continue reading “My 10 favourite shows of 2019”

Film Review: All Is True (2018)

Ben Elton and Kenneth Branagh latter-day Shakespeare biography All Is True is at once precious and poignant

“You spent so long putting words into other people’s mouths, you think it only matters what is said”

A most curious one this, continuing our creative obsession with filling in the biographical gaps in the life of William Shakespeare (cf Shakespeare in LoveAnonymous; Dedication; Will). All Is True is written by Ben Elton, who has (comic) form in the shape of Upstart Crow, the TV show soon to make its own theatrical bow and has as its director, producer and star, one Kenneth Branagh.

In some ways, it is a beautiful film. Branagh eschews a lot of artifical lighting and flickers of candlelight illuminates several interior scenes to gorgeous effect. He also takes pains to find interesting angles for his shots and the opening image of his silhouetted figure against the burning Globe is stunning. And being able to call on the likes of Sir Ian McKellen (the Earl of Southampton) and Dame Judi Dench (Anne Hathaway) to toss off some Shakespeare recital is of course an unalloyed pleasure. Continue reading “Film Review: All Is True (2018)”

20 shows to look forward to in 2020

I look ahead to some of the 2020 shows exciting me most with an emphasis away from the West End, looking mostly instead at the London fringe and across the UK 

Sure, there’s all sorts of big ticket shows coming to London in 2020 (with big ticket prices too to go with their big names), like Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal, Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, A Doll’s House with Jessica Chastain. But there’s so much more to discover if you venture away from Shaftesbury Avenue…

1 The Glass Menagerie, Odéon–Théâtre de l’Europe at the Barbican
Not that I want to be predictable at all but Isabelle Huppert! Acting in French! Right in front of you! I understand that van Hove-fatigue might be setting in for people but only a FOOL would pass up the chance to see one of our greatest living actors. A FOOL! 

2 The Glass Menagerie, Royal Exchange
And if you wanted to do a direct compare and contrast, Atri Banerjee’s revival for the Royal Exchange will be worth checking out too for an alternative perspective. 

3 The Wicker Husband, Watermill
Even before Benjamin Button tore my heart apart, I was excited for the arrival of this new musical by Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark but now, the bar has been raised even higher. And the gorgeous intimacy of the Watermill feels like a perfect fit.


4 Children of Nora, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam
Me: “I don’t need any more Ibsen in my life”
Also me: Robert Icke revisiting the world of A Doll’s House through the eyes of the next generation? Yes please.

5 Romantics Anonymous, Bristol Old Vic
I don’t think I thought this delicious Koomin and Dimond musical would ever actually return, so this short run in the UK ahead of a US tour feels like a real blessing. Now where did I put my badge?
Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2020”

10 of my top moments of the decade

Ever behind the curve, I present 10 of my top moments in a theatre over the last ten years (plus a few bonus extra ones because whittling down this list was hard, and it will probably be different tomorrow anyway!)

© James Bellorini

Extraordinary Public Acts for a National Theatre

The establishment of the Public Acts programme at the National Theatre offered up something sensational in Pericles, an initiative designed to connect grassroot community organisations with major theatres, resulting in a production that swept over 200 non-professional performers onto the stage of the Olivier to create something that moved me more than 99% of professional productions.  A truly joyous and momentous occasion. 

Honourable mention: this year’s musical take on As You Like It proved just as heart-swellingly beautiful over at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Continue reading “10 of my top moments of the decade”

Review: Teenage Dick, Donmar Warehouse

In which I take issue with Michael Billington (and the whole theatre ecology) (and the world) when it comes to dealing with disability. Something which Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse does extremely well.

“As winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling”

There’s something a little interesting about the way that theatre, and theatre criticism, is tackling disability. Movements towards promoting racial diversity have rightfully been widely celebrated and are beginning the process of hopefully recalibrating the theatrical and critical firmament for good. But when it comes to disability, the same can’t be really said… Onstage, glimmers like the current RSC ensemble and the recently closed Joe Egg remain the exception rather than the rule; when it comes to reviewers, disabled voices are even thinner on the ground (are we surprised, when accessibility in so much pub theatres remains limited, when captioning services are rarely available by press night…).  

Which is all a rather long-winded way of introducing the canny brilliance of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, open now at the Donmar Warehouse, and to pull up Michael Billington on assumptions made in his response. His final paragraph talks of “a radical shift in the politics of disability and a revolution in theatrical performance” which he feels undermines the play’s argument about how disabled people can be treated in a society that always, always bends to the ableist. There’s just so much privilege baked in there that I feel I have to react, even if Billington is on his valedictory lap of honour. Continue reading “Review: Teenage Dick, Donmar Warehouse”

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Jermyn Street Theatre

Shakespeare via Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith and Judy Collins? All’s Well That Ends Well works well at the Jermyn Street Theatre

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together”

Finally managed to get to the Jermyn Street Theatre to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a co-production with Guildford Shakespeare Company, after director Tom Littler spoke so passionately about it to me. And I’m glad I did too, as it is a rather wonderfully inventive and musical interpretation of the play that makes it sing in a new way, albeit with a careworn air of Joni Mitchell.

Pushed into a (near-)contemporary setting and presented almost as a memory play by Hannah Morrish’s Helena, handing out keepsakes as props. The plot isn’t one of Shakespeare’s strongest, as Helena tries to inveigle her way into the affections of the higher-born Count Bertram, but suggesting it as a recollection of the folly of (younger) love, I bought this take on it. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Jermyn Street Theatre”

Review: & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre

Late 90s pop is always my jam so a musical that features it is always going to be a winner. The brilliant & Juliet is so much more besides as well though, don’t miss it at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

“You hear my voice, your hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake the ground”

What if Juliet didn’t die? And what if the writer and producer of some of the most iconic pop music of the last two decades (think Britney, Backstreet Boys, Céline, Katy Perry, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk just to name a few) decided to lend his back catalogue of songs to a new musical dedicated to her? The result is & Juliet, a slice of energetic and hugely entertaining musical theatre that explodes with joy at the Shaftesbury Theatre. 

David West Read’s smartly self-aware book employs a metatheatrical twist as we open with William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway having a barney about the ending to his latest play Romeo and Juliet and she persuades him to give her a bash at writing a new one with him. Thus we pick up in Verona where Juliet reclaims ‘…Baby One More Time’ from Darius and declares her intention to flee to Paris with her best gal pals and flirt with some foreign guys. But as William and Anne tinker with their plotting, the fractures in their own relationship come to the fore, causing some major new plot twists. Continue reading “Review: & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre”

News: new productions and casting updates for the National Theatre

Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor headline a new production of Romeo and Juliet, while Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy star in Gary Owen’s Romeo and Julie, among other big news from the National Theatre

New productions

Simon Godwin returns to the National Theatre to direct Shakespeare’s ROMEO & JULIET following his critically-acclaimed productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night in the Olivier Theatre. Set in modern Italy in a world where Catholic and secular values clash, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Judy) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown, God’s Own Countryplay the two young lovers who strive to transcend a world of violence and corruption. Fisayo Akinade (The Antipodes, Barber Shop Chroniclesis cast as Mercutio. The production will open in the Olivier Theatre in August 2020.

Set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting design by Lucy Carter, composition by Michael Bruce and sound design by Christopher Shutt. Continue reading “News: new productions and casting updates for the National Theatre”

Review: As You Like It, RSC at the Barbican

I find much to enjoy in Kimberley Sykes’s production of As You Like It for the RSC at the Barbican, particularly Lucy Phelps’ epic Rosalind

“Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly”

The critical reception for Kimberley Sykes’ production of As You Like It for the RSC was a little lukewarm this summer, all 3 stars and grudging praise. But I found myself really rather seduced by its many charms, as it opens the winter residency for them at the Barbican. And in Lucy Phelps, a Rosalind full of big dyke energy for the ages. Read my four star review for Official Theatre here.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Topher McGrillis
As You Like It is booking in rep at the Barbican until 18th January

Review: As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

The Public Acts programme produces another winner in As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, community theatre at its absolute best

“All the world’s a stage
And everybody’s in the show
Nobody’s a pro”

I knew it would take something special to tempt me out of my summer hiatus and given that last year’s Pericles ended up being my show of the year, odds were that this year’s Public Acts production would be the one. And sure enough, Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s adaptation of As You Like It at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch was another truly joyous event, a real celebration of community theatre and all its glorious power to involve, instruct and inspire.

And with a company that totals over 100 people, it is not hard to see why. Just the mere fact of seeing that many people on a stage is enough to warm the cockles, particularly when it genuinely embraces diversity in race, ability, age and more. Throw in an ebullient, musical take on Shakespeare’s comedy and a creative team clearly relishing letting their imagination run wild and the result is completely beguiling, emotionally true and really quite affecting – they were tears of happiness honestly! Continue reading “Review: As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch”