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”

Review: The Boy Friend, Menier Chocolate Factory

As light as a madeleine and as frivolous as a macaron, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend proves a festive treat at the Menier Chocolate Factory

“Clap-a your hands and slap on your thighs
Grin like a goon and roll up your eyes”

As light as a madeleine and as frivolous as a macaron, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend belongs in the same delightfully daft bracket of musical theatre as the likes of Salad Days and as such, is the perfect kind of frothy fun that offers a little respite from the darkness of winter nights and politicians’ empty promises. Written in the 1950s as an homage to the 1920s and with a plot that can be summed up in one character’s aside “poor little rich girl”, Matthew White’s production for the Menier Chocolate Factory sees him renew a richly fruitful relationship which has included such successes as She Loves Me and Sweet Charity.

Keeping the original three act structure, complete with two intervals, pushes the evening a little towards the episodic, but any sense of slightness is banished by the thrilling choreographic content from Bill Deamer (also associate director). From the gobsmacking elasticity and unflagging energy of Jack Butterworth and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson’s first act charleston, to the explosive passion of Bethany Huckle and Matthew Ives’ fiery carnival tango, the quality of the dancing really is second to none. And as the full company join in time and again, it’s hard not to be swept up in the joyous atmosphere and just join in with their beaming grins. Continue reading “Review: The Boy Friend, Menier Chocolate Factory”

The 2019 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards – Shortlist announced

Proper award season is starting to kick into gear now with the reveal of the shortlist for the 2019 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards and an uncharacteristically strong set of nominations that will surprise a fair few. I had little love for Sweet Charity so I’d’ve bumped its nod for something else but generally speaking, I’m loving the love for Dorfman shows and the Royal Court and I hate the reminder that there’s a couple of things I mistakenly decided not to see (Out of Water, …kylie jenner)

BEST ACTOR in partnership with Ambassador Theatre Group
K. Todd Freeman Downstate, National Theatre (Dorfman)
Francis Guinan Downstate, National Theatre (Dorfman)
Tom Hiddleston Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre
Wendell Pierce Death of a Salesman, Young Vic & Piccadilly
Andrew Scott Present Laughter, Old Vic

NATASHA RICHARDSON AWARD FOR BEST ACTRESS in partnership with Christian Louboutin
Hayley Atwell Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s
Cecilia Noble Downstate, National Theatre (Dorfman) & Faith, Hope and Charity, National Theatre (Dorfman)
Dame Maggie Smith A German Life, Bridge
Juliet Stevenson The Doctor, Almeida
Anjana Vasan A Doll’s House, Lyric Hammersmith Continue reading “The 2019 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards – Shortlist announced”

Review: Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory

Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending may not be his greatest play but Tamara Harvey’s production for the Menier Chocolate Factory proves most affecting in the end

“What on earth can you do on this earth but catch at whatever comes near you, with both your fingers, until your fingers are broken?”

Any project that tempts Hattie Morahan back onto the stage has to be worth checking out (qv Anatomy of a Suicide, A Doll’s House, but maybe let’s not mention The Dark Earth and the Light Sky). Orpheus Descending, a Menier Chocolate Factory & Theatr Clwyd co-production directed by Tamara Harvey, proves no exception, bolstered by the presence of the ever-excellent Jemima Rooper in the cast, plus a brooding Seth Numrich.

Orpheus… is something of a minor Tennessee Williams work (one I didn’t much enjoy when I saw it at the Royal Exchange a few years ago) but one which feels stronger here. Navigating the stifling heat and social strictures of smalltown Deep South in the 1950s, Lady seeks escape from her loveless marriage and small-minded neighbours. And in the arrival of handsome drifter Val Xavier, it seems she might have found it – doesn’t it? Continue reading “Review: Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: The Bay at Nice, Menier Chocolate Factory

Penelope Wilton almost, almost, makes it worth seeing a David Hare play with The Bay at Nice at the Menier Chocolate Factory

“I know what life is and what it cannot be”

Oh, British theatre and your ongoing obsession with David Hare. I’ve never really got it, never had that experience with one of his plays that made me go ‘oh that’s what they’re talking about’. Indeed, I only really booked for The Bay at Nice for the opportunity to see the Great British wonder that is Penelope Wilton in the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory.

And such is her exceptional talent, that she almost makes this an unmissable event. Her Valentina Nrovka is a strikingly captivating presence, a former pupil of Matisse called to authenticate a painting that might be one of his. Having left post-war Paris for revolutionary Russia, her artistic career has taken a back seat and motherhood has not proved anywhere near as fulfilling. Continue reading “Review: The Bay at Nice, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory

Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett excel at the Menier Chocolate Factory in this beautiful new version of Kiss of the Spider Woman

“Sometimes that kind of behaviour can get in a man’s way”

Despite playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, this version of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is not Kander & Ebb’s 1993 musical, just so you’re clear. What it is, is a beautifully calibrated and ferociously emotive study of love and loneliness and what, if anything, masculinity means. 

This new adaptation by José Rivera and Allan Baker casts right back to the original novel, jettisoning memories of the 1985 film too, to trace the burgeoning relationship between two cellmates. Political prisoner Valentin and sexual deviant Molina  have little in common but through their shared trials, something beautiful thrives. 

Continue reading “Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory

“People don’t really want to be told the truth”

Just as The Father comes along with The Mother, The Truth is followed by The Lie. British theatre’s amour fou for Florian Zeller continues apace with another of his comedies making it over to London but are we approaching diminishing returns as we delve deeper into his back catalogue? Director Lindsay Posner and translator Christopher Hampton clearly don’t think so as they return to the Menier Chocolate with The Lie but I’m not so convinced.

The production got off to a rocky start when James Dreyfus had to withdraw due to illness, though choosing Alexander Hanson as his replacement provides a little extratextual spice as he stars opposite his wife Samantha Bond as married couple Paul and Alice. As we meet them, they’re havering over a dinner party they’re hosting that is meant to start imminently – Alice wants to cancel it as she just saw Michel kissing a woman who wasn’t his wife Laurence but their early arrival takes the decision out of their hands. Continue reading “Review: The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory

“You may be 13 but you’re still an adolescent boy”

After premiering at the Curve Theatre in 2015, Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger’s musical adaptation of Sue Townsend’s tale of Leicester’s most famous teenager has undergone its own version of puberty, re-emerging at the Menier Chocolate Factory for the summer. And those growing pains seem to have been worth it as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ has matured beautifully, a powerful example of how musicals need to be allowed to develop, resulting in this case in a fantastic new British musical.

Luke Sheppard’s production certainly benefits from the intimacy of the South London venue but where it now excels is in its emotional intensity. The scenes between Adrian (played by Ilan Galkoff at this performance) and his mother Pauline, an achingly superb Kelly Price, are just heart-breaking, as he struggles to realise just how far her women’s lib-inspired independence will take her from him. I was reminded that reading this book was in fact was one of the main ways I learned about divorce and that scarce comprehension is captured perfectly here. Continue reading “Review: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory”

Re-review: Love in Idleness, Apollo

“I hate her being the mistress of a rich, old voluptuary”

I wasn’t intending to revisit Love In Idleness, newly transferred to the Apollo Theatre for a limited 50 performance run, as first time round, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I got a little caught up in the strange genesis of the show and the fact that I was half-remembering the plot of Less Than Kind in real time, which proved to be rather distracting. But there’s no denying the sheer star quality of Eve Best and who am I to turn down any chance to see her.

And I’m glad I returned as I found myself enjoying the play a lot more second time round. Taking it for what it is, which is a Rattigan curiosity rather than a revelatory (re)discovery, this light-hearted comedy is actually an interesting addition to the West End’s early summer. Its main joy remains the relaxed but realistically palpable chemistry between Best and Anthony Head, as widow Olivia and government minister Sir John Fletcher whose relationship comes under strain when her son Michael returns from four years evacuated to Canada. Continue reading “Re-review: Love in Idleness, Apollo”

Review: Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory

“There’s no situation in the world that can’t be passed off with small-talk”

Overlord of all that is authentic in British theatre, Trevor Nunn is now further redefining authenticity by presenting us with a Terence Rattigan premiere, cobbled together from two pre-existing versions of the same play. Love in Idleness was originally known as Less Than Kind (which itself was seen at the Jermyn Street back in 2011) but was rewritten at the behest of its stars, a commercially minded decision which proved fatal to Rattigan’s reputation. And rather than choose one or the other, Nunn has fashioned something new (but assumably still authentic), named for the later version.

Sadly, that sense of compromise lingers strongly here. Fans of Rattigan were utterly spoiled by pitch-perfect interpretations of After the Dance and Flare Path (also by Nunn) at the beginning of this decade and again last year with an excoriating The Deep Blue Sea, so knowing the emotional force with which he can devastate us can only leave you disappointed at the tonally strange and inconsequential comedy of sorts with which we’re presented here. Only the long-awaited return of the marvellous Eve Best to the London stage imbues the evening with the quality it scarcely deserves. Continue reading “Review: Love in Idleness, Menier Chocolate Factory”