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”

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: Three Sisters, National Theatre

Inua Ellams’ relocation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters to the Biafran Civil War proves devastatingly effective at the National Theatre

“I don’t understand all this suffering…when we die we will find out but I wish we knew now”

A cracking cast heralds the return of Uncle Vanya to the West End early next year but even with Conor McPherson and Ian Rickson on adaptation and directorial duties respectively, it’s hard to get too excited about what – on the face of it – looks to be a fairly conventional interpretation (I could well be proven wrong, and hope I am…). For me, there’s something much more appealing, and thrilling, about people willing to grab Chekhov by the scruff of the neck and yank him way out of the familiar. Robert Icke and Simon McBurney replanting The Cherry Orchard in the Netherlands, or Inua Ellams and Nadia Fall relocating Three Sisters to 1960s Nigeria.

In the latter case, the result is a challenging but exhilarating reworking, set against the backdrop of the Biafran Civil War but retaining much of the Chekhovian structure, so that we feel the weight of all the tragedy that has to come. The skill of Ellams’ writing – this is dubbed a new play, after Chekhov – is knowing when to dovetail with his source material and when to allow his own choices to flourish, bringing with them a raft of glinting surprises that break through the familiarity (that some of us have). Continue reading “Review: Three Sisters, National Theatre”

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre

The theatrical magic of the excellent The Ocean at the End of the Lane finds a perfect home at the National Theatre

“A rip in forever where possibilities begin”

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and adapted by Joel Horwood, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is pretty much perfection at the National Theatre. Katy Rudd’s production is a triumph of creative endeavour, as she melds her various elements into a couple of hours of real theatrical magic. Key is Steven Hoggett’s inimitable movement, creating a wonderful sense of fluidity throughout, but particularly in the scene changes. The seamless ensemble work that results plays a huge part of the thoroughly enchanting world-building going on here.

That world is the England of fairytales, Sussex farmland where the fabric of the universe is thin. There, a boy meets a girl and in their japes, a monster breaks through from another world, so far so fantasy. But even the simple act of whipping props on and off stage becomes something more profound (the cooker moving just out of Dad’s reach…), manipulating fearsome puppets (designed by Samuel Wyer and directed by Finn Caldwell) makes something of an artistic statement, or just lying on the ground to embody some creature or other finds a similarly strange beauty. Continue reading “Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre”

10 questions for 10 years – David Ralf

The Bunker Theatre may have announced its impending closure but its executive director Dave Ralf certainly has a lot to say! 

  • Where were you 10 years ago?

    Ten years ago, 2009, I was in my second year at university, writing an essay on John Donne’s poetry and desperately trying to impress my professors because I’d seriously slacked off the previous few weeks while rehearsing the first play that I’d written. I learned that year that directing your own work is a bad idea as a new playwright – frankly it’s probably not the best idea at any stage. The following year, I learned that directing theatre was not my calling at all – I couldn’t make myself care about the pictures on the stage, and only listened to the voices. Many years later, I’d find a good fit for that instinct: directing the radio dramas for Hotel Europe, which I made with Isley Lynn, David Loumgair and Philipp Ehmann and five extremely talented writers. But back in 2009, I was learning the jobs I wasn’t best suited for, concentrating on what I could offer and give to the theatre world I was then immersed in – and writing and producing had the edge over acting or directing.

    Continue reading “10 questions for 10 years – David Ralf”

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”

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: The Antipodes, National Theatre

Annie Baker returns to the National Theatre with The Antipodes – she does not change my mind about her

“We don’t feel like we have to self-censor and we can all just sit around telling stories. Because that’s where the good stuff comes from”

I’ve tried with Annie Baker, I really have. And Circle Mirror Transformation did it for me, both times. But the plaudits rained on The Flick and John baffled me as both left me extremely cold and her latest play to premiere in the UK, 2017’s The Antipodes, is very much in that latter mould, creeping naturalism that seems to defy the laws of time themselves.

Insomuch as a Baker play is about anything, The Antipodes is about storytelling, kind of. A group of people sit in a conference room telling stories and pulling them apart, looking for inspiration but for what, we never really know. And as any kind of leadership offers by the chairman-ish Sandy fades away, something apocalyptically dark looms outside. Continue reading “Review: The Antipodes, National Theatre”

Winners of the 2019 Black British Theatre Awards

An important addition to the theatre award calendar, the winners of the inaugural Black British Theatre Awards can be found below

Creatives Group

BEST DIRECTOR FOR A PLAY OR MUSICAL
WINNER – Lynette Linton; Sweat: Gielgud Theatre
Roy Alexander Weise; Nine Night: National Theatre
Nancy Medina; The Half God of Rainfall: Kiln Theatre

BEST PRODUCER
WINNER – Tobi Kyeremateng; Babylon Festival: Bush Theatre

BEST CHOREOGRAPHER 
SPONSORED BY HARLEQUIN FLOORS
Rachael Nanayonjo; Sleeping Beauty: Theatre Royal Stratford East
Alesandra Seutin; Boy Breaking Glass: Sadlers Wells
WINNER – Shelley Maxwell; Equus: Theatre Royal Stratford East Continue reading “Winners of the 2019 Black British Theatre Awards”