20 shows to look forward to in 2019

So many of the recommendations for shows to see next year focus on the West End. And for sure, I’m excited to catch big ticket numbers like All About Eve, Come From Away, and Waitress but I wanted to cast my eye a little further afield, so here’s my top tips for shows on the London fringe (plus one from the Barbican) and across the UK.

1 Medea, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican
Simon Stone’s sleekly contemporary recasting of Euripides is straight up amazing. Anchored by a storming performance from Marieke Heebink, it is as beautiful and brutal as they come. It’s also one of the few plays that has legit made me go ‘oh no’ out loud once a particular penny dropped. My review from 2014 is here but do yourself a favour and don’t read it until you’ve seen it.

Macbeth, Watermill Theatre
2018 saw some disappointing Macbeths and I was thus ready to swear off the play for 2019. But the Watermill Ensemble’s decision to tackle the play will certainly break that resolve, Paul Hart’s innovative direction of this spectacular actor-musician team will surely break the hoodoo…

3 Noughts and Crosses, Derby Theatre, and touring
Pilot Theatre follow on from their strong Brighton Rock with this Malory Blackman adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz, a Young Adult story but one which promises to speak to us all. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2019”

Review: All I See Is You, Octagon Studio

Nowt so queer as gays up north – All I See Is You is an affecting period LGBT romance at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton 

“If I never walk again, I don’t care”

The Octagon are certainly getting their money’s worth out of Ben Occhipinti. In the main house, he’s directing East is East and down the stairs in their studio theatre, he is also helming the premiere of Kathrine Smith’s All I See Is You. And where the former is looking at mixed race families in Salford in the 70s, this play turns its focus on to the experience of gay men in the 60s.

Those men are Ciarán Griffiths’ Bobby and Christian Edwards’ Ralph, whose meet-cute takes place in a toilet cubicle and soon turns into a smouldering mix of sexual compatibility and serious potential as they tumble hard for each other. But in a world where homosexuality has yet to be decriminalised, where societal prejudice is so deeply ingrained, it’s clear this is a love that will have to be fought for. Continue reading “Review: All I See Is You, Octagon Studio”

Review: East is East, Octagon

A brilliant turn from Jane Hazlegrove anchors this powerful revival of East is East at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton

“Funeral’s on Friday, they’re having salmon…”

On the one hand,  it is great to see another production of Ayub Khan Din’s evergreen East is East, as sharply observed and comically astute as ever in this production at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. But on the other, it is a sad indictment that the British theatrical establishment hasn’t been able to conjure up a similarly successful play that looks at race and multiculturalism in the 20-odd years since it was written.

Nevertheless, director Ben Occhipinti gets his revival just right, capturing much of the mood of a 1970s Salford where Pakistani father George and English mother Ella are raising their seven children who are all dealing differently with the unique pressures that come with a mixed race heritage. And he has cast it beautifully – Kulvinder Ghir’s George full of irascible pride, Jane Hazlegrove’s Ella brilliantly, expertly moving in her (almost) infinite patience. Continue reading “Review: East is East, Octagon”

Review: Winter Hill, Octagon

“Heroism is danger and risk, and frankly, until now, it’s been male”

Plays set in places I knew well as a child unexpectedly looks like it might be one of the theatrical memes of the year – Years of Sunlight explored the history of the neighbouring town where I learned to swim and now we have Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new drama Winter Hill, named for the West Pennine peak that was the location of many a childhood walk. 

Wertenbaker’s play is set on the Winter Hill of the near future, as opposed to the not-so-near past, where a chunk of the land has been sold to developers who are constructing a luxury skyscraper hotel there, set to completely alter the way that the hill dominates the landscape and the town of Bolton below it. As a local women’s reading group sneaks onto the building site to have their meetings, hidden agendas bubble to the surface to make matters a little more serious than whether they’ve got enough wine to get through the evening. Continue reading “Review: Winter Hill, Octagon”

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Octagon

“I often cry when I am happy, and smile when I am sad”

Anne Brontë might not be the most heralded of her sisters but that is to underestimate the different way in which she expressed herself. The striking feminism of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall remains as powerful as ever and in Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation, directed by Elizabeth Newman for the Octagon Theatre in Bolton of which she is the artistic director, it couldn’t find a better place to reassert those feminist credentials.

Even in these allegedly more enlightened times, the idea that a woman might stay in an abusive relationship is one that many people struggle with. And so as the story of Helen Graham unfolds, as the events of her past inform what happens in her present, McAndrew’s contemporary dialogue keeps a real modern urgency to the action. Alcoholism and abuse in marriage, gender equality and duty, the struggle for independence – this is timeless stuff. Continue reading “Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Octagon”

Review: Love Story, Octagon

“What can you say, about a girl…”

Just a quickie for this most beloved of shows. The CFT production of Love Story that failed to take the West End by storm back in 2010 was a thing of sheer loveliness and Howard Goodall’s luscious score has to rank among my all-time favourites, I really do think it is that beautiful. So all future productions have a high benchmark to live up to – there was a low-key version at the Brockley Jack last year and this year, we have Elizabeth Newman’s production for the Bolton Octagon.

And what a lovely thing it is. Unafraid to be delicately simple and flirting with actor-musicianship in Ciaran Bagnall’s cleverly designed set, it is a deeply musical take on the soaring romance of the story that glides speedily through the relationship between Daniel Boys’ college jock Oliver Barrett IV and Lauren Samuels’ wisecracking musician Jennifer Cavilleri. From the chemistry of their ‘opposites attract’ first meeting to the heartbreaking sadness of the end, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Continue reading “Review: Love Story, Octagon”

Review: Duet for One, Octagon

“I think it is important for you to discover your true feelings about your position at the moment”

If we’re making lists about our favourite plays, I would have to say that Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One would be guaranteed a place in the top ten, if not higher. The Almeida’s 2009 production was exemplary and the touring version from 2012 proved it was no one hit wonder for me so the announcement of Bolton’s Octagon Theatre mounting the show in rep with another Kempinski play – Separation – was too much to resist.

The play is loosely based on Jacqueline Du Pré’s battle with the multiple sclerosis that ended her career as a brilliant cellist and takes the form of a series of therapy sessions between Stephanie Abrahams, a haughty violinist who also has MS and her therapist Dr Feldmann. Kempinski tenderly explores the horrors of the psychological as well as the physical effects of such a debilitating condition, asking of us all what we would do if rendered unable to do what we loved the most. Continue reading “Review: Duet for One, Octagon”

Review: Separation, Octagon

“I should be locked up and in a way I am”

Tom Kempinski is probably best known for the masterful Duet for One so the choice to perform another of his plays Separation in a mini rep season is an inspired one from director Elizabeth Newman and making Bolton’s Octagon Theatre an interesting place to visit this Spring. Seeing the plays together (there are days when both plays are performed on the same day which I’d recommend) points up interesting similarities, especially as both are intense two-handers around the issue of disability, though this is definitely the little brother of the pair.

Based in part on Kempinski’s own experiences, Separation charts the relationship between a disabled American actress and an agoraphobic English playwright. New Yorker Sarah Wise hasn’t worked for seven years because of a debilitating condition that leaves her walking on crutches at best and playwright Joe Green can barely face the thought of leaving his living room, something which has stunted his creative juices. When she calls him for the rights to perform one of his plays though, a transatlantic connection forms which slowly develops into something life-changing. Continue reading “Review: Separation, Octagon”

Review: Hobson’s Choice, Octagon

“Do you call this English?…I thought it weren’t the sort we talk in Lancashire”

Though Wigan is nearer to my childhood home, it is the Octagon in Bolton that looms largest in the memory as the theatre we visited most often, particularly for their Christmas shows, school trips and my first ever Macbeth. Yet since leaving for university and latterly becoming a theatre blogger, I haven’t made a return trip there (possibly in 18 years or so) and so when circumstances prevailed to get me nearby, I decided to make a nostalgic visit.

And given that the play was Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, there was something delightfully old-school about the whole thing. David Thacker’s production, co-produced with Newcastle-Under-Lyme’s New Vic and the Oldham Coliseum, beats to a slow and steady rhythm over its three acts and once attuned to its pace, I found it to be a highly enjoyable piece of traditional story-telling. Continue reading “Review: Hobson’s Choice, Octagon”