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: Julius Caesar, Crucible

“Why, saw you anything more wonderful?”

 Robert Hastie’s opening salvo as the new Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres might not immediately quicken the pulse as we’ve hardly been lacking for productions of Julius Caesar. But it is soon apparent that this is a canny director at work, making his mark on the Crucible Theatre and how its space is used, on our notions of how Shakespeare is traditionally interpreted, establishing what looks like exciting times ahead for Sheffield.

With designer Ben Stones, Hastie opens out the stage into a space of transformative and unpredictable power – the modern political arena is evoked with its UN-style chambers and mod-cons but it is just as much the powder-keg of changeable public opinion. And the way in which the two intersect, feed into each other, thus feels as informed by hatemongering Sun or Daily Mail headline-grabbing antics as it does by the words of a sixteenth century writer. Continue reading “Review: Julius Caesar, Crucible”

Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible

“Sometimes you’ve got to grab life by the balls
You take those balls and tuck ’em between your legs”

We should be talking about Sheffield, and how its place in the fragile ecosystem of British musical theatre has only become more and more invaluable. Nurturing shows like Flowers For Mrs Harris and This Is My Family into existence and taking pride in their understated nature, the venue has also been incubating new writing talent. Well, new to musical theatre at least, for Dan Gillespie Sells is the lead singer-songwriter of The Feeling and Tom MacRae has written several episodes of Doctor Who and sitcom Threesome. And inspired by a BBC3 documentary, a meeting with director Jonathan Butterell and a fairy godmother-like intervention from Michael Ball, the result is brand spanking new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

And what a joy it is, a breath of feel-good fresh air that can’t help but leave you feeling fabulous. With career advice flying by unheeded, all 16-year-old Jamie is really bothered about as his school-time comes to an end is whether he will attend the school prom as his drag persona Mimi Me or not. And rather brilliantly, the writing hones in on Jamie just as a young man – yes he’s queer and a kween but he’s also a person still finding out the extent of his identity and how to relate to a wider world that isn’t necessarily always set against him. It’s a refreshing take on LGBT+ storytelling, and a sorely needed one, tipping its hat to the tales of coming out and battling against intolerance that have gone before and then finding its own space to parse the consequences of being this fierce in the real world. Continue reading “Review: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible”

Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible

“There is more to life than you ever knew, than you ever dreamed,”

Sheffield feels the right place for Flowers for Mrs Harris to come into bloom, its delicately understated charm and musicality making this a world away from the brash, cut-throat commercialism of West End musicals. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to see this show come down to the capital, for it does deserve such wider attention, but rather to celebrate the creation and nurturing of musical theatre from all parts of the country, a recognition of a theatrical ecology that thrives far beyond the M25.

Daniel Evans’ artistic directorship of Sheffield Theatres, which ends with this production, has been a key part of that over the last few years and it is pleasing to see that his presence in the overall picture will continue as he departs for Chichester Festival Theatre. As for now, we get a gorgeous piece of unmistakably British musical theatre that is as heart-warming and tear-jerking as they come, a tenderly sentimental exploration of far-fetched dreams and earthily real friendships. Continue reading “Review: Flowers for Mrs Harris, Crucible”

Review: Show Boat, Crucible

“We drink water from a dipper,
You drink champagne from a slipper”

Christmastime is often one for traditions and one of the better theatrical ones has proven to be the big musicals that Sheffield Theatres produce. From Me and My Girl to My Fair Lady to a never-better Company and last year’s Anything Goes that went on to tour, the outgoing Artistic Director Daniel Evans has proved a master at big-hearted, large-scale productions that skimp on nothing to create some of the best musical theatre the country has to offer.

This year sees Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat as Evans’ final show (as AD at least) and it is an undoubted success, a fitting festive farewell. It’s a brave choice too, an unwieldy beast of a story based on Edna Ferber’s novel about the backstage drama onboard the Mississippi show boat Cotton Blossom, using the performing troupe as a prism through which to view several decades of momentous change in the USA from the late 1800s. Continue reading “Review: Show Boat, Crucible”

Review: The Effect, Sheffield Crucible

“I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect”

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect ranked as my 12th favourite play of 2012, Rupert Goold’s Headlong production for the National Theatre proving to be a quietly devastating piece of theatre exploring notions of self and identity through the prism of depression and drugs. Two willing volunteers take part in a medical trial for a new kind of anti-depressant, despite not suffering from depression themselves, and are monitored for any side effects by a doctor and a medical rep who have their own tangled history which further impacts the study.

Stuck in isolation together, guinea pigs Tristan and Connie swiftly fall head over heels – Henry Pettigrew and Ophelia Lovibond giving two stunning performances of a palpable chemistry – and Prebble raises the question of whether love is the drug or is their connection is due to the actual drugs in their veins. From that, she also probes into perceptions of depression – Stuart Bunce’s trial director believes his pill can cure or do anything but sinking into her own bleak mental morass, Priyanga Burford’s achingly fragile Dr James isn’t so sure. 

Daniel Evans’ production is beautifully cast – all four actors play the twists of character astutely and assuredly as priorities shift and relative truths come to light to shattering effect. Without giving anything away, it is a stunningly powerful ending in all its hushed beauty as science and sympathy battle and heartstrings tugged mercilessly. Amanda Studley’s design for the Crucible’s Studio space plays effectively on hospital waiting room and clinical atmospherics to suggest we could well be a part of this or the next trial, David Plater’s lighting adding to this unremitting feel.

The Effect might even be better now than it was 3 years ago, about 30 minutes or so has been junked from the running time which certainly helps, but it also really benefits from the intimacy here. Whether the anguish of Burford’s increasing inability to cope or Pettigrew and Lovibond showing us just how mysterious the human mind is with or without chemical alteration, this is an exceptional revival.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 18th July

Review: Anything Goes, New Wimbledon Theatre

“If love affairs you like 
with young bears you like

why nobody will oppose”

Sheffield Theatre’s production of Anything Goes is launching on a simply mammoth tour of the UK – over 30 venues in 10 months – so it’s a pretty good job that it’s a largely excellent production. It’s rather amusing to note the number of reviews that mention that this classic show is over 80 years old yet still point out that the much revised book isn’t anything special at all but merely a framework on which to hang some of the most glorious songs of Cole Porter’s career. Given the average age of the audience, this will not come as a surprise to anyone, but there’s much here in Daniel Evans’ production to commend it to the young’uns too.

Alistair David’s choreography is a real delight, a constant breath of fresh air on which the show floats giddily, whether it’s the leads fooling about as if they’re Fred Astaire, sailors mooning over bathing beauties, or the whole company possessed with a spiritual glee. The eye is of course drawn to the stunning Act 1 finale set to the title track (which will always belong to Kate Capshaw’s bizarrely translated version in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, my first experience thereof) which is a jaw-dropping, shoe-shuffling, tap-dancing dream, cleverly referencing classic moves but also firmly establishing its own identity by keeping Debbie Kurup’s sensational Reno Sweeney front and centre. Continue reading “Review: Anything Goes, New Wimbledon Theatre”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible

 “There’s some ill planet reigns”

Sheffield’s autumnal Shakespeares have become something of a yearly institution and a regular fixture in my theatregoing diary. This year sees The Winter’s Tale arrive at the Crucible with something of a less starry cast than in previous years (although Barbara Marten and Claire Price were both strong draws for us) and the return of director Paul Miller to the series, after his Hamlet back in 2010. Sad to say though, this was not for me – the atmosphere hampered by a sadly sparse matinée audience but the production also full of choices that just didn’t appeal.

Shakespeare’s late play relies on the careful balancing of two halves – Sicilia’s dark tragedy and Bohemia’s pastoral vibrancy, the pain of simmering jealousy against the freshness of new love. But though they must complement each other, they need to effectively stand alone as well and Miller struggles with his opening act. The sparseness of Simon Daw’s design places the focus strictly on the interactions of his actors, but his preferred method of placing them at some distance from each other on the large stage estranges them too much, both from each other and from the audience. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible”

Review: My Fair Lady, Crucible

“Men are so decent, such regular chaps”

‘Tis a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that some of the best musicals in Britain are being produced outside of London. Places like Chichester Festival Theatre and Leicester Curve are regularly coming up with the goods, but one of the most reliable of regional theatres has been Sheffield’s Crucible and under Daniel Evans’ stewardship, their Christmas shows have become absolute must-sees. Last year’s Company was sensational, the year before Me and My Girl blew me away and this year, Lerner and Loewe’s all-time classic My Fair Lady gets a long awaited revival and it is a show I have never seen before on stage.

One of the lovely things about seeing well-known songs in their original context is that it can refocus the lyrical meaning. For me this was most apparent in the utterly gorgeous rendition of ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ by Carly Bawden – rather than the grand set-piece I think I was expecting, it’s an understated exhalation of wonderment at the evening just passed and Bawden is gorgeous in it. The large-scale numbers do come though: ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ is delivered with the highly charismatic Martyn Ellis at the front and soon turns into a cracking fest of tap-dancing; ‘With A Little Bit of Luck’ has a subtler but no less impressive appeal; and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’s’ hopeful charm had me at ‘ello. Continue reading “Review: My Fair Lady, Crucible”

Review: Macbeth, Crucible

“I go, and it is done”

They appear to be creatures of habit up in Sheffield. Just as big musicals pop up at Christmas, a high profile Shakespeare forms the centrepiece of their autumn schedules and powerless to resist once again, I made my way to the Crucible, this time for Macbeth. Last year’s Othello was an extraordinary success – John Simm’s Hamlet the year before somewhat less to my tastes – and the casting news of Geoffrey Streatfeild and Claudie Blakley whetted my appetite for what lay ahead in Daniel Evans’ production.

But part of the problem in investing too much expectation in anticipated performances means that one can end up blinded to the more general merits of a production through the haze of disappointment. And so it was here as the central casting just doesn’t seem to work. I have no problem at all with atypical interpretations of characters, such subversions often lead the way to sensational new insight, but I simply couldn’t get a handle on what was trying to be done here. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, Crucible”