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: Light Falls, Royal Exchange

Sarah Frankcom bids farewell to the Royal Exchange with this atmospheric production of Simon Stephens’ Light Falls

“There’s a million things in store for you just beyond the horizon, but please, stay in sight of the mainland”

Sarah Frankcom’s association with the Royal Exchange goes back more than 20 years, so her departure as Artistic Director will undoubtedly be seismic in some ways. And if the first manifestation of that is the appointment of Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan as joint ADs, then Manchester certainly looks in for a treat.

Before then though, Light Falls aka it’s grim up north. More than just a tip of the hat to those of us from t’other side of the Watford Gap (Lancashire born and bred, lest ye think I’m a southerner), Frankcom and playwright Simon Stephens visited a number of northern cities and towns to weave together a patchwork of a story about a scattered family. Continue reading “Review: Light Falls, Royal Exchange”

Review: Country Music, Omnibus Theatre

A sensational performance from Cary Crankson anchors a powerful production of Simon Stephens’ Country Music at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre

“I want you to forgive me for the things I’ve done”

A glance at the cast for the original run of Simon Stephens’ 2004 Country Music at the Royal Court sees Sally Hawkins and Laura Elphinstone, a killer for the FOMO in me. But hopefully in 10 years time or so, people will be looking at the cast for this revival at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre and saying I saw Cary Crankson way back when…

He’s an actor I’ve rated for a while now – he won my Best Actor in 2014 for The Saints, he was a standout in The Faction’s ensemble too, so if there’s any justice we’ll be talking about him much more very soon. For he is sensational here as the troubled Jamie, the young man at the heart of this elusive but exquisitely painful play.    Continue reading “Review: Country Music, Omnibus Theatre”

Review: Sea Wall, Old Vic

Andrew Scott and Simon Stephens combine to blistering effect in Sea Wall, but make sure you find some of the cheaper seats at the Old Vic if you can

“I was the polar opposite of Daniel Craig”

As is only right with any significant birthday, the Old Vic has been seriously milking their 200th and their latest gift is a two week revival of Sea Wall. The Simon Stephens monologue, written for Andrew Scott, has popped its head up a few times over the last few years, and this is being touted as possibly its final appearance.   

Since I’d missed it previously in London and given that its 30 minute running time meant it slotted in quite nicely to a two-show day, I picked up one of the cheaper tickets available (incredibly, prices go up to £80 for this). It was almost worth the money for the pre-show ‘entertainment’ as the audience fell silent a good couple of minutes before the show actually started. Continue reading “Review: Sea Wall, Old Vic”

Review: Heisenberg – The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s

“Why are you still talking to me?”

As a vehicle to launch the new producing venture, Elliott & Harper Productions, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is an odd thing. A new play by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, it’s a piece of writing that feels caught in the wrong moment as the outpouring of revelations around sexual harassment (and worse) threaten a tectonic shift in gender relationships and, hopefully, the way they are portrayed in our culture.

Thus it feels hard to accept a retread of the May-to-December trope, weighted in favour of the older man getting a younger woman natch, and the re-emergence of the manic pixie dream girl in lieu of the more nuanced character hinted at beneath the eccentric trappings. There’s no subversion of expectation as a rather predictable plot winds through its 90 minutes and the suggestion of quantum physics informing the play feels more like window-dressing compared to the structural ingenuity of say Copenhagen or the chaos theory-influenced Constellations. Continue reading “Review: Heisenberg – The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s”

Review: Obsession, Barbican

“There’s more to this magical life than the love of the ladies”

It has been impossible to ignore the reception of Ivo van Hove’s Obsession, the slight sense of glee (from some) at being able to dole out a critical drubbing to the feted director. And so I went into the Barbican with a slight sense of defensiveness – I’m only human after all – albeit with the knowledge that no-one is infallible. And whilst Obsession isn’t necessarily van Hove at his best (and lord know we’ve been spoiled there), it still makes for a fascinating piece of theatre.

Based on Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film, adapted by Jan Peter Gerrits and crucially, having its English version written by Simon Stephens, this is an altogether more abstract and expressionist affair than perhaps some were expecting. A tale of sex and murder, whose muscularity and moodiness sprawls over the vast stage with stylish languour, there’s a brooding beauty to the intensity here, captured excellently by two striking lead performances from Jude Law and Halina Reijn. Continue reading “Review: Obsession, Barbican”

Review: The Threepenny Opera, National

“There will be no moralising tonight”

Whatever you think a national theatre should be for, I bloody love that Rufus Norris seems to determined to keep diversity near the top of the billing. Whilst it is curious that he’s only committed to ensuring gender equality in terms of the directors and living writers the National Theatre uses by 2021 (I’m sure there’s a reason it takes 5 years), there’s also change happening now in this new production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

The first actors we see and hear are George Ikediashi and Jamie Beddard. So what you might say? But they are respectively a cabaret artist better known as Le Gateau Chocolat and a wheelchair-using director, writer, actor, consultant, trainer and workshop leader who has worked across the arts, educational and social sectors (his website). And you begin to see one of the ways how Norris is opening up this venue in an important and hopefully lasting manner. Continue reading “Review: The Threepenny Opera, National”

Review: Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

“I’ve got nothing to look forward to”

There’s something rather apt about members of the Bugsy Malone graduating onto other productions at the Lyric Hammersmith, emphasising the ensemble feel that has taken over the building under Sean Holmes’ stewardship. And in Max Gill (a sensational Fat Sam) and Sophia Decaro (the Tallulah I didn’t see), there’re two young talents deservedly getting the chance to explore a wider range of teenage experience in Holmes’ production of Simon Stephens’ 2001 play Herons.

A brutal look at teen violence and cycles of revenge, it’s a play that’s marked by a truly shocking scene of rape, the haunting sound of which is still echoing in my mind now. Set on the Limehouse Cut, a canal in London’s East End, the ugly desolation and desperation of this world is clear from the off, a world where 14 year old Billy spends his time hiding from bullies and fishing for whatever small fry he can. Though when he becomes the catch of the day, the extent of its viciousness is exposed. Continue reading “Review: Herons, Lyric Hammersmith”

Review: Song from Far Away, Young Vic

“We exist in the gaps between the sounds that we make”

It’s hard not to be seduced by Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam once you’ve experienced them one way or another – there’s a reason I keep travelling to the Netherlands to see them work – and not even Simon Stephens is immune. Having previously adapted Ubu for the company, he has now written monologue Song from Far Away specifically for one of their ensemble members, Eelco Smits, who performs it here at the Young Vic in English.

34 year old banker Willem has relocated to New York but is called back to his native Amsterdam when his younger brother dies. In a haze of casual sex with Brazilians, numerous glasses of Scotch and ginger and disorientating encounters with strangers, his journey back to a family, a home, a country he had abandoned is sketched out through a series of letters he writes to the brother he barely knew whilst coming to realise he barely knows himself. Continue reading “Review: Song from Far Away, Young Vic”