11 of my top moments in a theatre in 2014

I’ll be doing a regular top 10 alongside all the other end-of-year totting up of the theatrical delights on offer in 2014 that will eventually be written up but I thought it might be interesting to first look at it from a slightly different angle, thinking about the single moments – rather than the productions as a whole – that took my breath away (or were hair-raisingly good…) Undoubtedly there will be some crossover between the two lists, but there are things here that crop up the mind just as often as the plays I’ve labelled my favourites so here we go – naturally, some production spoilers abound…
(c) Jan Versweyveld
The final scene of Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge
I don’t think anyone who saw this would disagree that this was one of those hugely special moments of theatre that will pretty much live forever in the memory. An outstanding 1 hour 40 minutes had already passed by this point – marking out what I’ve been saying for a while now about the extraordinarily vision van Hove brings to his work – but the final scene crystallised all the operatic grandeur and scorching emotion in one excoriating, sense-assaulting image that I dare not spoil even now – the perfect confluence of Jan Versweyveld’s design and light, Tom Gobbin’s sound and an exquisitely cast company. Book for its return to the West End now and experience it for yourself, this will sell out.
Waltzing at The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy of Secret Cinema 
My first experience of Secret Cinema was one of the atypical ones in that we knew in advance what the film would be – Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in this case – but it didn’t stop me from having a top night out, rounded off by one of the most thrilling moments of the year. Just before the film started, we were gathered in the circular hotel lobby and though I don’t recall exactly how it began, those of us on the ground floor started to waltz round and round as flurries of snow fell from the sky. It was a hugely gorgeous moment, not least because I’d never waltzed before (and intriguingly enough for me, I was the waltzer rather than the waltzee, which is how I always thought it would play out!)

Lee Curran’s lighting for the Royal Exchange’s Hamlet 
Though all eyes were on Maxine Peake for her mesmerising take on Shakepeare’s part of parts, director Sarah Frankcom ensured all aspects of her production were firing on all cylinders and for me, it was Lee Curran’s lighting design for the ghost scene that provided the most breath-taking moment of the evening. In amongst a tangled forest of lightbulbs, Peake’s Hamlet moved to an otherworldly place in pursuit of the ghostly fatherly figure and the eerie luminescence provided really elevated the scene into something special.
(c) Simon Annand
Helen George in The Hotel Plays 
Gethin Anthony’s thighs will be rightly celebrated in another of the end-of-year posts that will follow this one, but the thespian highlight of The Hotel Plays was Helen George’s hard-done-by mistress – the first performer I saw in this site-specific promenade piece and by far the most memorable. George is of course one of the stars of (the not-at-all-guilty-pleasure) Call The Midwife but she showed no signs of difficulty in swapping mediums as she fearlessly pinned us all down with sustained eye contact in an intimate hotel room of Tennessee Williams’ swirling imagination.
(c) Manuel Harlan
Tom Scutt’s design/the general awesomeness of the third act of Mr Burns
It is comforting to think that a show never gets better after a first act you don’t like, especially if you’ve made the decision to leave at the interval. But for those poor unfortunate souls who left at either of the intervals in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, which woke up audiences at the Almeida over the summer, there will be no chance for them to make amends for the gravity of their mistake. The three acts of the show differed strongly but it was the pseudo-opera of the final act that blew me away with its spectacular vision, aided by Tom Scutt’s glorious set and costumes (not taken from his personal collection, he assures me) which adroitly captured the entirely distinct worlds of each act.
(c) Marc Brenner
The general awesomeness of the third act of Our Town too
For the second time in three shows, the Almeida managed to deliver an absolute “doozy of a third act”, this time managing to cram not one but two stunning coups de théâtre into the short but superlative final segment of this all-American classic. Not having seen a production of the show before, the uniqueness of David Cromer’s interpretation might have been a little lost on me but there was no doubting how inventive and illustrative his bare-bones approach was from the start. And as the (metaphorical) curtain rose on the last act, suitably titled ‘Death and Dying’, Cromer and designer Stephen Dobay took the breath away with a first evocative piece of staging and then raising the actual curtain, went in for the kill with a second which perfectly brought home the power of Wilder’s message.

Anton Tweedale’s ‘Losing My Mind’
Sondheim revues can begin to feel a little repetitive with the enduring popularity of the composer and their frequent appearances in our theatre, and so it takes something special to really make them stand out from the crowd. And for Ray Rackham’s Just Another Love Story at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop, it was Anton Tweedale’s beautifully bitter take on ‘Losing My Mind’ that has long stayed in my own mind and left me wishing for a recording thereof.
(c) Tristram Kenton

Ashley Martin Davis’ set design for Wonderland
Signs were ominous when the first couple of previews for Beth Steel’s Wonderland were cancelled but upon walking into the Hampstead Theatre, the breath-taking scope of Ashley Martin Davis’ transformative set design made you fully appreciate why time was taken to ensure everything was just right. Carving out a working space that stretched over three storeys, the operational mine shaft was an audacious but essential part of a thrilling production that emphasised just how much the pit itself had a part to play in forming the fierce communal bonds that Thatcher fought so hard to tear asunder.
(c) Mark Douet
The fate of Adrian Scarborough’s Fool 
Directors often enjoy finding new twists on Shakespearean classics and Sam Mendes was no exception with his long-awaited take on King Lear. The most arresting of these came with the sheer brutality with which Adrian Scarborough’s Fool met his end, the rage-fuelled fugue state that took over Simon Russell Beale’s Lear a shocking but entirely convincing extension of character and a fiercely fresh take on a well-known plot.
‘Let The Grass Grow’, hell, the whole damn score for Free As Air
Given my love for Salad Days, it should come as little surprise that I adored Free As Air which also came from the pens of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade, but it does take a sure hand to ensure that the delightfully retro feel of this 50s musical doesn’t tip over into twee nostalgia. Fortunately it got this in Stewart Nicholls’ hands at the Finborough so that even by this second number – ‘Let The Grass Grow’ – my face was beginning to hurt from smiling so much.
(c) Sanne Peper

Bob Cousins’ design for Simon Stone’s Medea in AmsterdamA late entry but one I couldn’t possibly ignore as one of the last shows I saw this year ended up being one of the best and certainly one of the most fascinatingly designed. Bob Cousins matched the fearless invention of Simon Stone in updating Medea to a contemporary time and place but still keeping an abstract timelessness to his work. The huge white space of the set thus formed the perfect backdrop for the fierce dramatics and a slow-burning coup de théâtre that still gives me shivers when I think about it now.

Review: Just Another Love Story, London Theatre Workshop

“Pardon me, is everybody here? Because if everybody’s here, I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding, I’d appreciate your going even more, I mean you must have lots of better things to do, and not a word of this to Paul, remember Paul, you know, the man I’m gonna marry, but I’m not, because I wouldn’t ruin anyone as wonderful as he is”

Sondheim revues can feel two a penny – Putting It Together played the St James just a couple of months ago – but Ray Rackham’s Just Another Love Story has a real ace up its sleeve in the return of 2010’s Best Actor in a Musical fosterIAN award winner Sam Harrison to a London stage. His turn in Salad Days was an absolute treasure and being able to hear him sing again was something I couldn’t resist, so I made my way over to Fulham to the London Theatre Workshop above the Eel Brook pub.

The show is a real labour of love for Rackham, having evolved over several incarnations in the past couple of years and now including over 40 Sondheim songs from the widest range of his back catalogue, delving into rarities just as often as his more popular shows. They’ve been carefully stitched together into a free-flowing musical tapestry which includes solos, duets, medleys and even a bit of choreography to bring the music to life, celebrating the music of Stephen Sondheim by creating their own love story from his work.  Continue reading “Review: Just Another Love Story, London Theatre Workshop”

Review: Love Story, Jack Studio Theatre

“You only reap the harvest that you sow”

Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark’s lush musical take on Erich Segal’s perennial tearjerker Love Story gained critical if not commercial success with its West End run back in 2010, but its beautiful music can now be heard live again with its off-West-End premiere at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley. It was always a chamber piece and so it suits the intimacy of this fringe venue well and in Joseph C Walsh’s clever and unmiked production, it provides a welcome reminder of one of the best new British musical scores of recent times.

But though it is musically excellent, the book does contain issues and they are sadly all-too-apparent in this interpretation. The story telescopes the entirety of Jenny Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett IV’s five year relationship, from its spiky college beginnings through marriage beds and [spoiler alert, although not really…] hospital beds to its tragic end, into 90 minutes of fast-flowing narrative and song. But it is so fast, so relentless, that it is difficult to really invest emotionally into the characters as they are written here – the show thus relies on pre-knowledge of the story and from the transcendent strength of the performances (Emma Williams and Michael Xavier both excelling in this respect in the West End). Continue reading “Review: Love Story, Jack Studio Theatre”

Review: Little Women The Musical, LOST Theatre

“Mother says its going to be a hard winter for everyone”

With music and lyrics by Lionel Segal and book by Peter Layton, this version of Little Women The Musical bears no relation to the production that ran for a short while on Broadway and has only been seen before in a one night concert showcase in 2005, making this the UK premiere run at the LOST theatre in Wandsworth. The musical is based on Louisa May Alcott’s well-loved 1868 novel, following the fortunes of the four March sisters in New England during Civil War-time as family responsibilities are cast against personal ambition and lives and loves pass by as poverty and social change loom large.

Whereas Layton book remains largely faithful to the novel, it’s not a story that one would assume immediately lends itself to the musical treatment. Segal’s music does not overtly embrace the music of the time as far as I could perceive, but rather goes for a modern-sounding aesthetic which is extremely successful in parts and less so in others. Where the show is at its strongest is in elucidating the sisterly dynamic between the March girls and their songs together illuminate this perfectly, a real sense of familial bond emerging from their playful vitality and gorgeous harmonising. Charlotte Newton John’s characterful Jo leads the show extremely well, with sensitive support from Claire Chambers and Laura Hope London as Beth and Meg respectively and a sprightly turn from Caroline Rodgers as the young brattish Amy, who delivers her malapropisms perhaps a little too knowingly. Continue reading “Review: Little Women The Musical, LOST Theatre”