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: 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”

News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020

So much goodness! The National Theatre have just announced details of productions stretching deep into 2020, and with writers like Lucy Kirkwood, Kate Tempest, Roy Williams and Tony Kushner, and actors like Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Conleth Hill, Cecilia Noble and Lesley Sharp, it is hard not to feel excited about what’s ahead.

Olivier Theatre 

Following a sell-out run at Rose Theatre Kingston, the acclaimed two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by April De Angelis is reworked for the Olivier stage by Melly Still (Coram Boy). When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship of more than 60 years.  Continue reading “News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020”

Review: Othello, Sam Wanamaker

“O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains”

In light of Roman Tragedies reminding us of the vast potential of what Shakespeare can be rather than the tendency towards the ‘proper’ readings of his work that we tend to get here in the UK (vast generalisations I know, but can you really argue against it…), it’s gratifying to see directors, and venues, taking the opportunity to stretch those traditional notions. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, housed within Shakespeare’s Globe, isn’t the first place you’d think of to find such a production but in Ellen MacDougall’s interpretation of Othello, we have just that.

Text updated to the 21st century (dramaturgy by Joel Horwood), key characters regendered (Joanna Horton’s Cassio is an inspired move), a contemporary soundtrack that interpolates Lana Del Rey, it is enough to make any purist shiver and you kinda feel that’s the point. MacDougall refocuses the play on masculinity in crisis but it is also tempting to think that on a larger scale, there’s a smidgen of Emma Rice’s shaking of the branches of theatrical orthodoxy at play here too. With the post of Artistic Director of the Globe being advertised again, we can only hope such invention remains. Continue reading “Review: Othello, Sam Wanamaker”

Review: Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith

“You don’t get that quality of dance at Sadler’s Wells”
There’s something wonderfully political about the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomime Aladdin this year. Not just in Joel Horwood’s script, which packs in the requisite Trump and Brexit jokes, plus a cleverly worked visual gag for Article 50, and has the land of Fulhammerboosh ruled over by the Emperor One Per Cent. But in almost every aspect of Ellen McDougall’s production, there’s the kind of astute decision-making that has made her a director to watch and whets the appetite even more for her forthcoming Artistic Directorship of the Gate Theatre.
So the first character we meet is Abanazer, played with lip-smacking relish by Vikki Stone as a cross between Mrs Overall and Grotbag, who pretty much steals the show. And our Aladdin is no clueless US import but rather Lyric regular Karl Queensborough, notching up his eighth performance at a venue where he was nurtured by their youth programme. And casting Malinda Parris as the genie not only releases her sensational powerhouse vocal but also further shows up how questionable Disney’s Aladdin’s gender politics are over at the Prince Edward Theatre.
Thus through these choices, this Aladdin feels refreshed and revitalised, an entirely appropriate piece of family entertainment for 2016. And it does this without ever losing sight of all of the traditional aspects of pantomime that we’ve come to love and expect. So there’s some fantastically saucy humour from James Doherty’s Widow Twankey which (should) fly over the kids’ heads along with the sweets thrown out, there’s tons of audience participation led by Arthur McBain’s excellently sensitive Wishy Washy, and an unflagging atmosphere of fun that never drops.
With a sprightly soundtrack featuring rewritten lyrics to some of the year’s pop hits, an impressively staged magic carpet ride, singalongs and snowfalls, Aladdin is undoubtedly a hit. But it is that it’s a hit very much on the Lyric Hammersmith’s own terms that is most remarkable, along with the message it is passing onto the next generation. You may not necessarily agree with its empire-abolishing politics (with a big P) but the politics (with a small p) of teaching our kids that girls can be genies too, that hard work pays off, that the magic of great theatre lies in the imagination, are irrefutable. Exciting and entertaining, this truly is panto for the 21st century.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 7th January
Originally written for LondonTheatre1

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”

Not-a-Review: Secret Theatre show 5

“I just called to say I…”

And so Secret Theatre continues, on their fifth production now which has been devised by themselves and has a shorter run than usual as it will apparently be going to Edinburgh. So press reviews have been scrapped for this one, which may also have been motivated by the devised nature of the show, something which the UK mainstream critics automatically seem to react against. That said, I wasn’t much of a fan at all of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and its highly experimental structure. 

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd May then going to Edinburgh

Short Film Review: #5

The Reward
THE REWARD from Sentinel Productions on Vimeo.
Written by Joel Horwood, The Reward definitely ranks as top amongst this bunch of shorts.  Gorgeously filmed by Lucy Patrick Ward, its opening shots set up its two main characters perfectly: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s numbed woman having just lost her father, and Anatol Yusef’s gym instructor working out the pain of the loss of his beloved dog on his hapless aerobics class. When fate throws the pair together, their meeting seems charged with almost unmanageable emotion, but what Horwood conjures is a moment of powerful but truthful cathartic release that is just beautiful. Waller-Bridge is fantastic (I want to see her in more modern roles on the stage soon) and Yusef also convinces in suggesting his pain lies more than just in the loss of a pet. Watch it now!


Harry, Henry and the Prostitute

Fans of Charlie Cox’s hairy chest (and there are many of you, I know what search terms lead people here!) will be particularly pleased with this film, in which two flatmates hire a prostitute for the night, but end up in a spot of bother with her pimp when it turns out they haven’t got the money to pay her. Harry Ter Haar has written a nerdish but convincing connection of banterish friendship which is played extremely well by Charlie Cox and Ben Rees-Evans which makes it a pleasure to watch even though the story itself is perhaps a little undistinguished. Theo Davies’ production has a nice sense of humour though, which not even a random appearance from Fearne Cotton can undo, 


Little Larry

A cutely observed short which is up for the Virgin Media Shorts competition at the moment. Barely two minutes long, Andrew Lee Potts’ film speaks to the child inside all of us, the part that can never quite believe we’re actually an adult, and with some sharp editing, pulls together an impressively sweeping vista which wraps up to a lovely sweet ending.

Mourning Rules

Also up for the Virgin Media Shorts, is Mourning Rules, a rather witty, dark, comedic tale of a professional mourner demonstrating the tricks of her trade to her sister. Written by Dan Castella, Olivia Poulet and Monserrat Lombard, and starring the middle name, it is dizzyingly manic and I loved the way it finished on an unapologetic loopy note.

Out There
Written by Mike Walden and directed by Edward McGown, Out There puts a dark spin on a family’s move to rural France. Graham and Caroline’s relationship is already strained and suffers even more so as his tutoring of an attractive young local girl provides an outlet for his wandering hands. She in turn looks to the friendly neighbour Jean-Luc but the rules for women are different to those for men in Graham’s mind with severe consequences. It’s not quite as compelling as it could be though McGown generates a strong sense of atmosphere and teases out strong performances from his leads – Lucy Russell’s frustrated wife who understandably jumps at Tom Mison’s bearded French-accented woodsman and Jamie Foreman, a malevolent bulldog in human form.

Domestics
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Last up is Rob Curry’s Domestics, a two-hander about a couple’s very stormy relationship which is tipped over the edge with the purchase of the wrong flavour of ice-cream. It’s not particularly unique or flashy, but there’s something quite neat about the way it shifts between perspectives, testing the viewer to challenge what we are seeing – is it memory, wish-fulfilment, the future? Maimie McCoy and John Lightbody gamely battle out the conflict as they each push each other as far as they can go, and beyond.

Review: Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith

“Well, wasn’t that Christmassy!”

The Hackney Empire currently has the reputation of the must-see pantomime in London but the Lyric Hammersmith has been crafting its own little niche in the market and I’d happily wager that with Aladdin this year they have truly come up with the goods and I doubt that this panto will be bettered this year. Co-writers Steve Marmion, Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, returning from last year’s Dick Whittington along with much of the same crew and cast, continue to reinvigorate the form by working in a fresh contemporary vibe whilst never losing sight of what makes a panto work. There’s nothing old-fashioned about this trip to Ha-Maa-Smiitt (say it with an East Asian accent…) where the dastardly Abanazar is plotting to take over the kingdom, whilst unassuming, sweet-nicking Aladdin daydreams of a better life with the Princess Karen until he is thrust into action to save the day.

The script is punchy with a few neat topical references and absolutely chock-ablock with jokes which work on all levels (I was relieved to see the kids in front us perplexed as to why we were laughing so much as Widow Twanky departed on a washing machine) I was laughing out loud throughout the entire show, especially with the physical humour. But it is also a visual treat: Tom Scutt’s costume and set design is sunny and bright, Mark Smith has come up with some interesting choreography and with the magic carpet sequence, there is pure awe-inspiring theatrical magic at work. It would be unfair to say more about it but rest assured it is worth the ticket price alone. Continue reading “Review: Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith”