Theatre in 2016

I’ve been insanely busy with work this year and there hasn’t been much free time for theatre so I was surprised to see I’d managed to see 57 shows. There’s been some fabulously inventive and interesting productions with the NT standing out as having a particularly successful year. So in alphabetical order, here are my top picks of 2016.

by Peter Shaffer
at National Theatre

Lucian Msamati as Salieri with the Southbank Sinfonia. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Lucian Msamati (Salieri) with the Southbank Sinfonia. Photo by Marc Brenner.

The original 1979 production starring Paul Scofield and Simon Callow has achieved iconic status and I have a feeling that this revival will also be talked about for many years. Top marks to the sound team – it sounded as wonderful as it looked. Lucian Msamati was superb as Salieri and while some reviewers found Adam Gillen’s performance as Mozart rather over-energetic, it felt in keeping and necessary for the character to me. The Southbank Sinfonia brought a dazzling vitality to the whole production which made the most of the Olivier’s stage. The production will return in January 2018.


Blue Heart
by Caryl Churchill
at Orange Tree Theatre

Alex Beckett, Amelda Brown and Amanda Boxer. Photo by Richard Davenport.
Alex Beckett, Amelda Brown and Amanda Boxer. Photo by Richard Davenport.

Carly Churchill may be the ‘Marmite of playwrights’ but I’m very firmly on the “love” side. This double-bill of Heart’s Desire and Blue Kettle, was the first major revival in 20 years with a superbly tight production by David Mercatali. Both plays are technically challenging for actors but the cast of nine gave hugely impressive performances.


Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
at Royal Court

Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett, Deborah Findlay as Sally, Kika Markham as Lena and June Watson as Vi. Photo by Johan Persson.
Linda Bassett (Mrs Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena) and June Watson (Vi). Photo by Johan Persson.

The second Caryl Churchill play in my selection, Escaped Alone is brilliantly funny, inventive, thought-provoking and refreshingly short with four superb performances. It returns for a second run from 25 January 2017 before heading to Broadway.


Iphigenia in Splott
by Gary Owen
at National Theatre

Sophie Melville as Effie. Photo by Mark Douet.
Sophie Melville (Effie). Photo by Mark Douet.

Gary Owen made last year’s selection with Violence and Son and he features again with this powerful and moving monologue about Effie in South Cardiff who lives at the sharp end of austerity cuts. An astonishing performance from Sophie Melville.


Jess & Joe Forever
by Zoe Cooper
at Orange Tree Theatre

Nicola Coughlan as Jess and Rhys Isaac-Jones as Joe. Photo by Richard Davenport.
Nicola Coughlan (Jess) and Rhys Isaac-Jones (Joe). Photo by Richard Davenport.

Two talented young actors tell the story of the relationship between Jess and Joe as they grow up together through meeting on summer holidays. Simply staged and charmingly performed with a moving and unexpected twist in the tale.


Kenny Morgan
by Mike Poulton
at Arcola Theatre

Simon Dutton as Terry and Paul Keating as Kenny. Photo by Idil Sukan.
Simon Dutton (Terry) and Paul Keating (Kenny). Photo by Idil Sukan.

Perfectly pitched by all of the cast, this was a captivating riff on Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which I loved as a movie but seeing it at the NT this year left me unmoved. Not so with this beautifully designed production with strong performances all round but particularly from Paul Keating.


Les Blancs
by Lorraine Hansberry
adapted by Robert Nemiroff
at National Theatre

Siân Phillips as Madame Neilsen and Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh. Photo by Johan Persson.
Siân Phillips (Madame Neilsen) and Danny Sapani (Tshembe Matoseh). Photo by Johan Persson.

The wonderful Siân Phillips (still going strong at 83 years old) was the matriarch of this sensationally-staged play. smoke and the smell of incense. Scent is very underused in theatre but this production was incredibly engrossing and atmospheric.


by Jacqui Honess-Martin
at Hampstead Theatre

David Mumeni (Sami), Hannah Britland (Gabby), Ronak Patani (taj), Lucy May Barker (Betty) and Matt Whitchurch (Joe).
David Mumeni (Sami), Hannah Britland (Gabby), Ronak Patani (taj), Lucy May Barker (Betty) and Matt Whitchurch (Joe).

A perfect post-Christmas pick-me-up, this very sweet and cosy new play about a group of young people working selling Christmas trees was staged brilliantly in the downstairs space. Not everything rang true in the plot department, but it was all done with such warmth (with some carol singing thrown in) that it won me over.


Red Velvet
by Lolita Chakrabarti
at Garrick Theatre

Adrian Lester (Ira Aldridge).
Adrian Lester (Ira Aldridge).

Only the second time I’ve seen Adrian Lester on stage (the first was 23 years earlier in Sweeney Todd at the NT) and he was utterly captivating in this fascinating play about actor Ira Aldridge.


The Children
by Lucy Kirkwood
at Royal Court

Ron Cook (Robin), Deborah Findlay (Hazel) and Francesca Annis (Rose). Photo by Johan Persson.
Ron Cook (Robin), Deborah Findlay (Hazel) and Francesca Annis (Rose). Photo by Johan Persson.

Lucy Kirkwood does it again with a slow-burner about a couple living near a nuclear power station who receive an unexpected visit from an old work colleague. Three fantastic performances, made this a real treat.


The Flick
by Annie Baker
at National Theatre

Louisa Krause and Jaygann Ayeh. Photo by Mark Douet.
Louisa Krause and Jaygann Ayeh. Photo by Mark Douet.

I remember loving The Aliens by Annie Baker at the Bush Theatre many years ago and loving it. The Flick had a hugely successful run on Broadway in 2015 and it arrived in London with a string of hype and anticipation. It didn’t disappoint. Simply brilliant.


The Red Barn
by David Hare
at National Theatre

Hope Davis (Ingrid Dodd) and Mark Strong (Donald Dodd). Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Hope Davis (Ingrid Dodd) and Mark Strong (Donald Dodd). Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The critics were quite divided on this new play from David Hare based on the novel La Main by Georges Simenon. Many thought that the slick staging by Robert Icke and designer Bunnie Christie was more “movie than theatre” but I thought it was amazingly well done.


The Solid Life of Sugar Water
by Jack Thorne
at National Theatre

Genevieve Barr (Alice) and Arthur Hughes (Phil). Photo by Patrick Baldwin.
Genevieve Barr (Alice) and Arthur Hughes (Phil). Photo by Patrick Baldwin.

Every once in a time, a production comes along that seems to redefine what theatre is. This is one of those productions. The most powerful and moving performance of a speech I’ve ever seen on stage from Genevieve Barr retelling the loss of the couple’s baby.


by Anna Jordan
at Royal Court

Jake Davies (Bobbie) and Alex Austin (Hench). Photo by Richard Davenport.
Jake Davies (Bobbie) and Alex Austin (Hench). Photo by Richard Davenport.

On paper, watching two teenage brothers whiling away the hours in a squalid flat on a diet of video games and porn with their dog named Taliban doesn’t sound too appealing, but Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood prize-winning play grabs the audience by the neck and doesn’t let them go. Brilliantly-written, with a couple of raw, honest and spellbinding performances from Jake Davies and Alex Austin.



Theatre in 2015

I had to demand a recount from myself (because I didn’t quite believe it) but my theatrical obsession reached terrifying new heights in 2015 with an insane 81 shows seen. With that much choice, it was no easy task to narrow down to just a handful of shows but here are my top picks of 2015 in alphabetical order.

Casa Valentina
by Harvey Fierstein
at Southwark Playhouse

Matthew Rixon as Bessie and Tamsin Carroll as Rita
Matthew Rixon as Bessie and Tamsin Carroll as Rita

2015 was a vintage year for the husky-voiced New Yorker with the opening of Kinky Boots at the Adelphi and the UK premiere of this play, that originally debuted on Broadway in 2014. Inspired by the book Casa Susanna, Fierstein has created a genuinely fascinating and engrossing tale about a group of men who visit a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains to explore their feminine side. The performances were beautifully judged, particularly Tamsin Carroll as one half of the hotelier couple in an unconventional marriage. The honesty and humanity of this production made for a unique experience and it is a great shame that it failed to attract bigger audiences.


The Christians
by Lucas Hnath
at Gate Theatre W11

William Gaminara as Pastor
William Gaminara as Pastor

The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill was an cosy setting for this clever American play by Lucas Hnath about faith where Pastor Paul causes shockwaves through his congregation after announcing that he no longer believes that hell exists. I particularly liked the way that microphones were used throughout to broadcast often intimate inner thoughts as a “voice from above” and the community choir gave added authenticity.


The Dazzle
by Richard Greenberg
at Found111

David Dawson as Homer and Andrew Scott as Langley. Photo by Marc Brenner.
David Dawson as Homer and Andrew Scott as Langley. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Performed in a temporary space at the top of the old St. Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road, this is a venue that demands good stamina with 73 steps. Richard Greenberg’s play about two interdependent brothers who slowly entomb themselves with junk in a New York mansion is fascinatingly bizarre but what really made this stand out was the performances. It’s a given that Andrew Scott will be brilliant but I was really impressed by David Dawson who was spellbinding.


The Father
by Florian Zeller
at Wyndham’s Theatre

Kenneth Cranham as Andre and Claire Skinner as Anne. Photo by Simon Annand
Kenneth Cranham as Andre and Claire Skinner as Anne. Photo by Simon Annand

Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner were fantastic in this ingenious play that explores Alzheimer’s by playing with the audience’s mind. As the play goes on, the set is slowly cleared of furniture and the changes of characters and actors heighten the utter sense of confusion. It returns to the West End at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 24 February.


by Phil Davies
at Hampstead Theatre

Tahirah Sharif as Katie and Callie Cooke as Tia. Photo by Robert Day.
Tahirah Sharif as Katie and Callie Cooke as Tia. Photo by Robert Day.

A breathtakingly good 80 minute play about child sexual exploitation based on the events in Rochdale. Gut-punching-in-your-face theatre with superb performances. It gets a West End run at Trafalgar Studios from 17 February.


by Martin McDonagh
at Royal Court

Reece Shearsmith as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Reece Shearsmith as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

I can’t give this play or production enough superlatives and I enjoyed a second visit in January 2015 at the Wyndham’s almost as much as the first. Martin McDonagh’s script is very sharp, cruel and brilliantly funny. I particularly liked Bronwyn James in her professional debut who was pitch perfect as teenager Shirley.

Here We Go
by Caryl Churchill
at National Theatre

Patrick Godfrey. Photo by Keith Pattison.
Patrick Godfrey. Photo by Keith Pattison.

I am fairly certain that this is the first Caryl Churchill play I’ve ever seen. A 45 minute reflection on death, played in reverse order, from funeral to care home. There was much debate of the last 20 minute scene where the old man gets repeatedly dressed and undressed in a care home, but no complaints from me.

Man and Superman
by George Bernhard Shaw
at National Theatre

Indira Varma as Ann and Ralph Fiennes as John. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Indira Varma as Ann and Ralph Fiennes as John. Photo by Alastair Muir.

I am not a fan of long plays and movies, so when I found out the running time was 3+ hours, I was not full of glee. How wrong I was. To my surprise, this was a complete delight. Ralph Fiennes is truly wonderful to watch as the batchelor doing everything he can to avoid marriage and he was very well supported by Indira Varma.


Three Days in the Country
by Patrick Marber after Turgenev
at National Theatre

Debra Gillett as Lizaveta and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Debra Gillett as Lizaveta and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky. Photo by Alastair Muir.

This Patrick Marber riff on Three Months in the Country gathered some rather sniffy reviews but I loved every minute. Strong performances from all and a beautifully simple but effective set design.

by Daniel Kitson
at Old Vic


I heard so many great things about Daniel Kitson but this was my first experience and what a complete joy it was. A man is up a tree. Another man walks by and they start talking. Tall tales and improbable scenarios ensue. By the end you’re not sure who is telling the truth but you’ve been thoroughly entertained.


Violence and Son
by Gary Owen
at Royal Court

David Moorst as Liam and Jason Hughes as Rick. Photo by Alastair Muir.
David Moorst as Liam and Jason Hughes as Rick. Photo by Alastair Muir.

Yes it is Warren from This Life! But time has moved on quite a bit and now Jason Hughes plays a Dad whose son has moved back to Wales after his mother died from cancer. A satisfyingly quirky play about family, belonging and violence. Very effectively staged in the round (think bull ring…) with strong performances from all, particularly David Moorst who deservedly won an Evening Standard Theatre Award for this.

Theatre in 2014

I saw 44 shows last year and there were some real crackers in the mix. So (drumroll please) here are my top 10 best productions of 2014 in alphabetical order.

Ballyturk (National Theatre, London)

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo: Patrick Redmond.
Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo: Patrick Redmond.

Safely slotting into the ‘utterly bonkers’ category, Enda Walsh’s enigmatic new play divided audiences but I found it fascinating and am sticking to my hypothesis that the claustrophobic and abstract world the characters inhabit represents the internet. It was also an entertaining 90 minutes  – what’s not to like about a couple of grown men running manically around the stage as they get dressed to Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling? “I’m so tall, I’m so tall…”


The Blackest Black (Hampstead Theatre, London)

Charity Wakefield and John Light. Photo: Robert Day.
Charity Wakefield and John Light. Photo: Robert Day.

Another cracker from one of my favourite venues, Hampstead Downstairs. A slow burning and very delicate play by Jeremy Block that revolves around the relationship between an artist (Charity Wakefield) and astronomer (John Light). I found it totally compelling with strong writing, spot-on performances and beautiful design and direction.


The Drowsy Chaperone (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)


This production can be summed up in two words: sheer class. It’s a charming, entertaining and very funny musical but with the addition of superbly talented cast and tightly paced direction by Jay James-Moody (who also played the ‘Man in Chair’ role) it just went through the roof. Exhilarating.


God Bless The Child (Royal Court, London)

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s not often that you walk down a school corridor and pass a row of children’s coats as you enter an auditorium but with superb attention to detail, designer Chloe Lamford transformed the Royal Court’s upstairs space into a huge classroom where we the audience sat on plastic seats along the walls. ‘Badger Do Best’ is the latest initiative being trialled at Castlegrave School where the teachers talk more childishly than the pupils. With two teams of eight year-olds (all refreshingly naturalistic and un-stage-schooly), this fast-moving production by Vicky Featherstone was really well done.


Here Lies Love (Dorfmann Theatre, London)

Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos. Photo: Tristram Kenton.
Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The much talked about David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaboration hopped across the pond in 2014 and opens in Sydney in 2015. I only wish I’d known more about the history of the Philippines before I’d seen the show, so I couldn’t resist seeing it for a second time. While a singalong-with-Imelda encore sits awkwardly next to the final acoustic number, the previous 90 minutes is a brilliantly slick production with catchy songs throughout. Extra marks awarded for shoes only being mentioned once (and in an amusingly clever and casual lyric).


My Night With Reg (Donmar Warehouse, London)

Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Broadbent and Julian Ovenden. Photo: Johan Persson.
Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Broadbent and Julian Ovenden. Photo: Johan Persson.

I first saw this 20 years ago at the Criterion (starring John Sessions) and distinctly remember being nonplussed by it all! As the years have passed, I felt quite differently this time around. A really well done production with finely nuanced performances from the entire cast. This month it returns to the West End for a second run with the same cast.


The Nether (Royal Court Theatre, London)

David Beames and Stanley Townsend. Photo: Johan Persson.
David Beames and Stanley Townsend. Photo: Johan Persson.

Without question my favourite show of the year, this challenging single-act play by Jennifer Haley is a stunning piece of theatre. The Nether explores how people behave in a virtual world where any sexual fantasy is possible and it does so in a very sensitive, intelligent and chillingly believable way. The set and video projection design is beautifully done and seamlessly integrated into the concept. It deservedly gets another run at the Duke of York’s Theatre from end of January.


Pomona (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Sam Swann and Sean Rigby.
Sam Swann and Sean Rigby.

For Paul Miller’s third production as the new Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, he dropped a bombshell on TW9 with this new play by Alistair McDowall. With its dark non-linear narrative set in urban Manchester, this was certainly not traditional Orange Tree fare and not surprisingly it attracted a rather more youthful audience than usual. Great performances from the entire cast and tight direction from Ned Bennett. I hope Pomona marks the start of a more eclectic programming strategy at the theatre.


Skylight (Wyndhams Theatre, London)

Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan.
Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan.

Could two of my favourite actors, Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan really be on stage in the same David Hare play? Sure, the age difference between them was stretching credibility but I loved this production and Bob Crowley’s skeleton-like urban set design. Skylight gets a second run on Broadway in March 2015.


The Wild Duck (Barbican, London)

Richard Piper and a duck. Photo: Danilo Moroni
Richard Piper and a duck. Photo: Danilo Moroni

A same-day decision to catch the last performance of this London-only tour by Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre (where I saw a couple of great productions earlier in the year) and I’m so glad I did. Simon Stone’s raw, powerful and gutsy production places almost all the action behind a glass walls with the actors on radio mics. Performances were superb and I can confirm there was indeed a live duck on stage.

Theatre in 2013

It seems the last annual roundup I did was in 2010, so with 64 shows feeding my theatregoing addition last year, it is high time for another and fortunately 2013 was a fantastic year for London theatre.

A bit of birthday sparkle on the rain-drenched Lyletton fly tower.
The Lyttleton fly tower gets a touch of birthday sparkle

It remains my favourite building in London and the National Theatre celebrated their 50th anniversary in fitting style, with a couple of documentaries, a pick-and-mix variety show of highlights and a fascinating series of discussion panels that were thankfully recorded and available on SoundCloud. These are a wonderful educational resource for anyone in the industry or watching from the wings.

So without further ado, in alphabetical order, here are my top 12 favourite productions of 2013.

1984 (Richmond Theatre)

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

A couple of years ago I saw a Northern Broadsides production of Orwell’s 1984 and I remember it leaving no impression on me whatsoever! However, this Headlong touring production, could not have been more different. Brilliantly directed and performed with an impressive set and very effective use of video projection. 1984 comes to the Almeida Theatre in February and the entire run is already sold out.


Chimerica (Noel Coward Theatre)

Photo: Johan Persson
Photo: Johan Persson

Lucy Kirkwood’s play about the Tiananmen Square ‘tank man’ was a sold-out success at the Almeida before it transferred to the West End. A Headlong co-production it had an ingenious set based on a rotating cube, which is the cleverest thing I’ve seen on stage since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Equally impressive was the brisk pace of the production which is no mean feat for a three hour play. The reviews were unanimously stunning and I was dubious whether it would live up to them. It did.


Fault Lines (Hampstead Theatre)

Photo: Holly Wren
Photo: Holly Wren

One of my favourite London theatres, Hampstead Theatre pulled a cracker with this new contemporary comedy by Ali Taylor, set in the office of a disaster relief charity. While I wasn’t quite convinced by the central relationship, there were some strong performances (particularly from Alex Lawther, above) and another fantastic Hampstead set which took naturalism to a whole new level.


Fences (Duchess Theatre)

Photo: Nobby Clark
Photo: Nobby Clark

Another feather in the cap for Lenny Henry who was simply stunning in this fine production of August Wilson’s American classic. I’d never seen the play before but I found myself captivated and very moved by it.


The Hothouse (Trafalgar Studios)

Photo: Johan Persson
Photo: Johan Persson

I absolutely loved this Pinter play. Perfectly cast with Simon Russell-Beale and John Simm as the leads and featuring a manic John Heffernan and the wonderful Harry Melling (above). Impeccably directed by Jamie Lloyd and beautifully designed by Soutra Gilmour.


Let the Right One In (Royal Court)

Photo: Drew Farrell
Photo: Drew Farrell

Creating a stage version of a movie which features a series of horrific deaths and a scene in a swimming pool is hardly a walk in the park, but the National Theatre of Scotland pulled it off brilliantly.


London Wall (St James Theatre)

Photo: Philip Gammon
Photo: Philip Gammon

This production was a complete joy from beginning to end. This revival of the John Van Druten play about office life in the 1930s was originally produced at the Finborough Theatre and transferred to St James Theatre in May. Superb performances from the entire cast, I honestly didn’t want it to end.


Port (NT Lyttleton)

Photo: Kevin Cummins
Photo: Kevin Cummins

This NT revival of Simon Stephens’ 2002 epic play about a brother and sister growing up in Stockport received mixed reviews. Putting a curiously double-casting decision aside, I really enjoyed the sheer ambition and design of this production on the vast Lyttleton stage.


The Pride (Trafalgar Studios)

Photo: Marc Brenner
Photo: Marc Brenner

The last show in Jamie Lloyd’s ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season and what a classy production this was. A very simple but beautifully executed set and heartbreakingly delicate performances from Harry Hadden-Paton, Al Weaver and Hayley Atwell supported by Matthew Horne. The Pride is shortly embarking on a mini-tour to Brighton, Manchester and Richmond from mid-January and I’m very tempted to see it again.


Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic)

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s an odd play but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kim Cattrall and the rather lovely Seth Numrich were great as the leads in this epic tale of an middle-aged actress chasing her youth and a young man escaping his past.


Twelfth Night (Globe)

Photo: Geraint Lewis
Photo: Geraint Lewis

Not strictly a 2013 production since this was recorded at the Globe in 2012, but I thought this all-male production was spell-binding. Mark Rylance was amazingly entertaining as Olivia and this is another one for the ‘complete joy’ category.


The Winslow Boy (Old Vic)

Photo: Alastair Muir
Photo: Alastair Muir

This was the first time I’d seen this Terence Rattigan play and with its beautiful design and top notch performances, this was one of those productions that you soon feel completely immersed in. A perfect revival for the Old Vic – they just do them so well.

Sing When You’re Winning

Singing. I’ve always loved it but never had any formal tuition until 2010 when I did a 12 week evening course at CSSD that started off with 15 keen students and dwindled down to just 4 of us by the end!

The past couple of years I’ve been heavily involved in theatre and apart from the songs in Privates on Parade in May 2012, my vocal chords have been rather underused and I miss it very much. So when I decided to take a break from theatrical pursuits this year, doing some sort of singing was high on the to do list.

‘Traditional’ choirs don’t appeal to me so the timing of the brand new Chaps Choir group on Thursday nights couldn’t be better and I’m loving it (bah-dah-bah-bah-bah). With vocal chords freshly energised, I decided to be brave and dive in to the third annual Chorus Festival at Southbank Centre this bank holiday weekend.

Southbank Centre on May Bank Holiday weekend

On Saturday I joined around 100 people of all ages in an all-day workshop with Tim Rhys-Evans (of Only Boys Aloud and Only Men Aloud fame) working on 3 songs – ‘Will I’ from Rent, ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along and what I now know as his signature arrangement of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. Spending the day rehearsing on the Royal Festival Hall stage was quite an amazing experience in itself – shame I forgot to take a photo.

At 6pm we all trotted down to the ground floor to perform our three songs to an enthusiastic audience in the packed Clore Ballroom, where I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Julie and we decided to sign up for a workshop on Sunday. Of course one thing leads to another and we had a great time singing our little hearts out to a Todd Rungren’s ‘Mighty Love’, watching an outdoors performance of the fantastic Pop-Up Choir, enjoying a tasty veggie burger and Pimms in the sunshine and taking part in a Pop-Up workshop session. On Monday night, the festival closed with a free concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with some gorgeous arrangements by groups led by Pete Churchill.

Two things struck me about the festival. Firstly what an inclusive activity singing can be. The minimum entry requirement is the ability to hold a note and that’s it. So there were all types, races and ages of people, from children (including a girl with Down’s Syndrome) to elderly people. Everyone had a smile on their face. It had quite a magical and emotionally-charged atmosphere.

Chorus Festival blazes the trail for arts events in the 21st century. Why should funding for arts organisations only be used to fund the production of paid performances? Watching a performance is certainly satisfying but actually taking part in something with other like-minded people is something else entirely. A more holistic and educational approach is exactly what a publicly funded arts organisation should be doing. I suspect that with the renewed focus on budget cuts, organisations that actively pursue this route are putting themselves in a far stronger position when those funding decisions come around again.

So hats off to Jude Kelly and the Southbank Centre team for such a fantastic achievement. I will be back in 2014.

Theatre in 2010

Review of my theatregoing obsession in 2010

I admit it, I’m slightly obsessed and about £1800 less well off. The two short acting courses clearly left an impression because this year I saw 68 productions which is almost three times the number I saw in 2009! I’m certainly picky – it’s very rare that I’ll book for a show before reviews are published – and as a result I’ve been lucky enough to some very fine productions this year.

What makes the experience of live theatre unique is the relationship we have as an audience with the actors. When it comes to West End theatres, I freely admit to being a ‘Stalls Snob’ (if I can’t sit in the first 12 or so rows of the stalls I’d rather give it a miss) but I very rarely pay full price. Fringe theatres provide an amazing opportunity to sit within literally touching distance of actors and the whole experience becomes so much more powerful as a result. For me this has been the biggest thrill of 2010. We are fortunate in London to have so many fringe venues producing high quality work and we should support them as much as we can.

2010 has been a year of rediscoveries – It’s very many years since I’ve been to the Bush Theatre and Donmar Warehouse but the former in particular provided a couple of treats with The Aliens and My Romantic History. I look forward to seeing the Bush Theatre continue to do great things in 2011 as they move to a larger new home in the old Shepherd’s Bush library. There have also been many discoveries including the Almeida, Arcola, Finborough, Menier Chocolate Factory, Old Red Lion, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Royal Court (why has it taken me so long?) and the Young Vic. So without further ado, here are my highlights and lowlights of 2010.

Best Productions:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – beautifully acted and completely engrossing.
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – David Suchet was superb.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – just a joy to watch from beginning to end.
  • Jerusalem (Apollo) – incredible performance from Mark Rylance.
  • Posh (Royal Court) – I loved this new play and the tight ensemble acting from the entire cast.
  • Rope (Almeida) – a completely thrilling and very atmospheric production in the round, had the entire audience on the edge of our seats.
  • Spur of the Moment (Royal Court) – this new play from a 17 year old playwright was timed to perfection.
  • Sweeney Todd (National Music Youth Theatre at Village Underground) – I was blown away by the sheer vitality and performance quality for such a young cast.
  • Taking Steps (Orange Tree) – I’m not a huge Alan Ayckbourn fan but with the man himself directing this revival, it’s hard to imagine how this could have been any better.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – a confident, pacey and gutsy production.

Least Scary Production:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – after all the build up, the actual show was a disappointment.

Worst Productions:

  • Wolfboy (Trafalgar Studios) – it’s hard to put into words how awful this was and it’s all Stephen Fry’s fault!
  • Dumb Show (Rose Theatre, Kingston) – an underdeveloped and unconvincing play.
  • A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (Lyric Hammersmith) – great idea meets weak writing and execution.
  • Nation (National Theatre) – all the elements were there but it was a clunky and laboured experience.

Best Set Design:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – breathtaking to look at AND there were ceilings!
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – real grass, big tree and a cute wooden house.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – three wonderful sets for the price of one.
  • Red Bud (Royal Court) – more real grass, a fire pit and authentic American truck (unassembled, winched up to the fifth floor then reassembled) demonstrated how adaptable their upstairs space really is.
  • Salome (Hampstead Theatre) – stunning industrial set with mud, puddles and actors not afraid to get dirty. How wardrobe must have loved that one!
  • The Aliens (Bush Theatre) – simple but very atmospheric external service area of an American diner with lots of corrugated steel. Nice touch of pebbles in a concrete screed on the floor.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – isolated rural cottage in Ireland got extra points for audience entrance experience with ‘rain’ running down plastic sheets.
  • The Railway Children (Waterloo) – ingenious adaptation of old Eurostar platforms, the tunnel scene was particularly well done.
  • The Gods Weep (Hampstead Theatre) – started off as quite a bland looking set and turned into something quite different.

Best FOH Dressing:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – foyer and corridors to auditorium had hanging light fittings, damaged carpet and police incident tape everywhere.

Best Lighting:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – the realistic lighting complemented the superb sets perfectly.
  • Rope (Almeida) – less was definitely more for creating tension in this great production.
  • The Prince of Homburg (Donmar Warehouse) – subdued and effective. The sound design was also very good.

Worst Lighting:

  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – the set was a small cottage in rural Ireland with a tiny window and most scenes were lit like a panto! A shame since the lighting on night time scenes was very good.

Best Theatre Websites:

  • Bush Theatre – I love the friendly and approachable personality of this new site design and their online booking is well done too.
  • Royal Court – it’s a wonderful building and this warm and vibrant site really shows it off to the full.

So that’s it for 2010, let’s hear it for a fantastic year for the theatre capital of the world and here’s to more great shows in 2011!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

So another West End show, ‘Joseph’ starring Gareth Gates has just closed early. If I remember correctly, I saw the original Palladium production two (or possibly even three times) with both Jason Donovan and Phillip Schofield. This restaging has been at the Adelphi Theatre since 2007 when Lee Mead, the winner of the BBC talent show, ‘Any Dream Will Do’ took on the lead role.

Tonight was the last night and it was packed with the additional showbiz element of Tim Rice sitting a few rows in front and getting besieged by autograph hunters. As far as I could tell, the show was identical to the Palladium production. It’s still brilliantly staged with the scenes flowing effortlessly into one another. Performances were very good and it must be a tough show to do because there’s little pause for breath. Dean Collinson was a particularly fun Pharoah but Jenna Lee-James played the Narrator in an oddly cold and businesslike fashion.

Oh and Mr Gates? He did a very fine job. I was impressed. The megamix was as foot-tappingly camp as it should be and Gareth went up on the hydraulic lift at the end. What more could one ask for?

Spring Awakening

Based on a controversial German play, ‘Spring Awakening‘ the musical first saw the light of day in New York in 2006. It tells the story of a group of teenagers as they leave childhood behind and transition into adulthood. I’d read lots of positive reviews and it was on my list of shows to see and by sheer fluke I was a bit alarmed to discover it was due to close early this week. So a discount ticket email was hastily dug out from the inbox and Tuesday was the night.

I’d heard some comparisons made between the show and another of my favourite musicals, ‘Rent’ (the original production not the abysmal ‘Rent Remixed’) and it does have the same feel – the brick wall set, the liberal use of dialogue during songs and in-your-face rock band guitars. Like ‘Rent’, ‘Spring Awakening’ has a raw energy and youthfulness that’s invigorating to watch and the music is just superb. It runs the full musical gamut from the soft and tender ‘Left Behind’ to the angry, rocky and pretty-damn-awesome ‘Totally Fucked’. Yes folks, the Broadway cast recording is now sitting on my iPod and I love it.

Acting was good all round but vocally the girls were much stronger and more confident than the boys. The one exception was Iwan Rheon (playing the role of Moritz) who had an fantastic voice. The set design and lighting deserve special mention because they really lift the production to a very high standard.

Unfortunately, fantastic songs and staging wasn’t enough. Even after a successful run at the Lyric Hammersmith, any show that deals with ‘challenging’ subjects such as suicide, incest, S&M and abortion is going to have a tough time in the West End. ‘Spring Awakening’ just isn’t commercial enough for a mainstream audience and that’s a great shame because any show that isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber or a jukebox musical deserves a home in my opinion.

As a footnote, I’d never been to the Novello before but it’s a wonderful theatre. We sat in row T of the stalls and on the side walls are large ornate mirrors that reflect what’s happening on stage. It really enhanced the experience. Another unusual feature was the bar at the back of the stalls that has a window into the auditorium and looks like a cute old train carriage.

Les Miserables

Yes I know it’s been running for centuries but for some inexplicable reason I’d never seen Les Mis until last night. It’s one of those shows that everyone seems to rave about. OK well almost everyone. The friend-of-a-friend at Priscilla last night thought it was a snoozefest.

So along I went to the Queen’s Theatre with an open mind and a smattering of anticipation. The latter probably due to the fact that the lovely and highly talented Jon Robyns has been part of the cast since last year. But what if my reaction to the show was inappropriate? Should I pop into Angels on the way down Shaftesbury Avenue and hire a couple of masks?

If so, how would I know which mask I should be wearing? Is Les Mis the sort of show that starts with the right mask and ends with the left? Or is it just right mask all the way from curtain up through to the train journey home and bedtime?

Three and a bit hours later as we stumbled through a mild gin and vodka induced haze into the street (at the Queen’s Theatre the circle exits are at street weird is that?) I still wouldn’t have known which mask to wear.

I wasn’t very familiar with the music but it sounds great and looks great. David Shannon as Jean Valjean was very good with a beautiful voice. Also strong was David Thaxton as Enjolras and Jon Robyns didn’t disappoint. On the other hand, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was rather a hard and shouty affair.

I can appreciate that Les Mis is an impressive show but would I go again? Hmmm. Sorry Les Mis fans, but it just didn’t light my fire.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

The huge stiletto heel at the front of the Palace Theatre is a bit of a clue that this is not Les Mis. After years running in Australia, the movie-turned-into-a-musical has hit the West End.

The star of the show is of course Priscilla the bus. She’s 8m long, dominates the stage and is covered in LED lights. Inside are 3 lifts and an interior that looks like an Early Learning Centre.

Tony Sheldon is superb as Bernadette, the transexual who unexpectedly finds love in the outback. Jason Donovan is OK but rather bland as the drag queen on a trip to meet his son and Oliver Thornton makes for a convincing dippy and shallow Adam. The rest of the company put in solid performances and the three divas that hover above the stage are a lot of fun.

The set and costumes are as extravagant and inventive as you’d expect but it just feels a bit half-baked, clunky and lacking in pace at times. The sheer size of Priscilla means she can only move slowly around the stage and that drags the show down a bit (sorry couldn’t resist). There’s a bizarre scene at the start of Act 2 where the Aussie locals in the outback have a hoedown with members of the audience dragged up (oops I did it again) on stage. Did I miss summer? Is it panto season already?

The last time I saw Jason Donovan on stage was in Joseph at the Palladium. Now there was a show with amazing energy, great lighting and earth shattering sound. I was expecting a similar thing with this production – to be swept away with it all but it never happened. The sound is average and the lighting in particular was very disappointing. It was terribly flat at times, the rear cyc was underused and the operatic travelling scene could have been far more striking with some lighting animation. Maybe there was no budget left after all the frocks?

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the show and there are some great moments but I left feeling a bit disappointed. All the ingredients are there but a little bit of theatrical magic got lost on the road from screen to stage.