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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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This is a breath of fresh air for the West End, full of energy and life-affirming joy, and perhaps the first musical to be inspired by a documentary?

Sixteen-year-old Jamie wants to be a drag queen, and to wear a dress to the school prom. His divorced mum Margaret, her friend Ray and his bestie Pritti support him, but his dad, his school and some of his classmates don’t approve. He’s befriended and coached by Hugo, a former drag queen, now owner of a shop supplying drag outfits, and starts developing an act for an invited audience at the local drag club where three other drag queens also provide advice and support. The showcase goes ahead, followed by the even bigger challenge of the prom.

Dan Gillespie Sells score and Tom Macrae’s book and lyrics are excellent; they bring a fresh pop sound, rather than a bog standard musicals one, the style of songs changing to match the characters. Kate Prince’s choreography is simply terrific, again fresh rather than standard musicals movement. The school scenes in particular have extraordinary authenticity and high energy. I liked Anna Fleischle’s design, with projections by Luke Halls, and it’s staged with great pace by Jonathan Butterell.

It seems like a very happy cast, visibly enthusiastic, many of them transferring from Sheffield with the show. Lucie Shorthouse is outstanding as Pritti, comfortable with both her Muslim culture and Jamie’s personal choices. The relationship between Jamie and his mum is at the heart of the show and Josie Walker invests a lot of emotional energy into Margaret, with her big second act song feeling like a big hug from your mum. Mina Anwar is lovely as the ballsy Ray, who’s love for Margaret and Jamie knows no bounds. John McRea towers over all of this with a supremely confident, passionate performance; an astonishing West End debut.

I watched the documentary after seeing the show and it proves it’s very faithful to Jamie’s story. The show’s message of tolerance, of everyone being allowed to be who they are, comes over loud and clear in what is clearly a populist and critical success. Lets hope it’s a commercial success too, so that we can get more fresh air like this into the West End.

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I have to confess I’ve never read the L P Hartley novel on which this is based, or seen the film (adapted by the man-most-unlikely Harold Pinter!), or the TV adaptation, or heard the radio play, and obviously not the American stage adaptation or the South African opera! It’s clearly a popular source and now we have the musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood. It has its faults, but on the whole I liked it.

It starts in 62-year-old Leo Colston’s attic, from which we flash back fifty years to the summer holidays of 1900 when as a twelve-year-old he visits the home and family of his more well-to-do school friend Marcus. Marcus’ sister Marian befriends Leo, with the ulterior motive of using him as postman to send messages to her secret bit of rough Ted in the neighbouring farm. Leo obliges (he’s got a bit of a crush on Marian) and gets drawn into a world of intrigue, deceit and lies which has such a profound impact on him he is still affected by it fifty years on.

The show flows beautifully in Roger Haines staging, on a lovely impressionistic set by Michael Pavelka. The score isn’t entirely sung through, but it is sub-operatic, with snatches of recurring melodies and sung dialogue rather than songs. I loved the fact it was played onstage by a grand piano (the excellent Nigel Lilley), which really suited the material. The narrative is very clear (a writer used to writing for children again!) and progresses satisfyingly to its flashback conclusion, a flash forward, then return to the attic. At the interval, after a relatively slow first half, I wasn’t sure about it, but it picked up significantly in the second half and I was glad I went.

Though he is playing a character significantly younger, I thought Michael Crawford did so with great dignity and poignancy, on stage throughout like a ghost, and the boy playing young Leo – Luka Green on the night I went – was terrific. Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward are superb as the lovers Marian and Ted and Samuel Menhinick as young Marcus was excellent. There were just seven other characters, all played with sensitivity in true ensemble fashion.

Based on the proliferation of offers and the audience size on Tuesday, it looks like its heading for an early bath, which is a shame as it is something fresh and different in the West End – a gentle and rather captivating chamber musical. Catch it while you can.

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I’ve decided it’s time for my very own awards, but I’m going to stick to productions rather than recognise individuals and I’ve chickened out of ranking them, so here’s the best (39! )of 2010, in four categories but no particular order! A terrific year…..

BEST NEW PLAY – an impressive year, particularly for the Royal Court

Clybourne Park, Tribes, Posh & Sucker Punch – all at the Royal Court / The White Guard & Blood and Gifts – both at the National / Canary & Dunsinane – both at Hampstead / Women Power and Politics – Tricycle / The Big Fellah – Lyric Hammersmith / My Romantic History – Bush / Ruined – Almeida / The Animals and Children Took To The Streets – BAC

…..and all in subsidised theatres!

BEST NEW MUSICAL – less than a handful!

Love Story – Chichester to Duchess / Legally Blonde – Savoy / Departure Lounge -Waterloo East / Reasons to be Cheerful – Theatre Royal Stratford

BEST PLAY – REVIVAL – an embarrassment of riches; the NT shining

After the Dance , Men Should Weep, London Assurance, Hamlet, Beyond the Horizon & Spring Storm – National / Love on the Dole – Finborough / The Crucible – Open Air / Beauty Queen of Leenane – Young Vic / Broken Glass – Tricycle / Design for Living – Old Vic / All My Sons – Apollo Theatre / Measure for Measure – Almeida Theatre / Shirley Valentine – Menier Chocolate Factory

BEST MUSICAL – REVIVAL

Assassins & Bells Are Ringing – Union Theatre / Into The Woods – Open Air Theatre / Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory / Sweeney Todd – NYMT / Me & Juliet – Finborough / Pins & Needles – Cock Tavern

Not qualifying as they weren’t staged, but a special mention for the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 concert performances

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