Posts Tagged ‘Finborough Theatre’

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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I so love these Finborough rediscoveries. This one is the sixty-year-old only play by a man better known as a translator / adaptor, literary manager and theatre critic and it’s another gem which makes you wonder how work of this quality can remain unproduced for so long while inferior work is revived with great regularity. It could only be staged at the time because it was produced at the Arts Theatre, then a club; theatre censorship was still in place and they would never have allowed it in a normal theatre.

It’s set in a public school, and in particular the shady world of sex, love and power. Housemaster Hallowes gives sex talks to the fifteen-year-olds whilst the seventeen-year-olds are ignoring them. House prefect Park takes an even stronger stance than Hallowes, which his deputy Tully ignores. Hallowes latest talk is too late for Tully’s fag Turner, but not for his contemporary Hamilton. The examination of the abuse of power by older boys echoes current events in film, theatre and politics. It’s examination of the difference between sex and love is altogether braver and more original. It’s a beautifully written piece, though perhaps a touch overlong in the closing scenes of each half.

Christian Durham’s impeccable production takes place on the set of the Finborough’s other play, but you’d never know it. All five performances are outstanding. Simon Butteriss’ Hallowes is a benevolent master with a clear moral code; his sex talk scene was a gem. Of the 17-year-olds, Oliver Gully’s stern and earnest Park contrasts with Harley Viveash’s gregarious and passionate Tully, whilst in the 15-year-olds, Jacques Miche’s cheeky and knowing Turner contrasts with Jack Archer’s naive and serious Hamilton; the latter’s facial expressions spoke volumes.

A great rediscovery given a fine production. Hopefully to be seen by more than the 600 that can fit into these twelve scheduled performances.

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Wow! A 100-year-old feminist play. The Finborough has uncovered another neglected gem. 

Late twenties Georgiana has been in the care of her aunt and uncle, Sir Theodore and Lady Catherine Grayle. Her shy and seemingly reluctant suitor Adam Lankester finally, after a lot of unsubtle hints, gets the courage to propose to her. She is reluctant for different reasons, but she feels obliged to accept, much to the delight of everyone, not least the Grayles, who will reduce their dependents from three to two. Wedding plans are made, but on its eve Georgiana breaks off the engagement, guilty that she’s using Adam, who is by now devoted to her, and unable to reconcile this with her real yearning to be an independent woman.

Cicely Hamilton wrote this at the height of the Suffragette movement. It shows how women of her class were forced to marry, the only way they could guarantee to maintain their lifestyle. Love and attraction were secondary, it was a business transaction. They may have featured in some relationships, but it wasn’t the driving force, and the play shows how this could torture an independent-minded woman. 

Philippa Quinn is simply terrific as Georgiana, a real emotional roller-coaster of a role, on stage virtually the whole time. Jonny McPherson conveys Adam’s initial shyness and repressed emotions, evolving into love, devotion, affection and dejection that breaks your heart. Sarah Berger was covering the role of the intimidating Lady Catherine, in costume but on book, and she was superb, with great presence, commanding the stage and all around her. In a fine supporting cast I feel compelled to single out Joanne Ferguson as Georgiana’s friend and confidante Mrs Macartney.

Katherine Davies Herbst’s period drawing room set and Lottie Smith’s costumes are pitch perfect, and Melissa Davies’ staging is very delicate and nuanced.

A treat that has now departed, but will hopefully resurface, as it deserves to.

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This is the European premiere of a play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. He’s written eight others, but I don’t think we’ve seen any of them here, plus five films and a book, and he isn’t even thirty! On this evidence, he’s one to watch. The most striking things about it are how much ground it covers in 75 minutes, how mature the writing is and how it doesn’t take sides in what is an emotive subject, cyber bullying.

Michael & Deborah’s only son Joel committed suicide a year ago aged 16, and fellow student Curtis is considered to be at least partly responsible. Deborah befriends Curtis’ mother Tamara and they agree to meet at Deborah & Michael’s home with their husbands and Curtis over dinner. Deborah has put together a collection of Joel’s achievements and both her and Curtis have written letters to be read at the dinner. It’s an uncomfortable encounter, as you would expect. Divisions between the couples on the objectives of the meeting and their views on accountability for the death are laid bare, including the argument that Joel may have provoked it, but divisions within the couples emerge too. In addition to the issue of bullying, the play covers issues of parenting and parental responsibility, forgiveness and grief.

Zahra Mansouri has created a very realistic dining room in this tiny theatre with seating on two sides and you really do feel you’re in the room with them. The performances are uniformly excellent. Lucy Robinson as Deborah navigates brilliantly from ice cool emotional suppression to anger and finally to a display of grief. David Leopold is superb as Curtis, initially defensive and withdrawn, a reluctant participant, before his true feelings emerge.

Another Canadian find for the Finborough. I can’t wait to see more of Tannahill’s work.

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This Arthur Miller play hasn’t had a professional production here in over fifty years and I’ve been waiting most of those years to see it myself, but it was worth the wait for Phil Willmotts’s excellent, timely production at the indispensable Finborough Theatre.

It’s set in a police waiting room in the French city of Vichy during the German occupation. Vichy is of course the centre of unoccupied France but German soldiers are present as part of the collaboration deal. The ten men are ostensibly there to have their papers checked but it’s clear they have not been selected randomly. They discuss what it must all be about, with some of the view it is just routine and others with more radical theories including racial selection. When ‘the professor’ and a German officer disagree loudly, the reason becomes clear – they are rounding up Jews.

The group includes a psychiatrist, painter, waiter, electrician, actor, gypsy and an Austrian prince. ‘The professor’ is accompanied by a French policeman as well as the German officer. The discussion extends beyond theories to options and issues of morality, notably the lengths people will go to in order to protect and save themselves. In the end both the German officer and Austrian prince show their humanity. It’s a tense and gripping ninety minute debate, set in a claustrophobic white box. The characterisations are finely detailed and the acting is outstanding. 

This was a mid-career Miller play, coming between After the Fall and The Price, 10-20 years after classics like All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View From a Bridge. It’s a puzzle why it’s so rarely produced, but this is a very welcome opportunity to see it and the Finborough have done Miller proud.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.


Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..


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As soon as this show started, you could sense the shock of the audience at the discordant music. To my ears, this was modern opera not musical theatre (and I’ve seen a lot of both). It took a long while to turn itself into something resembling a musical as we know it, perhaps too long, though the discordant start eventually seemed to make sense. It’s based on the 1923 play by Elmer Rice, a rather prolific American writer of some forty plays whose only work I knew was Street Scene, which Brecht and Weill turned into a musical / opera. This 2007 adaptation has music by Joshua Schmidt and a book by Schmidt and Jason Loewith. It’s original, rather audacious and full of surprises!

Mr Zero has worked as a number-cruncher for many years and is in a fairly loveless marriage with Mrs Zero. His boss announces that he is going to be replaced by an adding machine. This sends him off the rails and he murders his employer, resulting in arrest, trial, imprisonment and execution. This is where it turns, as he arrives in heaven (people sunbathing, reading and drinking at a swimming pool – in the Finborough!). He’s followed there by work colleague Daisy; they have been attracted to one another but it never came to anything, but she’s now committed suicide in the hope it will. From this point onwards it’s more of a musical, though far from an orthodox one.

I ended up admiring it, though never really forgave it for the challenge of the first part – even for someone seeped in modern opera. It’s a hugely impressive production by Josh Seymour with the audience on two sides of a raised platform in a clever design by Frankie Bradshaw, and a fine ensemble that includes Joseph Alessi as Mr Zero and Joanna Kirkland as Daisy. I’m glad I saw it, though I’m not sure I’d be queuing to see it again.

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