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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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Well, that was fun! I was underwhelmed by the 2003 West End production with Amanda Holden and Maureen Lipman; it was all a bit too slick, going through the motions. That is the last thing you could say about this lovely fringe revival – it sparkles and fizzes and lifts you up as you smile your way through two hours. I loved it.

It’s another screen-to-stage story. This one took 35 years to get from film to Broadway, only another year to cross the Atlantic, but 12 years for this first revival. I never thought it was particularly good material for a musical, but this small-scale production has changed my mind. Millie arrives in New York City in the roaring 20’s intent on bagging a rich husband. Reality bites and she finds herself in Mrs Meers ‘hotel’ with a lot of other young hopefuls. Mrs Meers provides more than mere (sorry!) accommodation as she’s involved in the white slave trade, shipping girls East with the help of her Chinese collaborators. Millie has her sights on her boss Trevor but her heart belongs to salesman Jimmy. Her newly arrived room-mate Dorothy gets the attentions of both Trevor and Jimmy, much to the consternation of Millie, but it all ends happily. Obviously.

Andrew Riley’s simple set leaves plenty of room (well, just about enough) for Sam Spencer Lane’s terrific choreography and his costumes are a treat. For a newcomer to musical theatre, Matthew Iliffe’s direction is masterly. Chris Guard’s 5-piece band (a bit odd, looking away from the stage and audience) played with gusto but never drowned out the unamplified vocals. Francesca Lara Gordon handled the triple demands of acting, dancing and singing Millie brilliantly, with particularly fine vocals. Both of her leading men – Ben Stacey as Jimmy and Samuel Harris as Trevor – and co-lead Sarah-Marie Maxwell as Dorothy shone in their roles. Steph Parry was an absolute hoot as Mrs Meers, getting many more laughs than her lines contained with her Chinese accent, facial expressions and postures. Alex Codd and Anthony Starr pulled off the task of speaking in Chinese (with surtitles!) superbly and there’s a lovely cameo from Christina Meehan as Trevor’s battleaxe secretary Peg. Charlie Johnson and Chipo Kureya were great in all of their roles. George Hinson and Thomas Inge made up this small but faultless young ensemble.

Whatever you think of the show, and some have questioned whether its worthy of revival, you will love this fresh, energetic, tongue-in-cheek, witty production by a new breed of musical theatre professionals, as promising as any I’ve ever seen. The spontaneous standing ovation said it all.

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This is the first of three new British musicals in less than a week. They are a rare species, but when they come they’re like buses. This is a great start to the trio, a big show for the fringe, and what impressed me most about it was the exceptional score, with particularly good choruses that are staged as well as they are sung. I suspect this won’t be the last we’ll see of it, but you should check out this first production which is way beyond fringe expectations and a highlight even for the Landor.

It’s an adult fairy tale set in fictitious Spindlewood some time in the past where the clockmaker, a widower, has created a clockwork woman, Constance, as a companion. She learns quickly and soon leaves her maker’s home to taste life in the town, where she sees the ruination of the mayor’s son’s fiancé’s wedding dress and creates a replacement that’s a whole lot better. This brings work, offers of jobs and the disdain of Ma’ Riley, the town’s dressmaker, compounded by the fact her son Will falls for Constance – but he’s not the only one. She’s initially made very welcome, but when her mechanical nature is revealed, the town turns on her and a witch-hunt begins, which brings in a moral theme of accepting difference. It’s cleverly framed by scenes in the present day which give it a pleasing structure.

David Shields’ design and Richard Lambert’s lighting and projections are outstanding and director Robert McWhir marshals his 20 strong cast in the limited Landor space impeccably, with great choreography from regular collaborator Robbie O’Reilly. Michael Webborn’s score really is excellent, with hints of folk and a touch of Irish about it. It’s jam-packed with lovely melodies and lots of uplifting choruses that risk taking the roof off this small theatre. I loved the orchestration for piano, double bass, violin and percussion and Michael and his band play it superbly. It’s another excellent Landor ensemble, with a particularly fine performance from Alan McHale as Constance’s love interest Will and a charming cameo from Max Abraham as Sam.

Most new musicals are chamber pieces, so it’s great to see something on this scale. Yet another feather in the Landor’s cap. Don’t miss.

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In a famous ‘life imitates art’ moment, the leading lady and leading man of the 1994 West End production of this romantic comedy – Ruthie Henshall & John Gordon Sinclair – became an item during its run. I was a bit underwhelmed by the show then and it wasn’t until last night that I realised why. It’s really a chamber piece that’s so much more at home in the Landor than the Savoy, and here it gets a charming, sweet production.

Before its stage musical adaptation in 1963, Hungarian Miklos Laszio’s play had two film adaptations, one with music, and had another – You’ve Got Mail – 35 years after that. Jerry Bock, who wrote the music, and Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist, had done three shows together, but this was the one that made them. One year later they wrote Fiddler On the Roof, and never topped that again. It’s a love story about a shop manager and one of his staff who don’t realise they are pen pals, spending their days sniping at one another and their evenings pouring their hearts out in writing to their ‘Dear friend’. The show is filled out with the story of the shop owner and his wife’s affairs, the playboy shop assistant and his flings, the teenage delivery boy’s ambitions and other shop assistant’s family life and love life.

Designer David Shields has created a lovely 30’s Budapest parfumerie, with excellent period costumes. It fits the Landor like a glove and you feel like you’re in the shop. The leading roles are brilliantly cast (that man Newsome again). Charlotte Jaconelli has a very strong voice (and manages to sing well whilst being carried on another character’s shoulders!) and there’s real chemistry with the excellent John Sandberg as Georg (life imitates art again?!). Matthew Wellman and Emily Lynne, both new to me,  were very strong as Kodaly and Ilona, the former in fine voice, with the right measure of sleaze, and the latter providing one of the second act’s highlights with A Trip to the Library. I very much liked David Herzog’s interpretation of Sipos, an important but somewhat underwritten role. Joshua LeClair is an extraordinarily believable delivery boy, with bucketloads of charm. At the other end of the scale, it’s good to see Landor regular Ian Dring with a great characterisation of Maraczek the shop owner. Director Robert McWhir and his regular choreographer Robbie O’Reilly deliver the Landor’s usual fine staging, with a particularly masterly staging of Twelve Days of Christmas.

The show isn’t a classic, the first half is a bit long, and it’s a touch too sweet for my taste, but this delightful production in an intimate space is just about as good as it could get and shouldn’t be missed…..and it’s Valentines Day!

 

 

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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Late to the party because of my travels, but oh what a party. The Landor enters its 21st year with a huge hit and one of their very best productions ever.

This show by Pajama Game writers Adler & Ross (and just about the only other show of theirs that’s still produced) is daft but fun. Joe Boyd sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the opportunity to become the much younger Joe Hardy and join his ailing baseball team, the Washington Senators, to rescue them. He’s wise enough to negotiate a get-out clause saving him from hell if he returns by a specific date, but this proves to be before the final game of the season. His wife doesn’t know where he’s gone, but seems confident he’ll return. The team think he’s just a lucky find, an unknown from Hannibal MO. The score is very good and includes the classics  (You gotta have) Heart & Whatever Lola Wants, both of which have had a life outside the show.

We move between the baseball, with the Senators beginning to win again and the end of season pennant looking possible once more, life back at Joe’s family home with his wife Meg and her sister and friends, where his younger alter ego checks in as a lodger (unrecognised), and with Satan (AKA Mr Applegate) and his side-kick Lola and their determination to win his soul. Preposterous maybe, but it’s a set-up which provides the framework for much fun and this is a terrific Robert McWhir production with high energy, brilliant comedy and excellent musical standards. Robbie O’Reilly’s sporty, athletic choreography fills the space and thrills. The solo vocals and exceptional and the choruses rousing under Michael Webborn’s musical direction and fine piano-bass-drums trio.

When you enter a theatre knowing one of the leads is off, you usually groan with disappointment. For some reason I didn’t on this occasion, perhaps because of the front of house staff assurances or maybe more prophetically, because the understudy as Joe Hardy, Barnaby Hughes, was simply sensational. It’s ever so rare to see such faultless cover – word perfect, note perfect, owning the role from the off; a most auspicious professional debut. Jonathan D Ellis is an oily, camp Satan with a brilliant assistant in Poppy Tierney as Lola. His ad libs and audience engagement are a hoot and she sings and moves oozing sex. The supporting cast, most new to the Landor and many recent graduates, are outstanding (that Benjamin Newsome casting, again!).

I can’t praise this show highly enough. A triumph, even on the Landor scale.

 

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You might not believe this. Sub-titled ‘A Musical Fairy Tale’, Tim Acito’s’s show is set in a US high school where everyone’s gay and their end-of-term musical is about the controversy of heterosexuals in the military. Zanna is the school matchmaking fairy. There’s a (girls) mechanical bull-riding team. It’s quirky, cheesy and cheeky, but it has its tongue in its cheek and its also colourful, energetic and fun.

Zanna waves his magic wand so that Steve, the quarterback saviour of the school team, and chess champion Mike fall in love and waitress-with-attitude Roberta gets together with top-of-the-class Kate. It all bounces along happily until the seemingly impossible happens and Steve falls for Kate (and vice versa). For once, Zanna’s spell backfires and everyone turns straight.

There are a few good songs in what is otherwise a fairly generic pop musical score. It’s often very funny, with a handful of musicals references (including the title) that help to gently send up the genre whilst sending up homophobia and the conformity of American high schools in general. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it has its heart in the right place and it’s a fun 105 minutes (though it doesn’t really sustain this length).

The creative team make things difficult for themselves by restricting the playing space with the audience on three sides and a small stage and the band on the fourth. It sometimes feels cramped; I felt Tom Scanlon’s choreography could have done with more space, and it means you sometimes miss lyrics if the character has their back to you while singing unamplified (though Zanna mysteriously grew a mic a few times). There are occasional moments when the flow is broken by a gap waiting for someone to come on. The production values, particularly Andrew Cox’s costumes, are high and the cast brims with energy and enthusiasm. The band seemed a bit muted, but without amplification for the singers that’s probably just as well.

It’s 12 years old now and in some ways it feels it. Its first London outing five years ago passed my by and I’m glad I caught it this time around. It’s an impressive first production for new producers Entourage. There’s always room for something different and fun.

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