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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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The fact that we’re seeing a play that revolves around one speech to ninety people forty years ago tells you something about the significance of that speech. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ had, and still has, such impact, perhaps more-so today than at any time since it was given.

Chris Hannan’s play moves between 1967, when the speech was made, and 1992, when a young girl (a fictional character) affected by it is now an eminent historian writing about it. In 1967 we see how it isolates him, in particular the profoundly negative affect on his relationship with best friends Clem & Marjorie Jones. We also get a glimpse of the effect on people in his constituency. In 1992, one of those people, then a child, now a professor of history, seeks to collaborate on a book about it, somewhat implausibly with someone she helped hound out of academia for alleged racism, with the hope and aim of confronting Powell himself, a final scene which comes a bit too late and doesn’t really last long enough.

We seem to have an appetite for plays about recent history, with Oslo, Ink & Labour of Love all running in the West End. This is more uneven, more earnest and less entertaining, but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless. It shows Powell to be an intelligent man and a great orator, seemingly channelling what his constituents think. My problem with that is that a lot of his constituents were from ethnic minorities, whose views he certainly wasn’t channelling, and he was after all a politician, who may well have been making a cynical grab for attention, even power, which misfired, isolating and ostracising him – think Boris and Brexit.

It has it’s flaws, but it makes you think and provokes debate, and at its centre is a mesmerising performance by Ian McDiarmid, which alone is a reason to see it.

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Shortly after I saw the 1984 revival of this play in the West End, Leonard Rossiter, who played Inspector Truscott, died in the wings waiting to go on. All very Ortonesque, but I do hope Christopher Fulford survives this run! It’s around fifty years since it’s premiere and playwright Joe Orton’s death at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell. This excellent revival is a superb opportunity to see it again, or for Loot virgins to see it for the first time.

It’s set in a room in the McLeavy home, where the recently deceased Mrs McLeavy lies in her coffin while her husband and nurse mourn her. Her son Hal and his friend, junior undertaker Dennis, have robbed a bank. What follows is a farcical, manic, absurd and surreal caper revolving around them hiding the money. Originally mounted before censorship was scrapped, the Lord Chamberlain insisted on a number of cuts and changes, including a dummy for the deceased, but here a brilliant Anah Ruddin lies in, and is removed from the coffin, relocated and thrown around.

This is apparently the first time the uncensored script has been staged. I don’t know the play well enough to spot the differences, but there are parts that still shock today. It satirises the police and the catholic church and sends up all sorts of societal norms. Michael Femtiman’s fast-paced production never lets up, and the play sparkles more that it has done before. I loved Gabriella Slade’s glossy black set (though the high level stained glass windows are a bit of a puzzle given we’re in a room in a home the whole time). It’s an outstanding cast, with both Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba terrific as the sexually ambiguous Hal & Dennis respectively. I sometimes find Sinead Matthews overacts, but she can let go here as the predatory nurse with a past. Christopher Fulford has brilliant timing as Inspector Truscott and Ian Redford a suitable put upon McLeavy.

Well worth catching.

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The late Kevin Elyot wasn’t a prolific playwright, partly because he didn’t write his first until he was forty (he started out as an actor) and partly because he played away writing for TV and film too. He produced just five original plays and three adaptations over a thirty year period, but he did write a late 20th century classic, My Night With Reg, recently revived at the Donmar, transferring to the West End. This play was written just before he died in 2014 and is now getting it’s premiere posthumously at the Park Theatre.

We start in the present day. Barry has invited an Estate Agent to value his mother’s north London home while she’s out for the day. The scene ends with the Estate Agent providing another professional service altogether. Back in the sixties we meet Isabella and soon realise she is Barry’s mother and is indeed pregnant with Barry, though she harbours a secret from her husband Basil (who’s dead by the present day). They’re going out for dinner with Uncle Charles and his ‘friend’ Harry, who share another secret. In one of our other sixties scenes, six years apart, the same four are going out to dinner again. Here we meet the gardener, who appears to have been providing services to both Harry and Isabelle.

All this unfolds in 75 minutes, very slowly, often quirky, with some moments seeming Ordtonsesque and some with a touch of Alan Bennett. It really is rather odd, especially with a false ending followed by a puzzling one. The cast do their best with the material, but it isn’t really worthy of their combined talents. Given the quality of his other plays, this seemed unfinished to me and I wondered if he would have approved of its staging as it is. I’m afraid I felt it might have been better left unproduced lest it tarnish his reputation and memory.

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I’ve worked in China twice, on both occasions for British companies with operations there, both leadership and team development projects. The first was in 1999 and the second just over three years ago. Between the two, China’s rapid economic growth had changed the business world, bringing with it dubious ethics and poor management practices. By 2013, translation was being declined by executives lest they lost face; being known as someone who spoke English was key to career success. The consequential lack of comprehension brought huge issues. This play is about doing business in China and whilst I was watching scenes of poor translation leading to significant misunderstanding, I couldn’t help wondering how good the quality of translation and understanding of my words was!

Daniel is trying to sell signage for his ailing company in Cleveland, Ohio. He hires local Englishman Peter, teacher turned business consultant, and gets an opportunity to make a proposal to the Culture Minister & Deputy Minister of a large city. They are close to completing their new Arts Centre and will need bi-lingual signage, preferably without the translation gaffs of other projects. Daniel gets caught up in an extraordinary learning curve of misunderstanding, politics and corruption and only makes progress when he fires his consultant, gets lost in translation himself and does the counter-intuitive by exploiting rather than hiding his dubious past. It’s a very clever, and based on my limited experience, very authentic play, hugely entertaining, unpredictable and very funny. By using both English and Mandarin (with subtitles) you see exactly what’s going on, though Daniel doesn’t.

Tim McQuillen-Wright’s ingenious set allows the play to flow effortlessly from restaurant to office to hotel bedroom to home. Getting bi-lingual actor Duncan Harte to play a bi-lingual character is a real casting coup. Lobo Chan is totally believable as the minister, and Candy Ma is terrific as his Deputy, who goes on a very unexpected journey during the course of the play. There are lovely cameo’s from Siu-see Hung as the first incompetent translator and Winston Liong as the well-connected second translator, and Minhee Yeo has a fine turn in scene stealing facial expressions. It all revolves around Daniel, of course, with Gyuri Sarossy is on stage almost the whole time. It’s staged with great pace and attention to detail by Andrew Keates.

I’ve only seen one play by American playwright David Henry Hwang before, the sensational M Butterfly in 1989, long overdue for revival. He hasn’t written that many full length plays (nine in 30 years?) but we haven’t seen that many of them here. Two more weeks to catch this one at Park Theatre. Don’t miss it.

 

 

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This play takes you on a surprising journey. It starts as a light comedy, turns bitchy and bitter and ends up positively vicious. Set amongst gay friends at a birthday party in New York City in 1968, it does feel like a bit of a museum piece now, but it does have a lot to say about the societal pressure and personal insecurities that underpinned the behaviours on show. 

It’s Harold’s party, but he’s the last to arrive. Couple Larry & Hank and singleton friends Donald, Emory and Bernard have already joined host Michael – oh, and Harold’s present from Emory, the midnight cowboy! Michael’s straight college friend Alan arrives unexpectedly to inject some homophobia into proceedings. What starts as gentle ribbing becomes pointed digs and point-scoring and as they drink more and more, bitching and bitterness. Then Michael suggests a game, which is where it becomes vicious; they are challenged to call someone they have loved and tell them that they love them.

It is a period piece, coming before the legalisation of homosexuality, and the decor, clothes, hair and camp mannerisms & language are faithfully reproduced. They do all seem a bit like caricatures today, but you have to put it in the context of its period. It feels odd, though, approaching a 1968 gay play in the same way you would a Rattigan or an Osborne.

The Park Theatre passes easily for a late 60’s Manhattan apartment and Rebecca Brower’s design makes great use of the space. The performances are all very good.

After an uncomfortable start, I warmed to it, though I’m not sure Mart Crowley’s play is a modern classic, more of a peek back to a curious past to remind us how far we’ve come.

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This is the London premiere of an 84-year-old J B Priestly play, with his trademark wittiness and his usual foray into left-wing politics and morals – not the best of either, but certainly worthy of revival in this excellent production by Hugh Ross.

It’s set in the home of Lord Kettlewell, separated from his wife and by default his Oxford University daughter Pamela, trying to extricate himself from a relationship with Hilda Lancicourt. His daughter, now a communist, turns up straight from a period in the USSR, with new friend Comrade Staggles in tow. She turns out to be rather manipulative, much to the delight of lounge lizard family friend Chuffy who watches on gleefully. Before the play is through she’s fended off two men, bagged a third, despatched Hilda and reunited her parents. Lady Knightsbridge is an additional character who doesn’t really serve any purpose but is thoroughly entertaining, and of course there’s a butler and a maid who Comrade Staggles can encourage to rebel.

It’s actually quite densely plotted, though it’s a light and frothy concoction. That said, it made for a pleasant evening and a rewarding one if you ‘collect’ Priestly as I do (three still to see). Polly Sullivan’s design, incorporating the theatre back wall, is very clever and her period costumes are excellent. I thought Steven Blakeley was terrific as the earnest Staggles, and Bessie Carter’s professional stage debut as Pamela was hugely impressive. In an altogether fine cast, Richenda Carey’s cameo as Lady Knightsbridge shone through. 

It’s astonishing that it’s never had a proper revival or a London run. It’s not a great play, but it’s an interesting period piece by an important 20th Century British playwright and this production fully justifies the decision to let us see it at last.

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There have been countless productions and adaptations of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera since it was first performed in 1728, the most famous of which was Brecht & Weil’s The Threepenny Opera exactly two-hundred years later in 1928. It wasn’t an opera, but a musical satire on opera, and it is believed to be the first musical. Only last year Kneehigh gave us their take on it, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/dead-dog-in-a-suitcase-and-other-love-songs). Sixteen years ago it was adapted as The Villain’s Opera at the National, which did a great production of the original in the 80’s. Out Of Joint did a version called The Convict’s Opera seven years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/the-convicts-opera). The RSC did it in the 90’s. The Open Air Theatre did it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/the-beggars-opera). Now Dougal Irvine gives us his own modern take, set in London during the 2012 Olympics. Though I don’t share his cynical view of The Games, I did like his adaptation and I think its the best of the modern ones.

He starts by putting it in the context of the Gay original and Brecht & Weill’s adaptation in an opening explanatory scene, which helps an audience new to it. Macheath is the busker, wannabe rock star and former talent show contestant. He marries Polly Peachum, daughter of a newspaper baron, and impregnates Lucy Lockit, design goods obsessed daughter of the London Mayor, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the outdoing buffoon. Peachum’s sidekick Macheath and Polly are part of a protest group called 99%, intent on disrupting The Games and exposing London’s oppression of its underclass. It’s a clever adaptation, all in rhyming couplets, with a higher body count than I remember from other productions and adaptations.

One of its great strengths is the quality of Irvine’s music; he really does know how to write a good tune. He also writes sharp satirical, witty lyrics, though I did wonder if a book writer might have helped to give the show more shape. It’s other strength is in the casting. George Maguire, pretty much direct from his Olivier winning performance as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon, is perfectly cast as Macheath, with great charisma and swagger. Simon Kane’s Boris inspired Mayor is a hoot, aided by seeing it on the eve of the London Mayoral election. They are very lucky to have someone of the calibre and experience of David Burt, who delivers a rather sinister Peachum (he was Peachum in The Villain’s Opera and Macheath in the RSC’s production!). Lauren Samuels, herself direct from her superb performance in Bend It Like Beckham, is a sweet but feisty Polly and recent Mountview graduate Natasha Lockitt is in terrific vocal form as Lucy.

I felt Lotte Wakeham’s production was a bit rough at the edges, but I liked its chutzpah and edginess and would certainly recommend it. Next up is the National’s revival of The Threepenny Opera, newly adapted by Simon Stephens, later in the month; if only Gay knew what he’d started……

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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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I was traumatised before the play started. Jane Asher is old enough to play a seventy-something, her stage son is Alexander Hanson and her real daughter plays her 39-year old stage daughter. Once I’d recovered, I had one of the finest times at a new play in a long time.

After a short preface in 1964, the piece moves to Easter weekend in 1997 at the Pennington home. The family has gathered for William’s 75th birthday. He’s a recently retired judge, recently diagnosed with dementia. His eldest son Sam is autistic and lives in a nearby home. His second son Giles is a doctor with a 22-year-old son Simon, 19-year-old daughter Emily and a shaky marriage to Sophie. William is estranged from his youngest child Alice following the birth of her illegitimate mixed race daughter Aurelia 17 years ago, but she has returned for this occasion. What follows is an extraordinary yet entirely plausible series of re-opened wounds, revelations and some reconciliation. William is cantankerous, to put it mildly, preoccupied with the damage Tory sleaze is doing and with ensuring a male Pennington line. His long suffering wife Olivia is devoted to him and all of her children and grandchildren; a deeply sympathetic character.

Andrew Keatley’s play is beautifully written, brilliantly structured and plotted, without an ounce of flab. A captivating story that unfolds enticingly and oozes authenticity. The cast is extraordinary, with not one but two real life parent-child pairings, Jane Asher & Katie Scarfe and Alexander & Tom Hanson. Clive Francis is simply magnificent as William and Nick Samson plays late forties autistic son Sam with great skill and sensitivity. Both had exit applause after their most effective scenes. I was puzzled by the choice to play it front of the bare theatre back wall and frame, but it was so good it didn’t seem to matter. There were a few too many scene breaks which weren’t as slick as they could have been, but again the quality of everything else made that seem unimportant.

Unquestionably a highlight of the year and surely too good to end here, it’s crying out for a transfer and more deserving of one that anything I’ve seen of late, but you’d be wise to catch it in the more intimate Park Theatre while you can.

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