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Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, starting as a playwright (without much success), making his name as a novelist with this, perhaps the first novel as such, certainly the first blockbuster. It’s been adapted many times as play, musical, opera, ballet and film and this is the 2016 stage adaptation for the RSC by James Fenton which has finally transferred to London with the same two leads.

It starts with Rufus Hound’s warm-up act talking directly to the audience, something he does very well, helped on the night I went by jokes at the expense of a sexual health worker in the front row and a woman who had recently been to Antwerp and The Hague! It takes a while before we meet the pompous, idealistic fantasist of the title, but it’s an enjoyably playful start which sets the tone of the evening.

From here it’s a succession of stops on the journey of Don Quixote as he seeks to return to the days of chivalry, of the Knights Errand, with his companion Sancho Panza, each a little story in itself. The novel is episodic, so its no surprise that its stage adaptation is just the same, which makes it more of an entertainment than a play, though quality entertainment as this the RSC after all. There’s much music, with nice songs by Fenton and Grant Olding, and the stage is designed to look just like The Swan.

I was as impressed by Rufus Hound in the musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Wind in the Willows as I am here. He’s an expert at the comedy and is very likeable and engaging. David Threlfall makes an earnest Quixote and looks terrific. There’s an other-worldly quality to his interpretation and when the character is humiliated by some he meets, notably a Duke & Duchess, there’s a pathos which genuinely moves the audience. They make a superb double-act and are supported by a fine ensemble of sixteen.

I recently called the RSC’s Merry Wives TOWIE does panto, and this is a bit panto too, but Cervantes’ stories lend themselves more to the form than Shakespeare’s play does. Go expecting fun seasonal entertainment rather than a classic on stage and you’ll probably go home satisfied.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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The RSC’s latest revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor is TOWIE does panto. I’m normally OK with updating and though there’s stuff to enjoy here its pushed a bit too far to be for me. The reference to Brexit was the last straw.

The Ford’s and Page’s are more Essex than Windsor, dressed appropriately, chavily. For some reason, other characters wear doublet and hose which makes for an incongruous combination. The stage boasts two two-storey houses which revolve to become backdrops but nothing really signposts the various locations; the denouement isn’t in Windsor Great Park, but a town square. There’s a Physical Comedy Director, so that tells you a bit about what you’re in for, though it’s mostly crude slapstick. There’s added references and changed lines and a lot of music from a live band who sounded a bit disconnected and distant playing in the wings.

The chief reason for seeing it is David Troughton’s terrific turn as Falstaff. He towers over everyone else, most of whom seem to be more caricatures than characters. He squeezes every ounce of comedy out of his character, without making him one-dimensional. In addition to the classic moments, like hiding in a basket, here a wheelie bin, there are other sublime additions, like swimming in an imaginary pool at the front of the auditorium.

Though I had reservations, the rest of the audience appeared to have none, so maybe I was ending 2018 as a grumpy old man. See for yourself, but there are only three performances left!

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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If you take out the two operas, the three foreign language productions, the deconstruction and the filleted three-hander, I think this is my 12th Hamlet. Simon Godwin’s bold and brilliant staging, with a mesmerising performance by Paapa Essiedu, may well be the best of them. I regretted not going to Stratford to see it, but now I don’t, because it’s particularly thrilling to see it at the Hackney Empire amongst an enraptured young and diverse audience.

It’s an African Denmark, colourful and throbbing with music and life, which works brilliantly. It serves the play well, adding some magic, but no gimmicks. So many scenes are superbly staged it’s hard to know where to begin. It gets off to a great start at Hamlet’s graduation ceremony, emphasising his youth and the likely effect of this on his grief at losing his dad and anger at his mother’s swift re-marriage. His confrontations with a cool Claudius are particularly spikey and the resentment of his mother palpable. As the play progresses, we get a superb play-within-the-play, Polonius’ death deftly handled, Ophelia’s grief heartbreaking, a wonderful grave digging scene and a thrilling fight between Hamlet and Laertes using double sticks. Godwin hardly puts a foot wrong and I felt I was hearing the verse afresh with new emphasis and intonation.

Paapa Essiedu really is extraordinary. His verse speaking is enthralling, he totally engages with the audience and every one of those many soliloquies, where he’s alone on that vast stage, are captivating. The rest of the cast is excellent too. I thought Clarence Smith was a particularly fine Claudius and Buom Tihngang made Laertes his own. Mimi Ndiweni is very moving as Ophelia and Lorna Brown navigates Gertrude’s emotional journey very well. Joseph Mydell is luxury casting indeed as Polonius. Paul Wills set, in red-rust colours, and colourful costumes evoke an African kingdom, with Sola Akingbola’s music adding that final touch.

It’s somewhat ironic that within 48 hours our two big national companies have given me one of the worst and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasise enough how much seeing it in Hackney Empire, surrounded by young people spellbound by the Bard, added to my experience.

DON’T MISS THIS

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This play teaches us three lessons that still hold true. The first is that people will quickly follow anyone who pushes the right buttons – setting out their belief, engaging emotionally and laying out the supporting facts (or lies, as appears to be the case today) – and switch allegiance just a quickly. Secondly, when power goes to their head, or they derail for other reasons, leaders are dealt with by their own (the Tories dealt with Thatcher before the electorate had a chance, and are circling May as I write – and hopefully the same is happening in Washington!). The third is that you may think you’ve got rid of a tyrant or a tyranny, but another one, even worse, may come along soon – think Arab Spring. Shakespeare is often timeless.

The people willingly follow the charismatic orator Caesar, but the conspirators assassinate him to protect the republic and prevent permanent autocracy. Mark Anthony then woos the people with his rhetoric, joins forces with Octavius, and before you know it you’re back where you were before you despatched the last dictator, only this one seems worse.

It’s a relatively conventional, classical production, devoid of modern references and gimmicks, so its all about the verse and the performances. I didn’t engage with the first half, up to the point of the assassination, as well as I did with the second, the aftermath, political turmoil and battles, but that’s as much to do with the play as the production. This part of the story is much more thrilling, though it’s difficult to do war and death at close quarters with twenty or thirty people. In this production, though, when it comes to the murder of the boy Lucius, the audience were traumatised by its realism.

There are two cracking performances at the centre of this production – Martin Hutson’s Cassius and Alex Waldmann’s Brutus, and their combined passion creates a powerhouse combination. Andrew Woodall’s Caesar, James Corrigan’s Mark Anthony and Jon Tarcy as Octavius also impress. This fine ensemble has been very watchable in all four plays.

I’ve enjoyed the Romans season, particularly seeing them over an eight-week period, albeit in the wrong order. Adding the contemporary Imperium plays in Stratford, covering the same period, turned it into a real theatrical feast. This is what the RSC is for.

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With this third play (in the order I’m seeing them), the RSC’s Romans season comes alive. In my view, that’s down to a period staging, an excellent design and a set of fine performances. Not a mobile phone in sight! My luck with this play continues.

For someone who’s only directed a handful of Shakespeare plays, I thought Iqbal Khan’s staging was masterly. He gets so much right – the passionate relationship at it’s core, the ruthless ambition of Octavius, the dignity of the Egyptian women and the essence of the conflicts. After being critical of Robert Innes Hopkins designs for Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, here he delivers a beautiful, classical setting with wonderful costumes. There’s even a superb score by favourite Laura Mvula.

I’ve seen some great pairings in the titular roles – Anthony Hopkins & Judi Dench, Alan Rickman & Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart & Harriet Walter, Paul Sheeley & Mark Rylance (!) – and Anthony Byrne & Josette Simon are a match for any of them; intelligent, passionate, nuanced performances. They have a fine supporting cast, many of whom have been in the other plays. In particular, Andrew Woodall is exceptional as Enobarbus and Ben Allen’s characterisation of Octavius is outstanding.

In one of those connections I’m fond of, this play begins shortly after the end of the Imperium plays (which I saw nine days before in Stratford), and though there’s 400 years between their authorship, it almost feels like a sequel.

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