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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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It’s hard to believe that it’s the 40th anniversary of this Peter Nichols play (with songs by Dennis King), inspired by his own period in forces entertainment in the CSEU, and what a superb revival it is.

Set in the Malayan peninsula after the Second World War, when Britain was having a spot of bother with Chinese commies, SADUSEA entertains what’s left of the troops in Singapore before embarking on a Malayan tour to perform for an altogether different audience. The military leader is god-fearing Major Flank (brilliantly played by Callum Coates), assisted by corrupt Sergeant Major Drummond (Matt Beveridge, excellent), but the entertainment is led by Captain Dennis, outrageously camp and openly gay at a time when he would no doubt have been imprisoned back home. His entertainment troop includes a brummie, a cockney, a posh boy, a mixed race (Welsh-Indian) woman and newcomer Flowers. Their lives and loves are interspersed with rehearsals and performances. It starts as light and frothy but gets very dark indeed, though it’s often hilarious. I enjoyed Dennis King’s songs much more in this small-scale production, because they felt more authentic.

Mike Lees superb design and Kirk Jameson’s staging serve the play very well. Simon Green is outstanding as Captain Terri Dennis, with terrific turns as Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Carmen Miranda. I’ve been lucky enough to see the late Dennis Quilley in the original production, Roger Allam’s Olivier Award winning turn in 2001 and Simon Russell Beale just five years ago and Green is a match for all of them. There’s a most auspicious professional debut by Martha Pothen and a fine ensemble, most of which were new to me – Samuel Curry, Paul Sloss, Tom Pearce, Matt Hayden, Tom Bowen and Mikey Howe as the mute native help.

Well worth catching, whether you’ve seen it before or not.

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If there was an award for the silliest plot of a musical, this would definitely be on the shortlist. Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s first show is about an English shoe salesman called Harry who will inherit $6m from his Uncle Tony as long as he takes his corpse on a holiday to Monte Carlo. As you can imagine, it’s a musical comedy, well musical farce, or perhaps farcical musical. Bonkers but fun.

It’s a bit more complicated because the inheritance is in diamonds and it has been stolen from his casino owner employer, in cahoots with the employer’s wife Rita, who is herself determined to get her hands on it. Oh, and there’s a dogs home representative watching carefully because if he doesn’t stick to every detail of the instructions, they cop the lot. Harry heads to Monte Carlo with the corpse, where he encounters Rita, accompanied by her optometrist brother Vincent, and Annabel from the dogs home who he falls for, and her him.

The chief strength if this production is the choruses, both in their singing and their staging; they are like quick-fire cartoon sequences and they take your breath away. Tom Elliot Reade is excellent as Harry, well paired with Natasha Hoeberigs as the equally meek Annabel. Natalie Moore-Williams makes a terrific job of Rita and Ian McCurrach gives a more playful take on the corpse than the first time I saw the show five years ago at the Landor (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/lucky-stiff).

It’s actor Paul Callen’s first stab at directing, though he’s cut his teeth assisting, and a fine job he makes of it too. For once at the Union, there was a good balance between Richard Baker’s duo and the solo vocals, perhaps because they appear to have lost the bass player! Good fun, though the run is now over.

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This Julian Slade / Dorothy Reynolds show shouldn’t really work in 2017. A frothy concoction from 1954 with twee music, a preposterous tale involving a piano with magical properties and visitors from Planet Z and characters that could be in a living museum. Yet it does. Somehow it makes you smile, you find yourself laughing with it rather than at it, and at times you giggle uncontrollably.

It begins with a graduation, as Jane & Timothy leave university, with a plan to meet in the park the following week. He’s under pressure to get a job and is despatched to meet various uncles, and she’s under pressure to find a husband, with a party arranged to forward this plan. A tramp pays them to look after his piano, which they discover makes people dance uncontrollably. They decide to stay with the piano, a mute companion and each other, though they are pursued by the police and the government, who want to stop all this fun. Add in spies (one an uncle), the attempted blackmail of a government minister (uncle) in an Egyptian-themed night club and the arrival of the spaceship from Planet Z (with uncle) and you have the ingredients for a cheesy but tongue-in-cheek and infectious romp.

Designer Catherine Morgan has fitted out the Union with fake turf and put the band onto a sort of bandstand, and Mike Lees has provided excellent costumes. Bryan Hodgson’s nifty staging is complimented by some very witty choreography by Joanne McShane. It’s an excellent cast, many of them recent Guildford graduates. Lowri Hamer and Laurie Denham are charming leads, with the former in fine voice, but the latter sometimes too quiet. James Gulliford and Francesca Pim are also a fine pairing as friends Nigel and Fiona. Tom Norman and Stephen Patrick have a cracking scene together as dancing PC and Inspector, the latter also shining as the night club manager. Maeve Byrne almost steals the show twice, as nightclub performer Asphynxia and a woman from outer space.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again, for the third time in twenty-one years, so I didn’t book at first, but I’m glad I changed my mind. Great fun.

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This show is in my top ten musicals, probably the best British musical, certainly the best British musical score, so I take every opportunity to see it and this was my ninth. It didn’t let me down and indeed moved me more than most productions.

Melvyn Bragg’s story is a great sweep of late 19th / early 20th century Cumbrian life as we follow two generations of the Tallentire family from the land to the pits to the First World War and back to the land, through marriage, births, deaths and infidelity. What makes Brendan Matthew’s production stand out is that its more animated than I’ve ever seen it before, with terrific choreography / movement, from dance to hand gestures, by Charlotte Tooth.

Howard Goodall’s score is very much in the British choral tradition and it’s packed full of gorgeous melodies, and it’s the quality of the choruses that makes or breaks the show, and this is another aspect this production nails – very rousing, as they should be. The solo work is more variable as they fight both the band and the aircon, which is so inefficient they’d just as well turn it off, though in all fairness the vocals shone through more as the show progressed. The ending was like an emotional wave I’ve rarely experienced with this show.

I liked Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s wooden backdrop, which brought intimacy to the home scenes but also facilitated the effective creation of pubs, mines, trenches and of course the hiring ring. In a hugely talented young ensemble I much admired Sam Peggs’ very athletic Isaac and Jack McNeill’s believably young Harry. Ifan Gwilym-Jones and Rebecca Gilliland, both outstanding in Matthew’s recent premiere of My Lands Shore in Walthamstow, rose to the challenge of the meaty roles of John and Emily Tallentire.

I love this show so much, and I loved this production. If you haven’t seen Howard Goodall’s masterpiece, go, and if you have, go again!

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Tim Rice is destined to be forever linked to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but only five of his sixteen shows were with him, and of these two didn’t get major productions and one (The Wizard of Oz) was just additional lyrics for additional songs. He wrote with seven other composers, including three each with Disney’s Alan Menken and Elton John, but this 1983 show, with the late Stephen Oliver, was the first post-ALW. It had a decent run in two theatres in the West End, but never made Broadway and has only been revived once, eleven years ago at the Pleasance. It’s a comic romp that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for, and this revival confirms that.

Blondel is an unsuccessful troubadour, with a feminist socialist girlfriend Fiona. This is the late 12th century, with Richard I on the throne, his disloyal brother John in the wings and the third crusade about to begin. Blondel manages to get his new song, I’m A Monarchist, heard by the king before he departs on the crusade. The king insists on taking Fiona as a skivvy, but Blondel stays behind. While Richard is away, John plots against him, intent on becoming king himself. The crusade ends in a draw (!), but the king is abducted by Duke Leopold of Austria on the way home. Blondel tours Europe’s castles singing his song until it is heard in Austria and results in Richard’s release, Blondel’s appointment as court musician and marriage to Fiona.

In an inspired move, there’s a quartet of monks as a chorus / narrators who sing (mostly) a Capella – their introduction is one of the best openings of any musical. Mathew Pritchard has added six songs, and changed two others, to Oliver’s original score, packed full of catchy tunes. Rice’s lyrics are superbly witty, as you might expect from a premiere league lyricist. I was surprised by how many tunes and words I remembered and I’ve been humming them continually since I left the theatre. It’s all a bit daft, but it’s great fun, with European and Middle East references taking on new meaning today.

Sasha Regan’s revival is very well cast, with the quartet of monks – David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville – simply superb, and Neil Moors shining as Richard the Lionheart, with particularly fine vocals. Connor Arnold oozes naïve charm as Blondel and Jessie May is delightfully feisty as Fiona, and there’s an excellent comic turn, again with good vocals, from Michael Burgen as the assassin who John hires. Simon Holt’s band was restrained enough to ensure the unamplified lyrics could be heard except for some in the quieter solos by less robust singers. I liked the map of Europe which formed the backdrop in Ryan Dawson Light’s design and Sasha Regan’s excellent staging has some chirpy choreography by Chris Whittaker.

Great to see such a good revival of a much neglected show.

 

 

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My track record with this Irving Berlin show isn’t great. On Broadway in 1999, Bernadette Peters was too demure and not enough of a tomboy. At the Young Vic in 2009, Richard Jones inventive production, brilliantly re-scored by Jason Carr for four pianos, miscast Jane Horrocks and had dreadful sight lines. In the 2014 touring production, Jason Donovan’s Frank was no match for Emma Williams’ Annie. Well, this revival has none of those problems, and a lot to enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that this is based on the true story of Buffalo Bill’s show which toured, not just in the US but in Europe in the late 19th century, before merging with competitor Pawnee Bill’s show. When we open (with There’s No Business Like Show Business, one of the greatest opening numbers ever), Frank Butler is the show’s star sharpshooter, but young Annie Oakley turns up from nowhere and ends up challenging and usurping him, which rather scuppers their mutual attraction. Annie heads off to Europe, with Chief Sitting Bull now involved with the show, and Frank defects to Pawnee Bill’s show, but when they return triumphant but broke, love eventually wins.

This staging uses Peter Stone’s 1999 revision of Dorothy & Herbert Fields’ original book, making it more politically correct (changing some, but not all, of the racism towards native Americans), adding a romantic sub-plot and a song, but dropping a handful of other songs and making it a play-within-a-play, a feature which I don’t think really works. It was particularly odd when Annie’s brother Jake puts on a headdress and becomes Chief Sitting Bull, initially with script in hand. Kirk Jameson’s production is appropriately costumed, but with limited props, leaving plenty of space for Ste Clough’s excellent choreography. It’s lacks pace occasionally and the band sometimes drown the solos, but otherwise I liked it. The most important thing is that the standard-laden score is very well sung.

I very much liked Gemma Maclean’s Annie, an excellent transition from naïve tomboy to star turn. She’s well matched by Blair Robertson’s Frank, with great presence and great vocals. They are well supported by a cast of thirteen others who shine in the ensembles and choruses.

Good to see it at last without miscast leads and poor sightlines!

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In 2000 this Stiles & Drewe show surprised many by beating Mamma Mia, The Lion King & Spend Spend Spend to win the Olivier Best New Musical Award. I like underdogs so I was rather pleased. Two of the others (guess!) have gone on, and continue, to play to zillions all over the world, but another surprise to many would be that this has also been seen by 6 million people in 8000 productions in 20 languages. It returns to London almost twenty years later on a much smaller scale than the NT’s Olivier production, with a cast of seven and a three-piece band in a 50-something seat theatre under a railway line!

It’s based on the 175-year old Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Ugly Duckling, a source of ridicule for his dad, his siblings and just about everyone else he meets, but loved regardless by his mum. She searches high and low for him when he goes AWOL, during which he meets an array of characters including a predatory cat and an encouraging frog, eventually discovering he’s a swan and falling in love. In this interpretation we get a more modern spin on diversity and respect. George Stiles has written better scores since, but this one has its moments. Anthony Drewe’s pun-laden book and lyrics are a delight.

It works well on this scale, swept along on a wave of charm, energy and enthusiasm. Andy Room’s staging and Emily Bestow’s design are inventive, in a homespun way. The performers play an array of instruments, from cello to saxophone, to supplement the small band, but it’s not really a full-blown actor-musician show. It’s a very good ensemble. I’m a great advocate of un-amplified chamber musicals, though here some of Drewe’s witty lyrics are lost when singers compete with electric instrumentation, percussion and saxes.

It’s good to see it again, though somehow it now feels even more like a kids show, and I do wish the director’s programme note hadn’t talked about post-Brexit / Trump relevance!

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This was only the second show for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and it was his first flop, running for only 21 performances (12 of which were previews!), though in my view it’s lack of success is more to do with Arthur Laurents’ story / book. It’s a satire about corruption in local government which we last saw here at Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010 during Sondheim’s 80th celebrations.

The nameless US town is bankrupt and Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (the musical theatre debut of Angela Lansbury in the original Broadway production!) and her treasurer, judge and head of police invent a miracle spring to put the town on the map and restore its fortunes, and line their pockets at the same time. They have to stop the lunatics (here called cookies) from the sanatorium (here called the cookie jar – this is 1964!) from visiting, lest the lack of a cure becomes too obvious.

What follows is a romp involving cookies, townspeople and the corrupt gang of four, until they are usurped by another miracle in a nearby town. Nurse Apple, with the help of new doctor Hapgood (who isn’t, as we later find out) try to destroy patient records and set them free, but fail. It’s daft, but not daft enough to be good daft and the score is just OK, though here the choruses shone bright, better than most of the solos and ensembles. Sondheim was learning his craft; it’s the work of a novice, but interesting to see where genius starts.

Phil Willmott has more space at the Union than they did in Jermyn Street and he uses it, most notably during a chase on foot when the numbers appear to swell significantly through clever (and exhausting) staging. Holly Hughes’ choreography is energetic, sometimes frenetic, with tap and ballet thrown in for good measure. I felt the production was a touch ragged and might also have benefited from a little more restraint. There clearly wasn’t much of a design budget!

The stand-out performances for me were Rachel Delooze as the nurse and Oliver Stanley as Hapgood, though in all fairness their roles do allow them to breathe rather more than the others. The rest of the mostly young cast sing and dance their socks off.

Just for Sondheim ‘collectors’, I’d say.

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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.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

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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