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Top Shows of 2017 (According to me)

Theatre’s great isn’t it? Well not all of it – some of it is shit. 

Anyway, 2017 has been a terrific year for theatre – through which I have tried to do what most of the theatre media forgot to do – salute theatre’s good bits, even if doing so required shining a light on the bad bits… 

As 2018 rolls around, I’ve published my annual list of half-decent stuff from the last twelve months below.

  1. Angels in America – National Theatre, London.

Subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes”, over two extensive plays – separately titled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – lasting a combined total of eight hours. The cast was led by the seriously good Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey, Denise Gough and Nathan Lane. The revelatory performance and superb focal point was Garfield’s Prior Walter. 

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Andrew Garfield in Angels in America 

Everything was exquisite, Marianne Elliott’s direction completely breathtaking, the overall vision both flawlessly plotted and magnificently executed. And it’s the only show on this list without a single dud moment. The National’s timely revival of Tony Kushner’s play was 100% superb.

Angels in America heads to Broadway from February 2018, so well done everyone. 

  1. Follies – National Theatre, London. 

James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical was close to perfection. It felt like a genuinely special theatre experience, and when was the last time you felt like that about a thing?

Director Dominic Cooke delivered a really incredible, dramatic happy-sad musical of epic proportions. Every performance was sublime – from Tracie Bennet’s scene-stealing Carlotta to Janie Dee’s dynamic Phyillis.

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Follies

No other musical in 2017 tried quite this hard to be amazing, and no other musical production succeeded in as many ways.

It is fair to say that this is one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever seen. Bill Deamer’s choreography blurred real life and performance to spectacular effect enveloping us in in an emotional no man’s land, unsure where artifice began.

Follies allowed us to see and feel Sondheim’s classic in exhilarating new ways.

Glorious, glorious, glorious.

3. An American In Paris – Dominion Theatre, London. 

Christopher Wheeldon’s stage adaptation of the 1951 film was simply wonderful.

In its best moments, An American in Paris pulled off the trick of homaging multiple sources while looking and sounding like nothing else; a musical at its sophisticated and unhurried best.

George and Ira Gershwin’s irresistible songs coupled with beautiful dance was largely enhanced by Bob Crowley’s stunning design.

The company was fortunate to be led by the insanely talented New York City Ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild and Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope; both sang, acted and danced sensationally. Remarkable stuff. 

N.B. Ashley Day took over from Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan in July and was quite splendid. So well done to Ashley.

4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

A decadent, pensive and astute production.

It says something about the high standard of theatre in Britain that Imelda Staunton – nominated for 2017’s Evening Standard Awards in the Best Actress category for her portrayal as Martha, didn’t win. Staunton was a razor-sharp maniac in this role and demonstrated yet again to be one of our finest & fiercest Stage performers.

Director James Macdonald matched a breathtaking Staunton with a tremendous Conleth Hill and cut straight to the plays dark, throbbing heart.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots held their own too, in this disturbing portrait of marital relationships gone wrong.

Edward Albee’s savage play remains, of course, a completely chilling, classic masterpiece.

  1. An Octoroon – Orange Tree, Richmond. 

As a theatre fan it’s hard to beat the feeling of finding out about a show early on and seeing something special. It’s hard to beat the feeling of seeing it in tiny, little theatres before they’re at the National Theatre, then championing it to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s hard to beat the sensation of seeing that play take a bold and brilliant step forward and being able to say to yourself: I was there.

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Ken Nwoso in An Octoroon 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins reworking of a slave drama was both new and old; an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama and a biting modern critique of it.

Directed with radical aplomb by Ned Bennett, it was Ken Nwoso’s energetic performance, however, that branded itself on the mind. 

A masterclass in smart theatre and a first-rate cast made this unforgettable viewing.

‘FYI’ An Octoroon will transfer to the National Theatre in June 2018. Don’t miss. 

Note:

1. Have I missed anything? Let me know E: [email protected] – I’ll publish some of the best suggestions.

2. I feel a bit bad about ‘The Ferryman’ not being on the list – it probably should have been. OH WELL.)

 

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How Bad Can ‘The Band’ Be? Spectacularly.

Just as it is hard to hate someone who has smashed the wing mirror off one’s car if the note under your windscreen wiper comes with a little smiley face at the bottom, it is hard to completely dislike the cunning adherence to the jukebox blueprint.

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Sadly, by no stretch of the imagination is The Band a good musical.

Featuring the songs of Take That, The Band has broken box office records making it the fastest selling touring musical of all time and with advance tickets sales for national tour of ‘The Band’ reaching £10 million(!)

Gary Barlow and musical theatre seemed like a good idea at one point, but by the time he started actually writing songs for musicals, it turned out that he was the worst thing to happen to the genre in the last decade. See: Finding Neverland.

Do you think “Take That have had a good run and should call it a day” is a fair statement? Do you think there’s a chance we might, by now, have heard Barlow’s best work? Well it doesn’t matter what you think because Barlow is not listening. See The Girls. 

But, when it comes to twentieth century pop Barlow remains peerless in his field. Take That had sold 10 million singles in the UK alone before splitting in 1996 – an event that prompted the Samaritans to set up a helpline for grieving fans. Subsequently they reunited as a four piece in 2006, welcomed Robbie Williams back for a lucrative tour and album in 2010, lost a member in 2014 and are now at large as a trio. Williams is listed as a co-producer but has had nothing to do with the promotion other than being on the giant billboards.

Tim Firth’s musical is, above all else, a marketing exercise which has no role for the audience beyond handing over their money. Featuring the winners of the dreadful BBC series Let It Shine (AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Yazdan Qafouri Isfahani, Curtis T Johns & Sario Watanabe-Soloman) who play the singers of old Take That songs. They drive the narrative along like plucked, tanned, buffed, polished and scrubbed Ken dolls. Nothing can rescue them from being bewilderingly dim. They *mostly* sing in tune.

The show has one of greatest pop song lists… and one of the idlest scripts. I wasn’t expecting an evening of Pinter. What I did expect to be able to do, however, was recognise all of the songs. Most of them, in fairness were familiar. The inclusion of Hold Up A Light and These Days, though, is baffling.

Cynicism bleeds into most of these songs, with most of the tracks sequencing built around cavernous incoherence; one of the best pop songs of the last fifty years, Back For Good sounds like it is being sung by The Military Wives. Unforgivable. The show’s air of will-this-do? is encapsulated by some terrible choreography and a cloying mawkishness that extends to the formulaic narrative. Someho—–

BUT YOU AREN’T BEING OBJECTIVE CARL – YOU’VE TROLLED THE SHOW HANDLE FOR FOUR MONTHS – SAY SOMETHING NICE AND CONSTRUCTIVE.

Oh. Okay… Shine is a genuinely enjoyable finale to Act 1. Fans of Take That will have a good time. Theatre makes the people come together. Some of the scene transitions and set are genuinely inventive. The female cast members are not awful.

So there we go.

Anyway, the worst Take That song of all time is, of course, their single, These Days. So, in case you are not aware of this song’s charms, simply imagine a Take That song, but worse. Its most terrifying feature is in its first millisecond, that the Five To Five boys vocals appear completely without warning. This sound of hell opening up offers the audience no safety zone in which to leap towards a fire exit. Basically, what a racket.

Finally Never Forget arrives “Someday soon this will all be someone else’s dream.” If only. I can’t remember much else to be honest.

Is it all just bit of fun and perfect for the target audience? Perhaps I was pre-destined to dislike the show. Perhaps I am trying too hard and maybe The Band is actually clever and postmodern or satirical or something like that.

Food for thought there, readers. Food for thought.

The tour continues through until July 2018 and you can check out the tour dates and venues here.

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Review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Cometh the hour, cometh the show directed by Marianne Elliott, the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper.

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It’s fair to say that expectations were high… But as anyone will tell you in these difficult theatre times, coming up with the show can be the easy bit, and selling it is where things get tricky.

Simon Stephens’ play, first seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, is set at a London train station and tells the unusual story of two strangers who strike up a relationship as a result of the manic Georgie, played by Anne-Marie Duff hitting on Kenneth Cranham’s Alex, while he sits on a bench at St Pancras International. Cranham is spellbinding as a 75-year old butcher. His earthiness is shattered by the arrival of Georgie: 33 years his junior.

This is not your everyday sort of love story, but it winds up feeling both strange and familiar. Stephens’ complex two-hander is as much about romance and ulterior motives as it is about Werner Heisenberg’s physics theory.

Heisenberg is one of the plays of the year – a ninety-minute, intriguing production with the same captivating quality of true spectacle. The heart-breaking pairing of Duff and Cranham manages to encapsulate regret and hopefulness all at once.

Theatre sometimes revels brilliantly in its own meaninglessness. Other times, as here, it hits the spot when it stops being about nothing, turns its nose up at being about something, and fluently manages to be about everything. The questions it throws up about identity, attraction and love collide with a vastness that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre.

Paule Constable’s gorgeous lighting glues style and substance together in an irresistible modern theatre collage. One of the most electrifying moments comes during an effortless scene transition with Duff trapped between the two walls. Thinking about it in the cold light of day, it all plays better in memory than in real-time. This is an accessible but immensely rewarding watch, and the music by Nils Frahm has an intriguing emotional reach that captures the sparse mood perfectly too.

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Ann-Marie Duff – amazing –

Other points are genuinely touching. But is that all there is to Heisenberg? Well, not quite –the duo’s chemistry will only flourish in enjoyable new directions as the production runs. There’s more to the writing and the performances than a first viewing might let on.

Not everything is sensational; Steven Hoggett’s movement sequences don’t always work. A section where the pair clumsily tango isn’t really that great. Intelligent choreography does more at the same time as it does less, making fewer things more impressive, making smaller statements count for more. When the choreography does hit the spot – it more than makes up for this.

Basically, Heisenberg doesn’t knock the planet off its axis quite as nimbly as theatre fans will have predicted. Maybe that was the point. On one hand, it’s not exactly Angels In America in the landmark stakes, on the other Elliott and Harper have come up with exciting ways to work in the West End and at least it isn’t Oscar Wilde.

Whether a prelude to an exclusion order or a heart-warming tale of encounter, Heisenberg is an extraordinary addition to Simon Stephens canon of recent experimental work; considerate and romantic enough for repeated viewing, but with a theatre sensibility that makes you want to head out in search of a stranger at a train station and live for the moment. Think of this as a controlled explosion.

At Wyndham’s, London, until 6 January. Box office: 0844-482 5120.

Access Booking 0344 482 5137.

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Five Things You Should Know About Follies

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1.    Let’s cut to the chase: Follies contains some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a musical.

It features Stephen Sondheim veterans Philip Quast, Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee. Most incredible of all, the way this sparkly ensemble revisit their former lives from 30 years ago to when they first met while working as Follies dancers. The ghosts of the past send shivers up your spine. Also, Tracie Bennett in particular steals the show on a few occasions in a hall of mirrors for all shades of misery

2.    With a near 30-year history and a world-class reputation, Sondheim shows are no strangers to the National Theatre (Judi Dench appeared in ‘A Little Night Music’ in the Olivier, 1995 and Philip Quast in ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in the Lyttelton Theatre, 1990 etc, etc and so on).

It’s hard to avoid the fact that most of Follies’ action takes place on a stage revolve resembling a merry-go-round in West Side Story. The beauty of this show lies in the precision that draws the multi-layered elements together.

3.    There are incredibly few directors who could carry off at least three quarters of this show. Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre has kept the songs in the faithful style – the orchestra are sublime – but when Imelda delivers a refreshingly devastating low-key version of ‘Losing My Mind’, it’s the night’s highlight. A haunting exploration of character.

This is an inventively staged production with a cast and the arrangements are of a phenomenally high standard. As well as being expertly written the majority of these songs are also skilfully structured and only serve to reaffirm Sondheim’s Godlike genius.

 

4.    The choreography itself is beautiful, reflecting the sorrow, torment and human resilience in both the music and the performances. Everything slots perfectly into place in this magnificent evocation of showbiz. Sweeping across the stage are buckets of Swarovski crystals, sashes, sequined frocks and outfits that reel you in from start to finish.

This is the first time Dominic Cooke has directed a musical. Luckily, there’s a clarity of vision that’s practically unrivalled in the current musical theatre scene. Follies feels effortlessly enchanting.

5.    Vicky Mortimer’s show-making set and costume design uses a crumbling theatre on a revolving set to remind us how the characters’ lives are confined and ravaged by theatre; Bill Dreamer’s vivid choreography, deserves a mention again, his work with ‘Loveland’ pays hymn to the showbiz past; and the orchestra has a glorious, brassy ring.

The production’s centrepiece – to these eyes, anyway – is ‘I’m Still Here’, a track for which Apple Music single song repeat function could well have been invented. A dazzle to watch. 

But the show is not perfect and I can see people’s concerns about Imelda’s suitability as a ‘Showgirl’ or that her vocals may be underpowered. They are missing the point; these things add to the charm of the production. The no interval thing is a bit crap….

Nevertheless, nothing is left to chance here, folks.

I make that a considered, authoritative and concrete 9/10. Also: Looks like my work here is done. Time to go to the pub.

Follies runs in the Olivier Theatre at the National until 3 January.

‘FYI’ Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

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Alright, theatre needs a kick up the arse

Wind In The Willows

Most of the West End and supporting media is populated by the manliest men with manliest tastes, who only produce or consider the existence of theatre because they need to tick boxes and make what they perceive to be easy cash.

No wonder so much theatre is so joyless. It got me thinking…

You see the size of the task dear old Stiles and Drewe set themselves when producer Jamie Hendry decided it would be a good idea to put one of the best loved children’s stories of all time on the biggest stage in London and they should write the music. Naturally, they wrote 20 songs.

The good news, though, is that this is a brand new British musical. (An exotic bird in the woods of the West End). The bad is that, in line with the tide of right-on idiocy that is overwhelming British Theatre, (see: Freddie Flintoff cast in Fat Friends The Musical/ Louise Redknapp in Cabaret & John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles, I could go on) someone thought that Julian Fellowes would be a good candidate to white-wash and straight-wash The Wind in the Willows.

It’s all too easy, however, to get side-tracked by the visual assault of Rachel Kavanaugh’s production when you’re watching this stage version of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s novel slowly, slowly unfold with a ‘celebrity’ cast that is going through the motions. Cringe-making embarrassment, though, isn’t restricted to Hound and co.

The whole thing is a mess.

There is no cohesive vision in The Wind in the Willows; it lacks depth that would give it savour. ‘Property is theft!’ is blathered at some point. You won’t be singing or dancing your way out of the building – that’s for sure.

I can’t remember much else to be honest.

I don’t need to labour my contempt for it too much, however, as the merchandise for that matter, says it all.

As horrendous as it all may sound for you reading this online – shows like this are actually a lot less appealing in the flesh. Worse still, the show includes veiled attacks on the poor, clumsy class politics, a 3 hour running time and a woozy design.

Anyway, I propose that:
1.Theatre like this is not pandered to.
2.Shows like this are *largely* ignored.
3.Commercial junk written and produced and performed by a largely all-white cast are left to get on with it in private, away from the West End and hard-up families.

Basically, theatre needs to work harder. I don’t care if it’s a new musical. There needs to be a rethink – audiences deserve much better when they are paying these kinds of prices.

Just think of my manifesto as having builders in. A lengthy stretch of hellish with (mostly) white men you don’t know making a lot of noise as they destroy everything you once held dear. But then, when it’s all over, you’re all set up to have a massive dinner party.

Naturally I will be here throughout the whole fiasco, and continue to find the good bits of theatre — whether they’re fashionable or not.

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REVIEW: Angels in America

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‘The Girls’ boasts a solid female cast, inventive design and score and makes for a successful screen-to-stage transfer

The Girls

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls 

Phoenix Theatre, London.  

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The Girls

The Girls © Carl Woodward

Following a ‘tryout’ last year at The Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry in Manchester, ‘The Girls’ boldly finds itself lighting up the West End. Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical – based on the 2003 film Calendar Girls, is a delight to behold.
The solid female cast, inventive design and score, make for a successful screen-to-stage transfer. Joanna Riding as Annie is a safe pair of hands,providing a poignant portrayal of marital loss; how will she cope alone in Tesco and Scarborough?
Firth’s production, Lizzi Gee’s musical staging and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, between them, overcome the problem of putting topography on stage; transporting us to Yorkshire Dales. Robert Jones’s set comprises moving kitchen cabinets, inventively framed, creating a dynamic landscape.
Debbie Chazen as Ruth with her “Russian Friend”, gives us a brutal, but hilarious glimpse at the place we feel most afraid to look when everything ahead seems too much to bear. There are some wonderful ensemble performances from the cast. Firth’s staging boasts half a dozen spot-on performances.
In a show with patchwork lyrics, plenty of Northern humour and more than a few cliches, the score is somewhere between mid-tempo and up-tempo, and breezes along for a good stretch with age-defying liberation.
The book is good enough as entertainment, with meaningful overtones of love and loss, rendered with authentic emotional effectiveness.
There is not a weak link in the casting, but the standout performance comes from the bereft Annie, so beautifully full of life. Things really get going in Act Two with the cheeky ladies doing traditional WI things like jam-making and floristry in the nude for their fundraising calendar.
At times Firth and Barlow’s production underuses its design and is a little laboured, but beneath its veneer ‘The Girls’ reminds us that true friendship can overcome even the most challenging of times.

Some photos from THE GIRLS Opening Night, Tuesday 21 February 2017

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Beth Iredale’s take on The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon
Ms Beth Iredale took a trip to see the popular musical. She did a drawing.
The Tony and Olivier Award-winning production is from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and follows a couple of Mormon boys sent on a mission.
The Book of Mormon is currently running at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Click HERE to book your tickets
The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon. © Beth Iredale

Text -The Book of Mormon.

Text -The Book of Mormon. © Beth Iredale

Guest Blog – Beth Iredale’s ‘Dedication’ sketch review

Sketch Review - Dedication

Beth Iredale took part in the original Young Critics project at Theatre Royal Winchester in 2015. Her drawings are a very impressive critical response in the world of online noise.

We went to watch  ‘Dedication directed by Sam Hodges earlier this week at The Nuffield in Southampton.

To say Beth is a promising critical voice would be a gross understatement. Okay great.

You can check out an article she wrote (Exeunt) as well as her sketch reviews here  >> Edinburgh Festival Sketchbook .

Talking about the illustrations done for Dedication, Beth says: “These drawings are a visual expression of the play. This show is built around such passionate design, it seems only right to showcase it. Alex Lowde is on top form. The  illustrations are captioned with quotes from the show. “I’d rather use them to allude to the content instead of describing it” she says.

Sketch review by Beth Iredale of the play  Dedication at Nuffield Theatre in the gallery below:

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SKETCH REVIEW – DEDICATION

You can follow Beth Iredale at:
Twitter @_BethLawless
Instagram _Bethlawless

You can also read my Sam Hodges interview here. Well done everyone.

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Us/Them – a crisp, witty, playful and stylish piece of physical theatre for young audiences

Us/Them is taking Summer Hall by storm. And rightly so. It is a highly impressive piece of physical theatre. This is a crisp, witty, playful and stylish piece for young audiences by Belgian Theatre company Bronks and has super producer Richard Jordan‘s fingerprints all over it.

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Click the image to book your tickets for Us/Them

This striking show tells the story of the 2004 siege of a school by Chechen separatist with breathtaking originality.

The opening section set the tone for the piece, which plays across a range of emotions, as humour and  playfulness coexist with much darker and disturbing content. The harrowing, yet innovative storytelling are edited and integrated from the start of performance, providing a narrative from which the rest of the piece extended.  Skillfulness of movement and expression is evident in the way text is rendered.

What really stands out is the strong communication with the audience through vocal and facial work supported by building anticipation as to what was coming next.

A range of dynamics within movement work prevent any slippage of attention. This means that when the surprises in the devastatingly simple set design are unveiled, a strong theatrical context is created.

This two hander is played electrically by Gytha Parmentier, Roman Van Houtven.
Their duet sequences are magnificently developed to remind the audience of the tragic story of the siege we hear but through subtle re-working of imagery rather than anything sentimental. I’ll never look at chalk in the same way again.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR US/THEM