Monday, December 19, 2016

My year in London theatre - a round-up of 2016

I’m very lucky. Not only do I have a love for theatre, I have friends who work in the theatre sector which means I can sometimes score a free or heavily subsidised ticket for a show. Other times, I get day seats (well worth a shot if you’re in Central London – check out Theatre Monkey for info), or reduced price tickets at the Leicester Square Ticket booth and I’m also on a couple of last-minute theatre ticket mailing lists offering heavily discounted seats. That means I can truly indulge and not worry about the how I’m going to afford the high ticket prices. 2016 has been a particularly good year in that I’ve attended more than 30 different shows ranging from pub and fringe theatre to play readings and improv to West End marvels. And I can honestly say, I enjoyed pretty much all of them. This is my round-up of the year.

There have most definitely been some highlights:

Discovering the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe
My goodness what a treat of a theatre this is. It’s the smaller, intimate, indoor space at The Globe and is laid out as an indoor theatre in Shakespeare’s time would have been laid out – bench seating on three levels, galleried stage and all candlelit. I think you’d be hard-pressed not to be completely captivated by the setting. It’s now one of my favourite theatre spaces of all time. I saw three shows there this year – The Inn at Lydda (a thought-provoking fictional tale of when Caesar meets Jesus), Comus (by John Milton and beautifully retold in a historical setting) and The Little Match Girl (A very clever integration of puppetry and actors). If you get a chance to visit, go! I defy you not to love it wherever you’re sitting.

New work: The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer
I’ve seen a number of revivals this year but not very much at all that’s completely new writing. One new piece I did see and one of my highlights of the year was The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer at The National (Dorfman – their smaller space). It clearly wasn’t to everyone’s taste as the reviews were mixed. But I found it moving, powerful and entertaining (if a musical about cancer can be entertaining). It was an important piece of theatre in that it approaches a difficult, emotive topic we don’t really want to talk, or even think about much but in approaching it, gives us much-needed permission to do just that. The musical was in the verbatim style – that means that the playwright and the actors talked to real cancer patients and recorded what they said and then used their words exactly as they were said. This means there’s a raw honesty about the dialogue which works for me as an audience member. (This is a technique the National is known for. Rufus Norris used this technique to great acclaim with the musical and the film of London Road.)

Revisiting Shakespeare – a surprise highlight
I can’t say I’m much of a Shakespeare fan. I studied The Tempest and Macbeth at school and didn’t enjoy it much. I found the language hard-going as it’s not the English we use today in either style or vocabulary. To try and combat that I took a role in Julius Caesar with The South London Players a few years ago. Although I enjoyed being in the play, I can’t say that it ignited any particular love for The Bard.

But seeing as he is the father of our modern theatre, and having friends who do have a love for Shakespeare, I’ve given it another go this year and have been (mostly) pleasantly surprised. I’ve taken in an Australian Aborigine version of King Lear called The Shadow King (replete with didgeridoos, sand and body paint), a modern version of Cymbeline (it’s a kind of mash-up of several of Shakespeare’s previous plays) (both at The Barbican), Edwardian versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing from the RSC at Theatre Royal Haymarket and the piece de resistance, Glenda Jackson as King Lear at The Old Vic. She was utterly magnificent. Probably the best performance by any actor I have ever seen on stage or screen. It inspired the thinking behind my blog post about work and aging here.

Low point: Closure of Croydon’s Fairfield Halls & Ashcroft Theatre
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing and I’m still cross and frustrated about this. One of my favourite venues, and an unsung hero in theatrical circles was Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre and Fairfield Halls. I’ve seen some fantastic shows and performances there over the years including Under Milk Wood, The Accrington Pals, Teechers (woefully under-marketed but such a brilliant show) and Morecambe. The venue was a great place for touring shows, amongst other things.

This year, I managed to catch a few shows. My favourites were Lotty’s War, about the Nazi occupation of Jersey and Shadowlands which is about the author CS Lewis. Both very moving in their own ways. And what a treat to be able to see something local to me rather than having to go into the West End every time. But no more. The Fairfield Halls closed down in the summer and is set to be part of a regeneration project in that part of Croydon with a view to reopening in 2018. We’ll have to see if that happens or not. In the current fiscal climate, I’d say chances of that happening are getting slimmer by the day, unfortunately. I hope to be proven wrong.

The reviews
My list of shows seen (not in date order) with a brief review. Current shows listed first.

  1. Once In A Lifetime – Young Vic; A comic tale about the early days of Hollywood starring Kevin Bishop and Harry Enfield. This was great fun and if you were watching carefully, there were some very clever touches to highlight the darker side of the business of Hollywood. Currently playing until 14th January 2017. Information and booking here.
  2. Another Night Before Christmas - The Bridge House Theatre, Penge; A bit of Christmas cheer in this two-hander musical in a pub in South London. Highly recommend. Last performance is on Friday 23 December. Book NOW if you want to go!

  3. Mary Stuart – The Almeida; Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternate the roles of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart based on a coin toss at the beginning of the show in this modern translation of Schiller’s play. It would be a challenge to learn one of the leading roles, but to have to learn both is an extraordinary feat. The actors were all in modern dress and there was an bare set which allowed you to focus on the words, the characters’ development and the dynamics between them. This made for an intense performance which will linger with me for a long time. Currently playing until 21 January 2017. Information and booking here (I sat at the back of the Circle and the sight lines were great). Day seats available at the theatre box office daily from 10am at £10 & £20.

  4. Love's Labour's Lost – Theatre Royal, Haymarket; and

  5. Much Ado About Nothing – Theatre Royal Haymarket; RSC at their finest – showing alternately. Currently playing on a 14 week run until 18 March 2017. Information and booking here.

  6. The Little Match Girl - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; Traditional fairy tales for Christmas told by incorporating puppetry into the acting. Very cleverly done and all the more mesmerising for it. A Christmas treat. Now on and playing until 22 January 2017. Information and booking here.

  7. Sunny Afternoon - Harold Pinter Theatre; I loved this! I’m a fan of The Kinks anyway and I’ve seen Ray Davis play a couple of times live. It was an honest retelling of the Kinks story (as written by Ray Davis), their music and the 1960s London they hailed from. A tale of dreams, luck, love, drugs, loneliness and dodgy managers. Uplifting and great fun. Currently on tour around the UK and booking now.

  8. All or Nothing - The Vaults Theatre; A new musical about the Small Faces now on tour across the UK. Although I knew quite a bit of The Small Faces music, I didn’t know their story of drugs, alcohol, sex and being completely ripped off by their management. Despite the sad ending, the musical itself was great fun with a bit more to it than some of the jukebox musicals doing the rounds. This show is touring in 2017. Information and booking here.

  9. In The Heights - Kings Cross Theatre; - A fabulous musical set in New York's Latino district of Washington Heights. A very different take on a musical with inventive staging (bearing in mind the layout of this temporary theatre), a great storyline and fantastic singing and dancing and music styles ranging from hiphop and salsa to merengue and soul. A must see musical. Closes in London on 8 January 2017. Information and booking here.

  10. 1984 – The Playhouse Theatre; Powerful performances with innovative stage techniques to enhance the oppressive atmosphere of the play.

  11. King Lear – The Old Vic; Glenda Jackson was magnificent as King Lear. Strong supporting actors included Jane Horrocks, Celia Imrie and Ryhs Ifans. Stark set, modern dress, clever lighting all added to the intensity of the play. The best thing I’ve seen in a very long time.

  12. The Go-Between – Apollo Theatre; Michael Crawford as you’ve never seen him before in an understated role as the elderly version of the protagonist. A beautiful production with music in a supporting role rather than a leading role. Left me feeling thoughtful and wistful about life.

  13. Threepenny Opera – National Theatre; This play is challenging even before you get to the massive stage at The National but the team pulled it off with a vibrant, pacy rendition of the story of Mack the Knife and his antics. I never knew Haydn Gwynne could sing but she has a mighty find pair of lungs! Enjoyable but not may favourite show of the year.

  14. George Fenton - Lady in the Van – Festival Hall; What a treat to have Alan Bennett read from his diaries whilst being accompanied by George Fenton’s fantastic music. It felt like I was witnessing a historical moment. Fab!

  15. Things I know to be True – Lyric Hammersmith; This was from Frantic Assembly who specialist in integrating physical theatre into a play. It was very effective in this instance and not what I was expecting. This is a sad tale of a family whose individual truths are challenged and, it turns out, that none of them are true and they were all hiding something. Quite challenging but beautifully done.

  16. Comus - A Masque in Honour Of Chastity - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; A thoroughly enjoyable version of Milton’s Comus set in its original historical setting.

  17. A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer - National Theatre (Dorfman); A really important piece of new musical theatre in verbatim style. Thought provoking, moving and cathartic. This is my favourite show of the year, I think. (Last year it was Golem at The Trafalgar Studios, the year before it was Orpheus at Battersea Arts Centre).

  18. Cymbeline - Barbican Centre – this was good, but not great. I don’t think it was the failing of the performance, rather it’s not one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays to begin with. The set and costumes were great and I loved some of the special effects. But the storyline didn’t work for me.

  19. Airswimming - The Vaults Theatre – This play was written by Charlotte Jones who was in the year below me at school so I was curious to see it. It’s about two women who are institutionalised at a young age for being ‘moral imbeciles’. In reality, they’d done nothing wrong, but had gone against the norms of the day which set them apart and led to them being incarcerated. Even when they were set free, their mindset meant that their incarceration was life-long. Very sad and thought-provoking revival. This deserved a bigger audience than it achieved.

  20. Body and Blood and Importance of Being - The Colour House Theatre; These two short plays were performed by an Irish Theatre Group and were both new pieces of writing about the Irish diaspora. With shoestring budgets and a tiny stage, they pulled off two interesting pieces of theatre. They both felt like they were still works in progress rather than finished pieces, but I think both stories would lend themselves to being adapted for TV or radio.

  21. The Libertine - Theatre Royal Haymarket; Dominic Cooper was great in this as he flounced and charmed his way around the stage in the more-or-less true story of John Wilmott, Second Earl of Rochester – a writer, a philanderer, a drunkard, a rake and dead by the age of 33. Good fun and a snapshot into the theatrical world of Restoration London.

  22. Shopping and F***ing - Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; Another revival, this time of a play from the 90s about the 90s. My friend and I ended up sitting in the ‘VIP’ seats on the stage sipping perry and seeing the action very close-up. Despite the bright lights, loud music and general bawdiness of the piece, it’s actually a dark story of a group of young people struggling to make their way into adulthood and how sex, drugs, money and shopping (consumerism) takes hold of them. Brilliantly done and thought provoking in relation to consumerism today. There’s even more of it than there was when the play was first produced.

  23. Tosca – ENO, London Coliseum; Utterly sumptuous set and costumes, fabulous voices and orchestra (as you would expect from the ENO) played out with both the humour and pathos required for this tragic tale. Thoroughly enjoyed it despite not being an opera buff!

  24. The Inn at Lydda - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; This is the tale of a fictitious meeting between Caesar and Jesus. If you can imagine a mash-up of Carry On films, Frankie Howerd in A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum and Up Pompeii with a bit of Shakespeare for authenticity, and you’ve pretty much got the gist of this. The humour of the piece kept it pacy and fun yet the more serious elements also had their place. I watched this from The Pit and loved the way they lit the stage with candles and used the whole of the theatre as their stage.

  25. The Plough and the Stars - National Theatre (Lyttelton); It’s a hundred years since the Easter Rising in Dublin and there have been a fair few Irish plays doing the circuit including this Sean O’Casey play at The National. A stunning production and a heart-breaking tale of how the Easter Rising impacted those involved, mainly the poor and working class, at the time.

  26. The League Of Youth - Theatre N16, The Bedford, Balham; A modern retelling of Ibsen’s classic set in an office in the 1990s. It opens with a dodgy office Christmas party and people are pairing up in ways they really shouldn’t be. Office politics is the name of the game with greed and power as the underlying themes. We’ve all seen this in our various work environments at some stage and the cast got their characterisations spot on from the bubbly receptionist to the slightly nerdy support guy.  This may be one of the smallest theatre spaces in London, but the cast and production team managed to create something much bigger than the space they were confined to.

  27. The Truth - Wyndham's Theatre; A new translation of a modern French farce. Two couples, two affairs and the lies and subterfuge that that entails. The translation made the script a little clunky in places for me but good performances throughout.

  28. The Shadow King - Barbican Centre; A retelling of King Lear set in modern Aboriginal Australia replete with didgeridoos, sand and body paint. I thought this was an interesting adaptation of the play as seen through the lens of a completely different culture. It took me a while to tune into the accents (the cast were mainly Australian), the vernacular and the slightly chaotic style but I did enjoy it.

  29. Blue/Orange – Young Vic Theatre; A powerful play (another revival) and very well done, but my goodness, it was bleak, I mean, really, desperately, utterly bleak. It’s a thoroughly depressing insight into the mental health system, how it works and how people are treated and leaves you questioning what is madness and who is mad – the therapist or the patient? Not one for the faint-hearted.

  30. Whose Line Is It Anyway?… Live - London Palladium; A faithful live version of the popular TV show using regulars from both the UK and the US version of the show. Josie Lawrence was *amazing*. I’ve seen her perform on TV but seeing her perform improv live was a whole different level. Just brilliant. A fun night out!

  31. Hobson's Choice - Vaudeville Theatre; A tale of a widowed, drunken, shoemaker and his daughters in 1880s Salford. The set, costumes and performances transported you back to Victorian Salford in a Cinderella meets King Lear storyline. A lovely leading performance from Martin Shaw and strong performances throughout from the whole cast and the kind of quality you expect from a West End theatre experience. Another enjoyable night out.

  32. Guys and Dolls - Phoenix Theatre; This was glorious! So joyful, such energy and such a great musical score. I’d defy anyone not to have their toes tapping along to this one. We may have been sitting at the back of the circle, but the energy from the stage permeated the whole audience. Loved it!

  33. Wifi Wars - Udderbelly Festival at Southbank Centre; If you every played Pong, Space Invaders or Pacman back in the day and are at all geeky, then this is for you. We were all hooked up to a private wifi network so that as an audience, we could play each other in this romp through the history of digital games. Great fun! This is the show that led to Dara O’Briain’s (relatively) new show on Dava called 8-bit and they’re still doing the show live. They were on tour in the UK recently and got rave reviews up in Edinburgh. Highly recommend if you get a chance to catch it. More about them here.

  34. How The Other Half Loves - Theatre Royal Haymarket; A 1960s Alan Ayckbourn farce of matrimonial mishap. Three couples, one affair, and the shenanigans that go on to hide the affair between the boss’s wife and one of the firm’s staff. There were strong performances from the whole cast and plenty of laughs but the play felt a bit dated for me. I found aspects of the relationship between William and Mary Featherstone a bit troubling – the way he bullies her and tries to dominate her (even though he’s not a dominant man). Let’s just say it’s of its time and if you enjoy a good old-fashioned farce, you’d have enjoyed this.

  35. Jackie the Musical – Wimbledon Theatre; I have to say, I did not have high hopes at all for this musical but thought I’d give it a go. It’s the story of a Jackie magazine reader who’s now grown up and going through a sort of mid-life crisis. It turned out that it was rather enjoyable. Lots of hits from the 1970s to keep the audience happy, Cathy & Claire made an appearance and there was a half-decent storyline too. All in all, a fun show and a great night out. More about the show and Jackie Magazine here.

  36. Lotty’s War – Fairfield Halls, Croydon; A moving tale of Nazi occupied Jersey and an illicit love affair between a local and a Nazi officer. This was very thought-provoking and poignant.

  37. Shadowlands – Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon; The story of CS Lewis and the female fan he ends up marrying. Very moving performances from both lead actors in this tale of love unexpectedly found in later life only to be cruelly taken away.

  38. A Christmas Carol – Noel Coward Theatre; Jim Broadbent was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge in this fantastic retelling of the familiar Dickens story. A top notch production and a lovely post-Christmas treat.

  39. So that’s my round-up of my year in theatre. January and February are usually quiet times for me theatre-wise. Not least because I’m preparing for Swedish Beers and my other events in Barcelona the week of Mobile World Congress so I need to keep my head down. But come Spring, I hope to be back in the saddle and enjoying theatre and performance of all sorts in 2017.