Thursday, 22 December 2016

2016 in Review: Theatre

With the end of the year fast approaching, I thought I'd take a look back at the shows I've seen in 2016.


It has been a good year for plays for me! I normally focus almost exclusively on musicals and, while I still saw more of them than any other type of show, I wanted to make more of an effort to see straight plays this year, and I actually hit 15. Those 15 performances (14 shows, I saw the hilarious comedy The Truth twice in fairly quick succession after loving it so much the first time) were almost all really enjoyable, and everything had great aspects at the least. (I was less keen on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time than my friend Stacey, who came with me, was, but despite being distracted by my dislike of the staging I could recognise the excellence of the acting.) Highlights for me – Gemma Arterton leading an incredibly good cast in the utterly wonderful Nell Gwynn (I also got to see a childhood crush of mine, Michelle Dotrice, who was wonderful in a supporting role.) Possibly the best performance I’ve seen of Romeo and Juliet, with Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh directing Lily James and Richard Madden at the Garrick. While the central couple were good, the undoubted stars here were Derek Jacobi – whose ‘stunt casting’ as Mercutio worked perfectly – and Meera Syal, who was a fabulous nurse. (Unsurprisingly for such a great comedian, admittedly!) Other outstanding actors I saw included Pixie Lott in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder (easier to understand than I’d expected/feared from Ibsen), Dominic Cooper as a smouldering, roguish title character in The Libertine, and the hugely talented trio of Uzo Aduba, Laura Carmichael and Zawe Ashton in the incredibly intense psychological thriller The Maids. Perhaps my absolute favourite single performance of the year, though, was former Friends star Matthew Perry in The End Of Longing; I was never that much of a fan of his in his sitcom days but he captivated me with a stunning portrayal of an alcoholic (also his stagewriting debut) in this play.

While the play of the year for me has to be Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – I think that in terms of capturing the atmosphere I wanted from a new HP story, and producing it on the West End stage, it was an incredible achievement, and it was well-acted with outstanding special effects – my biggest pleasant surprise was certainly Dead Funny. I persuaded Debbie to come see this comedy, about a comedy club’s weekend just after Benny Hill passes away, mainly because I got cheap front row tickets in a flash sale. Neither of us had especially high hopes (despite a strong cast including Ralf Little and Steve Pemberton) but it was a completely hilarious evening which I would love to see again at some point.


Dance, on the other hand, went less well this year. I saw 8 shows – which I think is perhaps the least I’ve seen since coming down here – but only a couple stand out as especially good. Seeing Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin dance together at Sadler’s Wells was definitely a thrill (although I think I possibly found Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Qutb, where Jason Kittelberger and James O’Hara danced with Natalia, a better piece overall than either of her and Sergei’s pieces later than evening were.) I think the best show of the year, though, has to be The Merchants of Bollywood, featuring stunning costume, brilliant dancers, and outstanding  choreography by Vaibhavi Merchant and Shruti Merchant.


I need to take better notes on circus stuff as me and Debbie go quite a lot (6 times this year) and all I’ve got is various combinations of “Good”, “Yay!”, and “WOW!” (Oh, and a “not up to their usual standards” for 7 Fingers, but to be fair 7 Fingers’ usual standards are SKY-high so their show was still worth seeing. From what I remember, it was more dance than usual, though.)

So while it's been a good year, trying to figure out from my fairly terrible notes which of several shows I enjoyed most is something of a struggle. That said, I really liked Closer, Cirque Eloise’s iD, and Zippos present Cirque Berserk! at the Peacock. I do remember, thankfully, that the two we saw as part of Circusfest 2016 at the Roundhouse – Race Horse Company: Super Sunday and Barely Methodical Troupe: Kin – were especially good and Super Sunday, in particular, featured a LOT of gasp-inducing moments.


These are always the main attraction for me when it comes to shows, and this year was no exception. While my very favourites were things I'd seen before, I also saw a bunch of new/new-to-me shows and enjoyed a lot of them. Beyond The Fence at the Arts Theatre was an interesting one. Billed as the world's 'first computer-generated musical' (interesting article on it here) as you'd imagine from that it's a safe show which takes few risks, but this story of the women on Greenham Common is surprisingly moving at times. Also at the Arts Theatre, Murder Ballad - not perfect, and the songs didn't especially stand out, but well-sung and acted, a strong storyline, and I got to see Kerry Ellis! And I returned there twice to see American Idiot, which I'd seen for the first time last year. Green Day's rock musical is still one of my favourite shows and both Newton Faulkner and understudy Lawrence Libor were both superb.

New ones for me at other venues - the Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre, a strange but often very impressive show (although no song in it quite matches up to Mack The Knife, sung so early on.) Mrs Henderson Presents - funny and surprisingly heartwarming, although me and Debbie both liked the first half more than the second - and Sunny Afternoon with my parents, which has a fairly poor script (even by jukebox musical standards) but some wonderful songs - Days was a real highlight for me! I also caught 90s musical 2 Become 1 with Faye earlier this week at The King's Head Theatre - again, script is nothing special (but quite good fun) but it's well worth watching for the sheer number and variety of hits packed into the show, all sung by a talented quartet of performers. I also saw Miss Atomic Bomb with my friend Lili, who was over from the USA - this was something of a hit and miss show but it's campy, OTT, and very fun. Plus Simon Lipkin, a favourite of mine, and Catherine Tate were two of the stars and both were fabulous!

The stand-out of all the new shows I saw, though, was one I've been wanting to see live for years - I got a £100+ ticket for Matilda for just under £40, still more than I'd normally pay to see something but so, so worth it. A great soundtrack, amazing set design, a brilliant script and a staggeringly-talented cast make this one of the West End's very best shows!

Moving onto more shows I'd seen prior to 2016 and already loved, me and Faye went to support our friend George who was appearing in The Pirates of Penzance. He was FABULOUS as expected and the show was the best production I've seen of my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan - a really great night out. I can't wait to see him in Legally Blonde in 2017!

I'm a big fan of Jersey Boys - for me it's the only jukebox musical I've seen which merges really amazing songs with a compelling story - and I saw it this year with Debbie and loved it more than ever. It has SO MANY brilliant hits, with Silhouettes, Big Girls Don't Cry and Can't Take My Eyes Off You being just a few of my favourites.

I also managed to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights, which I fell completely in love with on watching in it 2016, another 8 times this year. All 8 - featuring a variety of actors, thanks to cast changes and understudies - were fantastic, but I think two of my favourites were the night after the Olivier Awards (this had about 8 understudies and EVERYBODY was incredible) and the one when me and my friend Ming got to talk to lead actor Sam Mackay, as friendly as he is talented, afterwards. This is about to close and I doubt I'll see it again - partly due to time and partly because when Cleve September left as Sonny I think the show lost just a tiny bit of its sparkle for me; he is definitely my favourite actor.

But the best musical of all for me, I think, was Guys & Dolls. I've always loved this show but managed to see it three times this year - twice with Debbie and once with Charlie - and each time was utterly fabulous. Simon Lipkin - as mentioned above a favourite of mine - and Rebel Wilson were a fantastic pairing at the Phoenix, but the first time this year we saw it, at the Savoy, was the best of the three. We got second row stalls seats (a lucky upgrade!) and were mesmerised by Jamie Parker as Sky (prior to him achieving fame as the adult Harry Potter), David Haig, Sophie Thompson and Siubhan Harrison. In addition, the choreography by Andrew Wright and Carlos Acosta is wonderful and Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat is one of the first times I've seen a West End audience give three (long!) rounds of applause during one song.

Overall, a really great year for me when it comes to shows!

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