One of the best things about living loser to London now is the opportunity to go to the theatre much more.
There's nothing quite like live theatre. The atmosphere, the anticipation that you're going to see something incredible and the emotional connection with the characters and the story just can't be replicated in any other form.
I've been incredibly lucky to see some genuinely outstanding shows this year (and also The Cripple of Innishman which was utterly dreadful). Here's my top 10...
1. Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival
Making my introduction to this post ironic, the best show I've seen this year was actually staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. Now, if I was making a list of best theatre I've ever seen in my life this show would still be number one. Starring Sir Kenneth Branagh (who also co-directed) and Alex Kingston - I mean I may as well end the review there, what more do you need to know?! - this raw, passionate and violent version of Shakespeare's Scottish Play is just the best thing ever. Staged on a muddy dirt track with the audience seated very close to the action in pews along the sides, the production values were sky high, the acting the best I've ever seen and the staging innovative without being pretentious. Incredible stuff and I can't wait to see the production again in New York next summer.
Top moment - the opening battle scene was exhilarating, violent and expertly staged. And because we were sat in the front row and so close to the action Ken Branagh spat on me which, frankly, was just awesome.
2. The Scottsboro Boys
Read my detailed review of this fantastic musical in my previous post.
3. Book of Mormon
A musical about Mormon missionaries in Africa by the guys who wrote South Park really should be hilarious. And so it proved. Taking aim not just at Mormonism but organised religion in general, casual racism and female genital mutilation (yes, really), Mormon combined hilariously dirty songs with big Broadway dance numbers. A fantastic ensemble cast - headed by a great performance from Gavin Creel - topped it off.
Top moment - very hard to pick, but personally I really enjoyed the two versions of opening song Hello that bookend the show. Hilarious in their own right and even more so if you've ever done any political door knocking.
Another fantastic Shakespeare adaptation - and of my personal favourite of his extensive back catalogue - that National's Othello was excellent. Set in the present day, the production was made by two powerhouse performances from Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear both pitch perfect as Othello and Iago respectively. A fantastic supporting cast and some clever updating of characters - I loved the idiot Roderigo updated to a 'red chinos and loafers without socks' city boy - and clever staging meant this much hyped production was every bit as good as everyone said it was.
Top moment - Iago's 'I am not what I am' soliloquy is probably my favourite bit of Shakespeare and seeing Rory Kinnear deliver it was magical.
5. Privates on Parade
This 'play with songs' was the first production in Michael Grandage's West End season at The Noël Coward theatre and also, for my money, the best. Mostly this is because of the dialled-up-to-eleven performance of Simon Russell Beale as an army drag act. A part that could have descended into awfulness very quickly in the wrong hands, SRB delivered it with warmth, humour and a knowing wink. And his drag was incredible - he has great legs!
Top moment - all of the musical numbers were top notch, I can't pick a favourite.
6. Peter and Alice
Another Grandage season show and another included on this list due to cracking central performances. This time it's Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw I'm singling out for praise; both excellent as the real life figures behind Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. The play explored the nature of fame - or perhaps notoriety is more accurate - through these two quite damaged people and their life experiences and was heartbreakingly well observed. If you saw it and didn't cry then you and I can't be friends.
Top moment - the scenes exploring the relationships between the two central characters and the authors who'd made them famous we're amazingly well written and acted.
7. The Pride
A triple-hander exploring the nature of what it is to be gay - and what it is to be homophobic - set in the1950s and the present day, simply staged and impeccably acted. An uncomfortable watch this one, but all the more valuable for being so. The scenes in the 1950s where one of the characters goes to get 'cured' were amongst the hardest to watch that I've ever seen.
Top moment - the scene stealing series of cameos by Matthew Horne as a rent boy, a lads mag editor and the doctor in the 'cure' scenes were all excellent. I was expecting not to like Horne but he was exceptional.
8. Edward II
A bit Marmite this one - no one else I saw it with thought it was any good. Another National production, this modern version of Marlowe's play was fantastically well staged. I loved the innovative use of video cameras to get up close and personal with the characters at key moments and make the (very) minimal staging seem to expand to fill the story. Fantastically acted too.
Top moment - the meetings between Edward's rebellious lords, staged inside a wooden box on the stage with the action being filmed and shown on screens in the theatre. Pretentious? Yes. Effective? Yes.
9. Sweet Bird of Youth
Two words: Kim Catrall. Samantha from Sex and the City was red hot as a faded movie star having a breakdown in the sultry south. Exploring many of Tennessee Williams' favourite themes, this excellent Old Vic production is also notable for introducing a London audience to Seth Numrich who was fantastic as Cattrall's young saviour/sponge/whothehellknowswhat. Watch out for more of him I'm sure.
Top moment - not really a moment, but I went to this show expecting to be severely underwhelmed by Kim Cattrall. I was very much not. A really exceptional performance from an actor I now have a lot more time for.
10. Judas Kiss
Rupert Everett was on career best form in this play about Oscar Wilde. It felt like this was the role he'd been waiting all his life for and he was exceptional in it. Fantastically lit and staged too, definitely one of the best looking productions I've seen for some time.
Top moment - Everett commanded the stage at all times. It was great to see him actually living up to his potential, something that is depressingly rare.