Tuesday, 23 December 2014

2014 in Review: Theatre

Undoubtedly my favourite thing about 2015 has been the amount of fantastic theatre I've managed to cram in. But then I suspect you know that already, given the amount I blog about it.

This is definitely the most difficult year end post I've written. Although I knew instantly what my top picks would be, sorting out the rest of the fantastic (and not so fantastic) stuff I've seen this year into a rough order has been really hard. I feel like I need to apologise to the shows that narrowly missed the cut, which is clearly all kinds of ridiculous.

So, after much agonising, here are my top ten shows of 2015…

Macbeth (Park Avenue Armoury) 
There is no way that any other show was going to get a look at the top spot in this list. I travelled half way round the world to see this production at New York’s astonishing Park Avenue Armoury, which you'll recall I’d already seen in 2013 at the Manchester International Festival. With standout performances from Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston and jaw dropping staging (remembering the opening fight scene still gives me goosebumps), I genuinely believe that this is the best production I’ll ever see. And it’’s a complete privilege to have seen it (twice).

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies (RSC)
Ok, so having two shows as one entry is sort of cheating (get used to it, I’m going to do the same thing again in a few places time) but it’s kind of impossible to separate these two given they were staged on the same set with the same cast, and I saw them on the same day. I love these books so it was thrilling to watch them come to life, in a largely very faithful adaptation, with such a superb cast. Ben Miles as Cromwell is probably my London performance of the year (and Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII would also be on that list) but the whole cast was superb, with a fantastic script to work with too.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (National Theatre) 
The first of many NT productions to make my top ten, I just loved this show. The script, the set, the fantastic sound and lighting effects (still not over that plane) were all fantastic. The NT’s first ever all Asian cast were fantastically strong, especially Shane Zaza in the (sort of) lead role. This one is still playing so if you haven't got tickets yet then, really, what are you waiting for?

Medea (National Theatre) 
Bleak but brilliant would be my three word review for the NT’s new adaptation of this Greek classic. Included so high on this list thanks to an absolutely stonking performance from Helen McCrory in the title role - such an underrated actress - this one was a really hard watch, but totally worth sticking with. Also without doubt the best use of music this year thanks to an electro tinged soundtrack from Goldfrapp.

My Night With Reg (Donmar Warehouse)
If Medea was all about one standout performance, then My Night With Reg was a masterclass in ensemble acting. Very funny, very poignant and very effectively staged, it was the acting from the small but perfectly formed cast that really made it something special. Also some of the best stage nudity of 2014 - looking at you Julian Ovenden. This production is transferring to the West End so no excuse not to check it out.

Great Britain (National Theatre)
Much hype and secrecy surrounded this savagely funny satire, which opened without previews just a few days after lawyers had finished checking the script in the wake of the phone hacking trial verdict. I'm always suspicious of anything that attracts hype, but this show certainly lived up to it. Very, very funny - if slightly preachy in the final third - and full of excellent performances, especially from Aaron Neil as the hapless Police Commissioner, I enjoyed this much more than I was honestly expecting to. Another one that has had a West End transfer and definitely well worth a watch.

The James Plays (National Theatre) 
Yes I am counting three plays in one. Definitely cheating. In this independence referendum year, the James Plays definitely felt like a proper theatrical event. Fantastically well written and acted throughout, it was the first two - the less outwardly political - that I found the most interesting, both in content and tone. That said, the third was definitely lifted by a fantastic star turn from Sofie Grabol. And some more great if completely gratuitous nudity, which always helps.

A Small Family Business (National Theatre) 
My first brush with Alan Ayckbourn was definitely a happy one. A very funny comedy with a pleasing amount of slapstick, there was a dark undercurrent to this that made it much more interesting. Another fantastic central performance too, this time from Nigel Lindsay. Also worth mentioning the brilliant set which saw the NT build a scale - largely working - model of a house on the huge Olivier stage.

King Lear (National Theatre) 
Another first for me, I didn’t know King Lear at all well before seeing this production. Not sure I'm a fan of the play, but I was certainly a fan of the phenomenal central performance (isn't that what Lear is all about, basically?) from the great Simon Russell Beale. If I never see Lear again I won't exactly be devastated, but I will be really glad that the Lear I saw was SRB.

Stephen Ward (West End) 
Yes I am taking the piss a bit here, but this was without question one of the most fun nights at the theatre I had this year. Utterly terrible in every way, this turd of a show was the embodiment of the phrase ‘so bad it’s good’. And given the amount of time I've spent laughing at its expense since seeing it, it seemed rude not to include it on this list.

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