Monday, 18 December 2017

Top Ten Theatre Performances of 2017

So I’ve already told you what my Top Ten shows were this year, now let’s do some detail and talk acting (the sexiest bit of the theatre, let’s be honest).

But first, some ground rules. Well a ground rule: only two performers, one male and one female, from any one production are allowed in this list. This may seem really arbitrary, and it is, but blame Angels in America. You see, thanks to the embarrassment of riches that was the Angels cast when I originally wrote this list down it was essentially just Angels cast. And that’s a bit boring, however justified it may be. So, with apologies to Andrew Garfield, James McArdle and Russell Tovey in particular, I have my rule and I’m sticking to it. 


1. Nathan Lane 
No one else was ever coming close to the top of this list. As I seem to recall writing in my review, it’s not that Lane’s performance in Angels is in a different league to everyone else, he’s playing an entirely different sport. Peerless.

2. Bertie Carvel 
Rupert Murdoch, Ink
A joyously old school, physical, intricately detailed piece of work. The joy of Carvel’s Murdoch is two fold: 1) he makes you forget everything you think you know (or feel) about Rupert Murdoch and 2) he simultaneously makes you forget you’re watching Bertie Carvel. No mean feat. Still my favourite actor. (Also his eyebrows in this production deserve an award all of their own.)

3. Paddy Considine
Quinn Carney, The Ferryman
In an ensemble piece like The Ferryman it’s difficult for a single performer to stand out but Paddy Considine absolutely did with his controlled and naturalistic Quinn. Basically impossible to believe that this was his stage debut.

4. Imelda Staunton
Sally Durant, Follies
I mean, it’s Imelda Staunton in a Sondheim show so you know it’s good. The tender sadness Staunton put into her Sally was so beautiful. Her rendition of Losing My Mind is a standalone highlight of my 2017 theatrical year.

5. Omid Djalili
Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof 
The speed with which Djalili convinced this sceptic that his casting was not only 100% correct but indeed there was literally no one else that could play this part was frankly alarming. His If I Were a Rich Man is now my brain’s go to version.

6. Tracy-Ann Oberman
A first rate Tevye deserves a first rate Golde and Djalili found his in Tracy-Ann Oberman. The second half of Chichester’s production was entirely hers and dear god she broke my heart. Possibly the most I’ve ever cried in the theatre, which is going some. 

7. Cyril Nri
Beautiful, sad, nuanced and completely controlled. Cyril Nri has been great in everything I’ve seen him in but really lit up the stage here. And, yes, I’m still crying about his last scene. 

8. Susan Brown
Hannah Pitt (amongst others), Angels in America
Brown seemed to be everywhere all at once in Angels, but it was her deeply moving performance as Hannah that’s really stuck with me. It takes a very special actress indeed to take a role played by Meryl Streep on screen and improve on it. Brown did exactly that.

9. Ciaran Hinds
The non-singer in a musical could have been a very unsatisfying part but Hinds made it into something incredibly effective and affecting. A haunting study in loneliness and regrets. 

10. Clare Halse
Peggy Sawyer, 42nd Street
I’ve never seen a triple threat like Clare Halse in real life before. I sort of thought they only existed in Hollywood’s collective imagination to be honest. An absolute superstar in the making if there’s even an ounce of justice left in the world.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Top Ten Shows 2017

Hasn’t 2017 been awful?

Like, really, really awful?

Honestly, I can’t think of a year that I’ve been more thankful that theatre is a thing that exists. I’ve never needed its insight, escape and sense of safety more. 

And it’s been a good year for theatre too I think. The return of ensemble acting, the return of politics with both a lower and upper case P, being unable to move without falling over a James Graham play, the peerless Nathan Lane back on a London stage - all of these are things to be welcomed. Unusually, I’ve found picking my top ten really easy because there has been a crop of productions that have been so completely outstanding, even amongst a generally very good year, that they’re just head, shoulders and various other body parts above everything else. Only the tenth spot gave me pause for thought (hard luck to Girl from the North Country which very narrowly missed out). 

So here, from top to bottom, are my top ten. Drum roll etc.

National Theatre
I mean, was it ever going to be anything else? This production was, I think, perfect: incredible design, cast of dreams, two of the best plays ever written, Nathan Fucking Lane. Possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen in the theatre, ever. 

Almeida Theatre/West End
The first James Graham entry on my list (though certainly not the last) feels a bit like it was written and produced specifically for me. Written by my favourite playwright, starring my favourite actor (Bertie Carvel), directed by one of my favourite directors (Rupert Goold) and telling a fascinating, timely and achingly relevant story about the birth of The Sun. Hands down the best piece of new writing this year and an outstanding production, both the Almeida original and its well earned West End transfer. A gem.

Chichester Festival Theatre/National Theatre/West End
It’s that man Graham again. I think This House might actually be my favourite play, fullstop. It’s certainly a work of genius, a play about Parliamentary procedure that is human and relatable and funny and brilliant. This production was cracking too, with the perfectly cast Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri leading a enormously talented ensemble. 

Royal Court/West End
Just a beautiful play; rarely has three and a half hours gone so quickly. Jez Butterworth’s tale of the Carney clan was stunningly well written and natural, and the huge ensemble cast, led by the outstanding Paddy Considine when I saw it, work it superbly. The ending stays with you long after the curtain falls.

Chichester Festival Theatre
A stonkingly gorgeous production of this justified classic. Stunning choreography, immaculately well cast, perfect orchestration. I cried almost continuously through the second half. Great to see Chichester’s musical tradition thriving under new AD Daniel Evans. I’m still holding out for news of a West End transfer.

National Theatre 
Staunton + Quast + Sondheim = guaranteed joy. A beautiful, sparkly gem of a production that made use of the Olivier theatre’s cavernous stage like nothing I’ve seen before. A justified sell out and a reminder that the NT can really do musicals when it puts its mind to it. 

Chichester Festival Theatre
The third and final James Graham play on the list and one I’m intrigued to see in 2018 in its new - and deserved - West End home. For me, the best thing about Quiz (and that’s a tough thing to choose) is that it cements Graham as that sadly quite rare thing: a playwright who can write plays that are insightful and interesting but also entertaining and fun. A innovative hoot (great word) of a production too.

National Theatre
Inua Ellams writes like no one else I’ve come across before. This play is so much fun and so well observed. The final scene, with one throwaway line that blows the main storyline wide open (and, yes, still makes me cry when I think about it ffs), is perhaps the single most effective scene I’ve seen all year.

Les Enfants Terribles/The Vaults
I was terrified going into this, my first experience of truly immersive theatre, but my god I loved it so much. The level of thought and detail that went into this incredible work (calling it a production does it a disservice) was mind bending. A real experience in every sense of the word and an utter joy.

National Theatre/West End
An entertaining and funny show about the Middle East peace process seems an unlikely concept but Oslo is exactly that. It’s also acutely well observed and hugely insightful. It’s also a political play with a female protagonist which is depressingly worthy of comment. Really well staged with a great cast, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable - and educational - things I saw all year.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Theatre Review: Barber Shop Chronicles

Sometimes you know as soon as you walk into a theatre that you’re going to enjoy a show.

In the case of the National Theatre’s Barber Shop Chronicles, it was the late nineties rap that started blaring out of the not insubstantial sound system about a minute after I found my seat that sold it to me. This was, from about fifteen minutes before it even started, a production that I was totally into.

Barber Shop Chronicles, written by Inua Ellams, tells the interlocking stories of several barber shops, in London and across Africa, and the groups of black men who populate them. As a white woman this is about as far away from a world that I naturally understand as it’s possible to get but the genius of Ellams’ beautiful writing is that he made me understand it. The universality he draws out of this very specific - very male - world is astonishing. But at no point does universality translate into blandness. Quite the contrary. The writing is vibrant, diverse, funny, sincere and with real emotional clout. The structure and plot are so satisfyingly well thought through. The characters are real and relatable, even those who play relatively minor roles. The range of dialects included works so well - even if some of the resulting dialogue was technically lost on me, I still understood it.

Thematically, this play is incredibly rich and rewarding. As alluded to, language, how it evolves, what it means at different times and to different people, is writ large. The legacy of history at a personal and national level is there too. The universality of the human experience I’ve already mentioned but is explored so cleverly (I shan’t spoil it, but watch out for the recurring-in-various-dialects-exposing-various-forms-of-local-rivalry joke). Ultimately, the most powerful exploration is of the idea of the ‘strong, black male’ and how that is both a) bollocks and b) incredibly damaging to the excellent human beings who fall into its trap. The genius of Ellams’ writing even here is to make this exploration relatable to anyone in any racial and gender demographic (speaking of which, it was also much to this production’s credit that the audience wasn’t exclusively middle aged, middle class, white people for a change). The payoff is that this piece connects so well with its audience. It’s the sort of connection you can viscerally feel as you sit there. It does not happen often and is huge testament to how fantastic Barber Shop Chronicles is as a piece of writing.

It is aided and abetted by a knock out production, the first thing I’ve ever reviewed in the Dorfman where I’m not going to complain about sightlines! Staged in the round/square with the audience inches away from the action (sit in the pit for the most immersive experience), the design is great: simple but effective with a couple of really clever touches. Designer Rae Smith has constructed a whole world of barber shops using only a few props - barbers’ chairs and kit towers - which are moved around by the cast to set up the different locations, emphasised by a giant wire globe suspended over the stage on which the relevant locations light up when we travel there. It works incredibly well. Music director Michael Henry has done fantastic things with the show’s soundtrack: both the incidental music he selects (plus a million points for including No Diggity) and the live sung music, also used to indicate place, are evocative, exciting and cleverly used. The accompanying choreography - especially the sequences with capes - is great too. And, although the production could stand to be ten minutes shorter in my view, Bijan Sheibani’s direction is excellent. The sense of fun and always just restrained chaos he creates is infectious.

Completing the trinity of excellence is a kick ass cast. It’s great to see yet another piece in 2017’s trend for playing up ensemble acting where that decision totally plays off. The whole (smallish) cast of Barber Shop Chronicles is excellent and the play is often at its most exciting when they’re all on stage working together. There are a couple of standouts too. I found Patrice Naiambana’s work across his multiple characters consistently excellent, but as the sad and conflicted Simphiwe struggling with the legacy of Apartheid in the play’s South African thread he is outstanding (and gets some of the best material too). Conquering all before him though is Cyril Nri who is just devastating as Emmanuel in the central London-set plot line. Emmanuel’s plot delivers the play’s biggest gotcha moment (which I won’t spoil, obviously, save to say that it cut through my heart like a knife through butter) and Nri both handles it and builds up to it perfectly. It’s actually only one line that gives everything away but the amount of emotion Nri gets into that one line is incredible. I am literally crying as I write this because even thinking about that line has this effect (honestly, it’s becoming problematic). It’s a quiet, understated, absolute gem of a performance.

Barber Shop Chronicles is amazing, in summary, and I would urge anyone who has eyes, ears and a heart to go and see it. The emotional, thematic and geographic sweep and ambition of this piece is huge and ambitious - and it nails it every time. A real must see.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until January 9th, though there is only ticket availability on January 5th. Quick march to the NT box office!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre Review: Barnum

I’ve always had a soft spot for the musical Barnum. I discovered it during my weird Michael Crawford obsessed phase in my early teens (you mean you didn’t have one?) when I acquired his - excellent - version on DVD.

I’ve always been slightly wary of seeing the show live, though, feeling slightly that I’ve already seen the ‘definitive’ version, to the extent that such a thing ever exists. When the dinky and fantastically concrete Menier Chocolate Factory announced it as its winter musical I was suitably intrigued to abandon this policy. I mean, how do you fit this ridiculous show and its huge score into what is essentially a very well appointed double garage?

With considerable aplomb, it turns out. Going slightly - gently - down the immersive route, this little joy of a production works wonders. I was (with one qualification) a huge fan.

Musically, Barnum is such an underrated show. Yes, the plot is a bit thin and overlooks, like, a lot about its main character but the songs and the score are cracking. It irks me that it’s not seen as more of a classic when its tracklist contains such beauties as Come Follow the Band, The Colours of My Life, There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute and Join the Circus. If I ever somehow end up on Strictly - when the world finally runs out of celebrities, shortly before the apocalypse - I’d want to charleston to Thank God I’m Old, preferably with AJ as my pro for irony’s sake (high five to the Strictly fans who got that joke). The score sounds stunning in this production too. The orchestration is completely fab and the band really knock it out of the park.

I was slightly concerned that this show being revived now, when the most dangerous proponent of humbug and flimflam the world has ever known is currently sat in the White House watching Fox News, would lead its creative team to try and make it a political satire of some kind. It’s ripe for it in many ways: you have the debate about truth v fakery embodied in its central characters and a large part of the second act is concerned with Barnum running for office. But, mercifully, this isn’t what we get here. Instead, it’s the joy and optimism and energy in the show that’s played up. And it’s infectious and wonderful and like a hug in show form. I defy you not to smile whilst watching this production. It’s exactly what the world needs right now: unashamed fun.

One of the chief joys comes from the production, which works an appropriate amount of magic in the tiny space. I always feel there’s something slightly edgy and unsettling about the Menier - possibly because it is, essentially, a small concrete box - but here, strung with fairy lights and full of performers, it feels exactly the right amount of ‘cheap but fun’. It feels like somewhere PT Barnum belongs. A couple of sightline issues aside (the production is slightly hamstrung by the space’s reliance on supporting pillars) the design and the lighting are amazing. Not as amazing as the movement and choreography though which is spectacular, even more so for the intimacy of the space and resulting closeness between performers and audience. The use of pleasingly low tech visual effects (the elephant is great) and seriously amazing circus skills adds another layer too.

In fact the only thing this production gets wrong is its central piece of casting. I was in no way convinced comedian Marcus Brigstocke was right for Barnum when his casting was announced and, having scene the production, I’m still not. I feel a bit sorry for him really. It’s such a difficult part and he’s clearly miscast but he tries so, so hard to make it work anyway. And I think he does, at times. Specifically, I think he completely carries the sunny optimism, charm and naivety of Barnum when he’s acting. His characterisation is really strong. His comic timing, as you would expect, is perfect. His accent is great and he ad libs fantastically. The issues come when he has to do more than act. He lacks the physical dynamism to fully embody the role and he visibly struggles with the show’s infamous tightrope walk (when I saw the show he made it across at second attempt, straining every sinew to stay on that rope in a way which was incredibly admirable, and my god I’ve never been that tense in a theatre ever in my life). I get that this scene is incredibly difficult - singing, acting and walking a fucking literal tightrope at the same time must be impossible to 99.99% of the population - but if you’re going to be Barnum you have to be able to do it. More problematic is his singing voice, which is weak both technically and in terms of power. He is by far the weakest singer in the cast, an obvious and persistent issue given he’s also the lead. No amount of effort and good intentions can alter that. God knows if it could then Brigstocke would be perfect for the role.

There is better news elsewhere. Laura Pitt-Pulford is spot on, and crystal voiced, as Barnum’s wife, Charity. It’s a joy to see her in such an intimate space. Harry Francis delivers a real show stealer as Tom Thumb and is generally pretty much the dictionary definition of a triple threat.

The real star in this show, though, isn’t an individual. It’s the tireless, versatile and joyful ensemble. Every time they appear en masse something astonishing happens - there’s such talent on display here. Whether it’s tap dancing, circus skills, card tricks, fire breathing or using various members of the cast as human skipping ropes (I assume that has a proper name but I don’t know what it is) everything is executed perfectly, with frankly tiring-to-watch amounts of energy and huge smiles. I loved these guys. If there was an award for best ensemble (and there fucking should be) they would take it hands down.

I really enjoyed Barnum. It’s pure entertainment, fun and spectacle at its best. That slap on the wrist for the casting director notwithstanding, you will leave the theatre with a stupid smile on your face and at least one song spinning round your head. It’s a joyful show and I for one feel like we need more joy in the world right now.

Barnum is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 3rd.