Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Best Theatre of 2018

It’s mid-December, I’m more mince pie than human and I only know what day it is based on which Christmas lunch I’m going to. This can only mean one thing: it’s time for my annual theatrical year in review post.

Now, normally I do two of these: top ten shows and top ten performances. But since no one ever actually reads the performances version this year I’m combining the two - plus some sundry other awards for which the winners receive precisely nothing 
  into one. Consider it my Christmas present to all of you. You’re welcome.

So, without further ado, and without Rita Ora being here for some reason (looking at you, Evening Standard Awards), let’s get stuck in.

Top ten shows
1. The Jungle
(Young Vic/West End, now at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York)
Not only the best thing I’ve seen this year, but the best thing I’ve seen this lifetime. Everything that theatre should be: relevant, challenging, innovative, human, perception-shifting. My number one regret for 2018 is that I didn’t get to see it more than once.

2. Julius Caesar
(The Bridge)
The only production I’ve ever enjoyed enough to see three times. Revelatory staging, the perfect cast and arguably the best piece of Brexit theatre to date. Completely changed my perception of the play and what Shakespeare can and should be.

3. Company
(West End - still playing)
A revelation from start to finish, Marianne Elliott’s gender swapping production deserves every single accolade it has already received - and then some. A game changer for women in theatre, and indeed women in general, and just a bloody brilliant staging of a bloody brilliant musical.

4. The Inheritance
(Young Vic/West End - still playing)
I loved every minute of each of its seven hours. Funny, incisive and profoundly moving, this belter of a play stays in the mind long after the lights come up. Not an easy watch, but a deeply rewarding one.

5. My Name is Lucy Barton
(The Bridge - returning in 2019)
To be honest, a one woman show starring Laura Linney was never not going to appear on this list. But my god Lucy Barton is an astonishing show. Linney will return later in this blog post, but actually it was the beautiful writing that gets this production on this list. It broke my heart pretty conclusively.

6. Hamilton
(West End - still playing)
I mean, do I need to explain? No, I don’t. Believe the hype.

7. Sylvia
(Old Vic)
I doubt this unfinished, lovable mess of a production will make many ‘professional’ critics’ top tens but I fucking loved it. An absolute riot of a show that deserves a future AND A CAST RECORDING FFS. An incredible piece.

8. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
(West End - still playing)
The most uplifting show I’ve seen in years, featuring a genuinely diverse and utterly kick ass young cast and music so catchy you’ll be singing it for months afterwards. A joy.

9. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
(West End - still playing)
Again, do I really need to explain? Magical theatre, in many senses, and much more moving than I ever expected. A repeat viewing is very much on my 2019 to do list.

10. The Lehman Trilogy
(National Theatre - transferring to the West End in 2019)
The most imaginative show about international finance you’ll ever see. Entertaining, sad, amazingly staged and with probably the best cast in London. It’s another long one, but worth every single second.

(National Theatre - still playing)
It’s my blog and I’ll have two 10s if I want to. I just couldn’t have this list without Hadestown. A brilliant, life affirming, hope generating show with the most amazing music.

Top ten performances
1. Laura Linney (My Name is Lucy Barton)
Laura Linney is an utter legend for a reason. This incredible performance playing multiple characters in a one woman show genuinely broke me a bit. Haunting.

2. Arinzé Kene (Misty, The Bush/West End)
Misty may have narrowly missed out on my top ten shows but Kene’s performance was an absolute knock out. Acting, writing, rapping, singing, emerging from a massive balloon - there was nothing that he couldn’t and didn’t do.

3. Patsy Ferran (Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre/West End)
Another show that narrowly missed out on my list, but features an absolute gem of a performance from Ferran. Surely a star making one to boot. She certainly deserves for it to be.

4. Kyle Soller (The Inheritance)
The top highlight in a cast full of highlights, Soller anchors The Inheritance with a performance of huge empathy, depth, complexity and heart.

5. Adjoa Andoh (Julius Caesar/Leave Taking, The Bush)
Cheating slightly, I couldn’t pick which role of Andoh’s I loved her in more. Just a really fucking excellent actress tbh. I didn’t really know her before this year and now I’m a bit obsessed.

6. Rosalie Craig (Company)
Showing absolute zero signs of the weight of expectation on her shoulders, the first ever female Bobbie was so good you forgot the part had ever been played by a man. Perfect casting.

7. Vanessa Redgrave (The Inheritance)
Redgrave is in, like, two scenes in seven hours of The Inheritance but for me she almost stole the whole show with a performance so moving I cry just thinking about it. She’s still got it.

8. Ammar Haj Ahmad (The Jungle)
The Jungle is really an ensemble piece, but a performance as beautiful and humane as this was will always stand out. You’ll struggle to find an actor more invested in their character too.

9. David Morrissey (Julius Caesar)

In truth, I’ve always thought Mark Antony is a bit of a dick but THIS Mark Antony I would follow into battle. Probably the most modern take on a Big Shakespeare Part I’ve seen and certainly one of the most charismatic. At least 75% of the reason I saw this show three times, if I’m honest. Probably more.

10. Ben Miles (The Lehman Trilogy)
It’s so difficult to pick just one actor from the trio of utter class that is The Lehman Trilogy’s cast, but for me Ben Miles’ easy charisma and charm is always a winner. One of those performances you can hardly take your eyes off - even when he’t not doing anything.

A few other awards for which there is no prize
Best Season: has to be Tyhe Bush for their zero fucks given attitude to commissioning.

Best Outside London: 
Bold Girls, Theatre By The Lake

Best Director: Marianne Elliott for Company (obviously)

Best Design: Bunny Christie for, amongst other things, Company and Julius Caesar

Best Choreography: Alistair David for Chichester Festival Theatre’s Me and My Girl

Best Music: Hadestown. I cannot stop listening to it. Seriously, it’s becoming a problem

Best Tour: my beloved This House

Worst Show: a few contenders this year, but David Hare’s dreary 
I’m Not Running at the NT just takes it

Biggest Disappointment: the waste of potential excellence that was the NT’s abomination of a 
Macbeth still makes me angry

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Theatre Review: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

High on the list of phrases that are likely to make me instantly book tickets to see a show is ‘starring Simon Russell Beale’. If this is preceded somewhere in the advertising blurb by the phrase ‘by William Shakespeare’ then more’s the better. Two of my absolute favourite humans, present and past, the combination seldom fails to deliver.

Currently my favourite partnership is at work in The Tragedy of Kind Richard the Second (or Richard II if you prefer, and as the person typing this I very much do) at The Almeida. A story of a country divided, ruled by weak leaders and people who’s ambition and personality outstrips their ability by several miles, it could not be a more timely choice for a revival. All that’s missing is some leopard print shoes and a twat in double breasted pinstripe.

Richard II isn’t a play I know well, but even I can pick up that this is a very particular version for this production. The timeline is chopped and changed and there is a heavy emphasis on rhyming couplets which I rather suspect is not so in more traditional productions and versions of the text. For me as a stranger to the play I did find bits of it quite hard to follow as a result and though the rhyming gives the piece pace it also makes it feel a bit, well, panto. If you’re an RII fan though, fear not: the classic bits of text (the ones even I recognise) are all present and correct and untampered with. As far as I can tell, anyway.

Some of the quirks of this production become instantly more understandable once you know that Joe Hill-Gibbons is directing. I am, broadly, a fan of Hill-Gibbons’ work. I like that he is unashamedly modern, not afraid to experiment and, most of all, that he always has a clear and distinct vision for his productions. He also isn’t easy to define by one style or show off-y trick. His vision is very much in evidence here and the resulting production, reservations about some of the textual changes aside, is unique, punchy and a lot more fun than I suspect this play usually is.

There are moments when things start to feel ominously like a poor man’s Ivo van Hove (I won’t spoil anything, but keep an eye on the buckets) but actually the overall mood of this production - sparse and threatening, but still irreverent and slightly tongue in cheek - works. It’s helped a lot by a strong, bleak and ballsy design by ULTZ’s which is a great canvass, and a great salesperson (salesthing?), for the rest of the production. It took me a while to make my mind up, but ultimately I did rate the technical bits and pieces of this production a lot. I also rated the fact that it didn’t overplay its topicality card, even if I would have given Richard a pair of leopard print trainers if I’d done the costumes. This is, mercifully, not William Shakespeare’s Brexit: The Play.

One thing I had no doubt about from curtain up to curtain down was the casting decisions made here. First of all, credit to Hill-Gibbons for casting an older Richard against a younger Bolingbroke. Richard II is so often the play where a young up and comer gets to make their Shakespearean name. As accurate to the character as that may be, I really enjoyed the shift in the dynamics of the play that having an older King Richard versus a young upstart rebel Bolingbroke brought about. Quite apart from the resulting actor, it gave the play a type of depth and poignancy that I really hadn’t expected.

That that ‘resulting actor’ is Simon Russell Beale is what really gives this production its wings. SRB is obviously a joy of an actor to watch do anything, but his Shakespeare isn’t just anything. It’s very much something. His performance here is majestic. He nails RII completely, with exactly the right mixture of divine right vanity and human vulnerability. The result is someone surprisingly sympathetic and empathetic too. I sort of wanted him to win in the end. As Bolingbroke, Leo Bill also turns in a strong performance. He brings an unexpected and altogether believable nervousness to the young man who would be king as well as a clarity of both belief and purpose. The scenes where these two battle it out, often physically stalking each other around the stage, are by far the best of the night.

Perhaps this version of Richard II isn’t the best telling of the story - and in truth I don’t the play well enough to say either way, only that it wasn’t as narratively clear as other Shakespeare I’ve seen - but it is certainly a distinct, innovative and raw telling. It’s always entertaining, and the quality of the acting shines through every moment. Worth your time.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second is at The Almeida until February 2nd.

I sat in seat A33 in the circle for this on
e, which is justifiably sold as restricted view - a good third of the back of the stage is invisible even if you lean forward. It cost £10, for a preview showing.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Theatre Review: Hadestown

When you’re watching a musical and find yourself thinking ‘I imagine this is what a musical written by Bruce Springsteen would be like’ you know you’re on to a winner.

And there, in two lines, is the most concise review I’ve ever written. If you stop reading now I won’t blame you. If you’ve got some time to kill though, and since you’re already here, allow me to expand.

Hadestown is the new(ish - it’s been through two productions in North America already) musical at the National Theatre, which is a rare and beautiful thing in itself. Written by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, it tells the rather well worn story of Orpheus and Eurydice (off of the ol’ Greek mythology) but in an entirely new, contemporary and just really fucking excellent way.

What Mitchell has chosen to do with the story is to turn it into a contemporary morality play and a hymn to the power of music, love, hope (remember that?) and resistance. It made me cry multiple times. It made me laugh. It made me feel slightly less miserable about the state of, well, everything. And let’s face it, that is a significant achievement at the moment given everything is basically on fire. It is a hearty two fingered salute to everyone who thinks that musicals are just fluff. It’s something really quite special.

Mitchell’s writing is beautiful. The show is more or less through sung - something that can very much go one of two ways I find - but here works really well and keeps the action moving along at a whip. The music has a sort of folksy/country/New Orleans jazz-y feel and the songs are just gorgeous. All I’ve Ever Known and Wait For Me are perfect love songs, Way Down Hadestown is maddeningly catchy and must be used for someone’s Charleston on the next season of Strictly, Why We Build the Wall is frighteningly clever, and If It’s True a joyous song of resistance. I found the soundtrack on Apple Music within minutes of leaving the theatre. I’ve listened to it about five times in 24 hours. I have a new obsession.

This production is a joy too. Rachel Chavkin directs with absolute clarity and conviction. She knows completely what this show is and where its power lies and delivers on both to perfection. Rachel Hauck’s set (lots of Rachels on this one, something of which I wholeheartedly approve) is stunning and epic and, like, really clever. She makes brilliant use of the Olivier’s massive stage and, especially, the revolve and drum. David Neumann’s choreography is lean and muscular, more concerned with showing the strength of the performers than looking pretty - which is very definitely a compliment even though I realise it may not sound like one.

An absolute belter of a cast has been assembled to complete the triangle of good things that this production is. It’s a small one, especially for such a huge stage, but perfectly formed. Everyone on that stage has amazing energy, including the musicians who are pleasingly not hidden away in a corner, and just seems really damn happy to be there. I mean they should be, but it’s still lovely to see. There isn’t a weak link amongst them but there are some particularly strong ones: Andre de Shields mischievous Hermes, owner of ALL the swag, Reeve Carney’s rockstar Orpheus, Eva Noblezada’s honey voiced Eurydice, and my absolute favourite, Patrick Page’s achingly cool and charismatic Hades - with the best voice in the whole universe. Not even exaggerating.

Hadestown is a gift of a show, just in time for Christmas. It’s a joy to watch and a joy to listen to. I left the theatre with a spring in my step and that rarest of feelings at the moment: hope. Surely worth the price of a ticket for that alone.

Hadestown is in the Olivier at the NT until 26th January, after which it transfers to Broadway.

I sat in F2 in the circle for this one - no such thing as a bad seat in the Olivier - which cost me £32. Money very well spent.