Theatre Things: 2016 highlights

Someone told me yesterday that they find New Year a bit of a confusing time, because they never know whether they should be celebrating the last 12 months or looking forward to the next.

Well. This year more than ever, I’m all about looking forward and making the best of the opportunities 2017 has to offer. But while there’s a lot about 2016 that we might like to forget, it did bring us a lot of great theatre. So I’d like to pause for a moment and take a look back at a few of my highlights from the last 12 months. (As always, these are in no particular order – ranking them from 1 to 10 requires a level of decisiveness that’s far beyond me.)

Anna Karenina (Arrows and Traps) at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

It was inevitable that the Arrows would find their way into my top 10, but I’ve chosen Anna Karenina for this list, because it marked the moment I really fell in love with their work. Condensing Tolstoy’s epic novel into a drama as accessible as it was gripping, Anna Karenina bore all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from an Arrows show: creatively staged, exquisitely performed and visually stunning.

Anna Karenina
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

Transports (Pipeline Theatre) at the Pleasance

A heartbreaking and incredibly timely play, Transports never explicitly mentioned current events, but nonetheless offered a powerful statement about the emotional trauma faced by refugees every day. Based on the life of designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl, the interlocking stories of two girls were simply and lovingly staged in a powerful and thought-provoking production.

Cargo (Metal Rabbit Productions) at Arcola Theatre

It’s not really surprising that the experience of being a refugee has been a common theme in the theatre of 2016, but Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo stands out as particularly powerful, because it turned the tables and forced us to not only imagine but actually experience what it might be like if we were the ones forced to flee our homes and seek refuge overseas. The result was a production that was disturbing, tense and unsettlingly authentic.

Blind Man’s Song (Theatre Re) at the Pleasance

This one was a surprise to me, because going in I had no idea what to expect and really wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this combination of mime, dance, sound, illusion and original music. But Theatre Re’s Blind Man’s Song was a revelation; I was soon swept away by the beauty of the love story unfolding on stage, and by the reminder of how much emotion can be expressed without saying a single word.

We Live By The Sea (Patch of Blue) at Arts Theatre

Patch of Blue struck gold again this year with We Live By The Sea, a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of a young girl with autism. While the carefully researched production made no attempt to conceal the difficulties experienced by Katy and her family, it also challenged us to look beyond her autism – and our own assumptions – to celebrate the person behind it and everything she had to offer.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

Dare Devil Rides to Jarama (Townsend Productions) at the Bussey Building (on tour)

Commissioned by the International Brigades Memorial Trust, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama – which continues touring into 2017 – tells the little-known but fascinating story of Clem Beckett, a young speedway rider from Manchester who gave his life fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Despite its sad ending, the story’s told with charm and humour by writer Neil Gore in a script that combines poetry, prose, music, and an enjoyable bit of audience participation.

Pride and Prejudice (Two Bit Classics) at Greenwich Theatre (on tour)

As a fan of Jane Austen’s classic novel, I was either going to love or hate Two Bit Classics’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for two actors; it didn’t take long to decide it was the former. In an astonishing display of stamina, Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood took on 21 characters between them, switching genders, costumes and accents at the drop of a hat in this funny and enjoyable show.

The We Plays at the Hope Theatre

Cyprus Sunsets, the first in this double bill of monologues from up and coming talent Andrew Maddock, just missed out on my top 10 last year… but it’s time to put that right. The We Plays combined Cyprus Sunsets with Irn Pru – two very different stories that nonetheless shared an ability to wrongfoot and shock us. Powerful writing and captivating performances ensured the double bill definitely made the list this year.

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves (Sleeping Trees) at Theatre503

Who would have thought a panto would make it into my top 10? Not me – but Sleeping Trees’ mash-up of Dickens and Disney is such a brilliant, hilarious and above all original take on the classic format that I’m currently trying to decide if I can squeeze in a repeat visit before it closes next week. And I shall also be demanding that every panto I see from now on features a giant lobster…

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

The Hope Theatre has had a great year, and it came to a triumphant, five-star end with Her Aching Heart, a lesbian gothic romance musical two-hander written by Bryony Lavery. A laugh out loud comedy, this unexpected delight of a show affectionately mocked the Mills and Boon genre on which it was based, while a modern day love story unfolding simultaneously introduced a more contemplative note.

And let’s not forget:

The Memory Show, All Male H.M.S. Pinafore, This is Living, How to Win Against History, TitanicHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, An Inspector Calls, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sunny Afternoon – and a couple that I didn’t review but still want to shout about: Jesus Christ Superstar and Imogen.

Now, let’s see what 2017 has in store…

Happy New Year!

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