2017 theatre highlights

It’s almost the end of another year – so here I am sneaking in, as ever, just under the wire with my highlights of 2017 post. This is always a great excuse to look back on all the shows that I’ve seen in the last twelve months and reflect on the ones that really made an impression.

Quick disclaimer: there have been many shows that I saw and loved this year but that I didn’t review. If I included them all I’d never manage to narrow down the selection, so I’ve decided to focus on only shows I’ve written about (with one exception) for this post.

So let’s kick off with…

Most inspiring: Phoenix Rising at Smithfield Meat Market

A powerful drama produced by The Big House, an organisation that helps young care-leavers gain the confidence and skills they need to turn their lives around.

Read the review

Most bonkers: House on Haunted Hill at Leicester Square Theatre

More spoof horror mayhem from The Lampoons in their unique and entirely unpredictable remake of the 1959 Vincent Price movie.

Read the review

Most exciting debut production – Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre

The first outing for newly formed Paper Creatures was a funny, heartwarming story by Tom Hartwell about what happens when we leave home – and when we don’t.

Read the review

Most exciting debut performance – Will Pinchin, Frankenstein at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

After years working with Arrows and Traps as Movement Director, Will Pinchin made a captivating (and long-awaited) stage debut this year as The Creature in the company’s production of Frankenstein.

Read the review

Most heartwarming – Rapunzel at Chickenshed

A last-minute entry for Chickenshed’s festive show, which features a cast of 800(!) young people, all obviously having the time of their lives. The irresistibly feel-good show continues until 6th January so there’s still time to grab a ticket.

Read the review

Most original – I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre

The text of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, ingeniously rearranged by David Fairs of Golem! into a completely new and gripping story, with a killer twist at the end.

Read the review

Most emotional – In Other Words at The Hope Theatre

This love story of a couple torn apart by Alzheimer’s had me in bits, largely thanks to devastating performances from Off The Middle’s Matthew Seager and Celeste Dodwell.

Read the review

Most delicious – Scripts for Supper at the London Cooking Project

Former Masterchef semi-finalist Annie McKenzie launched her new theatrical dining experience, a delicious five-course meal served around excerpts from Twelfth Night. We ate, we drank, and we were (very) merry.

Read the review

Most likely to change the world – HerStory

Now in its second year, the feminist theatre festival created by Nastazja Somers continues to go from strength to strength, with each instalment presenting a new selection of powerful pieces representing the female voice.

Read the reviews of HerStory 3 and HerStory4

Finally, a few honorary awards:

My Favourite Things – Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Books + theatre + love story + live folk music + actor-musicians. Need I say more? I still want that cast recording, by the way…

Read the review

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Best Show That I Didn’t Review – Romantics Anonymous

Possibly the most charming show I’ve ever seen. It’s funny and relatable, with great music, and I loved every single thing about it. Also, free (magic) chocolate.

No review (obviously), but still time to book before it closes on 6th January.

Best One-off Production – Amicus presents The Exonerated at Middle Temple Hall

A harrowing but amazing performance of The Exonerated – a play made up of true stories about people exonerated from death row – featuring a cast of actors, lawyers and two death row exonerees, including Sunny Jacobs as herself.

Read the review

And honourable mentions to: The State of Things at the Brockley Jack; Antic Disposition’s Richard III at Temple Church; Turkey at The Hope Theatre; Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre; Miss Nightingale at the Vaults.

Happy New Year, and bring on 2018!

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!

2015 theatre highlights

Yes, I’m officially jumping on the top 10 bandwagon. It had to be done. Like everyone else, I’ve thought long and hard about my choices – and given that I lost count a long time ago of the number of shows I’ve seen this year, it hasn’t been easy.

And here they are – but first, a quick disclaimer. These are ten shows that have meant a lot to me personally, for whatever reason. They might not be the biggest, or the best from a critic’s perspective… but that’s probably because I’m not a critic. I’m just a theatre fan who enjoys writing about it afterwards.

Oh, and they’re in no particular order. Just choosing ten was hard enough – if I had to put them in order too, we’d be here till 2017.

So here goes:

Beans on Toast (Patch of Blue)

My introduction to Patch of Blue came at the Wimbledon Illuminate Festival; I was sold instantly on the promise of lamplight and folk music, and I wasn’t disappointed. The story of a couple like any other couple is so totally human and relatable that the characters begin to feel like your friends, and you feel every up and down in their relationship along with them.

Beans on Toast review for London Theatre 1

Kinky Boots

I haven’t seen the movie of Kinky Boots, and didn’t really know anything about it apart from it had drag queens in it – but I soon fell head over heels for this irresistible, feel-good musical with some catchy tunes from Cyndi Lauper. It might not be highbrow but it is ridiculously good fun, and sometimes that’s really all you need from a night at the theatre.

Kinky Boots review for London Theatre Direct

In The Heights

Lively, colourful and so full of energy it’s a wonder the roof stays on. In The Heights follows the hopes, fears, loves and losses of a close-knit Hispanic community in Washington Heights over three scorching summer days. With a great story, memorable characters and some spectacular dance numbers, In The Heights is an irresistible joy to watch.

In The Heights review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

Skin in Flames (stonecrabs theatre)

The best-known work by Spanish playwright Guillem Clua, this incredibly tense political thriller sees a photojournalist returning for the first time to the war-torn country where he took his most famous picture. It’s an ingeniously crafted piece and a gripping drama, but also leaves the audience with some serious questions about moral responsibility.

Also, Skin in Flames was the first time I saw a quote from my review on the wall, so it will always be special to me for that reason 🙂

Skin in Flames

Skin in Flames review for London Theatre 1

Consolation (Théâtre volière)

An unexpected delight, about two lost souls who find consolation in their mutual friendship. Nothing about this play is predictable; set in France, it tells the unlikely story of a woman convinced she was a Cathar heretic in a former life, and a young re-enactor at the local museum. As they both try to make sense of their lives, the results are at times funny, at others moving, but always fascinating to watch.

Consolation review for London Theatre 1

The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick Theatre)

The Scottsboro Boys, a musical by Kander and Ebb, is based on the true story of nine black teenagers convicted of rape in 1930s Alabama. The show starts out fun and light-hearted, but soon takes a more sinister turn as the boys’ situation worsens. This deeply moving and chilling tale of injustice is one that stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

The Scottsboro Boys review for London Theatre Direct

And Then Come The Nightjars (Theatre503)

Set during Britain’s foot and mouth crisis of 2001, Bea Roberts’ rural drama is a touching exploration of the friendship between a gruff Devon farmer and the local vet. It might not sound like a laugh a minute, but the chalk and cheese relationship between the two is unexpectedly funny and uplifting, with some truly moving performances.

And Then Come The Nightjars review


 The Nether

Note to self: make sure you know what a play’s about before you go and see it… The Nether is a very disturbing story that messes with your head, set in a not-too-distant future, in which humans can live in a completely virtual world. The play poses some difficult questions – most notably, if you do something bad in the Nether but not in the real world, are you still guilty? Not one for the faint-hearted, but worth seeing for Es Devlin’s spectacular set alone.

The Nether review for London Theatre Direct

To Kill a Mockingbird

I missed this production at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, so when it transferred to the Barbican after a nationwide tour, I jumped at the chance to see it. Starring Robert Sean Leonard as Atticus Finch, and some of the best child actors I’ve ever seen, this play is a loving homage to the novel that inspired it; I’m so glad I got a second chance to see it.

To Kill a Mockingbird review

The Forbidden (Doll’s Eye Theatre)

This play still makes me shudder a little bit; it’s that unsettling. The Forbidden is a gripping story about four former school friends with a dark secret, which takes great delight in wrong-footing its audience with its twists and turns. But it’s also a startlingly accurate depiction of the way teenage girls interact… and it also ruined 5ive for me forever. But that’s okay.

The Forbidden review for London Theatre 1

A few honourable mentions, because I can’t help myself: Cyprus Sunsets, So It Goes, Blood Brothers, Rotterdam, The Railway Children, Proof and The State vs John Hayes. I’d better stop there or this bit could go on all day…

What were your theatre highlights this year?

Happy New  Year – here’s to more great theatre in 2016!