Tuesday 22 December 2015

Theatre Highlights 2015

In London theatre this year, there have been new Artistic Directors, a hotly-anticipated Hamlet, and dusted-off Greeks. Here are some of our theatrical highlights from this year.

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory (January)
Jamie Lloyd’s outstanding production of one of Sondheim’s lesser-produced musicals started the year off with a bang (pardon the pun). Exploring the dark side of the American Dream and what motivates someone to murder the leader of the free world to nation-shattering effect, Lloyd assembled a top team of creatives - of which Soutra Gilmour’s purgatory-esque fairground design stood out – and a staggeringly good cast featuring the London debut of Broadway star, Aaron Tveit, and a surprisingly effective Catherine Tate in her first musical role. Almost eleven months since seeing Assassins it remains seared into my memory; a musical that had the audience in raucous laughter one minute and goosebump inducing terror the next. A definite highlight of 2015.

Death of a Salesman, RSC (March)
Arthur Miller’s centenary was celebrated this year and Gregory Doran’s classic production of the Miller’s modern American tragedy was a highlight. As the downtrodden Lomans, Antony Sher’s Willy displayed all the everyman qualities and fatal idealism of the tragic hero and Harriet Walter’s wonderfully world-weary yet loyal wife, Linda, gave the production gravitas and the lighting and stage design evoked Willy’s fractured state of mind beautifully. Doran’s production captured the essence of Miller’s play flawlessly, with all the fluid dreaminess and punchy reality that epitomises the tragedy. A worthy celebration of one of Miller’s most loved plays and as Doran has suggested it is to be mirrored with his production of King Lear in late 2016 (also starring Sher), was an intriguing and ambitious programming decision.

Gypsy, Savoy (August)
The West End transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production rightly enables Imelda Staunton’s mighty performance as the tragically monstrous stage-mother from hell, Mama Rose, to be recognised with all the plaudits she deserves. Staunton gave one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on stage (not to gush too much, but she’s incredible - give the lady a damehood, please!), but that’s not to say the rest of the cast were at all overshadowed. Lara Pulver’s transformation from the timid Louise to the confident and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee was also very impressive. This production was a rare example of the harmonious coming together of music, book, performance and design to create musical theatre perfection. I laughed, I cried, in short I was overwhelmed and the reaction of my fellow audience members suggests they felt the same (never have I seen an audience so readily and unanimously jump to their feet in appreciation!). This production, in my opinion, will go down in musical theatre legend; one for the ages.

Everyman, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre (August)
In April, Rufus Norris started his tenure as the National’s AD with a contemporary production of Everyman in a new version by Carol Ann Duffy. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mightily believable performance and Norris’ production made it a theatrical highlight of 2015 and an impressive start for Norris. Not only did Duffy’s text pick at the scruples of 21st century consumerism, depicting a world of greed, but Norris’ production was constantly entertaining and made excellent use of the Olivier space.

Pomona, Temporary Theatre, National Theatre (September)
I have to praise the National Theatre for using its Temporary Theatre to champion productions that work best in an intimate, flexible space but would otherwise be kept in theatres on the fringes of London. Alistair McDowall’s play blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not to create an unsettling underworld of prostitution and violence. It’s one of the best new plays of recent years and Paul Miller’s production used space to play on the play’s interest in (virtual) games.

Hangmen, Wyndham’s (December)
Martin McDonagh’s play dealt with big themes regarding capital punishment in a riveting plot and with rich characters. Dark humour, northern wit and cracking one liners made up the rhythm of the language, and the superb cast made the characters even more believable. Simon Rouse, for example, ensured that the elderly Arthur wasn’t just an old doddery. Anna Fleischle’s set was fantastic, not only visually but also representing the lifting of capital punishment. When I saw it, I hadn’t heard an audience engage with a play that much for a while, and it takes a talented playwright and skilful production to make the audience laugh one moment before being silenced the next. For me, it is the most entertaining new play since Jerusalem.

Honorary mentions:

Hamlet – Arguably the most anticipated theatrical event of the year was Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch took to the stage to give us his take on the most famous Dane in the theatrical canon. And he didn’t disappoint, a natural Shakespearean actor he imbued the text with gravitas and an accessible eloquence with ease. Lyndsey Turner’s production allowed the plot to translate easily, however some of Shakespeare’s subtleties and the ambiguities of character were a little swamped by Es Devlin’s grand set which I admit was unfortunately necessitated by vast Barbican stage. So perhaps this was a case of public demand dictating the type of Hamlet produced, the theatre enabled a larger audience to experience the play live, yet it also hampered the play by overshadowing the text. Worth seeing for Cumberbatch’s performance and some neat moments (Ophelia’s exit was beautifully haunting), but not quite living up to the hype.

 The Motherfucker with the Hat  Stephen Adly Guirgis' play proves to be one of the most exciting new plays of the year. There isn’t an ounce of fat on its tale of love and addiction in New York City. Filled with exuberant characters and sharp dialogue, I hope that this play gets a further life.

The Vote James Graham’s play was broadcast live from the Donmar on election night and set in real time. Set during the last hour and a half of voting in a school polling station, Graham’s play, performed by a large starry ensemble, explored the intricacies of our voting system and the massive significance that a tick in a box on a little piece of paper could have. But amongst all that, Graham constructed a fantastic farce. It’s worth a (re)watch if it’s available on 4oD.

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