Friday 23 December 2016

Top 10 Theatre 2016

From all the bits of theatre we’ve seen this year – from Ralph Fiennes’ cerebral performances in Richard III and The Master Builder to a charmingly playful Don Quixote at the RSC – here’s what we liked best:

10 Land of Our Fathers – streamed online, produced by Theatre 503, Tara Finney Productions and Wales Millennium Centre.

I didn’t get round to seeing this play until a streaming became available recently on the BBC’s website. Chris Urch’s 2013 play is about a group of coal miners trapped underground in 1979, as Thatcher is just coming into power. The concept of characters trapped somewhere may well be familiar, as is the idea of the work play where power relationships are played out. Urch places vivid characters and entertaining scenarios before any political diatribe. It was also hugely interested in masculinity: how men work together and look after each other. As the days go on and the men get hungrier and grubbier, we see that coal mining is more than a job for these men; it’s at the centre of their community and defines who they are. And, interestingly, their loyalty just about holds together down the coal mine at the beginning of the Thatcherite dog eat dog age. You can still watch this fantastic bit of new writing online.

9 The Encounter – livestreamed from the Barbican

A computer and some headphones was all we needed to be transported to the depths of the Amazon rainforest in Complicite’s engrossing marriage of modern technology and classic storytelling. Simon McBurney guided us through photographer Loren McIntyre’s real life experiences, ranging from the corporeal to the hallucinogenic as he explored the remote community of the Javari Valley. McBurney’s extraordinary solo performance seamlessly blended past/present and truth/fiction, his voice work astoundingly complemented by a plethora of sound effects which infiltrated the mind to the extent of total immersion. Aided by a head shaped microphone which produced ‘3D sound’, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as McBurney seemed to be whispering directly into my ear, creating an intimacy I’ve never experienced before in theatre. Broadcast live to the nation for free, this was another example of accessible theatre at its best.

8 The Father – Birmingham Rep

I saw Kenneth Cranham’s performance as André, the father of the title who has Alzheimer’s, after he won the Olivier Award for Best Actor. As has been written about quite a lot by now, what was so clever about Florian Zeller’s play was that its form reflected its themes so that the audience lost its grip on what it thought to be true in the play just as André lost his grip on reality. Miriam Buether’s design was definite and concrete: three walls, a ceiling, furniture, a peep of the lampshade hanging in the hallway, a glance of the kitchen including a pedal bin in the corner. It gave the effect that we could familiarise ourselves with a flat, a solid and trustworthy setting. But later, things disappeared, from the odd ornament to most of the furniture. The apartment didn’t belong to the people we thought it belonged to and wasn’t peopled by the people we thought it was peopled by. What seemed such a naturalistic setting and play to begin with was actually more slippery and tricky than the audience expected. I didn’t review The Father but did write a bit about it when I wrote about Zeller’s The Mother.

7 The Threepenny Opera – Olivier, National Theatre

Rory Kinnear can sing?? Why, yes, he can! Lending his baritone timbre to Rufus Norris’ big summer production at the National Theatre, Kinnear was charismatically wicked as folklore’s most infamous ne’er-do-well, Macheath, in Simon Stephen’s new translation of Brecht and Weill’s opera. While I enjoy realism, I admit to being a bit of a sucker for Brechtian alienation, and the sheer theatrical trickery of Norris’ production hit all the right buttons for me. A labyrinthine city of paper structures and rust-stepped dead ends, afforded the staging a façade of simplicity, yet still produced elements of the spectacular that filled the Olivier stage, which was brilliantly offset by the ludicrousness and irony of Stephens’ script. Brecht on a big scale that didn’t compromise on the (un)ethical Brechtian morality that (love it or hate it) reigns supreme.

6 Kinky Boots – Adelphi

We started off 2016 with this toe-tapping, fist-pumping musical extravaganza, and it really set the bar high for the theatrical year. From Jerry Mitchell’s ingenious conveyor belt choreography, to Amy Lennox’s perfectly pitched comic turn in her showstopper, ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, Kinky Boots is a modern classic; Cyndi Lauper’s music already feels ingrained in pop-culture. Rightly, in our opinion, sweeping the boards during awards season, hopefully the West End has found a new long-runner that merits that status. The ultimate feel-good show with a heart as big as those kinky heels are high!

5 The Red Barn – Lyttelton, National Theatre

David Hare’s new play, an adaptation of Simenon’s novel La Main, was very much about surface appearances. A thriller to begin with, what unravelled was a play about middle class, middle aged monotony, lifted by Robert Icke’s cinematic production and Bunny Christie’s breath-taking design. From snow blizzards and title cards to vast New York apartments and moving though rooms at a house party, The Red Barn was always watchable if not always commendable. But despite my reservations about the play as discussed in my review, I loved succumbing to the clearly defined and evoked world of the play, in this case that of 1960s’ America, or at least one male, middle class view of 1960s’ America.

4 Blue/Orange – Young Vic

I have never felt so emotionally and intellectually involved in a play. Matthew Xia’s revival of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange grabbed us by the throat and shook us to the core in an unrelenting battle of wits, morals, politics and social outrage. Before the play even began we were immersed in the clinical, sterile world of a secure mental health unit, being led through a precisely reconstructed hospital ward corridor and therapy room (even the smell was replicated with unnerving accuracy!), before entering the reconfigured auditorium of the Young Vic. Jeremy Herbert’s boxing ring design ramped up the tension, referencing the minor victories and defeats suffered by the characters. Xia’s superbly memorable production was rounded off with a trio of acting heavyweights, Daniel Kaluuya, David Haig and Luke Norris, who matched each other brilliantly and breathed vitality and humanity into what could be deemed an ‘issue’ play. Great theatre elicits great reactions, it makes you think, it makes you feel; after Blue/Orange I left the theatre feeling angry, frustrated, sad and thrilled by this most visceral of productions.

3 The Nap – Crucible, Sheffield

Richard Bean’s new play was in many ways typical of his work. The play itself was a pretty standard comedy thriller, well plotted and superbly performed by a star cast including Mark Addy and Jack O’Connell. The laugh-a-minute humour was typically subversive and bawdy but, having seen the comparably mediocre Hand to God at the Vaudeville a few weeks previously, it’s easy to appreciate how skilled Bean is at crafting a joke. What made this such a unique and stand out piece of theatre, however, was its use of space and place. Performed at the home of the snooker world championships, some scenes were set at the Crucible with real frames of snooker played so the theatre audience became the snooker crowd. The experience had the atmosphere of a sporting event: audience members cheered, the referee was prompted to hush them, we really cared about the outcome of snooker prodigy, Dylan’s, match. I’ve become more of a snooker fan since seeing The Nap and if snooker fans who saw this have since gone to the theatre more often, that’s marvellous. Superbly played in a production directed by Richard Wilson, I came out of the Crucible buzzing about this play.

2 People, Places and Things – Wyndham’s

Sitting on the front row of the onstage seats for the West End transfer of Duncan Macmillan’s play will remain a highlight of our theatre going for all-time, thanks to Denise Gough’s career-boosting performance, Jeremy Herrin’s full throttle production, and Macmillan’s multi-faceted play. There was nothing stagey about Gough’s performance. She demanded the audience’s attention as she led a game of cat and mouse about her life: what is her name, is her brother alive, what is her purpose. Acting, for Emma, is not just a job but a way of life. Bunny Christie’s set evoked the sterile coldness of a clinic, allowed multiple Emmas to slip through the walls and floor and become a definite sense of place as the stage changed into her cluttered bedroom. Finally, Macmillan’s complex play had us musing about other writers such as Shakespeare, Chekhov and Mark Ravenhill. I look forward to seeing a future life for this play and many more impressive performances from Gough.

1 Groundhog Day – Old Vic

So good we saw it twice in three days - we just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to witness again, what is, in my opinion, the musical of 2016. Tim Minchin demonstrates once more that magic touch which has delighted audiences worldwide with his previous smash hit, Matilda - his music tuneful, but not predictable, his lyrics witty, yet emotive. Matthew Warchus’s production was an ecstasy of theatrical bliss; scenes fluidly choreographed to a tee; clever tricks that kept us guessing; a set which married multiple turntables-within-turntables and excellent video design with quaint old-school style manual effects (the car chase being a highlight); and direction which pulled at the heart strings while being charmingly free from saccharine mawkishness. Finally, Andy Karl gave the performance of a lifetime as weather man, Phil Connors, a role immortalised by Bill Murray in the film, and had the audience in the palm of his hand from the get-go. Karl took us on a whistle-stop tour of the entire spectrum of human emotion and displayed comic timing that never failed to miss the mark. It’s heartening to know that Groundhog Day will open on Broadway next year, and I hope that it will eventually make its way back over here because it has the capability of being a major success. Oh, and if it doesn’t win anything come awards season I will have a mega sulk!

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