Tuesday 19 December 2017

Top 10 Theatre of 2017

The two of us have seen a covfefe of theatre we’ve liked this year: three terrific James Graham plays (This House, Ink, Labour of Love) in London; the colourful, parabolic, mischievous Fantastic Mr Fox at Leicester’s Curve; Sarah Frankcom’s Mancunian reimagining of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Manchester Royal Exchange; and Sam Yates’ spectral production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms at the Sheffield Crucible. This is to name but a few.

These lists are fun but flawed. For instance, there were three very different new plays at the Almeida this year that nearly made it onto the Top 10 list: Christopher Shinn’s Against (not everyone disliked it), James Graham’s Ink, and Mike Bartlett’s Albion. All three had their own merits and their own weaknesses but I can’t say that one was definitely ‘better’ than the other. Albion was superbly directed (the rain, music, movement and lighting between scenes were incredible), was mostly very subtle, and had one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year (along with Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ Gloria at the Hampstead). Against didn’t have the unabashed spirit of Ink or the fine dialogue of Albion. But it did feel like Shinn had his finger on the pulse of contemporary Western society, aided by Ian Rickson’s uncluttered production. And Ink was a typical James Graham romp, skilfully acted and designed, provoking its audience into a wide range of reactions when I saw it in July.

Trying to narrow down the 60-odd shows and put them in an order is difficult, but we’ve tried to choose bearing the text and production in mind and, ultimately, choose theatre that we’ve got the most out of. The top two choices in particular might seem predictable. After the initial wave of euphoric reviews for The Ferryman a backlash then followed, and even Angels in America received some au contraire criticism, but they were the shows which we liked most this year. And although the above plays aren’t on there, we’re pleased we’ve given them a namecheck here. Other honourable mentions go to Network, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and RENT.

10. Sunset Boulevard, Curve Leicester
Curve’s strongest and most ambitious musical endeavour yet, Nikolai Foster’s production treated Lloyd Webber’s romantic, melancholic and decadent score to a full and rich orchestration. Similarly impressive was the evocation of ‘old Hollywood’ in Foster’s stylish embracing of the cardboard facades, glitzy shallows and eternal optimism of LA while plumbing the depths of melodrama and tragedy to bring the story of faded screen star, Norma Desmond, to thrilling life. A headline grabbing Ria Jones gave a tour de force performance in which her Norma was variously youthful and decrepit, sonorous and frail, desperate and ultimately unhinged. This was a real treat for musical theatre fans, and an undoubted highlight in what has been a triumphant year for Curve. It continues to tour in 2018.

9. Barber Shop Chronicles, West Yorkshire Playhouse
There was a baby(!) in the audience and most, if not all, of the cast shook its hand. Need I say more? From Africa to London, Inua Ellams’ play exploded onto the stage with a vibrancy rarely so joyously shared. This co-production with the NT invited us to see how barbershops are places of male bonding, confessions and soul searching. Robustly and intricately structured, deftly directed by Bijan Sheibani and performed by an energetic company, Barber Shop Chronicles was a play that opened up worlds of new perspectives.

8. Beginning, National Theatre
Someone on Twitter described Beginning as the most ‘National Theatre’ sort of play they could imagine. I disagree. It would be easier for someone to say that an ambitious but vague state-of-the-nation play in the Olivier would better ‘typify’ the National’s repertoire. A huge amount of care and precision went into David Eldridge’s new two-hander, directed by Polly Findlay. In seeing a potential relationship evolve at the end of a drunken party, it revelled in the everyday (such as fish finger sandwiches and talking about Strictly) but also didn’t skate around the larger questions about what they wanted from life. There were no pat endings. It also elicited two exceptionally wrought performances from Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton as Laura and Danny. Beginning is a funny, warm, pragmatic and incredibly well-balanced play that seeks a way out of the loneliness of modern life. It transfers to the Ambassadors Theatre in January.

7. Pink Sari Revolution, Curve Leicester
Curve’s growing prominence in the landscape of British producing theatre was once again in full force with Purva Naresh’s searing drama based upon the real life feminist vigilante, the Gulabi Gang, in Uttar Pradesh, India. In a social climate where female and BAME representation in the arts (and all sectors) is a pressing issue, Naresh’s play, and Suba Das’ production, was vital in its themes and incendiary in its impact. Naresh never simplifies or sentimentalises the Gulabi Gang. We see the personal strains, cultural and political hypocrisies and social injustices they experience, reminding us that while battles can be won, there remains a war raging in the breast of every oppressed woman, man and child the world over. Furthermore, in the cantankerous but inimitable Sampat Pal, Naresh has created what, in my opinion, is one of the greatest female roles of recent times, and Syreeta Kumar injected Sampat with all the vibrancy, petulance and determination of a true radical. Sampat is characterised with a complexity usually afforded to great (male) dramatic heroes; she is intensely human in all her strengths and flaws while being the beating heart of a story that is unwaveringly female. Unflinching, deeply moving, yet never patronising, Pink Sari Revolution is exactly the type of play the world needs right now.

Poisonous wit and drunken passions collided in James Macdonald’s superlative production of Albee’s play. Macdonald perhaps didn’t invent a new vernacular for the play like directors such as Ivo Van Hove, Benedict Andrews and Yael Farber have previously done with American 20th century classics, but still brilliantly conveyed the desolation under the illusion of optimistic New England. Adam Cork’s music brought an impending sense of catastrophe to the start of the production and Tom Pye’s sunken living room design provided a bear pit for Imelda Staunton’s and Conleth Hill’s captivating performances. Arguably the best West End production of the year!

5. Follies, National Theatre
2017 has not been a vintage year for the Olivier. However, Dominic Cooke’s revival of Sondheim’s high-concept, time-bending and genre defying musical was the smash hit of the season. Cooke reinstated old songs and assembled a stellar cast of theatre stalwarts including Janie Dee, Imelda Staunton, Tracie Bennett and Philip Quast, and treated audiences to a production that was lustrous, decadent and thought-provoking.  Vicki Mortimer’s triumphant design juxtaposed Broadway glamour in the feathered and jewelled costumes of the chorus girls with the grotesque and crumbling façade of the soon-to-be-demolished theatre. A delicate balance of spectacle and character, Follies was discombobulating in its intense exploration of the spangled warrens of the human psyche.

4. Pygmalion, Headlong
There wasn’t a speck of dust on Sam Pritchard’s production (seen at Leicester’s Curve) complete with video mapping, projections, stark lighting and a contemporary design. Pritchard stripped the play of its reverences but also acknowledged its status (and its musical adaptation’s status) as a classic; Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design accentuated the play’s theme of ownership; and Alex Beckett was obsessive and petulant as Professor Higgins, and superbly delivered the preposterous proposal of adopting Eliza with eye-rolling hilarity. It also featured the best line in all of theatre this year. I can’t remember what the feed line was or who said it but ‘Not fucking [bleeped] likely!’ delivered in RP by someone in a big dress conveyed the sort of irreverence you often dream of hearing in this sort of play. The production made Shaw’s play relevant, fun and vital again.

3. Hamlet, Almeida
Robert Icke’s revolutionary production of Hamlet dumbfounded me into intellectual submission, renouncing analysis (the mainstay of this literature student’s education) and embracing feeling. Icke created a tender family drama that was profoundly moving, intimate and humane. In what could have been a technological gimmick in lesser hands, Icke’s use of live video feed made us privy to the nuanced and minute expressions of the characters. Grief was the impetus behind the drama and Andrew Scott’s sensitive, prosaic and likable Hamlet (something which can’t often be said of the Dane) brought a newfound truthfulness to the soliloquys which made me hear and understand his words like never before. Furthermore, as someone who suffers from depression, Hamlet’s quiet dejection rang all too true, and the toning-down of the ‘antic disposition’ was a welcome alteration, allowing the realities of mental health to bleed through instead. The words ‘ground-breaking’ are bandied about too often, but Icke utterly transformed a play of ubiquity into a drama so fresh and modern that it wouldn’t look out of place on a ‘new releases’ bookshelf and has no doubt uprooted perceptions of Hamlet for generations to come. A landmark production.

2. The Ferryman, Royal Court
There was an instinctive and emotional connection that I felt with The Ferryman. There’s a mythic, beating heart at the centre of it. Yes, it’s a play about Ireland and the Troubles, a play about family, a play about loyalty, but it’s also a play – although grounded in a tangible family setting complete with a baby, a goose and a rabbit – that conjures the sacred and the uncanny. The last few moments are tense as Nick Powell’s pulsing music intensifies and everything in the play comes together. The banshees coming at the end of The Ferryman, like the giants approaching at the end of Jerusalem, is unsettling. I don’t necessarily understand why or what it means, but as Aunt Pat shouted ‘What have you done to this family’ amongst all the action, I felt generations of the Carney family – past, present and future –crumble. Butterworth has often described his writing method as being natural; there’s rarely any talk of a technique. He follows what excites him and what most gives him goose bumps. Breadcrumbs have led Butterworth to another masterpiece. It is less flashy and a more mature piece of work than some of his earlier plays, and featured brilliant performances all round, but especially from Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine. It continues playing at the Gielgud until May.

1. Angels in America, National Theatre

Forget your Harry Potters (utterly dazzling when we saw it in June) and your Hamiltons (which we shall be seeing in January), the theatrical event of the year – nay, the decade – arrived at the Lyttelton theatre to rapturous reception. In fact, to describe Marianne Elliott’s production of Tony Kushner’s landmark play(s) as an ‘event’ is an understatement. Clocking in at an epic eight hours of theatre (not including breaks!) those who opted to see the double bill were in for a marathon day of play going.  Yet despite the biblical running time, the plays kept audiences enthralled for every fantastical, didactical, gut-busting and tear-jerking second. Brechtian but eschewing all the aspects of Brechtian theatre that deter audiences (yes, I enjoy empathising, thank you very much, and it does not spoil the socio-political message), and featuring all the theatrical wizardry of Elliott’s prior successes with War Horse and Curious Incident (the entrance of the Angel was terrific!) the production matched Kushner’s incredible script with intelligence, heart and a special affection for theatre. Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey, Denise Gough, Susan Brown, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Amanda Lawrence – yes I am name checking them all! – a finer cast you could not find; each a star in their own right and make me mourn the fact that so many awards don’t feature an ensemble accolade, as the thought of separating them in merit is excruciating. This longed-for revival exceeded my already sky-high expectations and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience which I doubt I will see the likes of again. It transfers to New York from March.
Top Left going Clockwise: Cyril Nri in Barber Shop Chronicles (Marc Brenner); the company of Pink Sari Revolution (Pamela Raith); the company of Pygmalion (Manuel Harlan); the company of The Ferryman (Johan Persson).

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