Friday 26 January 2024

Secret Blog: Looking back and looking forward…

"But - enough of us looking backwards, we should all look forwards"

Sir John Gielgud, The Motive and The Cue

We didn’t see as much theatre in 2023 as we would’ve liked. Life, loss and ill health got in the way. But that’s not to say there weren’t any highlights. At the start of the year, the National’s production of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Curve, Leicester) perfectly married plot, spectacle and feeling, articulating the very personal yet universal experiences of loss, love and change with a masterly touch. Sam Steiner’s 2015 play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (Pinter) was revived in the West End by Josie Rourke. Both Steiner’s text and Robert Jones’ design had a clean aesthetic, making for a compelling production with a puzzle-like quality, helping to cement it as a contemporary classic. From the bitterness of Lemons to the sugar rush of Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Piccadilly), the stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s film was as camp, frivolous and bang-for-your-buck entertaining as you’d hope. In lieu of a more substantial Top 10 list which we usually compile in December, here are some of our favourite productions from 2023:

In Hamlet, we hear a speech on the purpose of acting, one of its key purposes being ‘to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature’. Two commercial and critical hits this year, Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hamnet (RSC Swan) and Jack Thorne’s The Motive and The Cue (NT Lyttelton), held a mirror up to Shakespeare, Hamlet and acting itself. In Hamnet, Chakrabarti did a wonderful job of translating Maggie O’Farrell’s heady novel into a linear narrative that stirs the emotions. It offered perhaps the most poignant interpretation of the bard yet but also paid tribute to an unsung hero of literary history. In The Motive and The Cue, Thorne focuses on the troubled rehearsal period of ‘Richard Burton's Hamlet’, directed by Sir John Gielgud on Broadway in 1964. Sam Mendes’ stylish production explored the nature of acting and a clash of personalities, and featured hugely enjoyable performances from Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn. Whereas these plays were examples of theatre looking inward, as it so often does, James Graham’s Dear England (NT Olivier) turned to Gareth Southgate’s time as England manager to create an unashamedly populist play which bled through to the wider general public. It’s often said why can’t theatre feel like a football match. In Rupert Goold’s production, it did!

Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling and immensely popular 2015 novel A Little Life (Savoy) has often been accused of touting ‘torture porn’ and is not for the faint-hearted. In Ivo van Hove’s adaptation, he harnessed his signature style of heightened realism combined with some very striking imagery to create a vivid production that was (in some cases literally) an assault on the senses.

Seven years after we saw its initial run (twice in one week), Tim Minchin’s triumphant Groundhog Day (Old Vic) returned to London. A musical about being stuck, transformation, and practicing better ways to be, Minchin’s score and Danny Rubin’s book are hilarious and mine complex emotions. The score is unmistakably Minchin – perceptive, mischievous, hilarious, subversive – and Matthew Warchus’ staging was genius. The production plays in Melbourne in 2024!

Other theatrical highlights:

We were lucky to see two new chamber musicals this year. A workshop performance of Cake: The Marie Antoinette Playlist (Curve, Leicester) was a poppy, sexy new musical starring Zizi Strallen in the same light as Six. And Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams’ RIDE (Curve, Leicester) about the first woman to cycle around the world, was an endearing original musical which focuses on issues of feminism and class without ever feeling preachy. Liv Andrusier gave a star-making performance as Annie Londonderry; initially full of bravado and broad Bostonian sass, her mask slipped to reveal a character unsure of herself.

Like the protagonist of RIDE, I also found no joy in Hanoi this year. However, I did see a water puppet show next to Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Accompanied by live musicians, the show told the legend of a divine turtle that emerged from the lake and asked an emperor to return a magical sword that had been lent to him. The show, like the audience, was touristic, but it was a highlight of my 40 hours in Vietnam.

We went to Eurovision in Liverpool in May, seeing (in our opinion) the better of the two semi-finals. Loreen, Käärijä, and an amazing stage management team were among the highlights!

Looking forward…

In the West End, we’re seeing Jez Butterworth’s latest play The Hills of California (Pinter), Thomas Ostermeier‘s reimagining of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Duke of York’s), the Donmar transfer of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal (Wyndham’s), the London return of Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown (Lyric), and the Crucible/NT production of the Sheffield musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge (Gillian Lynne) this year. Benedict Andrews returns to the London stage to direct Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (Donmar Warehouse) starring Nina Hoss and Adeel Akhtar in April. Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated play The Children and Arthur Miller’s Tony-winning play The Crucible are playing at Nottingham Playhouse and Sheffield’s Crucible respectively this Spring. And in Leicester, Nikolai Foster’s technically dazzling production of A Chorus Line returns to Curve in June ahead of a run at Sadler’s Wells. Also returning to Curve is Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette before heading out on tour supported by the National Theatre. So enough of us looking backwards. We should all look forwards!