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December 2016

My favourite plays of 2016 - or the year it was pretty much all about women and Ivo Van Hove

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Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, Mary Stuart Almeida Theatre. Photo Miles Aldridge

I don't know whether the proportion of plays with female leads was higher this year or whether it was those plays that were particularly brilliant but either way I'm pleased this has ended up being such a female dominated list. The other surprise (sort of) is that Ivo Van Hove who would easily run away with the best director gong if I handed out such things. Anyway, of the 100 or so plays I saw this year, these were my particular favourites:

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Young Vic

A powerful solo performance, Aoife Duffin had me hanging on every word of this bleak, unflinching story of a girl's relationships as she grows up.

The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

Not just because Ben Whishaw was in it but because it was a tour de force production by Ivo Van Hove (and I loved the Old Vic/Richard Armitage version in 2014). And, there was a dog that looked like a wolf.

Mary Stuart, Almeida

Two brilliant female leads (Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams) made for an edge of the seat, emotional and utterly gripping play (playing until 21 Jan).

Yerma, Young Vic

A brilliant contemporary spin on the story, inventive staging and another knock out performance from Billie Piper.

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets and this is up there as possibly my all time favourite thanks to Paapa Essiedu and a fresh, warm, funny and moving production.

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My five favourite Shakespeare productions of 2016

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Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet for the RSC 2016. Photo (c) Manuel Harlan

It's been 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this year and I think theatre land did him proud. From Ivo Van Hove's five-plays-in-one epic King's of War to a 90-minute Hamlet and a motion capture Ariel (I've yet to see the latter) here are five of my favourites:

Henry V, RSC, Barbican

Seen as the final play in the tetralogy this was a worthy final chapter due in part to Alex Hassell's wonderful performance as the playboy prince turned warrior king.

Midsummer Night's Dream, Lyric Hammersmith

This was just so inventive and so much fun. Don't think I've laughed quite so much at Shakespeare (or in a theatre).

King Lear, RSC, Barbican

Never really warmed to King Lear as a play until I saw this production. I laughed, cried, gasped and was utterly gripped from start to finish.

Hamlet, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I've seen more Hamlet's than any other play and I've seen some cracking productions but I'd put this up there with the Old Vic/Ben Whishaw as my all time favourite. Paapa Essiedu was breathtaking in a production of fully rounded characters. (He was also brilliant in King Lear.)

The Tempest, King's Cross Theatre (Donmar)

This completed the series of all women, prison-set Shakespeare production's the Donmar has produced and proved to be a clever, lively, fresh and contemporary take. And always good to see Jade Anouka on stage, this time playing a street-wise Ariel.

***

There was another production worthy of this list, David Tennant's Richard II which wowed me all over again but I haven't included it as it was on the 'best of' list for 2013 which was when I first saw it.

Related posts:

My least favourite plays of 2016

Five favourite fringe plays of 2016

Overall favourite plays of 2016

 

 


My five favourite fringe productions of 2016

There's been some cracking fringe theatre this year - there's also been some best forgotten but we'll gloss over that. These five favourites are taken from a list of more than 40 fringe plays I've seen this year (in no particular order):

Rotterdam, Trafalgar Studios 2

Fresh, contemporary, funny and packing emotional punch Rotterdam didn't shy away from exploring difficult issues.

Odd Shaped Balls, Red Lion Theatre

A powerful solo performance that managed to inject sensitivity and emotion into the testosterone-fuelled world of rugby.

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, Young Vic (The Maria)

Another powerful solo performance, Aoife Duffin had me hanging on every word of this bleak, unflinching story of a woman's relationships as she grows up.

Pigs and Dogs, Royal Court

In a year in which theatre land seems to have decided that serious = long, Pigs and Dogs proved the opposite. It was a powerful, punchy, revealing 15 minutes long.

Hamlet, Trafalgar Studios 2

If you are going to do fringe Shakespeare you need to be inventive as there are so many big budget, starry productions for comparison. This version was stripped down to a powerful 90 minutes focusing purely on the mental health of the prince. It was cleverly done.

Related posts:

My least favourite plays of 2016

Five favourite Shakespeare plays

Overall favourite plays of 2016


My least favourite plays of 2016

27485423786_8780a5bbf5_zI've seen so many great plays this year (best of list coming soon) but occasionally there is play that doesn't work for me. I don't set out to dislike a play (why buy the ticket?) but not everything is to everyone's liking. The criteria for getting on this list is being memorable but not for good reasons. It generally has nothing to do with the acting or production but is usually the play itself.  Some plays are good but easily forgotten so there is an achievement, of sorts, in making this list at least.

Lunch and the Bow of Ulysses, Trafalgar Studios 2

This double bill about the start and end of a relationship was so relentlessly bitter and joyless it made me worry for the writer, Steven Berkoff. I think, given my track record with Berkoff plays, I'm adding him to my list playwrights I don't get on with and should probably avoid.

Travesties, Menier Chocolate Factory

Tom Stoppard expects a certain level of knowledge and familiarity with the historical figures and works of art and literature he features and most of the key characters I knew nothing about. I'm also not that familiar with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest which forms the heart of a key plot line. As a result I felt alienated from the narrative and the humour, it was like watching a play through a window. I'm fully prepared to put my hand up and say I'm not clever enough for Stoppard.

 

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Review: The cleverly concise Hamlet, Trafalgar Studios 2

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Katie Stephens, Mark Arends, Tom Mannion, Hamlet Trafalgar Studios 2. Photo by Robert Workman.

I'm of the view that Shakespeare's plays generally benefit from a bit of trimming but Flute Theatre has put Hamlet on SlimFast and got its running time down to 90 minutes (without an interval). This idea excites, intrigues and concerns. On the one hand it's an opportunity to narrow the focus, distil the play's central dramatic and emotional threads while on the other you are in danger producing a disjointed, greatest hits version with just the well know speeches. Flute has added to the challenge by having cast of only six.

And what they have done is quite clever. The actors don't double up so much as borrow lines from others. For example, Laertes doesn't disappear back to school for the central section of the play but instead becomes Claudius's spy taking lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It makes Laertes a constant presence while the absence of Horatio serves to alienate Hamlet leaving him brooding without a single ally or confidante.

This Hamlet pushes aside the politics and focuses on the grieving son whose sanity is stretched. Mark Arends, whom I last saw in the fabulous Angry Brigade at the Bush Theatre, plays the prince with a moping, softness and fragility, I could imagine him flopping around his untidy bedroom with the curtains closed, listening to Morrissey. There is also lyrical tone to his delivery which brings out the poet prince and yet there is something painful and brooding deep down that hints of darker things.

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Review: (But is it) Art, Old Vic Theatre

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ART Tim Key, Rufus Sewell and Paul Ritter. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Serge (Rufus Sewell) has bought a painting, it's five foot by four foot and is white. He paid a lot for it. His friend Marc (Paul Ritter) sees red and isn't afraid to let him know. His friend Yvan (Tim Key) is more diplomatic but that causes its own problems.

Is it Art? Well that's almost besides the point, it's more what it says about Serge in Marc's and Yvan's eyes and what that means for their friendship. Through a series of monologues and exchanges - which are humourously juxtaposed to emphasise the diplomacy/lies in their relationships - the strength and strains of their friendship is revealed.

Marc feels let down by Serge, Serge thinks Marc is arrogant and Yvan just wants to escape from the stress of trying to organise his wedding and therefore agrees with everyone to maintain the status quo.  Can their friendship survive the painting purchase?

This is a meatier play than the synopsis would suggest. Yes there are plenty of laugh out loud moments - the comic timing of the actors is razor sharp - but it also has a lot to say about the nature of human friendships particularly over time. It is a play that feels like a riotous watch but has darker notes which linger long after the actors have taken their bow. It is a play that entertains but also forces you to examine your own attitude towards friendships. It is a play about honesty that forces you to be honest with yourself - would you honestly admit which character you most identify with? It is also a play in which three men silently eating olives has never said quite so much.

Art is on at the Old Vic Theatre until 18 February and is 90 minutes without an interval. I'm giving it four and a half stars.

 

 


Review: Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams take turns in Mary Stuart, Almeida Theatre

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Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, Mary Stuart Almeida Theatre. Photo Miles Aldridge

Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams walk on stage both wearing the same blue velvet trouser suit and a white shirt. Lia calls heads, a coin is spun, it lands and the courtiers bow to Juliet and Lia is stripped of her jacket and shoes and led away. This is the way it will play this time and I am pleased; in my head when I thought of the two actresses I saw Juliet as Queen Elizabeth and Lia as her prisoner Mary, Queen of Scots.

And so the stage is set for Robert Icke's adaptation of Schiller's play of politics, power, religion and family. Elizabeth has kept Mary, her first cousin once removed, imprisoned for many years and is under pressure from her council to do something about her. Mary, through her lineage, has a claim to the English throne, is Catholic seen as a threat to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

Mary has been tried in a kangaroo court and found guilty of plotting against Elizabeth but the Queen is reluctant to sign the death warrant. She's also under pressure to marry, itself a political hot potato as without an heir a huge question mark hangs over the succession. Mary, realising she is in grave danger plans, with some trusted sympathisers, to make one final appeal to the Queen.

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Review: Ruth Wilson in Ivo Van Hove's noirish Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

Hedda_header_1200x650The Lyttleton stage is a huge white box just one large window on the left hand side, a video entry screen and two guns in a presentation case adorns one of the walls (and we all know what Chekhov had to say about guns hanging on walls). Furniture is sparse: a grubby white sofa, a piano, piano stool and two chairs one of which is occupied by a maid for most of the play as if she is guarding the entrance or exit. On the floor by the window there are a variety of buckets filled with bunches of fresh flowers.

Hedda (Ruth Wilson) is slumped over the piano, half-heartedly playing snatches of tunes over and over. People reunite around her, excited and happy, her presence is an idea, an ideal and one that we'll soon learn she won't live up to, doesn't want to live up to.

Society, circumstance and choice has led her to this room, in this apartment. She was a catch, admired by many and allowed herself to get caught out of fear of what would happen if she didn't. Her husband Tesman (Kyle Soller) is a moderately successful academic, pleased as punch with his catch but his career is his mistress.

Hedda is a woman boxed in by society and by her choices and her struggle is one of a person in quick sand: the more she struggles the further she sinks. She attempts to exert power and control over the people around her but how much is calculated, a perverse entertainment and how much is a knee-jerk reaction with a petulant disregard for the consequences?

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Review: Wild Honey, Hampstead Theatre and the obvious comparisons with the National Theatre's Platonov

Chekhov's early, untitled play has had two airings this year; plays are like buses, after all. First to arrive, via Chichester, was the David Hare's adaptation at the National Theatre using the title of the protagonist, Platonov. And now Hampstead Theatre has revived Michael Frayn's version called Wild Honey.

Having really enjoyed Platonov, I had high expectations for Wild Honey particularly as Geoffrey Streatfeild was taking the lead. But it also means that comparisons are inevitable. There are slight tweaks in the plot but at the centre you have the sharply intelligent Platonov who doesn't realise quite how discontent and boring his life has got until a former young lover Sofya (Sophie Rundle) reappears in his life, married to Sergey (Joe Bannister) a man he deems intellectually inferior.

He's newly married himself to a Sasha (Rebecca Humphries) to whom he is already growing indifferent. He prefers to spend time with the intelligent and beautiful widow Anna Petrovna (Justine Mitchell) and teasing the easily tormented, mousey scientist Marya (Jo Herbert).

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Review: The Dresser, Duke of York's and why it feels past its best

The-DresserLove Ken Stott and it was that and a very good ticket offer on Today Tix that got me to a matinee to see The Dresser. And here is where I pause because despite Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith acting their socks off the play just felt lacklustre and a bit past it.

Ronald Harwood's play was first staged in 1980 is set during the Second World War in a theatre where actor/manager 'Sir' (Stott) is having trouble keeping himself together and his long-suffering dresser Norman (Shearsmith) is trying to get him ready to go on stage for an evening performance of King Lear.

I had several problems with the play. Sir is either having some sort of nervous breakdown or has the early signs of dementia and that isn't actually that funny - maybe Ken Stott's weepy, dazed acting is too good. He appears extremely fragile at times and attempts to get him ready for the performance feel almost cruel.

However, in his more lucid moments he is self-centred, self-obsessed and generally not very nice which makes him difficult to empathise with. You can understand why not everyone flatters and fawns over him. There is also one scene when he gropes (sexually assaults) a young actress and that might have been funny to an audience in 1980 but it certainly isn't funny now.

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