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December 2013

My ten favourite plays of 2013

This has been tough, really tough, it's been a really great year for theatre and not just because Mr Whishaw has graced us with his presence in not one but two plays, although you might be surprised by one of the omissions...

These aren't in a particular order:

  1. Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre - Jez Butterworth + Stan fav's Ben Whishaw and Colin Morgan with a sprinkling of curiosity about Rupert Grint how could it fail? A refreshing change from the bulk of the safe West End offer. I've seen it five times, so far, just in case anyone was wondering.
  2. The Weir, Donmar Warehouse - beautiful, simple and atmospheric storytelling. The bijou Donmar was perfect for this.
  3. Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre - a delightful and surprising evening of imaginative story-telling and entertainment. Probably the closest I'll get to a musical. Its back next year and so will I be.
  4. As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre - The chemistry between the leads and the fun and frolicks made this feel like you were at a party. Oh and the wrestling scene was a feast for the eyes too. Ahem.
  5. Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre - This was a heady mix of deliciously dark humour and heartfelt emotion. Laughing one minute and crying the next.
  6. Sea Wall, The Shed - Andrew Scott had me hanging on every word and in just 30 minutes reduced me to bits. Probably one of the most affecting pieces of theatre I've seen and you can see it online if you don't believe me (link at bottom of review).
  7. Edward II, Olivier Theatre - It wasn't for everyone but it was for me. This high energy, bold and contemporary production blew me away.
  8. Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Barbican Theatre - David Tennant and a fantastic supporting cast have done it again. Loved the interpretation of Richard in this the genius being to turn sympathy from firmly with Bolingbroke to Richard by the end. An unlikeable Richard I very much liked.
  9. Let The Right One In, Royal Court - A fantastically atmospheric and inventive piece of theatre that did justice to a much loved film.
  10. Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse - Third Shakespeare in my top 10 and another high energy and inventive production that brings a very political play to life. The shower scene also gets extra marks *grins*.

I'd have loved to have squeezed Peter and Alice in there and also Sweet Bird of Youth, Jeeves and Wooster and Fortune's Fool but unfortunately there could only be 10. The bar has been set high for 2014.

Related posts:

My top five fringe plays of the year

My top five Shakespeare plays and top five off-West End


Theatre 2013 lists: Five Best Shakespeare and off-West End plays

Continuing with my build up to the top 10 of the year here are my favourite Shakespeares and favourite off-West End* plays of 2013.

First the Shakespeares. It's been a really, really good year for the Bard's plays but there are only 10 spaces in my best of list so here are my top five that didn't quite make it:

And now the best of off-West End list, again lots that nearly made it into my top ten:

* Off-West End to me are the medium sized theatres most of which aren't in the core West End

My overall top 10 will be published tomorrow, my top five fringe list can be found here

Theatre 2013 lists: Top 5 fringe plays of the year

Been so much good theatre this year and too many contenders for my overall top 10, which I'll be publishing on Sunday, so I thought I'd pull out a couple of extra lists so that some of those plays that charmed, entertained or moved me but couldn't be squeezed into the top 10 get a mention.

Oh, and I should probably preface these lists by saying that I've been to the theatre 108 times this year seeing 93 unique productions. The fact that there were so many repeat visits gives an indicator as to just how good a year it has been (and that Mr Whishaw was back on stage).

First of the lists is my five best fringe* plays that didn't make it into my top 10:

 * I class fringe as small, non-West End theatre/commercial theatres or studio theatres

Tomorrow I'll post my top Shakespeare and top off West End productions, that didn't make it into my top 10


Review: Upstanding Member at the Old Red Lion

Upstanding Member at the Old Red Lion l-r Carole Street, Tim Dewberry and Stephen Omer

Politicians have long been an easy target for comedy - there was a whole programme about it on Radio 4 just last night but the skill in Gregory Skulnick's script, The Upstanding Member, is in how satisfactorily the farce ties together.

I say farce, it isn't farce in the slapstick sense of One Man Two Guv'nors - aside from some ridiculous hiding behind coats and coffee tables it is the scenario that is really farcical.

Unnamed MP (Stephen Omer) has a squeaky clean reputation and stereotypical bossy wife (Carole Street) unfortunately he is a super injunction away from becoming front page tabloid fodder and losing everything. It's the usual stuff, he's fallen for  pretty, young escort Gloria (Kate Craggs) and she's pregnant and trying to blackmail him.

Continue reading "Review: Upstanding Member at the Old Red Lion" »

RSC Richard II cast read Thomas of Woodstock and the back stage tour

PhotoLove a rehearsed reading me and this one - Thomas of Woodstock - was born out of homework the cast of the RSC's Richard II production, were given during rehearsals.

Unfinished and with its author unidentified, Thomas of Woodstock is often called Richard II part I as it focuses on the early part of his reign. It was read by the cast during preparations for Richard II, to help put the latter in context.

Assistant director Owen Horsley was then given the task of trimming the text down and directing this rehearsed reading with some of the cast (see cast list on the right, click for bigger version).

Although tonally different it does set up the Shakespeare play superbly. It was also the most polished rehearsed reading I've seen, including some specially written music by soprano Anna Bolton who performed with Helena Raeburn. The actors made entrances and exits, swapped seats or sat on the stage and generally moved around more than you'd expect from a rehearsed reading. 

So, in Thomas of Woodstock there is much that helps to explain Richard's behaviour in Richard II, the latter picking up the story just after Woodstock's death or the Duke of Gloucester as he's called in Shakespeare's play. Richard is young and petulant but being under age it is his uncles and protector Woodstock who wield the real power - think patriarchs in a mafia family. However, the young King discovers that his uncles have mislead him about his age and therefore held the power for longer than they should.

Continue reading "RSC Richard II cast read Thomas of Woodstock and the back stage tour" »

Review: Eric and Little Ern at the Vaudeville

Jonty Stephens as Eric Morecambe and Ian Ashpitel as Ernie Wise

Edinburgh fringe sell-out based around comedy duo Morecambe and Wise has landed in the West End.

Performed by Jonty Stephens (Eric Morecambe) and Ian Ashpitel (Ernie Wise) it is part homage, part biography of the much-loved British veterans of variety and Saturday night TV.

The first half of the hour and 35 minute show (including interval) sees the two reminiscing about their career. The premise is that Ernie is in hospital having suffered a heart attack and Eric is visiting.

It is a clever mix of anecdotes, references and skits, almost an extended sketch in the vein of their most popular performances. They tease each other even making a joke of Morecambe's death on stage of a heart attack which was actually 15 years prior to Ernie's own death of heart failure. It is tastefully done and could've have been written by the famous duo themselves. 

The second half sees them perform 'proper' in typical Morecambe and Wise style in front of the red velvet drapes of a stage curtain, finishing of course with the trademark 'Bring Me Sunshine'.

Continue reading "Review: Eric and Little Ern at the Vaudeville" »

Review: Iain Glen in Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic

Ff_142x226Not seen any Ivan Turgenev plays before and was told they are more 'English' than Chekhov which certainly felt true with Fortune's Fool, presented here in a version by Mike Poulton. There is an array of colourful characters and a mix of humour, warmth, cruelty and tragedy that reminded me a little of Dickens. 

While Dickens will send his central characters on epic emotional journeys over many years Turgenev manages to pack in something that is equally so for Vassily (Iain Glen) in just 24 hours.

Vassily is an impoverished gentleman living on the charity of a rich family and has been for many years. The play opens with the servants being whipped into a frenzy of preparations for the arrival of the mistress of the estate Olga (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and her new husband Pavel (Alexander Vlahos). The frenzy is almost entirely due the estate's steward Trembinsky (Daniel Cerqueria) whose primary skill seems to be bossiness rather than organisation an, of course, it is the sensible footman Pyotr (Dyfan Dwfor) who picks up the pieces.

Continue reading "Review: Iain Glen in Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic" »

Review: Tom Hiddleston takes a shower in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse


Tom Hiddleston wasn't attracting quite the same level of young female attention the last time I saw him on stage in Othello and then Ivanov in 2008 but since then he's broken into big screen Hollywood comic book movies playing bad brother Loki (brilliantly) in the Thor and Avengers films.

The fact that he had a stage career before Hollywood will surely satisfy those theatre critics that harrumph at starry castings. Hiddleston is a highly accomplished actor (watch the Henry V he did for the BBC's Hollow Crown last year if you don't believe me) and I was certain he'd be equal to the role of the heroic, proud and tragic Roman leader Coriolanus.

Whether it is because she is mindful of the inevitable younger audience Hiddleston will attract or just the desire to give the production a fresh and contemporary feel, director Josie Rourke's Coriolanus is high-energy and face-paced.

The brick, back wall of the Donmar stage is daubed with graffiti that reflects the opinions of the common people in the play, fresh graffiti is added graphically, using projections, as the story unfolds. Other than a collection of black chairs and one ladder there is no other stage decoration. Between scenes the cast position the chairs in choreographed moves accompanied by loud techno music, the actors slamming them down to match the rhythm.

Costumes are contemporary, some with a Roman twist. Lots of tight, black jeans and boots but with sword belts and leather armour chest pieces.

Coriolanus is a political drama where the protagonist unwittingly engineers his own downfall. It's a study of pride vs politics. Coriolanus is a successful leader on the battlefield and a skilled warrior.  Any humility he displays when he returns to Rome victorious after defeating the Volscian army is short-lived when old prejudices and grievances with the plebeians surface.

He is a bit of a snob and wears his heart on his sleeve. Where his friend Menenius (Mark Gatiss) would placate, negotiate and compromise, Coriolanus's pride won't let him hide his disdain, something which ultimately blinds him to danger. As quickly as his star has risen, it falls with Coriolanus's contrition coming just too late.

Continue reading "Review: Tom Hiddleston takes a shower in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse" »

Review: Let The Right One In at the Royal Court

700x650.fitLet The Right One In is a gothic story of an innocent love and loneliness; a story of needs and survival against a backdrop of horrific murders in which the victims are drained of their blood. This National Theatre of Scotland production, like the Swedish film on which it is based, is set against a cold and lonely background; silver birch trees, snow and a desolate children's climbing frame form the set with the occasional piece of furniture appearing for particular scenes. 

Our protagonists are young teenagers Oskar (Martin Quinn) and Eli (Rebecca Benson). Oskar is bullied and spends his free-time alone in the woods – where his mother has forbidden him to go because of the murders. He fantasises about meting out revenge on his oppressors with his pen-knife.

It is on one of these friendless evenings he meets the strange Eli who has moved into the flat next door to Oskar with someone he assumes is her dad. Why doesn't she eat even when she’s obviously hungry? Why does she never get cold? And why does she smell? These are questions Oskar can easily ignore when Eli becomes a much-needed friend.

“Would you still like me if I turned out not to be girl?”

It is probably a little unfair to make too many comparisons with the film, which I loved, but this production has succeeded in capturing the haunting sadness helped in part by wonderfully mournful and foreboding music. The violent and bloody murders (it gets my approval for the amount of stage blood) tonally and visually contrast with the understated performances and muted colour-scape of set design and costumes.

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Review: Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things at the Arcola

The Shape of Things, Arcola, Dec 2013, IMG_1858 - courtesy Maximilien Spielbichler
Anna Bamberger as Evelyn and Sean McConaghy as Adam. Production photo by Maximillien Spielbichler

The few Neil LaBute plays I've seen have been distinctive for having obnoxious characters - he seems to be a master at writing them. The Shape of Things, which is being revived at the Arcola Theatre, is no different.

Here the obnoxious characters are Evelyn (Anna Bamberger) a confident and knowingly beautiful art student and Philip (Séan Browne) the equally confident and handsome friend of Adam (Sean McConaghy), who is the protagonist.

Adam is a nerdy, awkward, plain student who works in a museum to pay his college fees. He's the sort of person that someone like Philip hangs around with in order to feel superior and similarly for someone like Evelyn he is impressionable.

Evelyn meets Adam at the museum and flirts with him despite his social clumsiness. They date and a relationship develops during which, through Evelyn's influence, Adam starts taking care of himself, changes his styling and hair and ditches his contact lenses.

The makeover gives Adam confidence, something that impresses Philip and his fiancé Jenny (Harrie Hayes) although they aren't so impressed with Evelyn who becomes forthright and argumentative. But that isn't the only thing about Evelyn, there is something that doesn't quite ring true about her that is hard to pin point and her personality becomes as destructive as it is constructive.

Continue reading "Review: Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things at the Arcola" »