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December 2023

2023 theatre round up - top 10 favourite plays (and 4 least favourite)

Best of theatre 2023 montage

It feels like theatre returned with a splash in 2023 after the dark days of Covid. I saw 62 and a half plays (64 and a half, including second viewings) across London's plethora of theatres, from tiny pubs to big West End stages.

Here are my favourite 10 plays - in no particular order (links are to the full review).

1. No One, Omnibus Theatre

This was a fun, lively and inventive storytelling, with brilliant fight scenes.

2. Linck and Mulhahn, Hampstead Theatre

Based on a real same-sex couple living in the 18th Century Prussia, this was a witty, effervescent and heartbreaking play.

Mediocre white male king's head theatre

3. Mediocre White Male, King's Head Theatre

Subtle shifts and throwaway remarks build to make a powerful point.

4. A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre (and Savoy Theatre)

A harrowing and compelling play that utterly flawed me and I had to go back and see it again.

5. The Motive and the Cue, National Theatre and Noel Coward Theatre

Superb performances in this sharp, funny and interesting play. So good, I had to see it twice.

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Review: Ulster American, Riverside Studios - lacks subtlety to give it real punch

1. Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport)  Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Second Half Production's Ulster American at Riverside Studios - photo by Johan Persson
Louisa Harland (Ruth Davenport) Andy Serkis (Leigh Carver) and Woody Harrelson (Jay Conway) in Ulster American at Riverside Studios. Photo by Johan Persson

If you've seen David Ireland's Cyprus Avenue, which had a sell-out run at the Royal Court a few years ago, you can tell Ulster American is written by the same hand, but it is nonetheless a very different beast.

Both plays look at sectarianism and identity in Northern Ireland, but Ulster American examines it through the lens of two outsiders: An Irish American actor Jay (Woody Harrelson) and an English theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis).

The ignorance of the two is highlighted by protestant Northern Irish playwright Ruth (Louisa Harland).

But Ruth's presence also exposes their ignorance on a number of other issues. She adds a feminist lens to the narrative and a vehicle through which to examine attitudes towards equality - and sexual violence towards women.

The play is set in the London home of theatre director Leigh (Andy Serkis), the day before rehearsals begin on Ruth's violent new play set in Northern Ireland.

Jay, a Hollywood star, is playing the lead, and his lack of understanding of the play's subject matter and its historical context is problematic.

Leigh's only concern is keeping him on board, particularly with the promise of a Broadway run. He would rather change the play than lose the star.

But Ruth won't pander to Jay and Leigh's ignorance and prejudices and refuses to change a word of the play.

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Review: The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre - sharp, funny and delicious to watch

Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet
Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue, Noel Coward Theatre 2023. © Mark Douet

There's a scene in Jack Thorne's play The Motive and the Cue when Johnny Flynn is playing Richard Burton, doing an impression of Sir John Gielgud's Hamlet.

Set around the rehearsal for the Gielgud-directed production of Hamlet on Broadway starring Burton, there are plenty of delicious moments like this.

When it opened at the National Theatre in May, The Motive and the Cue garnered stunning reviews and is now enjoying a much-deserved transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre.

And, having seen it at the National, it was an opportunity to reflect on it anew because, as that Burton-Gielgud-Hamlet impression highlights, there are a lot of layers to this play.

To recap the plot, Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) finds his star status waning and directing this production of Hamlet on Broadway is the best offer he's had for a while.

It's an opportunity to reinvigorate his career, working with Burton on an edgy, modern, stripped-back version of the play. The idea is to present it as if in rehearsal, wearing ordinary clothes.

Burton is a big-screen star who is newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and wants to return to his stage roots.

Gielgud represents the past and Burton the future, and it's an unlikely pairing, as the tensions in the rehearsal room illustrate. 

But this is more than a clash of creatives, this is about two men trying to prove themselves. Can a great actor be a great director? Can Burton pull off Hamlet on Broadway?

How, when they are so different, do they find a way to help each other and themselves?

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Review: Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre - less talk more feeling, please

Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd_Rock 'n' Roll_credit Manuel Harlan
Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd in Rock 'n' Roll, Hampstead Theatre 2023. Photo Manuel Harlan

Cards on the table, I don't always get on with Tom Stoppard's plays. I love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead but have yet to find another of his plays that resonates or connects with me. Would Rock 'n' Roll at the Hampstead Theatre be different?

This play is set in Cambridge and Czechoslovakia. It covers 20 or so years in the life of Marxist professor Max (Nathaniel Parker), his wife Eleanor (Nancy Carroll), daughter Esme (young Phoebe Horn, older Nancy Carroll) and post-grad student and rock music fan Jan (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).

At the start of the play, Jan is returning to Czechoslovakia but has a falling out with Max about Communism. The younger is disillusioned with the Soviet version of communism, which involves restrictions and censorship, while the older remains a stalwart of the party.

Jan's obsession with music and his prized record collection become a symbol of freedom and resistance and something for which he gets into trouble when communist controls tighten in Prague.

Meanwhile, Esme is obsessed with Syd Barrett and claims to have seen him once (he lived in Cambridge). Barrett appears in references throughout the play.

Eleanor is a classical literature tutor, which becomes another cultural thread to be debated.

There are some passing romantic relationships, but the love story here is primarily about communism, music, and culture.

Stoppard's plays are deeply intellectual, often involving extended, densely worded debates. My problem is that the specific scientific/political/historical/cultural period in focus is usually unfamiliar, so I don't have any points of reference.

As such, I find myself distanced from the topics under discussion and hankering after the threads of human story.

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Review: David Tennant and Cush Jumbo in Macbeth, Donmar Warehouse - headphones pros and cons

Macbeth Donmar Warehouse David Tennant Cush Jumbo 2023
David Tennant playing Macbeth was always going to be a hot ticket. (David Tennant playing any character on stage will be a hot ticket.)

Why then stage it at the Donmar Warehouse, which has such a small capacity? Is it because of the headphones?

You see, this production isn't your standard 'actors on stage speaking'. The actors are mic'd up - nothing unusual about that - but the audience hears everything through headphones, including the soundscape and 'other' voices.

That is much easier to set up and deliver in a small theatre, given that everyone has to have working headphones to experience the play.

What it does is put the voices of the actors in your ear. You can hear the shouts and, more importantly, the whispers. It means the actors have a different performance platform.

There is no need for projected 'stage whispers' because you have the natural effect of the actors whispering in your ear. Performances can be smaller while maintaining the intensity.

It also gives the Donmar three performance spaces. There is the raised white, 'stone' like slab, which acts as both stage and table and a glass-walled booth at the back of the stage (Ivo Van Hove/Jan Versweyveld-esque?).

And then there are the disembodied voices you hear in your ear. It transports the witches and their prophecies into Macbeth's (David Tennant) head.

However, hearing the play through headphones, while it delivers an enhanced and unique experience in many ways, is not a wholly satisfying experience, but more of that later.

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