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London Theatre 2019 in review - the highs and lows so far...

So we are halfway through 2019 which means time to look back and reflect on what London's theatre scene has offered up so far and this year: 

5 plays I loved:

Emilia, Vaudeville Theatre

"Yes, Emilia is an angry play about the frustration of inequality and how it limits opportunity but the message and call to arms is served well with a mixture of sharp humour, merriment and music."

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Downstate, National Theatre

"This is a challenging, difficult play with humour and wit inflected with wisdom, carefully balancing entertainment without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter."

Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre

"Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox deliver precise, layered performances in a production that grips with tension."

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I've given the theatres where I pay for membership an appraisal - how did they score?

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Photo by Rob Laughter on Unsplash


You know when you get appraised at work and scored on your performance? Well, I've done the same for the theatres Poly and I have 'friends' memberships for.

Essentially these schemes are ways of theatres raising money and in return, you get perks like priority booking.

Return on 'investment'?

We have memberships at the theatres we visit the most, which means we also buy a lot of tickets, so I wanted to work out what the return on our 'investment' is.

Are we getting bangs for our theatre bucks in terms of enjoyment, after all, you don't go to the theatre to be bored or miserable?

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Happy New Theatre Year: 9 plays I'm particularly looking forward to seeing in 2019

Starting off 2019 with plenty of theatre in the diary, these are the nine plays I'm particularly looking forward to seeing (in date order):

RG-3X9vs_400x400Kompromat, Vault Festival (23-27 Jan)

What the website says: Inspired by the still-unsolved 2010 murder of GCHQ agent Gareth Williams, Kompromat is a tense drama of double agents and our capacity for self-deception played out against a high-stakes game of love.

Why I'm excited: Having read an early draft a couple of years ago and then attended a rehearsed reading at the Arcola I've got a good feel for what this might be like.

Tartuffe, National Theatre (9 Feb-30 Apr)

What the website says: A scalpel-sharp comedy looking at the lengths we go to find meaning – and what happens when we find chaos instead.

Why I'm excited: Tartuffe is one of the classics I've long wanted to see, John Donnelly has done the adaptation and Olivia Williams is in it. I love Olivia Williams.

Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train, Young Vic (14 Feb-30 Mar)

What the website says: From Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat), comes this critically-acclaimed dark comedy about the American justice system and the contradictory nature of faith. 

Why I'm excited: I loved The Motherfucker With the Hat when I saw it in 2015 at the National and I've been waiting for another Stephen Adly Guirgis play to hit London ever since.

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2018 theatre review: My favourite plays of the year (and my first six star play)

So I've published my favourite fringe plays list and my least favourite plays list, time now for my best plays of 2018 overall, gleaned from everything I've seen - large productions and small, commercial theatres, subsidised and fringe:

via GIPHY

Misty, Trafalgar Studios

A play which put the pulse back into the West End and as a result was a breath of fresh air.

A Monster Calls, Old Vic

I was nervous about seeing a stage adaptation of a much-loved book but the creativity with which it was staged combined with the performances meant I was an emotional wreck by the end. So much of an emotional wreck, I had to walk around for a bit afterwards to compose myself.

Queens of Sheba, Underbelly, Edinburgh Fringe

A play about the dual prejudice of sexism and racism encountered by black women that succeeded in being both angry, uplifting and empowering.

It left me feeling teary in a happy/sad/exhilarated way and ready to march if the call came.

There is another chance to see it at the New Diorama Theatre, Jan 30-Feb 3 as part of the Vault Festival.

Notes from the Field, Royal Court

It was an uncomfortable, seat-squirming, horrifying joy to sit and experience and I gave it an unprecedented six stars. Yes, six stars.

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2018 theatre review: My least favourite plays of the year

Not all the plays I see are brilliant. Some are 'OK' and easily forgotten but then there are those that haunt but not in a good way. Seeing 100+ shows a year it's inevitable that some will disappoint and these are the ones that did just that in 2018.

Allelujah Bridge Theatre sign1. A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre

I love Martin McDonagh's writing and his dark humour and was stupidly excited to see a new play but this wasn't going down as a favourite. 

It feels like a play that should have had another few months of development and it is the wasted opportunities and clunky moments that have stayed with me rather than the good bits.

2. Foxfinder, Ambassadors Theatre

A play and production that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a surreal comedy or a thriller and failed at both. All the more disappointing because it had a great cast.

3. Allelujah, Bridge Theatre

Second entry for the Bridge on the list, this time a new Alan Bennett play which had me ducking out at the interval. It was too wrapped up in whimsey to carry any punch and by the interval getting an early night was more desirable than finding out what happened. 

4. Absolute Hell, National Theatre*

I found the plot too peripheral and with so many characters there was little depth. It felt very long.

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2018 theatre review: My 10 favourite fringe plays

Edinburgh Fringe media pass2018 was my first year at the Edinburgh Fringe which produced a bumper crop of excellent plays (look out for transfer details) but London has delivered some gems too.

Out of the 50-odd fringe plays there are 10 that really stand out but what strikes me most when revisiting them is how many evoked such a strong emotional reaction.

Yes, some are on the list for being highly entertaining but others made me feel angry or empowered or rebellious, some even a bit teary.

The other thing that strikes me is their diversity in ethnicity and gender balance tipped away from male dominance but I'll be writing more about that in another post.

So, in no particular order:

1. The Claim, Shoreditch Town Hall

Based on research into Home Office procedures this exposes the farcical system that asylum-seekers encounter but more than that, how incompetence endangers people's lives. It made me very angry.

2. My Mum's A Twat, Royal Court Upstairs

It's been an incredible year for Patsy Ferran, kicked off in fine style with this solo performance in a play about a girl's relationship with her mother who has joined a cult. Funny and spirited it also had dark edges.

3. Coconut, Ovalhouse

An effervescent love story and a coming of age story that challenged stereotypes.

4. Flesh and Bone, Soho Theatre upstairs

Shakespeare-esque lyricism combined with East End vernacular cleverly takes you on a revealing and entertaining journey that elevates the stories of those that often overlooked. Shakespeare would, no doubt, have approved.

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Best (and worst) of London theatre for 2018...so far...and the actress in two plays on the list

As the halfway mark of 2018 rushes past, it's time to reflect on the highlights and low lights of London's theatre productions so far (edit: scroll to the bottom for the most read posts).

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Julius Caesar warm-up gig, Bridge Theatre. Photo: Rev Stan

I'm not sure whether it's a reflection of more varied programming generally or just where my interests predominantly lie these days but it's a list dominated by women protagonists and BAME stories.

Best of the big stuff (West End and off West End)

Girls and Boys, Royal Court

Carey Mulligan's performance is a tour de force, precise, subtle and complex. It is a devastating and brilliant piece of theatre and it's transferred to the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York Theatre where it runs until July 22.

The York Realist, Donmar Warehouse

Like My Night With Reg crossed with God's Own Country and the steamiest flirtation on stage for a long while.

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

Stuff with Ben Whishaw in it doesn't always make it into my best of lists but being part of the mob was at times like being at a rock concert, a rally and in the middle of a war - never thought I'd enjoy standing at the theatre.

The Great Wave, National Theatre

Had no prior knowledge about the true events this play is based on but it proved the adage that the truth really can be stranger than fiction.

Summer and Smoke, Almeida

The first of two appearances on this list for Patsy Ferran, Summer and Smoke was a delicate, yet tense and heartbreaking play and I'm so glad it's got a transfer to the West End. See ATG's official website for details.

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My favourite plays of 2017...so far #midyearreview #theatre

via GIPHY 

2017 is already the year that brought us Andrew Scott's Hamlet, Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman and my introduction to playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins and it's only six months in. There are a further nine plays I couldn't not include in my 'best of so far' list and that was with the bar set very high. I've still got Angels in America, Ben Whishaw in Against, Rory Kinnear in Young Marx and the awarding winning Oslo to come later this year, among many others potential theatre treats - the end of year list is already looking tricky to narrow down.

Anyway, here's what I've enjoyed the most in 2017 so far. Feel free to agree/disagree...

(In no particular order, because that would be too traumatic to do.)

1. Amadeus, National Theatre  This was supposed to be a 2016 play but I gave up my ticket for the early part of the run because of work pressures, good words from @PolyG made me rebook for January and I'm so glad I did. It was a play that unexpectedly floored me. It's returning next year and yes I've got a ticket.

2. Out Their On Fried Meat Ridge Road, White Bear Fringe theatre kicked off in fine style with this brilliantly warm, funny, odd, dark, misfit comedy that was the antidote to everything disturbing that was going on the world at the time. It transferred to Trafalgar Studios 2 and I got to enjoy it all over again.

3. Hamlet, Almeida  I've seen a lot of Hamlet's and there is usually something new in each but Andrew Scott's prince in Robert Icke's production made me look at the play with completely new eyes. Sorry Sherlock but this was a battle that Moriarty definitely won. It's transferred to the West End.

4. An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre  Was tipped off about American playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins and this is the first of his plays I've seen. It's a play I could write reams and reams about and reminded me why I love going to the theatre. Gloria, another of his plays is currently on at Hampstead Theatre, it didn't quite make this list but it is still really good.

5. Rotterdam, Arts Theatre  This was in my 'best of' list last year but after a stint off Broadway it's come back to London to the bigger Arts Theatre. It made me laugh, it made me gasp and it made me cry - all that even though I've seen it before and knew exactly what was coming. That's why it's back on the list. It's on until 15 July.

6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Old Vic  It's possibly the only Tom Stoppard play I really like and this was a great production that was lively, entertaining, profound and melancholic . There was a brilliant rapport between the two leads - Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire - and David Haig as The Player was worth the ticket price alone.

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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