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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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Theatre best of: Stan's top 10 plays 0f 2022

Best of theatre 2022
This feels like a moment; I haven't been able to do a best-of theatre list since 2019 because of 'you know what'. It's been huge fun revisiting the plays I've seen - nearly 50. And while that total is down on pre-pandemic levels, it was still tricky to narrow down my choices, but here goes.

1. The Collaboration, Young Vic

Synopsis in a sentence: Andy Warhol's star is waning, and young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's star is rising; they have nothing in common but are persuaded to collaborate.

From my review: "I was gripped in the presence of two great artists and gripped by their stories. I laughed, I gasped, I cried, and if I felt compelled to tap my toes at the start, by the end, I was on my feet, and that's something I rarely do."

The play is now on Broadway, and look out for a film version (an actual film, not a filmed stage version).

2. Henry V, Donmar Warehouse

Synopsis in a sentence: The wayward Prince becomes King and has to prove himself to his country and foreign powers.

Not going to lie, Kit Harington surprised me with his performance in this.

From my review: "This is a powerful production of Henry V. Harington's nuanced, often quiet and considered Henry V perfectly highlights the complexity and often contradictory nature of the character and the role of leadership.

3. The Human Voice, Harold Pinter Theatre

Synopsis in a sentence: A woman has a final phone call with her lover, who is getting married the next day.

From my review: "It hasn't gone down well with all the critics, but I thought it was mesmerising and gripping. Hats off to Ruth Wilson."

4. Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, Soho Theatre

Synopsis in a sentence: A lesbian choir get a coveted spot on the main stage at Pride, mainly because they are the only lesbian choir to apply.

From my review: "It is a funny, interesting and occasionally challenging play that had me walking out of the theatre with a big grin on my face. And that is a big win."

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Review: Who Killed My Father, Young Vic Theatre - subtle but powerful

I can now say I've seen Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio on stage. OK, so they were on telly on stage, but that is technically on stage. Kate and Leo were in Titanic mode, the favourite film of the son in Who Killed My Father.

Who Killed My Father
Who Killed My Father, Young Vic, Sep 2022

His homophobic father initially refuses to get him the video for his birthday.

Father and son are both played by Hans Kesting in this Ivo Van Hove adaptation of Édouard Louis' novel. The son is visiting his dying father and reflecting on his life, what shaped him and ultimately brought him to an untimely death.

Kesting differentiates the two using postures, cigarette breaks and stuffing fists up his jumper to indicate a protruding belly. He flits seamlessly from one to the other. There are shifts in energy too, the play covering childhood, teens, adulthood and middle age.

It's a punchy 90-minute play that feels a little like a whodunnit, with the suspects being parents, culture, class and politics.

While it is set in France, there is a lot that resonates about the struggles the poor face here in the UK and how the most minor political decision can make a huge difference - for good or bad.

It's also an interesting exploration of toxic masculinity and how that gets passed down and reinforced by society. It shows the devasting impact it has on the father and his prospects - toeing the line at school is seen as a feminine or homosexual trait. 

But this isn't a simple story of an emotionally abusive father who can't hide his shame about his son's lack of 'masculine' traits. There are family treats, the Titanic video and singalongs to Celine Dion in the car.

The father also experiences a good dose of misfortunate, which makes life even more difficult despite his best efforts.

Kesting's delivery is slow and considered, reserving bursts for youthful energy. It makes for an effective contrast in mood and tone, although the pace does drag a little in a couple of places. He doesn't always play to the audience, so at times it feels voyeuristic. 

At one point, Kesting disappears from view if you are sitting to the left of the stage, but it isn't for very long  He spends a bit of time sitting on a bed which is stage left, but I'm not sure if that affects the view if you are in seats that are to the far right.

Who Killed My Father presents some interesting ideas about the agency poor people have over their own lives, and the way society both helps and hinders. It's subtle but powerful, and I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Who Killed My Father, Young Vic

Adapted from Édouard Louis' book by Ivo Van Hove

Directed by Ivo Van Hove

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval.

Booking until 24 September; visit the Young Vic website for more details and tickets.

Recently reviewed

Silence, Donmar Warehouse⭐️⭐️⭐️

Cruise, Apollo Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Monster, Park Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Theatre coming up soon:

The Clinic, Almeida Theatre, Rose, Park Theatre and The Crucible, Almeida

 

 


Review: Closer, Lyric Hammersmith - a sad and sordid tale of love, lust and lies

The Lyric Hammersmith's circle was steaming hot, but can the same be said about Closer, Patrick Marber's play about love, lust and lies?

Closer Lyric Hammersmith programme
Closer, Lyric Hammersmith July 2022

Two men and two women form a love 'quadrangle': Dan (Jack Farthing) is an obituary writer, Anna is a photographer (Nina Toussaint-White), Larry (Sam Troughton) is a dermatologist, and Alice (Ella Hunt) is sometimes a waitress, sometimes a stripper.

The play opens with Dan and Alice meeting in a hospital. The latter has been knocked over by a taxi, and Dan, a witness to the accident, has accompanied her to get checked out.

It is the first random event that will eventually link the four and starts them on a journey of love pursuits and broken hearts (and egos).

Throwing away love

The problem Dan, Anna and Larry have is that they convince themselves they are chasing love and happiness, only to throw it all away when they get it.

Certainly, in the case of the men, it is quickly apparent that sexual desire is the driving force with infidelity never far away. Larry even likes to visit prostitutes and strip clubs and spends time in internet sex chat rooms while at work.

It is quite sad to watch them make the same mistakes over and over while kidding themselves they are being honest and truthful.

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Review: Britannicus, Lyric Hammersmith - toxic family power struggles and misplaced sympathy

At its heart, Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith is a drama about a toxic family who happens to be the ruling class. Agrippina (Sirine Saba), Claudius' fourth wife, persuaded her husband to adopt her son Nero (William Robinson) and make him his heir, passing over Britannicus (Nathaniel Curtis), his son by his third wife.

Britannicus Lyric Hammersmith poster

Nero has spent the early part of his reign as an inspiring leader, but he is suffocating under the control of his mother, so he starts freezing her out, which triggers a power battle between the two. Then he falls in love with Junia (Shyvonne Ahmmad), Britannicus' fiancée, and things get really nasty.

The play might be called Britannicus, but it's really about Nero and his mother.

Robinson's Nero is like a hormonal teenager at times, petulant and peevish. At others, he is dangerous and erratic; his mood turns on a dime in behaviour that reminds me of more than one comic book villain.

Little boy lost

But there are also faint signs of a simple desire to be loved, which emerge in rare moments of tenderness with those around him. When pitted directly against his mother, he can appear like a little boy lost—someone who wanted hugs rather than being groomed for power.

And as a result, despite the terrible things he does, I did feel sorry for him on occasion.

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Guest review: Scandaltown, Lyric Hammersmith - 'a bingo board of Twitter hashtags'

The last 24 months have been pandemonium, writes Aceil Haddad, events have been dramatic and satirical. Coupled with the ludicrous nature of social media, you’d think you'd have plenty to script. Except it doesn't quite work in Mike Bartlett's play Scandaltown.

Scandaltown lyric hammersmith official artwork

This adult-pantomime-meets-Blackadder approach does muster a handful of laughs, though more interesting is seeing who laughs when.

Bartlett explores many topics in his topsy turvy play; it’s a bingo board of Twitter hashtags - on par with Just Like That - exploring #capitalism #LGBTQ+ #Partygate #likeforlike #snowflakes.

Bartlett is trying to explore the hypocrisy of the righteous left and the entitled right, demonstrating the similarities of these superficially opposite positions; whilst navigating the role of power and influence in today’s world.

Concepts well worth exploring, certainly, and the theatre is a great place to do this, but at times the play felt lazy, the dialogue inauthentic, and the RP accent exhausting.

One of the greatest issues we are facing as a society is ‘us vs them’, which takes many guises; north vs south, doers vs sayers, left vs right, but there is no resolution.

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Review: The Two Character Play, Hampstead Theatre - siblings make for an odd couple in a mixed play

The stage at Hampstead Theatre is part set, backstage equipment and lighting rigs. Zubin Varla's Felice is trying to prep the area for a performance, after which he practices a few lines from a play he's writing, delivering them to a camera on the stage, the image projected onto the back wall. 

The Two Character Play Image 9 Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner
The Two Character Play: Zubin Varla. Photo © Marc Brenner

It is one of the ways high tech equipment is used in The Two Character Play - one of the later works by Tennessee Williams. It plants it firmly in two different times and is perhaps a cheeky nod to digital theatre during lockdown.

Felice is an actor as well as a writer, but the company he is touring with has upped and left him and his actor sister Claire (Kate O'Flynn). The note they leave declares that the two are insane.

Even their manager has abandoned them.

Claire arrives all skittish and wants to cancel the evening's performance but Felice insists they do The Two Character Play instead. Claire agrees, but only if she can make cuts as they go, something she will signal by playing a C-sharp on the piano.

The Two Character Play Image 4 L-R Kate O%u2019Flynn  Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner
The Two Character Play:  L-R Kate O'Flynn &  Zubin Varla Photo © Marc Brenner

They warn each other they might dry and have to improvise, but 'the show must go on'.

And so, the play within the play begins. Claire frustrates Felice with her random cuts, and Felice has to run 'off-stage' to change cassette tapes with the music.

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Review: The Sunset Limited, Boulevard Theatre - great performances, problematic play

Cormac McCarthy isn't known for cheery topics as anyone who has sat through (or read) The Road will testify and his play The Sunset Limited is no exception.

Gary-Beadle-and-Jasper-Britton-in-Sunset-Limited.-Photo-Marc-Brenner
Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton in The Sunset Limited. Photo: Marc Brenner


But where there was the drama of danger and survival in the apocalyptic The Road, in The Sunset Limited drama is somewhat lacking.

It's a two-hander between two unnamed men identified, somewhat ironically given their immovable viewpoints, as Black (Gary Beadle) and White (Jasper Britton).

Black is an ex-con who stops White, a professor, jumping in front of a commuter train - the eponymous Sunset Limited. He sits him down in his tenement apartment to persuade him that life is worth living after all.

Faith vs faithless

The reformed criminal has found god while White remains a staunch atheist admitting that the thought of meeting people in an afterlife fills him with horror.

They debate each other's views, neither conceding ground only occasionally acknowledging a particular view or train of thought as good.

And this is the problem with The Sunset Limited, as interesting as the debate is, there isn't any tension perhaps mild frustration from White that Black won't let him leave.

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End of year review: My favourite theatre of 2019, a year of dazzling performances, wit, drama and tears

It's been tough but I've managed to whittle down my 'best theatre of 2019' list to 10 plays, well, one isn't actually a play but deserves a place nonetheless. So here goes, in no particular order:

Jon-tyson-1Mq4QQaVhis-unsplash
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

1. Downstate, National Theatre

A challenging, difficult play with humour and wit inflected with wisdom that carefully balanced entertainment without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter.

2. Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre

I wasn't that enamoured with Jamie Lloyd's season of Pinter shorts and then came along Betrayal and it was utterly breathtaking.

The sparse script was layered with nuanced performances from Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox. What wasn't said screamed loud.

3. Seven Methods For Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court upstairs

This made a lot of what is on stage in London look stodgy and staid. A fresh and achingly contemporary play that cleverly and boldly tackled social media and what it reveals about modern society.

4. Hansard, National Theatre

One of those plays that get mentioned a lot in theatre conversations, this was an extremely witty and acerbic political drama/comedy which had an unexpected emotional punch.

I loved it also for its balance approached in scrutinising both left and right-leaning politics.

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Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Almeida Theatre or where has the magnetic Lydia Wilson been?

Lydia Wilson is back on stage, hurrah! Haven't seen her since she played Kate in Charles III back in 2014 and seeing her as the Duchess of Malfi reminded me how much I've missed her on stage. 

Lydia wilson duchess of malfi

And it was a great way to round off my year of theatre-going, I love a good, gruesome piece of Jacobean drama.

The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy sparked by the widowed Duchess deciding to defy her powerful brothers and not only marry but marry 'beneath her'.

Her siblings' instructions are motivated by a desire to inherit the Duchess' wealth, snobbery and, in the case of her deranged twin Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) incestuous lust.

Power and greed

It is a play about power and greed and women's lack of currency in society.

The threat to the Duchess is evidence even before her secret marriage to Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) her gentle former steward.

When her brother picks up a dagger, a family heirloom, during a conversation her nervousness and discomfort marks him out as already dangerous and volatile.

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