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10 plays from the past 10 years that stand out - for a variety of reasons (not necessarily overly worthy ones)

Here is a snapshot of my favourite theatre from the past 10 years. I say 'favourite', I've tried not to overthink it, these are simply the plays that stand out most in my memory, the ones I talk about if people ask.

Theatre tickets
Stan's growing pile of theatre tickets


The list is not about plays that broke new ground or changed the theatre landscape - there are plenty of those lists around already - rather these plays just had something in them that I remember fondly.

To say that it has been tough narrowing it down to 10 is an understatement but I get another go next year because my blog is 10 in April. (There, I spoilt the surprise.)

In no particular order (the links are through to my reviews):

1. After the Dance, National Theatre

This is a play that gets talked about in 'theatre circles' a lot. It had a uniformly standout cast and I can still remember Nancy Carroll's snot crying.

But it has a particularly special place in my memory for being the play which turned Benedict Cumberbatch into 'one to watch' for me.

I'd seen him plenty on TV but this catapulted him from jobbing actor to leading man potential in my eyes.

This was before Sherlock hit the screens and as a result, means I can smugly say 'well I've been a fan since before he played Holmes'.

2. Hamlet, Stratford and Hackney Empire

I've seen a lot of Hamlets, more than one a year, and while technically I did see Ben Whishaw's Hamlet for the first time in 2010, it was a recording rather than the live performance so it doesn't count.

Paapa Essiedu's Hamlet for the RSC was the first, since Whishaw's, where I really felt he was a student and acting his age, he was also the most likeable which made the play all the more tragic.

Setting the play in an African country and having Rosencrantz & Guildenstern as 2 of only 3 white characters was also genius because it put them out of their depth in so many more interesting ways.

When I saw it for the second time, in Hackney, a group of teenagers were so swept up in it they leapt up to dance at the end. I don't think there is higher praise than that really.

3. The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios

It's the play in which director Jamie Lloyd had James McAvoy unicycling around the stage wearing just his pants. Have no idea why that sticks out in my mind. Ahem.

The play was brilliantly bonkers too. Wish I could see it again.

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Review: Who fixes the fixer in thriller The Peregrine, Stockwell Playhouse

AX The Peregrine Paul (Christopher Sherwood) and Sofia (Katie Buchholtz) dance the tango
Christopher Sherwood and Katie Buchholtz in The Peregrine, Stockwell Playhouse

New York playwright Philip Holt's new play The Peregrine is a thriller set in Argentina where protagonist Paul (Christopher Sherwood) is a fixer of the gun-toting kind.

He wears sharp suits and stays in nice hotels and has come a long way from his childhood in the slums from where he was plucked, educated and trained by svengali Memo (Sprague Theobald).

Past catching up?

But as he searches for his past will his past catch up with him? Can the fixer be fixed and who fixes the fixer?

The play is a game of chess as the chess boards randomly stuck on the piled, packing-crate set pointedly remind us.

Paul tries to stay one step ahead of his own mission and one step ahead of that of others - he isn't the only street-urchin Memo has raised up and trained for less than legal activities.

Metaphor heavy

Holt's script is at times baggy with metaphor - particularly references to hunting and prey - which does have a tendency to draw out tension rather than add to it. 

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Review: Powerful, haunting and gripping Plastic, Old Red Lion Theatre

There is a defined and painful tragedy in how a moment of lost control can have fundamental consequences but what haunted me most was that for some of the characters their school days were as good as it was ever going to get.

A piece of classical music is playing. It’s one of those evocative pieces that has mournful, tragic undertones, the sort that is used in war films.

A mirrorball rotates sending disco sparkles of light across a couple dancing slowly.

Plastic  Old Red Lion Theatre (Mark Weinman  Louis Greatorex  Thomas Coombes and Madison Clare) - courtesy of Mathew Foster
Mark Weinman, Louis Greatorex, Thomas Coombes and Madison Clare in Plastic, Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: Mathew Foster

The music combined with the mirror ball perfectly set the scene for what is to come in Kenneth Emson’s new play Plastic.

Set in an Essex secondary school this is part reminiscence part flit back in time to a day when life was different.

Lisa (Madison Clare) - bright, sassy, popular - has decided that ‘tonight is the night’ with Kev (Mark Weinman), the former school football team captain who now has a car and a mundane job.

She wants the day to go as quickly as possible but the gossip machine is whirring.

Best friends Jack (Louis Greatorex) and Ben (Thomas Coombes) are the outsiders, the 'weirdos' who want to get through the day unnoticed, unmolested from verbal or physical abuse.

As the day crawls by, tension is mounting. Ben might be about to snap; he is a ball of broiling anger, frustration and resentment, sensitive to every perceived slight and constantly rising to the bait.

Looking to escape the stares, the gossip, the threats, the steaming brew of hormones and hierarchy Jack, Ben and Lisa bunk off, a decision that will change all their lives.

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Review: Chummy, White Bear Theatre - the thriller that doesn't quite thrill.

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Chummy, White Bear. Photo: Headshot Toby

A man in black jeans, black scarf and black hood stalks the darker edges and corners of the stage with just the briefest glimpses of his face. This is Chummy (Calum Speed) a soon to be murderer who calls ex police detective Jackie Straker (Megan Pemberton) asking her to stop him. Straker has her own problems, not least a gin crutch, but Chummy quickly becomes her obsession and curse, threatening her own mental stability.

The play is set primarily in a dingy office from where Straker tries to run a private detective business. The rear wall is a series of blinds which lift to reveal silhouettes - Chummy creepily appears or a potential victim is seen out enjoying herself. It is a clever way of staging what is otherwise a fairly static play - its central plot device is two people talking over the phone after all. And that is part of the problem. The conversation between Chummy and Straker and their subsequent monologues need to be insightful and punchy but the dialogue at times feels odd and weighed down with simile. As a result the plot feels laboured and I'm not sure I learned much more about the mind of a murderer - or the mind of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

John Foster's play has all the makings of a great psychological thriller and it has its tense moments  - ironically often when there is physical interaction between the characters - but it never quite fulfils its potential. The cast do their best with the script but I couldn't help thinking whether it might work better as a shorter radio play - the running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with an interval.

It's at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington until 10 June and I'm giving it three stars.


Hangmen review or how Johnny Flynn stole the show

590x494.fitandcropJohnny Flynn. Actor, musician; I've always had a bit of a soft spot. He's never had the breadth of roles of some of my favourite actors, often playing likeable, quiet, awkward types, but he's got a certain charm on stage. So plaudits for him and casting director Amy Ball who saw Mooney in Martin McDonagh's Hangmen in him.

Mooney is a southerner who walks into the life of  Harry (David Morrissey), Britain's second best hangman, who's from Oldham. He turns up in Harry's wife's pub where the locals take a bit of dislike to what they perceive as strange 'southern' ways but Harry's wife and daughter are charmed.

It is the genius of Martin McDonagh's writing, brought to life by Flynn, that Mooney is an enigma, just as you think you've got him sussed he does something to cast doubts in your mind. McDonagh rubs it in your face, has Mooney discussing the degrees by which he is weird, whether he is creepy or scary. It works beautifully, you sit up and take notice when he's on the stage, you want him on the stage so you can laugh and be a little bit uncomfortable at the same time.

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Review: Macabre comedy Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

ImageThe nights are drawing in and the Grand Guignol in early 20th Century Paris is drawing in the crowds for its macabre and terrifying horror shows. Meanwhile outside on the streets of Monmatre a monster carries out his gruesome murders. 

Into this scenario steps eminent psychologist Dr Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) who is conducting a study of 'creatives': "Actors, playwrights, lunatics. They are all imminently fascinating to me."

And so it begins, a witches cauldron of horror, melodrama, satire and farce with a pinch of murder mystery added for good measure.

The actors at the Grand Guignol are pretentious and affected, the stage manager/props maker bossy and the owner of the theatre demanding in the pursuit of profit. The theatre's resident writer Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent) is a gentle soul but a slave to his craft and haunted by Edgar Allen Poe whom he relies on for inspiration (a terrifying Andy Williams complete with stuffed raven on his shoulder).

Later we meet the theatre critic Level (Andy Williams again). He is all that you imagine in this context but with a delightful twist.

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Caught in the Deathtrap

02493_show_portrait With a title like Deathtrap and a set that is a weapon-lovers wet dream, murder is a sort of given at some point in the evening.

Simon Russell Beale takes the lead of this Ira Levin comedy thriller as middle-aged playwright Sidney Bruhl struggling to re-find the creative genius that once earnt him his crust and made him famous: "Nothing recedes like success". 

Then he meets young aspiring playwright, Clifford who's written a brilliant and potentially lucrative play (Glee's Jonathan Groff and yes I am the only one on the planet who's never a single episode or even heard of him).

I can say no more because the programme asks not to reveal any of the plot. What I can say is that in Russell Beale's hands the play crackles with whip snaps of witty one-liners and digs at the world of theatre. The production is also at times suitably thrilling giving it the ingredients to be described aptly as, well, as a comedy thriller I guess.

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