Theatre in 2015

I had to demand a recount from myself (because I didn’t quite believe it) but my theatrical obsession reached terrifying new heights in 2015 with an insane 81 shows seen. With that much choice, it was no easy task to narrow down to just a handful of shows but here are my top picks of 2015 in alphabetical order.

Casa Valentina
by Harvey Fierstein
at Southwark Playhouse

Matthew Rixon as Bessie and Tamsin Carroll as Rita
Matthew Rixon as Bessie and Tamsin Carroll as Rita

2015 was a vintage year for the husky-voiced New Yorker with the opening of Kinky Boots at the Adelphi and the UK premiere of this play, that originally debuted on Broadway in 2014. Inspired by the book Casa Susanna, Fierstein has created a genuinely fascinating and engrossing tale about a group of men who visit a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains to explore their feminine side. The performances were beautifully judged, particularly Tamsin Carroll as one half of the hotelier couple in an unconventional marriage. The honesty and humanity of this production made for a unique experience and it is a great shame that it failed to attract bigger audiences.

 

The Christians
by Lucas Hnath
at Gate Theatre W11

William Gaminara as Pastor
William Gaminara as Pastor

The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill was an cosy setting for this clever American play by Lucas Hnath about faith where Pastor Paul causes shockwaves through his congregation after announcing that he no longer believes that hell exists. I particularly liked the way that microphones were used throughout to broadcast often intimate inner thoughts as a “voice from above” and the community choir gave added authenticity.

 

The Dazzle
by Richard Greenberg
at Found111

David Dawson as Homer and Andrew Scott as Langley. Photo by Marc Brenner.
David Dawson as Homer and Andrew Scott as Langley. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Performed in a temporary space at the top of the old St. Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road, this is a venue that demands good stamina with 73 steps. Richard Greenberg’s play about two interdependent brothers who slowly entomb themselves with junk in a New York mansion is fascinatingly bizarre but what really made this stand out was the performances. It’s a given that Andrew Scott will be brilliant but I was really impressed by David Dawson who was spellbinding.

 

The Father
by Florian Zeller
at Wyndham’s Theatre

Kenneth Cranham as Andre and Claire Skinner as Anne. Photo by Simon Annand
Kenneth Cranham as Andre and Claire Skinner as Anne. Photo by Simon Annand

Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner were fantastic in this ingenious play that explores Alzheimer’s by playing with the audience’s mind. As the play goes on, the set is slowly cleared of furniture and the changes of characters and actors heighten the utter sense of confusion. It returns to the West End at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 24 February.

 

Firebird
by Phil Davies
at Hampstead Theatre

Tahirah Sharif as Katie and Callie Cooke as Tia. Photo by Robert Day.
Tahirah Sharif as Katie and Callie Cooke as Tia. Photo by Robert Day.

A breathtakingly good 80 minute play about child sexual exploitation based on the events in Rochdale. Gut-punching-in-your-face theatre with superb performances. It gets a West End run at Trafalgar Studios from 17 February.

 

Hangmen
by Martin McDonagh
at Royal Court

Reece Shearsmith as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Reece Shearsmith as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

I can’t give this play or production enough superlatives and I enjoyed a second visit in January 2015 at the Wyndham’s almost as much as the first. Martin McDonagh’s script is very sharp, cruel and brilliantly funny. I particularly liked Bronwyn James in her professional debut who was pitch perfect as teenager Shirley.

Here We Go
by Caryl Churchill
at National Theatre

Patrick Godfrey. Photo by Keith Pattison.
Patrick Godfrey. Photo by Keith Pattison.

I am fairly certain that this is the first Caryl Churchill play I’ve ever seen. A 45 minute reflection on death, played in reverse order, from funeral to care home. There was much debate of the last 20 minute scene where the old man gets repeatedly dressed and undressed in a care home, but no complaints from me.

Man and Superman
by George Bernhard Shaw
at National Theatre

Indira Varma as Ann and Ralph Fiennes as John. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Indira Varma as Ann and Ralph Fiennes as John. Photo by Alastair Muir.

I am not a fan of long plays and movies, so when I found out the running time was 3+ hours, I was not full of glee. How wrong I was. To my surprise, this was a complete delight. Ralph Fiennes is truly wonderful to watch as the batchelor doing everything he can to avoid marriage and he was very well supported by Indira Varma.

 

Three Days in the Country
by Patrick Marber after Turgenev
at National Theatre

Debra Gillett as Lizaveta and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Debra Gillett as Lizaveta and Mark Gatiss as Shpigelsky. Photo by Alastair Muir.

This Patrick Marber riff on Three Months in the Country gathered some rather sniffy reviews but I loved every minute. Strong performances from all and a beautifully simple but effective set design.

Tree
by Daniel Kitson
at Old Vic

tree

I heard so many great things about Daniel Kitson but this was my first experience and what a complete joy it was. A man is up a tree. Another man walks by and they start talking. Tall tales and improbable scenarios ensue. By the end you’re not sure who is telling the truth but you’ve been thoroughly entertained.

 

Violence and Son
by Gary Owen
at Royal Court

David Moorst as Liam and Jason Hughes as Rick. Photo by Alastair Muir.
David Moorst as Liam and Jason Hughes as Rick. Photo by Alastair Muir.

Yes it is Warren from This Life! But time has moved on quite a bit and now Jason Hughes plays a Dad whose son has moved back to Wales after his mother died from cancer. A satisfyingly quirky play about family, belonging and violence. Very effectively staged in the round (think bull ring…) with strong performances from all, particularly David Moorst who deservedly won an Evening Standard Theatre Award for this.

Theatre in 2014

I saw 44 shows last year and there were some real crackers in the mix. So (drumroll please) here are my top 10 best productions of 2014 in alphabetical order.

Ballyturk (National Theatre, London)

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo: Patrick Redmond.
Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo: Patrick Redmond.

Safely slotting into the ‘utterly bonkers’ category, Enda Walsh’s enigmatic new play divided audiences but I found it fascinating and am sticking to my hypothesis that the claustrophobic and abstract world the characters inhabit represents the internet. It was also an entertaining 90 minutes  – what’s not to like about a couple of grown men running manically around the stage as they get dressed to Blancmange’s Living on the Ceiling? “I’m so tall, I’m so tall…”

 

The Blackest Black (Hampstead Theatre, London)

Charity Wakefield and John Light. Photo: Robert Day.
Charity Wakefield and John Light. Photo: Robert Day.

Another cracker from one of my favourite venues, Hampstead Downstairs. A slow burning and very delicate play by Jeremy Block that revolves around the relationship between an artist (Charity Wakefield) and astronomer (John Light). I found it totally compelling with strong writing, spot-on performances and beautiful design and direction.

 

The Drowsy Chaperone (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

the-drowsy-chaperone

This production can be summed up in two words: sheer class. It’s a charming, entertaining and very funny musical but with the addition of superbly talented cast and tightly paced direction by Jay James-Moody (who also played the ‘Man in Chair’ role) it just went through the roof. Exhilarating.

 

God Bless The Child (Royal Court, London)

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s not often that you walk down a school corridor and pass a row of children’s coats as you enter an auditorium but with superb attention to detail, designer Chloe Lamford transformed the Royal Court’s upstairs space into a huge classroom where we the audience sat on plastic seats along the walls. ‘Badger Do Best’ is the latest initiative being trialled at Castlegrave School where the teachers talk more childishly than the pupils. With two teams of eight year-olds (all refreshingly naturalistic and un-stage-schooly), this fast-moving production by Vicky Featherstone was really well done.

 

Here Lies Love (Dorfmann Theatre, London)

Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos. Photo: Tristram Kenton.
Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The much talked about David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaboration hopped across the pond in 2014 and opens in Sydney in 2015. I only wish I’d known more about the history of the Philippines before I’d seen the show, so I couldn’t resist seeing it for a second time. While a singalong-with-Imelda encore sits awkwardly next to the final acoustic number, the previous 90 minutes is a brilliantly slick production with catchy songs throughout. Extra marks awarded for shoes only being mentioned once (and in an amusingly clever and casual lyric).

 

My Night With Reg (Donmar Warehouse, London)

Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Broadbent and Julian Ovenden. Photo: Johan Persson.
Geoffrey Streatfeild, Jonathan Broadbent and Julian Ovenden. Photo: Johan Persson.

I first saw this 20 years ago at the Criterion (starring John Sessions) and distinctly remember being nonplussed by it all! As the years have passed, I felt quite differently this time around. A really well done production with finely nuanced performances from the entire cast. This month it returns to the West End for a second run with the same cast.

 

The Nether (Royal Court Theatre, London)

David Beames and Stanley Townsend. Photo: Johan Persson.
David Beames and Stanley Townsend. Photo: Johan Persson.

Without question my favourite show of the year, this challenging single-act play by Jennifer Haley is a stunning piece of theatre. The Nether explores how people behave in a virtual world where any sexual fantasy is possible and it does so in a very sensitive, intelligent and chillingly believable way. The set and video projection design is beautifully done and seamlessly integrated into the concept. It deservedly gets another run at the Duke of York’s Theatre from end of January.

 

Pomona (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Sam Swann and Sean Rigby.
Sam Swann and Sean Rigby.

For Paul Miller’s third production as the new Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, he dropped a bombshell on TW9 with this new play by Alistair McDowall. With its dark non-linear narrative set in urban Manchester, this was certainly not traditional Orange Tree fare and not surprisingly it attracted a rather more youthful audience than usual. Great performances from the entire cast and tight direction from Ned Bennett. I hope Pomona marks the start of a more eclectic programming strategy at the theatre.

 

Skylight (Wyndhams Theatre, London)

Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan.
Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan.

Could two of my favourite actors, Bill Nighy and Carrie Mulligan really be on stage in the same David Hare play? Sure, the age difference between them was stretching credibility but I loved this production and Bob Crowley’s skeleton-like urban set design. Skylight gets a second run on Broadway in March 2015.

 

The Wild Duck (Barbican, London)

Richard Piper and a duck. Photo: Danilo Moroni
Richard Piper and a duck. Photo: Danilo Moroni

A same-day decision to catch the last performance of this London-only tour by Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre (where I saw a couple of great productions earlier in the year) and I’m so glad I did. Simon Stone’s raw, powerful and gutsy production places almost all the action behind a glass walls with the actors on radio mics. Performances were superb and I can confirm there was indeed a live duck on stage.

Theatre in 2013

It seems the last annual roundup I did was in 2010, so with 64 shows feeding my theatregoing addition last year, it is high time for another and fortunately 2013 was a fantastic year for London theatre.

A bit of birthday sparkle on the rain-drenched Lyletton fly tower.
The Lyttleton fly tower gets a touch of birthday sparkle

It remains my favourite building in London and the National Theatre celebrated their 50th anniversary in fitting style, with a couple of documentaries, a pick-and-mix variety show of highlights and a fascinating series of discussion panels that were thankfully recorded and available on SoundCloud. These are a wonderful educational resource for anyone in the industry or watching from the wings.

So without further ado, in alphabetical order, here are my top 12 favourite productions of 2013.

1984 (Richmond Theatre)

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

A couple of years ago I saw a Northern Broadsides production of Orwell’s 1984 and I remember it leaving no impression on me whatsoever! However, this Headlong touring production, could not have been more different. Brilliantly directed and performed with an impressive set and very effective use of video projection. 1984 comes to the Almeida Theatre in February and the entire run is already sold out.

 

Chimerica (Noel Coward Theatre)

Photo: Johan Persson
Photo: Johan Persson

Lucy Kirkwood’s play about the Tiananmen Square ‘tank man’ was a sold-out success at the Almeida before it transferred to the West End. A Headlong co-production it had an ingenious set based on a rotating cube, which is the cleverest thing I’ve seen on stage since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Equally impressive was the brisk pace of the production which is no mean feat for a three hour play. The reviews were unanimously stunning and I was dubious whether it would live up to them. It did.

 

Fault Lines (Hampstead Theatre)

Photo: Holly Wren
Photo: Holly Wren

One of my favourite London theatres, Hampstead Theatre pulled a cracker with this new contemporary comedy by Ali Taylor, set in the office of a disaster relief charity. While I wasn’t quite convinced by the central relationship, there were some strong performances (particularly from Alex Lawther, above) and another fantastic Hampstead set which took naturalism to a whole new level.

 

Fences (Duchess Theatre)

Photo: Nobby Clark
Photo: Nobby Clark

Another feather in the cap for Lenny Henry who was simply stunning in this fine production of August Wilson’s American classic. I’d never seen the play before but I found myself captivated and very moved by it.

 

The Hothouse (Trafalgar Studios)

Photo: Johan Persson
Photo: Johan Persson

I absolutely loved this Pinter play. Perfectly cast with Simon Russell-Beale and John Simm as the leads and featuring a manic John Heffernan and the wonderful Harry Melling (above). Impeccably directed by Jamie Lloyd and beautifully designed by Soutra Gilmour.

 

Let the Right One In (Royal Court)

Photo: Drew Farrell
Photo: Drew Farrell

Creating a stage version of a movie which features a series of horrific deaths and a scene in a swimming pool is hardly a walk in the park, but the National Theatre of Scotland pulled it off brilliantly.

 

London Wall (St James Theatre)

Photo: Philip Gammon
Photo: Philip Gammon

This production was a complete joy from beginning to end. This revival of the John Van Druten play about office life in the 1930s was originally produced at the Finborough Theatre and transferred to St James Theatre in May. Superb performances from the entire cast, I honestly didn’t want it to end.

 

Port (NT Lyttleton)

Photo: Kevin Cummins
Photo: Kevin Cummins

This NT revival of Simon Stephens’ 2002 epic play about a brother and sister growing up in Stockport received mixed reviews. Putting a curiously double-casting decision aside, I really enjoyed the sheer ambition and design of this production on the vast Lyttleton stage.

 

The Pride (Trafalgar Studios)

Photo: Marc Brenner
Photo: Marc Brenner

The last show in Jamie Lloyd’s ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ season and what a classy production this was. A very simple but beautifully executed set and heartbreakingly delicate performances from Harry Hadden-Paton, Al Weaver and Hayley Atwell supported by Matthew Horne. The Pride is shortly embarking on a mini-tour to Brighton, Manchester and Richmond from mid-January and I’m very tempted to see it again.

 

Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic)

Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s an odd play but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kim Cattrall and the rather lovely Seth Numrich were great as the leads in this epic tale of an middle-aged actress chasing her youth and a young man escaping his past.

 

Twelfth Night (Globe)

Photo: Geraint Lewis
Photo: Geraint Lewis

Not strictly a 2013 production since this was recorded at the Globe in 2012, but I thought this all-male production was spell-binding. Mark Rylance was amazingly entertaining as Olivia and this is another one for the ‘complete joy’ category.

 

The Winslow Boy (Old Vic)

Photo: Alastair Muir
Photo: Alastair Muir

This was the first time I’d seen this Terence Rattigan play and with its beautiful design and top notch performances, this was one of those productions that you soon feel completely immersed in. A perfect revival for the Old Vic – they just do them so well.

Sing When You’re Winning

Singing. I’ve always loved it but never had any formal tuition until 2010 when I did a 12 week evening course at CSSD that started off with 15 keen students and dwindled down to just 4 of us by the end!

The past couple of years I’ve been heavily involved in theatre and apart from the songs in Privates on Parade in May 2012, my vocal chords have been rather underused and I miss it very much. So when I decided to take a break from theatrical pursuits this year, doing some sort of singing was high on the to do list.

‘Traditional’ choirs don’t appeal to me so the timing of the brand new Chaps Choir group on Thursday nights couldn’t be better and I’m loving it (bah-dah-bah-bah-bah). With vocal chords freshly energised, I decided to be brave and dive in to the third annual Chorus Festival at Southbank Centre this bank holiday weekend.

Southbank Centre on May Bank Holiday weekend

On Saturday I joined around 100 people of all ages in an all-day workshop with Tim Rhys-Evans (of Only Boys Aloud and Only Men Aloud fame) working on 3 songs – ‘Will I’ from Rent, ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along and what I now know as his signature arrangement of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. Spending the day rehearsing on the Royal Festival Hall stage was quite an amazing experience in itself – shame I forgot to take a photo.

At 6pm we all trotted down to the ground floor to perform our three songs to an enthusiastic audience in the packed Clore Ballroom, where I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Julie and we decided to sign up for a workshop on Sunday. Of course one thing leads to another and we had a great time singing our little hearts out to a Todd Rungren’s ‘Mighty Love’, watching an outdoors performance of the fantastic Pop-Up Choir, enjoying a tasty veggie burger and Pimms in the sunshine and taking part in a Pop-Up workshop session. On Monday night, the festival closed with a free concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with some gorgeous arrangements by groups led by Pete Churchill.

Two things struck me about the festival. Firstly what an inclusive activity singing can be. The minimum entry requirement is the ability to hold a note and that’s it. So there were all types, races and ages of people, from children (including a girl with Down’s Syndrome) to elderly people. Everyone had a smile on their face. It had quite a magical and emotionally-charged atmosphere.

Chorus Festival blazes the trail for arts events in the 21st century. Why should funding for arts organisations only be used to fund the production of paid performances? Watching a performance is certainly satisfying but actually taking part in something with other like-minded people is something else entirely. A more holistic and educational approach is exactly what a publicly funded arts organisation should be doing. I suspect that with the renewed focus on budget cuts, organisations that actively pursue this route are putting themselves in a far stronger position when those funding decisions come around again.

So hats off to Jude Kelly and the Southbank Centre team for such a fantastic achievement. I will be back in 2014.

Playwriting course – Week 1

For many years, the idea of writing a play has been on my grand to-do list. When I first started at the BBC, we had to create a short programme as part of a training course. I decided to write a monologue and got one of the course lecturers to play the part. It was only about ten minutes long with three or four scenes but I clearly remember the bizarre and exhilarating feeling when the character I had created came to life in front of my eyes. That as they say, is the magic of writing.

So when I stumbled across a 12 week playwriting course at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss.

The course tutor is Stephen Brown and there are 14 of us in the group. A wide variety of people (us men are outnumbered by quite a margin) from young students to actors, journalists and teachers.

“I am here for the sheer terror and challenge”, I jokingly proclaimed when we introduced ourselves to the group. It isn’t far off the truth. My writing skills feel decidedly rusty. I have a rough idea for a play but it is based around a set design. I don’t have a plot or even much idea about characters.

In the first week’s class, we talked about what drama really is (action/conflict/events), read the opening scene of Antigone and Art noting how they both start with immediate conflict, and dived straight in with some writing exercises. Stephen gave us the set up of a scene – the location, time of day, number of characters, how they were dressed – and gave us 20 minutes to write a scene.

That’s when two surprising things happened – that I was (almost unconsciously) able to write two and a half pages of dialogue, and how the personalities and interactions between the two characters developed without me knowingly shaping them. This should be an interesting 12 weeks.