Theatre in 2010

Review of my theatregoing obsession in 2010

I admit it, I’m slightly obsessed and about £1800 less well off. The two short acting courses clearly left an impression because this year I saw 68 productions which is almost three times the number I saw in 2009! I’m certainly picky – it’s very rare that I’ll book for a show before reviews are published – and as a result I’ve been lucky enough to some very fine productions this year.

What makes the experience of live theatre unique is the relationship we have as an audience with the actors. When it comes to West End theatres, I freely admit to being a ‘Stalls Snob’ (if I can’t sit in the first 12 or so rows of the stalls I’d rather give it a miss) but I very rarely pay full price. Fringe theatres provide an amazing opportunity to sit within literally touching distance of actors and the whole experience becomes so much more powerful as a result. For me this has been the biggest thrill of 2010. We are fortunate in London to have so many fringe venues producing high quality work and we should support them as much as we can.

2010 has been a year of rediscoveries – It’s very many years since I’ve been to the Bush Theatre and Donmar Warehouse but the former in particular provided a couple of treats with The Aliens and My Romantic History. I look forward to seeing the Bush Theatre continue to do great things in 2011 as they move to a larger new home in the old Shepherd’s Bush library. There have also been many discoveries including the Almeida, Arcola, Finborough, Menier Chocolate Factory, Old Red Lion, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Royal Court (why has it taken me so long?) and the Young Vic. So without further ado, here are my highlights and lowlights of 2010.

Best Productions:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – beautifully acted and completely engrossing.
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – David Suchet was superb.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – just a joy to watch from beginning to end.
  • Jerusalem (Apollo) – incredible performance from Mark Rylance.
  • Posh (Royal Court) – I loved this new play and the tight ensemble acting from the entire cast.
  • Rope (Almeida) – a completely thrilling and very atmospheric production in the round, had the entire audience on the edge of our seats.
  • Spur of the Moment (Royal Court) – this new play from a 17 year old playwright was timed to perfection.
  • Sweeney Todd (National Music Youth Theatre at Village Underground) – I was blown away by the sheer vitality and performance quality for such a young cast.
  • Taking Steps (Orange Tree) – I’m not a huge Alan Ayckbourn fan but with the man himself directing this revival, it’s hard to imagine how this could have been any better.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – a confident, pacey and gutsy production.

Least Scary Production:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – after all the build up, the actual show was a disappointment.

Worst Productions:

  • Wolfboy (Trafalgar Studios) – it’s hard to put into words how awful this was and it’s all Stephen Fry’s fault!
  • Dumb Show (Rose Theatre, Kingston) – an underdeveloped and unconvincing play.
  • A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (Lyric Hammersmith) – great idea meets weak writing and execution.
  • Nation (National Theatre) – all the elements were there but it was a clunky and laboured experience.

Best Set Design:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – breathtaking to look at AND there were ceilings!
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – real grass, big tree and a cute wooden house.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – three wonderful sets for the price of one.
  • Red Bud (Royal Court) – more real grass, a fire pit and authentic American truck (unassembled, winched up to the fifth floor then reassembled) demonstrated how adaptable their upstairs space really is.
  • Salome (Hampstead Theatre) – stunning industrial set with mud, puddles and actors not afraid to get dirty. How wardrobe must have loved that one!
  • The Aliens (Bush Theatre) – simple but very atmospheric external service area of an American diner with lots of corrugated steel. Nice touch of pebbles in a concrete screed on the floor.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – isolated rural cottage in Ireland got extra points for audience entrance experience with ‘rain’ running down plastic sheets.
  • The Railway Children (Waterloo) – ingenious adaptation of old Eurostar platforms, the tunnel scene was particularly well done.
  • The Gods Weep (Hampstead Theatre) – started off as quite a bland looking set and turned into something quite different.

Best FOH Dressing:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – foyer and corridors to auditorium had hanging light fittings, damaged carpet and police incident tape everywhere.

Best Lighting:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – the realistic lighting complemented the superb sets perfectly.
  • Rope (Almeida) – less was definitely more for creating tension in this great production.
  • The Prince of Homburg (Donmar Warehouse) – subdued and effective. The sound design was also very good.

Worst Lighting:

  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – the set was a small cottage in rural Ireland with a tiny window and most scenes were lit like a panto! A shame since the lighting on night time scenes was very good.

Best Theatre Websites:

  • Bush Theatre – I love the friendly and approachable personality of this new site design and their online booking is well done too.
  • Royal Court – it’s a wonderful building and this warm and vibrant site really shows it off to the full.

So that’s it for 2010, let’s hear it for a fantastic year for the theatre capital of the world and here’s to more great shows in 2011!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

So another West End show, ‘Joseph’ starring Gareth Gates has just closed early. If I remember correctly, I saw the original Palladium production two (or possibly even three times) with both Jason Donovan and Phillip Schofield. This restaging has been at the Adelphi Theatre since 2007 when Lee Mead, the winner of the BBC talent show, ‘Any Dream Will Do’ took on the lead role.

Tonight was the last night and it was packed with the additional showbiz element of Tim Rice sitting a few rows in front and getting besieged by autograph hunters. As far as I could tell, the show was identical to the Palladium production. It’s still brilliantly staged with the scenes flowing effortlessly into one another. Performances were very good and it must be a tough show to do because there’s little pause for breath. Dean Collinson was a particularly fun Pharoah but Jenna Lee-James played the Narrator in an oddly cold and businesslike fashion.

Oh and Mr Gates? He did a very fine job. I was impressed. The megamix was as foot-tappingly camp as it should be and Gareth went up on the hydraulic lift at the end. What more could one ask for?

Spring Awakening

Based on a controversial German play, ‘Spring Awakening‘ the musical first saw the light of day in New York in 2006. It tells the story of a group of teenagers as they leave childhood behind and transition into adulthood. I’d read lots of positive reviews and it was on my list of shows to see and by sheer fluke I was a bit alarmed to discover it was due to close early this week. So a discount ticket email was hastily dug out from the inbox and Tuesday was the night.

I’d heard some comparisons made between the show and another of my favourite musicals, ‘Rent’ (the original production not the abysmal ‘Rent Remixed’) and it does have the same feel – the brick wall set, the liberal use of dialogue during songs and in-your-face rock band guitars. Like ‘Rent’, ‘Spring Awakening’ has a raw energy and youthfulness that’s invigorating to watch and the music is just superb. It runs the full musical gamut from the soft and tender ‘Left Behind’ to the angry, rocky and pretty-damn-awesome ‘Totally Fucked’. Yes folks, the Broadway cast recording is now sitting on my iPod and I love it.

Acting was good all round but vocally the girls were much stronger and more confident than the boys. The one exception was Iwan Rheon (playing the role of Moritz) who had an fantastic voice. The set design and lighting deserve special mention because they really lift the production to a very high standard.

Unfortunately, fantastic songs and staging wasn’t enough. Even after a successful run at the Lyric Hammersmith, any show that deals with ‘challenging’ subjects such as suicide, incest, S&M and abortion is going to have a tough time in the West End. ‘Spring Awakening’ just isn’t commercial enough for a mainstream audience and that’s a great shame because any show that isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber or a jukebox musical deserves a home in my opinion.

As a footnote, I’d never been to the Novello before but it’s a wonderful theatre. We sat in row T of the stalls and on the side walls are large ornate mirrors that reflect what’s happening on stage. It really enhanced the experience. Another unusual feature was the bar at the back of the stalls that has a window into the auditorium and looks like a cute old train carriage.

Les Miserables

Yes I know it’s been running for centuries but for some inexplicable reason I’d never seen Les Mis until last night. It’s one of those shows that everyone seems to rave about. OK well almost everyone. The friend-of-a-friend at Priscilla last night thought it was a snoozefest.

So along I went to the Queen’s Theatre with an open mind and a smattering of anticipation. The latter probably due to the fact that the lovely and highly talented Jon Robyns has been part of the cast since last year. But what if my reaction to the show was inappropriate? Should I pop into Angels on the way down Shaftesbury Avenue and hire a couple of masks?

If so, how would I know which mask I should be wearing? Is Les Mis the sort of show that starts with the right mask and ends with the left? Or is it just right mask all the way from curtain up through to the train journey home and bedtime?

Three and a bit hours later as we stumbled through a mild gin and vodka induced haze into the street (at the Queen’s Theatre the circle exits are at street level..how weird is that?) I still wouldn’t have known which mask to wear.

I wasn’t very familiar with the music but it sounds great and looks great. David Shannon as Jean Valjean was very good with a beautiful voice. Also strong was David Thaxton as Enjolras and Jon Robyns didn’t disappoint. On the other hand, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was rather a hard and shouty affair.

I can appreciate that Les Mis is an impressive show but would I go again? Hmmm. Sorry Les Mis fans, but it just didn’t light my fire.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

The huge stiletto heel at the front of the Palace Theatre is a bit of a clue that this is not Les Mis. After years running in Australia, the movie-turned-into-a-musical has hit the West End.

The star of the show is of course Priscilla the bus. She’s 8m long, dominates the stage and is covered in LED lights. Inside are 3 lifts and an interior that looks like an Early Learning Centre.

Tony Sheldon is superb as Bernadette, the transexual who unexpectedly finds love in the outback. Jason Donovan is OK but rather bland as the drag queen on a trip to meet his son and Oliver Thornton makes for a convincing dippy and shallow Adam. The rest of the company put in solid performances and the three divas that hover above the stage are a lot of fun.

The set and costumes are as extravagant and inventive as you’d expect but it just feels a bit half-baked, clunky and lacking in pace at times. The sheer size of Priscilla means she can only move slowly around the stage and that drags the show down a bit (sorry couldn’t resist). There’s a bizarre scene at the start of Act 2 where the Aussie locals in the outback have a hoedown with members of the audience dragged up (oops I did it again) on stage. Did I miss summer? Is it panto season already?

The last time I saw Jason Donovan on stage was in Joseph at the Palladium. Now there was a show with amazing energy, great lighting and earth shattering sound. I was expecting a similar thing with this production – to be swept away with it all but it never happened. The sound is average and the lighting in particular was very disappointing. It was terribly flat at times, the rear cyc was underused and the operatic travelling scene could have been far more striking with some lighting animation. Maybe there was no budget left after all the frocks?

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the show and there are some great moments but I left feeling a bit disappointed. All the ingredients are there but a little bit of theatrical magic got lost on the road from screen to stage.