Theatre 2015 review.

It’s that time of year again, ubiquitous top this and top that, so not to be left out, here’s some theatre ranking…

10. Saturday Night Forever 
A late entry, the second to last production I saw this year and one that really will stick with me. Full review is here, but what I loved was a combination of humour and emotion. It felt incredibly intimate and personal and one of the most engaging nights I’ve had in the theatre this year.

9. Edward Scissorhands

Not a new production for this year but new to me, so I’m including it. I’m a massive fan of Matthew Bourne’s work, and although the film isn’t a favourite of mine (I think I’ve seen it once) this production is just magical. It’s also what Bourne does best-real storytelling through dance. And there was snow, magical snow.

8. Beneth the Streets (Punchdrunk/Hijinx)

This production for me (reviewed in detail here) was firstly a next to perfect example of what inclusive theatre should look like. Second it was a damn brilliant piece of immersive theatre. I’m a big fan of Punchdrunk’s work and this was a glorious little (by their standards!) production. It had everything I could want from an immersive piece and I finally got the Punchdrunk “1 to 1” experience (with a local actor I’ve long admired as a bonus).

7. Blue Sky Festival (The Other Room at Porters)

This may be cheating slightly as not technically one performance. But in the spirit of the ‘work in progress’ festival I felt it was unfair to single out a single performance. And the festival itself-the sum of it’s parts-is what made it so special. Showcasing a diverse range of plays and writers at varying stages of their careers-while also giving actors and directors a chance to explore and perform in a supportive place, this is one of the things that makes The Other Room so special. I could have built half of this list from work in this theatre, but I’ll settle for this brilliant festival that showed the talent Cardiff has to offer (and that London isn’t the centre of the theatrical universe. Check out The Other Room here.

6. Finding Neverland
I was going to put this in a ‘guilty pleasures’ or ‘shouldn’t love this as much as I do’ category. But I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, theatre or otherwise. If it makes you happy it makes you happy. And goddamn if this combination of Peter Pan and Gary Barlow didn’t make me happy. I’ve been singing it ever since (which is either my desire to be Laura Michele Kelly or Gary Barlow I’m not sure) But it was also a lovely, well produced musical with a book incredibly witty (and so British it was wasted on the Americans) by James Graham. So I’m a proud Neverland fan. It even exorcised the demons of working a Christmas show based on Peter Pan a few years ago, at which point if I ever saw Tinkerbell again I was certainly not clapping to save that little monster’s life. This time, I clapped.

5. Sweeney Todd (WNO)

I’m a bit of a Sondheim snob, and ‘I want to see a 1970s set version where Mrs Lovett eats a pie off Sweeney’s crotch’ never featured high on my list of Sweeney production wishes, I loved this version. Scary German-accented Sweeney certainly had the menace for the role, and the pipes to match. And hearing that glorious score played by the Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus was truly glorious. And despite the odd sounding premise, the whole production was full of fascinating directing choices that made me think about this familiar piece over again.

4. Spring Awakening 

Not only is this a better version of the original, it’s just an incredible piece of theatre. Deaf West take hearing and deaf actors, as well as, in this case other actors with disabilities, and put them together in one inclusive performance. Inclusive for both deaf actors and audience members the show combines American Sign Language and surtitles incorporated into the performance. The integration of written word alongside the ASL is done in a logical, manner and the ASL itself far from being a barrier to performance really enhances it-as in signing it’s as much about the intention as the actually ‘writing’ of the word. The Deaf West re-staging of Spring Awakening is both a masterstroke in showing how inclusive performance should be done, it’s also a masterclass in how to take apart a show and put it back together better than before.

3. A View From a Bridge 

Usually when I travel to New York I have a rule: nothing I could have seen in London (or has announced a transfer so will see in London) and nothing I’ve seen before. I broke these rules for A View From a Bridge, and if my #1 and #2 shows weren’t so damned special themselves, this would be hands down the best thing this year. I saw it in the cinema so technically I didn’t cheat my own rule, and the chance to see it up close from the stage seats in New York was just too tempting. It didn’t disappoint. Mark Strong is an utter powerhouse in every respect in this production, and taking on not only a monster of a play, but a stripped down and turned inside out production from Ivo Van Hove. Also any chance to see both Nicola Walker and Russell Tovey in the flesh

2. Hamilton

There’s little I can say that hasn’t already been written about Lin Manuel Miranda’s tour de force of 2015. I was a reluctant convert, but much like my ‘guilty pleasure’ comment above-just because everyone else on the planet seems to love it, is no reason not to. Hamilton hooked me from it’s impecably produced cast recording, and I by a stroke of unebelivable luck won a ticket to see it live. As a piece, do I think it’s the second coming of musical theatre? well it’s still too early to say. What I can say is Hamilton is clever in a way that doesn’t feel laboured or pretentious.  There are layers and layers to be unpicked, references to the history it’s based on, references to musical theatre history, nods to rap and hip hop history and integrated musical elements that are brilliantly integrated and executed. And I’ve not stopped listening to it, or unpicking it since I heard it. So for me that’s certainly enough to put it in my top ten.

1. As Is

There’s almost nothing I can say, or want to say about this piece other than it was absouletly the best theatrical thing to happen to me this year. I’m far too close to it to make any sensible artistic judgements. But having spent too many years with my head in HIV/AIDS theatre, I could not have asked for a better play, or a better production of this. My more detailed ramblings here and here. But for me what I loved so much about Andrew Keates’ production of this play was it struck right to the heart of William Hoffman’s writing, allowing the words (through some outstanding performances) to speak for themselves. Theatre at it’s best is sometimes simply being in a room together and sharing a story, and over all the times I saw this that is what I felt most strongly, and that, as well as my personal attachment to this play/production is why it’s undoubtably my number 1 production of 2015.

And a random collection of favourite performers (in no particular order)

1. Mark Gatiss (Three Days in the Country)

Because a year without Mark Gatiss is a sad year indeed. But also because his proposal scene in ‘Three Days in the Country’ (NT) was worth the ticket price alone. In general his hapless Doctor was well worth seeing the play for.

2. Javier Munoz (Hamilton)

Understudy to Lin-Manuel Miranda in ‘Hamilton’ and a difficult pair of boots to fill. Personally I like his voice better than Miranda’s and his performance was exceptional. 

3. Kevin Kern (Finding Neverland)

The ‘not being that bloke from Glee in Finding Neverland’ and out singing the man he understudies.

4. Shaun Evans (Hello/Goodbye)

For being less Scouse even when playing a Scouser on stage, and for being a damned lovely human being when I ran into him after. But also for giving what was hands down the most heartwarming performance I saw all year.

5. Lee Haven Jones (Hamlet, Theatr Clwd)

For firstly, being Hamlet in the year of THAT Hamlet. And for doing a damned fine job of it regardless of who else was being the Dane this year.

Best Dog (very important category) 

Analeigh Ashford gets honourable mention here, for the best human dog I’ve ever seen in Sylvia. Best actual dog I’m going with the Shakespeare in Love dog, for being both excellent canine and recurring joke.

Best Set

For sheer ‘What in the holy hell is that and how did it get in here’ the Barbican/Cumberbatch Hamlet. On a smaller scale the ‘Hello/Goodbye’ set at the Hampstead was a masterclass in stage mangment interval turnaround, and contained some excellent working appliances.

Best food on stage

Shaun Evans in ‘Hello/Goodbye’ did some excellent breakfast making, as did an ensemble member in ‘High Society’ (unfortunately I was very full and felt slight ill at the smell…)

Best Celebrity Spots

A-plus for initially missing John Major at High Society. But when combined with Obama (technically entering a theatre) it’s obviously been a year for political leaders…

Best Curtain Call Speech for Charity

Nope not Cumberbatch. Though valiant effort. For comedy value, Laura Michele Kelly for “Surprise I’m not dead. Come here my fake children pass me the poster” For actually being the most moving, Krysta Rodriguez, for recounting the story of her breast cancer diagnosis and the support Broadway Cares gave her.

Worst Audience Members of the Year

Certain members of The Globe ‘in crowd’ for attempts to sabotage ‘normal people’ during closing weekend; you give other dedicated theatre fans a bad name, theatre is there for us all to enjoy and share and the competitive nature of it all put me off ever being a groundling again, and certainly ever setting foot there in the final weekend. Being a fan should mean wanting to share the thing you love, not keep others out.

Close second: the “Ladies” who thought Jersey Boys was a sing-along night.

So that was 2015 in theatre….what does 2016 hold? 


Mack and Mabel

Although this show has now ended it’s UK tour, it’s still one worthy of reviewing. 

Before I get into the reivew, two important things are going to become aparant as I go through, so we might as well get them out of the way now. 

1. I am a John Barroman fan. 

2. I am a Michael Ball fan. 

Phew. It feels good to confess such things. The latter is obviously neccessary to know for this production the former less obvious. So lets start with that. I first discovered Mack and Mabel as a musical thanks to John Barrowman, at in fact the concert in this very clip: 

(If anyone is interested, yes a field in North Wales in September is as cold an wet as you’d imagine) 

Barrowman sings the song, and introduces it as the love song that his partner thinks perfectly describes him. As it happens it’s the song that I feel perfectly describes my own approach (yes I realise this is not perhaps something to put on an online dating profile, however it is the truth)

In ‘I won’t send roses’ Mack Sennett sings: 

I won’t send roses

Or hold the door
I won’t remember
Which dress you wore
My heart is too much in control
The lack of romance in my soul
Will turn you grey, kid
So stay away, kid

Like Mack I’m disinclined to romance. The later line ‘I’d be the first one to agree, I’m preoccupied with me’ also struck a chord.Mack doesn’t need romance, but of course he does really, and maybe we all do. In the show Mabel retorts that she can get along just fine, without a gushing valentine. But of course she would have also been better off with a bit of romance from Mack. 

Mack and Mabel is an unconventional old fashioned romance in an unconventional old fashioned musical. In both elements, the outside looks like what we’d expect-young girl meets older powerful man who turns her head, a musical set in the glamour of 1920s Hollywood. But neither thigns are quite what they seem. Jerry Herman’s quirky yet beautiful score against Michael Stewart’s fascinating play makes for a twist on Hollywood musicals and Hollywood romance. 

In this production as well the casting of Michael Ball by director Jonathan Church (until very recentl artistic director at Chichester where this produciton originated) plays with this going againt type. Although Ball went roaring against type by playing Sweeney Todd in 2012, we all know Ball for playing the romantic hero and belting out big showtunes. Oh and also a cheery voice from a Radio 2 show. 

Confession number 2: I’m a Michael Ball fan. Or Michael’s Balls as he is for inexplicable reasons known in our house. I’m a child of the 80s who grew up loving musicals. How could I not have a soft spot for the curly haired dimpled Marius? I’ve grown up with him, like a favourite uncle (if I had a favourite uncle, I don’t, mine are either awful or dead so if Michael wants the job it’s his). I’ve rarely gotten to see him perform live in musicals either, so this was a real treat. 

And although Sweeney was labelled as a big break away for Ball, I’d argue Mack was a bigger challenge, and a bigger reward acting-wise. Sweeney is a big brash departure and a villain to revel in. Mack in complex. He wants to make people happy-he lives to make people laugh, but he can’t make himself or the woman he loves happy. Like many a clown he’s tortured and conflicted. He has, as his signature song says, a quick temper and one that came out dangerously in Ball’s interpretation, but he isn’t too quick or too harsh with Mack’s harder side. His downfall is gradual and heartbreaking and it’s a real showcase of the acting skills that Ball has rarely shown before. The final scene with Mabel was beautifully heartbreaking. 

Both leads in fact are delightful and believable. Although vocally it isn’t the best fit for Ball’s voice and it did seem to be showing the strain by the final performance.  Rebecca LaChance’s voice and acting were also spot on for Mable, starting as the quirky clumsy girl from the deli and blossoming into an actress, and then crumbling as she unravels. I found myself falling both for Mack, as Mabel does, in spite of his failings still loving him, but also loving Mabel, her mixture of endearing sweetness but also the vigor and strength to get her through all that life was throwing at her. A great musical theatre lady brought to life brilliantly by LaChance. 

The production as a whole is beautifully staged, making clever use of video projections to show clips of Mack and Mabel’s films, and to create scenes beyond the sparse soundstage on which much of the action takes place. Praise must be given also to the incredibly hardworking ensemble who not only inhabit many different characters as extras in all the film scenes but also execute some incredible dance routines. 

Mack and Mabel is a difficult musical to stage. It’s a hard sell to give old Hollywood and romance this darker twist. Indeed I overheard an audience member saying on exit it ‘Wasn’t what I expected’. Sadly I don’t think that individual meant in a good way, but I disagree, Mack and Mabel is a great musical becuase we don’t get what we expect or what we want.

I find this musical a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of writing, and this production more than did it justice.