Here it is a list of the 10 shows that for various reasons made a mark in 2017. Some commentary being naturally longer than others…
Here are my ‘top 10’ in sort of order but sort of not…
Far Side of the Moon- Robert Le Page- WMC
I’m including in part for the experience of seeing a Robert LePage work in the flesh. It’s a rare opportunity in the UK and rarer outside London. So, in a theatre nerd sense the ‘experience’ as much as the performance motivates this ranking. However, ‘Far Side of the Moon’ was such an engaging fascinating experience, and really unlike the rest of the year’s theatre going that it had to be included.
Yank! – Hope Mill Theatre/Charing Cross Theatre
Musical theatre is my theatrical life-blood. It’s what I fell in love with, and I love when a show comes along that just captures your heart. Yank! Is a deceptively simple piece of musical theatre writing- a short and heart-breaking love story- but it’s a brave, and beautifully written piece of work. The music is beautiful, again deceptively simple that just sneaks in, takes hold and sweeps you away. I’m so glad it got the reception it did in London and Manchester this year and the small cast really were exceptional. Yank! Rode in and stole a piece of my heart.
My Body Welsh – Chapter- By Steffan Donnelly
This was a show early in the year. A fairly quiet one man show, telling stories about growing up in Wales. When I scanned down my list of shows for the year it just gave me a warm feeling remembering the show- often funny and almost poetic in the writing. It was one that stuck with me, and a worthy mention in the top 10.
Our Town- Royal Exchange Manchester
I was very lucky to be going to the Exchange for a meeting, and to be invited to a matinee at the same time. My first time up there seeing a show, and what a show. A brilliant adaptation/updating/call it what you will of the classic American play. The Exchange is masterful at working their unique space and this worked brilliantly. From the incorporation of audience on stage in Act 1 to the ‘lights up’ approach to much of the play that meant looking the audience and actors in the eye. Despite all these innovations it was the strength of the actors that really elevates this. In act 2 when everything else is stripped back to a virtually bare stage, it was simply one of the most moving experiences in the theatre all year.
The Busy World is Hushed- Finborough
Sometimes you see a play at the right moment for it to work its way into your head and heart. Busy World is Hushed did that. More than this though it’s an example of an excellently crafted play in both the writing and production. It’s written in the way that great plays are, in a way that it tackles big questions through smaller moments. It may be, on the surface, three people in an apartment talking for much of the play. But what it asks of the characters, and of the audience is far more. From sweeping questions about life, death and faith. To seemingly smaller ones about the choices and attitude we adopt to our lives, Busy World is Hushed covered a broad spectrum. But the setting felt real enough, honest enough for it not to be a play ‘about’ these but one that was honest to these fascinating characters instead. For me that’s the kind of play I love, the kind of play I hope to write. It was also an example of how to craft a production- the intimate setting of the Finborough working perfectly with the setting in a crowded New York apartment. And a three-hander handled impeccably by a trio of excellent actors. It was, in short, an evening of what a damn good play should be.
It struck a few chords with me- from life past and present, and for that had a real impact emotionally and intellectually. From the fact one character is an academic struggling with a book project (amused me more as I was interviewing one of the actors that weekend for my own book project). To the line that (to paraphrase) as an only child, all the responsibility is on you. It’s a play that I just ‘clicked’ with and one that a couple of months later still pops up in my thoughts.
Holding the Man- Above the Stag
A little play in a little theatre, but one that moved me as much as any of the ‘big hitters’. I adore this play, and this production more than does Conigrave and Murphy’s work justice. It’s obviously one that speaks to my ‘sensibilities’ being an ‘AIDS play’. But I’ve always had a soft spot for this story- the ‘Coming of Age’ story cut short by the epidemic. The one set outside the usual parameters of New York and San Francisco. The one that has a peculiarly Aussie aporach to things that is refreshing.
I love this play for it’s sheer theatricality too. It’s simple in many ways- doubling, lots of use of props and wigs and the odd silly voice. But it’s effective. It’s damn funny, it’s sweet, it doesn’t make a fuss about sexuality while also addressing it head on. If you asked me ‘how to write an AIDS play’ this is actually the one I point to- it’s the one I can watch over and over. And that doesn’t mean it isn’t packing an emotional punch. I actually cried buckets more tears at this than some of the other more ‘famous ones’. In short it’s my ‘little play that could’ and I will always adore a chance to see it again. As my review (here) talks about this company truly got to the heart of it and I love them for it.
Hamlet was once my most loathed Shakespeare play, so that I saw this twice in one summer is testament to how much I loved this production/Andrew Scott’s performance. Like two other productions further down this list, Robert Icke’s production did that thing of building it up from the ground up again. As did Scott. It’s a feat to say, ‘To be or not to be’ as if nobody has uttered those words before you, but he managed it.
The sheer raw emotion of Scott’s performance took it away from ‘The Danish Prince’ and back to the young man struggling with grief and life. It was masterful, understated and a wonderful two fingered salute to anyone who ever under-estimated Scott as just ‘Moriarty’.
This is one of those productions I actually have little to say about, because I can’t actually articulate it. I think with Hamlet we all connect with different versions of him at different times, and for me that version really struck home. Something about the raw power of grief- the anger of grief and the confusion in life that it creates just really came to life in the play for the first time, and touched a raw nerve somewhere inside me. I fell in love with Scott as Hamlet, his vulnerability as a n actor but also the sheer intelligence of it. Really though these are just words failing to articulate what is intangible. Which is really the magic of Shakespeare done right.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
My final theatre outing of the year, and it was a gem of a production. I cried with happiness within the first 10 minutes. It just felt like one of those magical musical theatre moments that grabs hold of you and just soars. It’s a beautiful high-energy production that leaves you grinning and full of love for it’s camp fabulousness. More importantly it’s also a diverse, inclusive and working-class without going the full Oliver. It feels real underneath the glitter and heels. There’s such heart to it.
To see on stage somewhere that resembles where you grew up shouldn’t’ be underestimated. I feel like I went to that school. It felt real. So, thank you for that, for a world on stage that looks like the one I grew up in. Yes, this is all in musical theatre land, it’s the fairy-tale version. But it’s a fairy tale that felt like it had enough truth to it to be honest. To see also a musical that unapologetically and matter of factly embraces LGBT characters is frankly where we should be in 2017 (or 2018 now). That it’s simply not an issue for Jamie or his family that he’s gay, that he’s accepted and supported sends a powerful message. Yes, it might be a fairy tale for some still, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power and importance of having characters, and stories like this on stage, even in 2018.
We often lament the lack of musical theatre writing in Britain, this shows we do have the capability, if only theatres could invest more in developing the work.
The last two of this year really couldn’t have been anything else really….
Rent- Theatre Clwyd/St James/Tour
Technically this production began in 2016 but as it was the first thing I saw in 2017 I’m counting it. (and as it toured for a good chunk of the year). And anyway, how do you measure, measure a year…
What to say about Rent? It’s like having an old friend back. It had been long enough since I last saw it for Bruce Guthrie’s production to really work it’s magic again. It was like coming home.
And yet it wasn’t. Because this production felt like it built it again from the ground up. Having spent far too much of my life as both a fan and academic looking at Rent, I know the tendency to enshrine it in the infamous ‘Xerox production’ of a musical. And so, I applaud Guthrie for his wiping the slate clean approach. These were no longer echoes of the original cast- and perhaps because now enough time has passed for it to be so- but they were their own characters again. Seeing it so intimately from row B in the St James’ was so powerful an experience it too me back to the first time I saw it. Afterwards I sat on a freezing cold bench texting the two people I knew would understand until I could get myself together enough to walk to the Tube.
When something is that ingrained in you, so much a part of you, to feel it re-written and given back to you, that’s something special.
I saw Rent twice more on tour. Someone asked me after my feelings about it, and I said something like
‘Rent will always be a part of my life I’m sure, but if that was the last time I see it I can’t think of a more perfect way to remember it’
Angels in America- National Theatre
I should have no words left for this by now…but I am a child of Kushner and I’m sure I’ll find some. I can’t separate the production, and the experience I had with/around it. But I’ll try for a moment.
The production, like Rent re-wrote what I thought I knew (and as an aside, if theatre ever stops doing that, it’s time to stop). It looks and feels different to any other incarnation I’ve seen- as well it should, what’s the point in a ‘landmark revival’ that keeps things static. I’ll be shouting about Perestroika in particular the Brechtian Epic staging that Elliott took literally and then some. I’ll be cursing the lights going up while praising the genius of it for years to come. And now when I hear the birds in Central Park for real, I’ll also hear and see that stage. Which is exactly as it should be. The beauty of the neon, the almost balletic quality of the design…and that Angel crashing in. It was everything I never thought it would be, everything I wanted it to be. Even in it’s imperfections, which I grew to love too. It was falling back in love with the thing I thought I’d lost.
And those performances. These characters I know better than my own friends. I’ve lived with them for so long, and I’m incredibly fussy about how they get brought to life. But boy did this team do them proud. It’s unfair to pick favourites as it’s a team effort, but my dear ‘Mother Pitt’ Susan Brown (along with all the others she takes on) is a tour de force of a performance. Denise Gough ripped through Harper and the audience with a force of a tornado but then quietly sat down and broke everyone’s heart. Andrew Garfield screeched so high that only dogs could hear him, but underneath it was a Prior who was sweet and vulnerable and so very strong. Amanda Lawrence flapped those wings and gave us unhinged Angels by the whites of her eyes, Nathan Lane gave us the evil of Roy Cohn, with a mischievous and dangerous comic timing. Baby Joe by Baby Russell had a darkness too him that was painful to watch (and yes that arse). And Nathan Stewart Jarrett could command an audience with the snap of a finger. And finally, in the nicest possible way, I still want to slap James McArdle in the face and say ‘You bastard, that’s it! That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’ (I mean I probably won’t actually slap him. Probably).
And as for the experience, what more can I say? (wait that’s the other AIDS musical). I said a lot here, but really Angels gave me so much this year. Some of you are probably tired of hearing it. But I can’t under-estimate how much the experience meant, and what it will (hopefully) mean. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book about Angels. Nearly 10, 000 people saw my essay in the programme. I met Tony Kushner and talked on the phone with him. I connected with so many people via this play, so many people who cheered me on, who thought what I had to say was interesting and gave me the confidence to go forward and chase after those things I wanted.
When Marianne Elliott thanked me for my help, when she said I helped make it. Or when Andrew Garfield hugged me and did the same. It’s not because they are ‘famous’ people that it meant so much. It’s because they had made that thing I describe above, the thing that meant so much. They gave me back the thing I loved, and let me be a part of it. And for that, 2017’s theatre will never leave me.