So for February I’ve got the following plays booked up:
9 to 5 The Musical @ Savoy Theatre – the classic comedy film from 80s brought to life as a musical with songs by Dolly Parton, this couldn’t get much camper if it tried!
Berberian Sound Studio @ Donmar Warehouse – probably couldn’t get more of a contrast in film adaptations with Peter Strickland’s darkly comic horror coming to the stage.
Jesus Hopped the A Train @ Young Vic – hoping the combination of the dark comedy set on murderers’ row, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, will maintain the Young Vic’s impressive new season.
Shipwreck @ Almeida – new play by the tremendous Anne Washburn (Mr Burns will never ever leave me!) and directed by Artistic Director Rupert Goold.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other @ National Theatre – the ballot-only production with Cate Blanchett that had sold out is now garnering some terrible reviews! Oh well only one way to find out if this is a turkey is to see it myself.
Gently Down the Stream @ Park Theatre is a new play by Martin Sherman who wrote the award-winning play Bent.
And I’m still yet to get around to book the following:
Nine Night @ Trafalgar Studios – having failed to squeeze this in at the end of last year I’ve got to get to see it before it ends its run on 23 February.
The Son @ Kiln – the UK premiere of the latest play from the prolific and intriguing playwright Florian Zeller (The Mother, The Father, The Truth, The Height of the Storm) – I’ve seen every one produced in London over the last few years.
Pinter 7 @ Harold Pinter Theatre – having seen all but Pinter 4 so far, it would be quite nice to add this one with Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, but we’ll see.
So here are some things that are getting me excited about theatre in 2019. As there seem to be some themes emerging I thought I’d have a go at grouping under headings.
Something old: classics re-told
There is a bit of a revival of Arthur Miller this year, with productions of All My Sons and The American Clock at the Old Vic and Death of a Salesman at The Young Vic.
There are a couple of versions of Chekov’s The Three Sisters with the fabulous Patsy Ferran (currently in Summer and Smoke) coming to The Almeida and a production at the National directed by Nadia Fall (Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East) setting the play in Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War in the 1960s.
David Hare is bringing a new version of Peter Gynt @ National in July with James McArdle taking the lead.
Then we have Lorca’s play Blood Wedding gets a make over with Yaël Farber directing @ Young Vic (19 Sep – 2 Nov). And the last time Lorca got made over at the Young Vic, it was Yerma and deservedly won Billie Piper an Olivier. So no pressure!
So I’m excited about Peter Strickland’s 2012 horror film Berbarian Sound Studio coming to the Donmar Warehouse (8 Feb – 30 Mar). And already booking is the musical of the classic 1980’s comedy 9 to 5 open at the Savoy Theatre 28 Jan and runs until August.
Then there is an adaptation of Thomas Vinterberg’s film The Hunt, adapted by David Farr and directed by Rupert Goold at The Almeida. Runs 17 Jun – 3 Aug.
And then there is possibly the hottest ticket in the West End, All About Eve, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Gillian Anderson who last trod the boards in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic in 2016. This adaptation runs 2 Feb – 11 May.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island comes to the National in May, directed by Rufus Norris.
Richardson’s Pamela gets a re-working as When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a timely look at sexual politics, but unless you got your tickets in the National Theatre’s ballot already you’ll be unlikely to be seeing Cate Blanchett on the stage except via NTLive. Runs 16 Jan – 2 Mar.
Downstate @ National by Bruce Norris – provocative play which looks interesting (12 Mar to 27 Apr).
Shipwreck by Ann Washburn @ Almeida and directed by Rupert Goold (12 Feb – 30 Mar).
Hansard by Simon Woods staring Lindsay Duncan @ National looks like it might be an intriguing story about a couple and politics. Plus I love Lindsay Duncan!
Transfers from America
We have the eagerly awaited hit Broadway musical Waitress taking over from Kinky Boots residence at The Adelphi (previews from 8 Feb).
Fairview comes to the Young Vic in November following a sell out run in New York.
Trying out new technologies in theatre can be a risky business, and it has often been set design where the most adventurous (and disastrous) uses of innovation have been seen. in 2019 there are two so far I’m intrigued by:
Draw Me Close @ Young Vic – VR play
ANNA, by Ella Hickson will have the audience wearing headphones to immerse them in 1968 East Berlin with sound designer Ben and Max Ringham, in what is being described as “a ground-breaking new sonic collaboration” at the National (from May).
The stage is bare, the brickwork at the back of the stage showing, and props such as a record player, photographic developing equipment and a massive set of metal stairs, all pushed to the edges. Electric strip lights drown the stage in glaring brightness. On walks an actor with a hand held microphone, and what appears to be a reminder to the audience to turn off their mobile phones, cleverly becomes a monologue about truth, lies and storytelling. And we’re off. Into Ibsen’s twentieth play written, as we are told numerous times during the play, in 1884. But this isn’t a exactly a straight performance of play, as the unconventional opening suggests. Throughout it hand held microphones are passed baton-like between the actors, as like some kind of talking stick, once received they reveal a truth to the lies spoken by their characters: “he lied”, “it was more than three” “he didn’t come back that night”.
This might seem a bit too self-knowing or like a comic wink direct to camera breaking the fourth wall. But here, in the hands of Robert Icke, it is a device that allows the characters almost to confess or come clean about what has been said. Nor is this some sort of academic textual analysis of the play, although it certainly does allow for some meta analysis of Ibsen, and his own illegitimate child born to a servant girl and who he paid maintenance to until she was thirteen. Instead it makes the play richer, the pacing faster, the narrative more meaningful, which combined with the updating of the language and references, creates an even more powerful production.
After the opening speech to the audience by Gregory Wood (Kevin Harvey) you move into the opening act outside the Wood’s family home (microphone – “end scene”), then quickly into the apartment of his friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Here you remain to become immersed in the Ekdal family, their struggles, their love, their happiness. And whilst we learn that this is built upon the shakiest of foundations (this is Ibsen after all!) you really felt, despite all the trials they had been through as a family, that there was genuine warmth and love here.
Wild Duck is not a play I knew before, so the story and emotional journey of the characters were all fresh to me. It doesn’t always follow that a classic play is gripping, but here I was on the edge of my seat. I thought the acting from the whole cast was simply outstanding. I believed in every character. I felt the emotion and turmoil and pain of them all. Nicholas Farrell who plays the grandfather was wonderful in his playful tender scenes with his granddaughter (Grace Doherty on the night I saw this). Edward Hogg and Lyndsey Marshall as Gina Ekdaly felt entirely believable as husband and wife, from their most tender moments to their pain as the world comes crashing down around them. But even minor characters like Andrea Hall as Anna or Rich Warden as the drunk doctor neighbour, felt like real fully rounded characters. In part this was due to the writing in this adaptation, but it was also due to great performances given by the whole cast. There was a palpable chemistry on stage.
Bunny Christie’s set design should also get a mention. Despite the apparent sparseness at the start, the set builds incrementally through props and subtle lighting changes, reaching what can only be described as the set designers equivalent of a crescendo, which I feel should not be revealed at the risk of spoiling the impact on the audience.
In short this play and this production was for me pure theatre magic. I was entranced from the moment it started to the very end. Robert Icke is a true master. I left happy and elated, despite the bleakness and dark themes the play explores. This is what great theatre looks like.
By way of an end of summer report I thought perhaps I’d comment on the productions I’ve seen so far this year that have reached the high water mark of 20. Going forward it isn’t my intention to retrospectively discuss plays and musicals I’ve seen that have now closed, unless they are likely to transfer. Here though I want to give some indication of what I’m prepared to give these marks to, and why.
So before I start praising, I will add just that there is no mathematical formula being applied to my scores. I am not for example dividing up a production into scores for acting, staging, creative interpretations or story.It is instead more of a gut feeling (which I appreciate is subject to many and various pressures). As I leave a show, was I enraptured? On the edge of my seat? Wanting to leap into the aisles and dance? Was I challenged or stimulated (intellectually)? Or did I not feel it? Did I come away feeling like something was missing or off or out of kilter? Was I bored or distracted? Was I inwardly rolling my eyes and tutting?
Now given that writing reviews is not something I’m trained or particularly experienced in doing, other than verbal enthusiastic recommendations to friends, I beg some leniency. I will though try and be as balanced and even handed as I can.I will state the night I saw the show and where I was siting (as I’m of the belief that sitting in the front of the stalls vs back of the upper circle can influence your experience of a show). Although forgive me for this post I wont add these details. And I’m more than happy to have alternative views shared.
One final caveat is simply this: I never read or studied English or plays beyond GCSE, so any understanding or interpretation is coming from my background of enjoying the theatre, and possibly having seen different productions of a play.
So in the order I saw them this year:
Hamilton – So it probably goes without saying that receives top marks. An all round impressive production from music to performances and staging, of which much has been written already. I’ll only add simply that this is one show that lives up to the hype. And if you’re worrying you can’t get a ticket until 2019, then you can always try their ticket lottery: https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/
Network – A tour de force that cleverly brought the 1976 film to life. Brian Cranston was incredible in his performance of news anchorman Howard Beale, with an equally talented supporting cast. For me it was staging and live camera feeds projected up onto screens behind that was particularly clever (too often such efforts seem out of place) given the story being told. That, combined with this being a story about truth and how the news (and the public) is manipulated, made it a perfect play.
The Brothers Size – Almost at the other end of the production budget scale came at the Young Vic. A beautiful moving story simply told, in a chalk circle drawn by one of the actors at the start of the play. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of the film Moonlight) this play demonstrated how talented he is.
Summer and Smoke – Another big hitter by Tennessee Williams at The Almeida. Happily and deservedly it is getting a transfer to the Duke of York’s in November, and well worth going. Whilst a fan of Tennessee Williams, I did not know this play. For me this was an incredible and magical production. The simple staging powerfully creating the atmospheric setting, with a wonderful performance from Patsy Ferran as a minister’s daughter.
The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 – Hard on the heels of the revival of Angels in America at the National last year, this was inevitably going to draw comparisons with its themes of gay men and the impact of AIDS on their lives. Whilst I think it had some flaws in the story, that perhaps could benefit from looking at afresh, it was an overwhelmingly powerful and moving theatrical experience that once I started crying there was little to stop me until we reached the end. As a gay man it resonated.
The Encounter – Complicité – Probably the most inventive storytelling seen so far. This one man show (Simon McBurney) using sound / foley tricks to recreate a fascinating true story of a encounter of a remote Amazonian tribe by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969
My Name is Lucy Barton – Laura Linney gave an outstanding performance in the play of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling short novel. The design team – including lighting and sound, should also win praise, in this minimalist staging. Perfection.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Coming out of this production at the Donmar I was just bouncing up and down by how great I thought it was, from the adaptation to the performances to the staging. Sublime!
A 24-Decade History of Pop 1776-1806 – This wonderfully outrageous show by Taylor Mac defies categorisation with its use of a 22-piece orchestra, drag, audience participation (at the Barbican no less), historical storytelling and musical history and deconstruction. I have never seen anything quite like it and cannot wait for the next instalment (1806-1836)!
XENOS – I’m sneaking in this dance piece by Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells (out of order of my timeline) because I do think this man is a choreographic genius, but also as it was also a tour de force of storytelling and staging, shining a light on Indian soldiers fighting for the British during WW1. His last solo show will not be forgotten (and I cannot wait to see what his company does next).
So there we have it 10 of my 20/20 productions taking us up to 6 months into 2018. I am genuinely excited and intrigued to see whether the remainder of the year can reach such zeniths of perfection.
* Photo credits: Matthew Murphy (Hamilton); Jan Versweyveld (Network); Tristram Kenton (Brothers Size); Marc Brenner (Summer and Smoke); Simon Annand (The Inheritance); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images (The Encounter); Manuel Harlan (Lucy Barton & Miss Jean Brodie); Sarah Walker (Taylor Mac)