Theatre review of the year – 2014

It’s been a busy year for theatre, and I’ve seen some fantastic productions. I’m not going to post the total number I’ve seen this year as it is rather frightening. As usual, however, it proved incredibly difficult to select my favourites. Shows that nearly made the list include Assassins at the Menier, The Three Rings of Cirque Tsuki by Immercity and the two Henry IV plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, after much internal debate I have decided on the following list.

Top Ten Theatre Shows 2014

I have listed these shows in the order in which I saw them.

1. Middlemarch Trilogy (Dorothea’s Story, The Doctor’s Story, Fred and Mary), Orange Tree Theatre – 4 January

One (well, technically three) of the first plays I saw this year set an incredibly high standard. Geoffrey Beevers’ adaptation of George Eliot’s classic novel took the unique approach of dividing the huge tome into three parallel stories rather than consecutive parts. What I loved about the adaptations is that they were worked into suitable stage productions while keeping the essence of Eliot’s achievement – a sense of unfulfilled ambition, love and heartbreak, and the extent to which even the smallest lives have an impact on the people around us.

2. Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby, Royal Court Theatre – 14 January

The sad death of Billie Whitelaw, supreme interpreter of Beckett, was announced recently, but if this trilogy is anything to go by, Lisa Dwan is a worthy successor. Not I‘s intensity, Footfall‘s haunting atmosphere and Rockaby‘s melancholy desolation combined to create a theatrical experience unlike any other.

3. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – 4 March

I loved The Duchess of Malfi, the first production I saw at the Globe’s new Jacobean theatre, but The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a more unexpected gem. This 1607 drama by Francis Beaumont had actors masquerading as audience members to hilarious effect, and a very funny script along with a superb cast drove this joyous romp along.

4. In the Heights, Southwark Playhouse – 21 May

The Southwark Playhouse can be counted on to produce at least one first-class musical per year, and in the Heights was one of my highlights of 2014. A modern musical which first enjoyed success on Broadway in 2008, it had an extraordinary energy, incredible choreography and strong musical numbers based around Latino and hip-hop.

5. Macbeth, RIFT (Balfron Tower, east London) – 17 July

My birthday present to myself was a ticket to RIFT’s immersive Macbeth in east London. The thought and care that must have gone into this production is astounding, with every little detail catered for, and the performances were excellent too. One of the most memorable experiences of the year.

6. The Crucible, Old Vic – 28 July

One of the most powerful productions I’ve ever seen, the Old Vic’s The Crucible was always going to be in my top ten. Richard Armitage gave a standout performance as John Proctor, but there wasn’t a weak link in the cast; every performance was superb. The production was three and a half hours long, but every single minute counted, and I never once felt bored. Yaël Farber’s direction brought out the themes of the play with a clarity and simplicity which allowed the text to speak for itself.

7. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Iris Theatre (St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden) – 6 August

This was a must-see for me after I saw Iris Theatre’s Alice in Wonderland at the same location in 2013. If anything, however, Looking Glass was even better. The story drew us in to Alice’s magical world, with a brilliant cast of characters and an enjoyable promenade style, making us feel as if we were really on an adventure with Alice. The beginning and end of the show differed from the book, but worked very well and had me near tears by the end.

8. My Night With Reg, Donmar Warehouse – 11 August

Admittedly, I only went to see this because it starred Julian Ovenden. However, it has ended up as one of my favourite plays of the year. First premiered 20 years ago, My Night With Reg is about five friends – male, gay – living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. If this makes it sound dated, it isn’t at all. The play is about love, friendship, tragedy and human relationships, and in Robert Hastie’s production these themes were proven to be timeless. The play managed to be brilliantly funny and completely heartbreaking at the same time; writer Kevin Elyot sadly died before the production opened, but this brilliant revival was a fitting tribute.

9. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing), Royal Shakespeare Theatre – 11 October

I’m cheating a bit here as these are actually two productions, but they are linked in several ways so I’ve counted them as one. Christopher Luscombe directed Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – renamed Love’s Labour’s Won on the back of a theory that argues this “lost” play of Shakespeare’s is actually an alternative title for the Beatrice and Benedick comedy – at the RSC, and they were set in the same world, an early 20th century English country house. Lost was set in the golden Edwardian summer of 1914, while Won was set just after the end of the First World War. Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry starred as the main couple in each of the plays, both of which were brilliantly comedic and full of fresh insights.

10. City of Angels, Donmar Warehouse – 15 December

Josie Rourke’s Donmar production of what is now my all-time favourite musical was a dream from start to finish. Delivering what is a rather complex story with a wonderful clarity, the production had an amazing cast including Hadley Fraser, Rosalie Craig, Tam Mutu and Samantha Barks. It was brilliant and I’m already making plans to see it again in 2015.

Several of these productions will be around in 2015: the Beckett trilogy will be at the Barbican in the summer, The Knight of the Burning Pestle is back at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and The Crucible will be showing in cinemas. My Night With Reg will transfer to the Apollo for a short season, while Love’s Labour’s Lost and Won continue at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and will probably transfer to London after that. City of Angels is still running at the Donmar Warehouse, but it is completely sold out, so Barclays Front Row, day, or standing tickets are the only option.

Bonus play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I had to give a special mention to this Shakespeare classic, as I saw five productions this year, all of which were completely different. The first two were performed at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre by Immersion Theatre; one was subtitled “The Dream” and one “The Nightmare”. The first was set before the First World War and the second after – an idea explored further by the Royal Shakespeare Company in their productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost / Won later in the year. They were excellent productions in themselves, but the contrast between the magical, dreamlike world of the first and the darker, unhappier atmosphere of the second was marked.

A few days later I saw a production at the Barbican, co-produced by Handspring, which made excellent use of puppets. The highlight was Puck, a mischievous little creature made up of various household items including an oil can and a garden fork. I also loved Militos Yerolemou’s unforgettable performance as Bottom.

Later in the year I saw the Mariinsky Theatre’s ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Opera House, and the Russian theme continued with the Dmitry Krymov Lab production at the Barbican, which focused on the play-within-a-play to hilarious effect. These productions show how one play can be re-interpreted and revitalised to create a wealth of different meanings.

Thoughts for the year

Theatre of the year

My theatre of the year has to be the Donmar Warehouse – two of my top ten productions were performed there, and I also loved Henry IV and Coriolanus. An honourable mention should go to the Almeida Theatre – none of its productions made it into my top ten, but several were close, and I thoroughly enjoyed everything I saw there, from the musical American Psycho to Thornton Wilder’s US classic Our Town.

Immersive theatre

This was a brilliant year for immersive, interactive and promenade theatre: the highlight was naturally RIFT’s ambitious Macbeth, but I also loved Immercity’s shows, The Three Rings of Cirque Tsuki and The Dwindling House of Holland. Battersea Arts Centre’s The Good Neighbour, the first show I saw in 2014, was an ambitious and magical tale based on a true local story, while Iris Theatre continued their residency at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden with a superb production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, even better than their 2013 production of Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandI Do by Dante or Die, performed in the Hilton Docklands hotel, was a funny look at the last ten minutes before a wedding, seen from six different angles. Who Shot Santa? at the Network Theatre was a Punchdrunk-style immersive experience.

Shakespeare

As well as numerous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I saw lots of other Shakespearean productions this year. Beginning with the Donmar’s excellent Coriolanus and the RSC’s Henry IV, the year also included the brutal Titus Andronicus at the Globe and Martin Freeman’s Richard III at Trafalgar Studios. Despite promising myself I wouldn’t see yet another production of Hamlet, I ended up seeing three – the Globe’s World Hamlet at Middle Temple Hall, a production of the lesser-known First Quarto Hamlet, and a production inspired by Victorian seances at Park Theatre.

Classics

This was the year that confirmed Arthur Miller as one of my all-time favourite playwrights. As well as the stunning, intense production of The Crucible at the Old Vic, there was a powerful modern production of A View From the Bridge at the Young Vic, and a strong All My Sons at the Open Air Theatre. I also saw Miller’s only musical, written with Stanley Silverman, Up From Paradise.

I also learned to properly appreciate Tennessee Williams: I loved the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring the fantastic Gillian Anderson, and I think I have finally put the ghost of my A Level experience of The Glass Menagerie to rest. I also enjoyed The Fat Man’s Wife at the Canal Café Theatre, and the Hotel Plays (The Pink Bedroom, Green Eyes, Sunburst) performed at the Langham Hotel.

Going back a few hundred years, I thoroughly enjoyed the Spanish Golden Age season at the Arcola Theatre, which included A Lady of Little Sense and Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega, and Don Gil of the Green Breeches by Tirso de Molina. Later in the year I enjoyed a Spanish production of Punishment Without Revenge at the Globe, as well as a “Read Not Dead” reading of The Duchess of Amalfi’s Steward by Lope de Vega. This was the year that the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened, and I’ve enjoyed several productions there already, including John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

Russian theatre

This is a particular interest of mine and I made sure to see plenty of Russian plays this year. Anya Reiss’ version of Uncle Vanya didn’t get very good reviews at the St James Theatre, nor did her Three Sisters at the Southwark Playhouse, but I quite enjoyed her different takes. The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic was another good production, and I also enjoyed Swansong and Platonov, two lesser-known Chekhov shorts, at the Lord Stanley pub.

New writing

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, adapted from the novels by Hilary Mantel and performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, were the highlights for me this year. I loved the books but the plays managed to live up to them. I also saw I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole by Rodrigo Garcia, a play which gets the award for Most Unusual Title. I was deeply moved by Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, based on the words of Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mother, and the poetry of Simon Armitage. On holiday in Glasgow I enjoyed some new work at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Phil Porter’s The Christmas Truce was the most memorable of a number of plays marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

Musicals

On the whole I didn’t think that 2014 matched 2013 in terms of musicals. However, considering that this was the year I discovered City of Angels, I am more than happy. I first saw this film noir-inspired show at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in March. I enjoyed it, bought the Broadway soundtrack, and was thrilled when a professional production at the Donmar Warehouse was announced for the end of the year. That production was one of my last of the year, and already I want to make plans to see it again. I believe it’s now my favourite musical – sorry Phantom!

Other highlights of the year included a brilliant production of Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory and a revival of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade’s Free as Air at the Finborough. American Psycho was a wickedly funny new musical at the Almeida while Candide at the Menier was another highly amusing show: “Isn’t it a lovely day / For an auto-da-fé” is one example of the brilliant lyrics. Oh! What A Lovely War marked the centenary of World War I and the 50th anniversary of its original production with a revival at Stratford East, while Ushers: The Musical proved to be a little gem about the people who show you to your seats in the theatre. Jukebox musicals aren’t my particular favourites, but I did enjoy 20th Century Boy (with the music of T-Rex) and Tonight’s the Night (about Rod Stewart). The Open Air Theatre production of Porgy & Bess was another lovely show.

Dance, ballet, opera and classical

The first show that springs to mind is the latest one I saw – The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party by ZooNation, performed in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. I also saw my first ROH opera, courtesy of my auntie – it was La Bohème and I really enjoyed it. The ballets I saw here were also superb, particularly the trilogies. I attended a few concerts this year, the best of which was Aurora Orchestra’s “Jitterbug” at LSO St Luke’s.

 

I’m sure there are plenty of shows I’ve forgotten about, but I should probably stop here, no one will be reading this far down anyway. Hey, just go and read the reviews if you want to know more!

I hope your theatregoing in 2014 was as exciting and fulfilling as mine was. Here’s to 2015!

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