2019: These are a few of my favourite things…

One of the joys of 2018 was joining the ranks of My Theatre Mates and getting the opportunity to see more theatre in more theatres. This continued into 2019 which also afforded me the chance to write for Broadway World.

On the flipside, I have had a hectic year producing my own theatre and wearing various other hats so there are a number of productions, some, by all accounts have been corkers, that I have missed out on.

So this year’s round up isn’t so much of a ‘Best Of…’, more of a, ‘I Bloody Loved…’ but more than anything else it continues to be a celebration of everything that continues to be great about theatre, theatre makers and story tellers.

“a riotous, joyful and ground-breaking piece of work that embodies the spirit of Austen and blasts her into the 21st century.”

Shane morgan on pride and prejudice (*sort of)

Star ratings are always a tricky thing to navigate when you’re writing. Often I find that what is written doesn’t correspond with the star rating a piece of theatre has been given which is why I have tended to steer clear of them. In starting to write for Broadway World however, I could no longer avoid the star rating. The theatrical planets clearly aligned for me therefore, that my first production that I reviewed for BWW was the truly magnificent Pride and Prejudice (*Sort of) by Blood of the Young and Tron Theatre Company at Bristol Old Vic.

Adaptations come and go, especially stage versions of classics that claim to bring an old story to a brand new audience. Isobel McArthur’s production takes everything that makes Austen’s tale a timeless classic and transforms it into a raucous, intelligent and profoundly entertaining experience. So much so that I happily named it one of my ‘Shows of the Decade’ for Broadway World.

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Margot channing “All about eve”

This was my first Ivo van Hove. I was hoping for Network but in hindsight, I couldn’t be happier that All About Eve was my first.

Knowing what I know about van Hove’s work, it clearly had all the trademark design elements but this wasn’t about the direction or the design. This was about three remarkable performances: Gillian Anderson’s Margot Channing, Lily James’ Eve Harrington and Monica Dolan’s Karen Richards. These three women embraced the style and epic nature of bringing Hollywood to the stage and tore through the running time with their richly woven, dynamic and emotionally wrought performances.

This was a masterclass in beautifully crafted and skillfully constructed theatre.

“Attention must be paid.”

death of a salesman by arthur miller

It is a bold move to take an oft-revived classic and produce it on a main stage. Aside from the ‘bums on seats’ familiarity, there is often the pull of star casting and the certainty of a school’s audience. What ripped Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell’s production out of the Miller basket and transformed it was their inventive, sensitive and gut wrenchingly human approach to the piece.

Taking a play that, at it’s heart, is about the American Dream and placing a black family at the centre ignites racial tensions that are often skirted around within the play.

Both Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke were born to play the Lomans. Pierce exposed his role to a vulnerability that has rarely been seen from such a pivotal role whilst, conversely, Clarke created a matriarch that flew in the face of the weaker, less secure Lindas’ that have come before.

This was a triumph for all involved and proof positive that London’s Young Vic is a hotbed of reinvention.

Knot by Nikki and JD is breathtaking. An intricately orchestrated, beautifully composed opus on love and navigating relationships. It combines the world of dance, circus and scripted theatre whilst athletically skipping through the different stages of attraction identifying how we negotiate life and other people. It’s heart stopping, theatrical CPR and a giant hug all wrapped up into a tidy hour. Utterly glorious. (Seen at Bristol’s Circomedia.)

Yes. Another adaptation. This time a film. And this time, even months away from the actual event, Rupert Goold’s The Hunt remains one of the most electrifying and unsettling experiences I have had in the theatre.

My original review is here. A sucker punch it was and a sucker punch it still is. The palpable tension in the room was uncomfortable. It provoked extreme responses on both sides of the argument and people were talking about it long after the lights went up. Isn’t that the very definition of what theatre should be? (Hint: Yes)

“If you wish to be a playwright you just leave the theater of to-morrow to take care of itself.”

Garry Essendine present laughter

This gets me onto performances. Clearly the performances in the five mentioned above are all taken as my stand outs but there have been others this year that have knocked me for six in exceptional productions.

ANDREW SCOTT: Present Laughter (Old Vic Theatre)

This fella. His Gary Essendine shouldn’t have worked on any level. In the hands of literally any other actor it would have been written off as over the top, forced, pushed. Scott’s grasp of his material and his understanding of the style made this one of the most memorable, watchable and inescapably outrageous performances theatre has seen in a long while.

NICOLA WALKER: The Cane (Royal Court Theatre)

Walker is a natural. She is an actor who can read a recipe and make it sound like one of the most fascinating, in depth conversations you’ve ever had. In Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane, Walker’s Anna is akin to a character like Jean in Osborne’s The Entertainer. A character that represents the new guard and one who rebels against and stands up to the old. Bolstered by the magnificent Alun Armstrong and Maggie Steed, this made for a startling start to my theatrical year. My original review can be read here.

AMANDA ABBINGTON: The Son (Kiln Theatre and Duke of York)

From the same ‘Could make a recipe sound captivating’ school of acting as Nicola Walker, Amanda Abbington’s performance as Laurie Kynaston’s mother Anne in Florian Zeller’s The Son was devastating. Again, this wasn’t an easy, laid back night at the theatre but I have found this year that the shows that linger have been the shows that have provoked and this one did by the bucket full. Both Abbington and Amaka Okafor as Sofia, the new wife and step mother, captured the tightrope walk these two character tread whilst trying to navigate the men in their lives to heartbreaking perfection but it was Abbington as the mother that did the maximum emotional damage to this son from a broken home. As I said in my original review, ” Michael Longhurst directs with such a light touch…this exceptional creative team remain authentic and open-hearted at all times.”

KUDZAI SITIMA: The Princess and the Hustler (Bristol Old Vic)

With The Princess and the Hustler, writer Chinonyerem Odimba has skillfully crafted a tightly woven domestic drama out of the British Black Civil Rights movement and focused on the 1963 Bristol Bus boycott. This not only brought to sharp focus a crucial part of 20th Century Bristol history that has often been over looked but also brought to the stage a stunning vehicle for Kudzai Sitima. Her Princess was a force of nature, aiming for the stars with the Weston Super Mare beauty contest beckoning whilst juggling the return of The Hustler.

Thank you 2019. You’ve broken my heart, punched me in the gut, made me laugh until I thought I was going to throw up, taught me and terrified me. I bloody love you for it.

2020, don’t go easy on me.

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