Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Hello! My name is Elder Nick,
And I would like to share with you the most amazing year.

Here we are again then with another review of my theatre year in London and... thereabouts. Thanks for coming along and reading what I've had to say. I say reading, judging by my blog hit stats most of you are just here to look at the pictures, which is fine, it's what "The Internet" is mainly for. Later on I'll be listing my most loved and hated shows, and announcing what's following 2012's Shivered as my 2013 Show of the Year. But before that let's see what was new, what bizarre theatrical memes kept coming back, and what awards I feel like giving out along the way, pretty much arbitrarily. Seriously, I can barely get excited about the likes of the Olivier or Evening Standard awards any more, with their old-fashioned Best Actor or Best Actress type gubbins, when I've got the likes of Best Nipples to announce.

So let's get started with the new writing highlights:


After a long gap, Polly Stenham returned to the stage strongly in January with No Quarter, while later in the year we got a chance to reevaluate her first play, That Face. Lucy Ellinson, who we'll be coming back to later, starred with Brian Ferguson in one of the more inventive takes on the financial crisis, Clare Duffy's MONEY The Game Show. Peter Souter's Hello/Goodbye was an underrated little rom-com, and one of its stars, Andy Rush, would be straight out of that and into another quiet little show that turned into one of the unmissable events of the year: I called Tom Wells' Jumpers for Goalposts the new Beautiful Thing before Attitude magazine got in on the act, and it's become a show both I and several other theatre bloggers have kept coming back to see again and again.

You know, I was only joking about this award up there, but as I look back over this year's new plays there's someone who went above and beyond the call of duty to earn it:

Oliver Rix in Narrative

It wasn't just the nipples themselves but the way they were... framed. There was spandex. It was ridiculous. Tragically there are no photos, possibly for fear of them coming back to haunt Rix in his later career, which coincidentally enough is a theme of his storyline from Anthony Neilson's Narrative, one of those shows that just doesn't leave you whether you're choosing a seat on the bus or sniggering when someone innocently says the word "spokes."

Memorable in a different way, one of the silliest shows you're ever likely to see, and going on tour in the New Year so I'm recommending it straight away to people who couldn't get to That London for it, is The Play That Goes Wrong.

It's even spawned a franchise, with the cast going on to injure themselves again daily for our amusement when Peter Pan Goes Wrong. But it wasn't all silly, the more serious side of things was well-represented by Lucy Kirkwood's enthralling epic Chimerica, and while Bracken Moor wasn't perfect I was really taken with Alexi Kaye Campbell's novel idea to frame a political play as a ghost story. A new regime at the Royal Court started shakily and with a dark cloud over it as Paul Bhattacharjee died midway through its weekly rep season, but away from the venue Vicky Featherstone's programming yielded results, with the entertainingly cringeworthy Circle Mirror Transformation and the gloriously fun The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

The return of immersive company Punchdrunk to London was big news, and The Drowned Man didn't disappoint. On the opposite end of the scale, publicity-wise, was a two-hander show about a paraplegic girl befriending a soldier with PTSD that technically wasn't even a premiere but a workshop preview. It still knocked "fully formed" shows into a cocked hat - Colleen Murphy's Armstrong's War.

Director Jessica Swale turned playwright with great aplomb with Blue Stockings at the Globe, then we're straight back to the Finborough for the scorching Unscorched, a deserving award-winner from Luke Owen. A number of actors did good work creating monologues for themselves: Thomas Eccleshare's Perle was the most unusual, seeing as it was a monologue in which he barely spoke; Cush Jumbo's Josephine and I was the best showcase of multiple talents; and, in a way that feels somehow inevitable from the rarely-clothed Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag was the filthiest. But the most extraordinary solo turn came from an actress not performing her own words, but George Brant's in Grounded:

Lucy Ellinson in Grounded


On to this year's new adaptations,  where The Turn of the Screw was a rather disappointing attempt to cash in on the success of onstage ghost stories. There was much more personality to simple8's lo-fi stagings of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Moby-Dick at the Arcola. Headlong's take on The Seagull was satisfyingly imaginative, and if Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill's rewriting of The Bacchae into The Lightning Child wasn't quite successful, I didn't find it as catastrophic as many suggested. Of course it did feature two Big Favourites Round These Parts in their pants, so that may have clouded my judgement a tad. Back to Headlong for a focused 1984, then the Royal Court scores an alternative Christmas hit with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany's memorably atmospheric take on Let The Right One In.


I'm not the biggest fan of musicals but 2013 was a strong year for them - perhaps the signs were all there when the first show I saw this year was Salad Days. It's an oddly hard show to Google production shots from, but people who saw it will understand why this photo illustrates the next award perfectly:

That scene from Salad Days

With an exciting cast, LIFT had its moments but didn't quite come together, Dolly Parton's musical version of 9 to 5 was exactly what it sounds like, while Glasgow Girls was kind of amazing not only in its own right, but also in revealing that a human being exists called Patricia Panther. Not only did The Book of Mormon come with the writers of South Park and the songwriter of my favourite ever musical, Avenue Q (which also got a great revival this year,) but I spent much of my 2011 holiday in New York failing to get lottery tickets to the Broadway production, so when it arrived in the West End 18 months later it had a lot to live up to. But it did, and I still grin when the doorbell sound that heralds "Hello" comes on my iPod.

I was less taken with the other big Broadway musical import, Once, much preferring the smaller-scale offering of - yet again - the Finborough's Rooms - A Rock Romance, with a great pairing of Alexis Gerred and Cassidy Janson. Just don't make the mistake of listening to the original off-Broadway recording of the show; I'm pretty sure the accents on that officially qualify as a hate crime against the Scots.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a big fun show if not a classic, Titanic was dull, The Color Purple was a bit of a cheesy chick flick raised by a fantastic cast, and [title of show] was likeable, but not enough to make me understand its rabid fanbase. Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens was, at least, precisely as ridiculous as the title would suggest. Autumn's big musicals all arrived together, with The Light Princess and The Scottsboro Boys impressing, in their very different ways, more than the decent-but-not-quite-there From Here to Eternity. The Union's all-male H.M.S. Pinafore was great fun and predictably easy on the eye.

But as far as bulging muscles went, its thunder was stolen by a most unexpected source. Rupert Goold directing the Spring Awakening songwriter's take on American Psycho was another show that lived up to the ridiculously high expectations I'd put on it; it also featured what could have looked like a stunt-cast leading role but turned out to be a stroke of genius:

Matt Smith in American Psycho


On to revivals, and although Mark Ravenhill would go on to irritate both me and some of my theatregoing companions later in the year, he and director Roxana Silbert started it with a great production of Brecht's A Life of Galileo at the RSC, Ian McDiarmid bringing the scientist's enthusiasm gloriously and tragically to life.

With some of the utter disasters they were going to inflict on us later in the year, it's weird to look back and see how right the Old Vic can get it if they try, although Rattigan is always a good bet and The Winslow Boy came across here as deserving its reputation as his masterpiece. Cheek by Jowl's Ubu Roi was reliably inventive, the RSC's A Mad World My Masters full of more smutty jokes than all the Carry On films put together, and The Cripple of Inishmaan one of the better entries in Michael Grandage's lacklustre season. Gay theatre was very much in the mainstream this year: With its natural successor turning up courtesy of Tom Wells, Jonathan Harvey's original Beautiful Thing celebrated two decades with a production that wasn't the best I've seen, but had its moments. Another revival of a noted gay play was Jamie Lloyd revisiting Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride as part of his own West End residency, and one of English theatre's oldest gay-themed classics got a flawed but exciting production with Edward II at the Olivier.

Our Country's Good is a modern classic that received a strong production from Out of Joint last winter; a period piece featuring lots of fully-dressed people, its presence on the school curriculum meaning it was always likely to do good box office. Still, better safe than sorry, eh?

Dominic Thorburn doing this to plug Our Country's Good


An exciting Shakespeare year for me as I added a further four plays to my collection of those seen on stage, leaving me with just The Two Noble Kinsmen to complete the set. Of course, three of those were always likely to come as a set, since Harry the SixthThe Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York are more commonly known collectively as the Henry VI trilogy.

The other play was Titus Andronicus which behaved much like a bus: After waiting a couple of decades to add it to my collection, two came along at once - first a gory production at the RSC and a few months later a high-concept one at the Arcola.

Macbeth was also turning up everywhere you looked - from the starry (James McAvoy at Trafalgar 1) to the surprisingly light (Eve Best's directorial debut at the Globe) to the batshit fucking mental (Macbeth of Fire and Ice.) Other Shakespeare plays with star power that I enjoyed this year were Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear locking horns in Othello and Tom Hiddleston in a clear and energetic Coriolanus. I was less taken with Michael Grandage's brisk Shakespearean offerings of Sheridan Smith and David Walliams in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Jude Law as Henry V. As for David Tennant's Dick, a by-the-numbers production of Richard II was overshadowed by its star's hair extensions transforming him into a surly teenage Alanis Morissette. And yet he still had Transformation Of The Year stolen from him by his Doctor Who successor. Which is ironic. Don't you think?

For sheer misfiring star power though you should look no further than Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, in a sleepwalking production from Mark Rylance that treated Much Ado so heinously I couldn't stand it any more and had to leave at the interval:

Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic

Yeah, those were pretty much the facial expressions of the audience, too.

You could have seen a better Much Ado at the cinema courtesy of Joss Whedon, while a better Dream than Grandage's was on show at Shakespeare's Globe. Propeller did one of my least favourite plays, The Taming of the Shrew, about as well as it can be done, and back in Stratford a dreary Hamlet was followed by the same cast doing much better with As You Like It and All's Well That Ends Well. But this year will be memorable to me for the plays I hadn't seen before, and while either Titus could have taken the crown, a tiny cast taking on dozens of roles over three nights became real event theatre for me.

The Henry VI plays at Shakespeare's Globe


This year's theatrical memes came in waves: First there were the dogs, with a whippet for Above Me The Wide Blue Sky, corgis for The Audience and the puppy in the West End transfer of The Curious Incident. Then there were the broken eggs, the worst offenders being Children of the Sun and The Cripple of Inishmaan - there's people starving, you know! Daniel Kaluuya rather unexpectedly turned out to be the theatrical equivalent of Keira Knightley, i.e. a compulsory cast member for Joe Wright's productions - first in the meh Trelawny of the Wells then a funny-then-chilling turn in the excellent A Season in the Congo. But the meme that dominated the second half of the year was one of the more elaborate, and therefore unlikely ones: It appeared first, a lot, in Michael Fentiman's Titus, before recurring in the likes of Mojo, Let The Right One In and Coriolanus.

Actors being strung up by the ankles

Something almost unique to 2013 was The Shed, the temporary third house at the National while the Cottesloe was rebuilt into the Dorfman. Inevitably I'm going to mainly remember it for Bullet Catch, although only one audience member per performance will have had quite the same experience as me there. I wasn't as taken with some of the earlier shows there as some, but as the year moved on things got pretty confident in the venue and Home, The World of Extreme Happiness, nut and Protest Song were all fascinating in their own ways, plus getting to see Andrew Scott perform Sea Wall in person was pretty special.

Not as visible as a big red box on the South Bank but still an interesting experiment was going on at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Secret Theatre wasn't always successful, but played with some interesting ideas, and certainly caused a bit of a ruckus when a critic spoiled the surprise on Twitter. Shows 1 and 2 have now finished but 3 will return in 2014, with 4, 5, 6 and possibly more to follow.

Before I take a quick look at the West End, a couple of awards that don't really fit into any categories. First up Big Favourite Round These Parts Felix Scott, who did a play at the Gate and marked the occasion by breaking two fingers on Press Night; then walked face first into the set during a Q&A. The play was called Gruesome Playground Injuries.

Felix Scott in Gruesome Playground Injuries

And then there's Max Irons, who it turns out is sexually irresistible not just to his dad, but to people in the front row as well. When I saw Farragut North, Shaun Williamson dropped a piece of paper which was the handed back to him by an audience member. Pretty tame stuff compared to the story that came out of a performance about a week later:

The woman who stroked Max Irons' leg with her foot during Farragut North


The West End didn't get the best PR this year, what with people falling off balconies and the year ending with a nasty accident at the Apollo. But in terms of quality I found more to enjoy than usual. The Audience was a surreal drama in which Helen Mirren dressed as The Queen and told some drummers to fuck off. Oh no, wait, that actually happened. A late crop of new shows was surprisingly good, Strangers on a Train the only real shitshower among a crop including the jolly Perfect Nonsense, engrossing Twelve Angry Men, starrily but cannily-cast Mojo and well-orchestrated chaos of The Duck House. Best avoided this year was Wyndhams, which yawned along first to Quartermaine's Terms, then to Relatively Speaking, before settling on a show we'll be coming back to, a play that decided swearing was the same thing as comedy: A fellow contributor to AYULTP introduced Barking In Essex with "there's four 'cunts' on the stage in the first minute, and three of them are the cast for agreeing to be in it." I can't say I disagree. (Neither does one of the cast by the sounds of it, with Keely Hawes taking an early bath.) At least next year Wyndhams should get back on track as it'll be hosting the transfer of the Donmar's excellent revival of The Weir.


It's great to look forward to plays written by or starring people you like, but lots of fun to spot new people you'd like to see more of. The Faction is a rep company I've been aware of for a few years, who this year added the excellent Anna-Maria Nabirye to their lineup, notably in Blood Wedding. Andrew Leung was enjoyable in both #aiww and Chimerica, and while not all of the cast of Jumpers for Goalposts were new to me, all were spot-on. I looked forward to seeing more of Gemma Whelan after seeing her in Philip Ridley's Dark Vanilla Jungle, the same writer's Fastest Clock had a show-stealing Sherbet Gravel in Nancy Sullivan, and Scott Chambers impressed in Chris Dunkley's The Precariat. Jessica Barden and Mark Quartley both did great work in Colleen Murphy's Armstrong's War, as did their director Jennifer Bakst. The National Youth Theatre's season showcased some rising talents, notably Simon Lennon in Prince of Denmark and Abigail Rose in Romeo and Juliet, and another pair of starcrossed lovers who impressed were Let The Right One In's central couple of Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson.

As well as Jessica Swale, another director showing promise as a playwright was Clare Lizzimore, writing one hell of a role for Sam Troughton in Mint. Bekah Brunstetter wasn't new to me but her Nothing is the End of the World (Except for the End of the World) was the strongest thing I've seen from her, and also showing promise were new writers Janice Okoh with Three Birds and Luke Owen, whose Unscorched dealt with aplomb with what should have been an impossible subject matter.

How to choose a most promising newcomer? Well, I could just make it all about me, me, me. I know people seem to enjoy my reviews more when I slag things off, but I must pay hundreds of compliments in a year. Out of those, two actors and one playwright said thanks. And since they've obviously got such good manners, they won't mind sharing.

Scott Chambers in The Precariat AND
Abigail Rose in Romeo and Juliet AND
Luke Owen for Unscorched

But I know slagging stuff off isn't the only thing people come to my blog for, so without further delay let's get back to the artistically crucial business of attractive people disrobing on stage. Even if I didn't love LIFT, looking at Luke Kempner, Jonny Fines and George Maguire wasn't exactly a hardship (steady.) An attractive and not-always-clothed cast came to Greenwich to perform Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Globe's Dream didn't exactly put me off by having Joshua Silver and Luke Thompson wrestle each other whilst topless and muddy.

(The fact that the Grandage version of the play had Stefano Braschi and Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury do much the same thing but still wasn't as sexy says a lot about both productions.) At the St James Theatre, The American Plan was an intriguing play that opened with a wet and partially-clothed Luke Allen-Gale and somehow didn't go downhill from there. The production also made headlines when the show's plot twist involving Allen-Gale and Mark Edel-Hunt offended a homophobic audience member, resulting in a comeback from the cast during the curtain call. Later in the year the same venue hosted The Vibrator Play; despite dealing largely with women's sexuality, it was a man who let it all hang out in the end.

Over in Soho, the notoriously shy and retiring Joe Dempsie was positively overdressed for the snappily-titled Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against a Brick Wall.

Philip Ridley's The Fastest Clock in the Universe got a stellar production at the Old Red Lion, as well as giving audiences an eyeful of Dylan Llewellyn and particularly Joshua Blake. Handbagged proved that Neet Mohan can still be hot even when dressed as Nancy Reagan. Ben Aldridge was easy on the eye in The Lyons and American Psycho, while some actual Americans (hopefully not psychotic ones) brightened up the South Bank: Kyle Soller was a (literally) sexypants Gaveston to The Heff's Edward II, and Seth Numrich was excellent in Sweet Bird of Youth - and if Olly Rix hadn't gone to the effort of twanging his own with spandex braces, Numrich would have been a shoo-in for Best Nipples, as his perked up my journey into work all summer from the posters outside the Old Vic.


But it wasn't all nipply glory at the Old Vic, which as well as subjecting Much Ado to such indignities that Vanessa and I fled at the interval, followed that up with the dreary pointlessness of Fortune's Fool. Yes, this where it all went wrong this year: Phil Wilmott's attempt to suggest Fair Em could have had input from Shakespeare was doomed from the start, while Emma Rice's effort at reinventing Steptoe and Son seemed to have no understanding of what worked about it in the first place. The combined talents of Dame Judi Dench and Dame Ben Wishaw couldn't make Peter and Alice watchable, while Bruce Norris proved that the same bonkers twist that made silly musical comedy Salad Days extra glorious doesn't work as well at the end of three hours of droning lecture about capitalism in The Low Road.

That show was Dominic Cooke's farewell to the Royal Court, and his successor announced herself by "giving the writers the keys" to the venue. They promptly lost the keys up their own arses: With a similar idea to the Lyric Hammersmith, the writers unlocked a "surprise theatre" season which, in Cakes and Finance, turned out to be Mark Ravenhill lecturing for an hour on what he and his mates think makes good theatre.

Mark Ravenhill for Cakes and Finance

The Lyttelton challenged its audience's patience with Strange Interlude and From Morning to Midnight. At the Donmar, Nick Payne's The Same Deep Water As Me was just disappointing, but the real Marmite affair was Roots: Some people queued up to heap praise on it, but I was so bored I couldn't even face reviewing it afterwards, and reviewed the onstage baking instead.


With its predictable comedy and horrible sexual politics, Simon Paisley Day's Raving seemed dated and dusty rather than a new play; The Secret Agent and Jekyll & Hyde were by-the-numbers collections of fringe theatre tropes, while American Lulu was... sort of a collection of noises on and around a stage. If you read last year's review you'll know what comes next: Yes, relief, as it's almost the end. The best of the best coming up, but first the worst of the worst:


5 - Fair Em at the Union Theatre

4 - Steptoe and Son - Kneehigh at the Lyric Hammersmith

3 - Raving at Hampstead Theatre

2 - Macbeth of Fire and Ice at the Arcola

Sheila Hancock saying "cunt" once is, at best, mildly amusing. Sheila Hancock saying "cunt" a couple of times a minute for two hours does not a comedy make - some shows just make you embarrassed for London theatre.

Barking In Essex at Wyndham's Theatre.

But cheer up! This was an easy year to put a Shit List together for, because disasters were comparatively thin on the ground. Much harder was sifting through the quality stuff, and an unusual Top Ten has come out of it: The first one I've compiled to end up with nothing from the National Theatre, and no Shakespeare, though Titus and Henry VI were contenders; also just missing out were The Drowned Man, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and A Life of Galileo. Instead eight of the top ten are premieres, and there's even three honest-to-goodness musicals.


10 - The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion

9 - Rooms at the Finborough Theatre

8 - The Play That Goes Wrong at Trafalgar Studio 2

7 - The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic

6 - Chimerica - Headlong at the Almeida Theatre

5 - The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre

4 - American Psycho - Headlong at the Almeida Theatre

3 - Narrative at the Royal Court

2 - Armstrong's War at the Finborough Theatre

It did actually get given a run for its money by Armstrong's War, but I doubt there's a regular reader of this blog... well OK, I doubt there's a regular reader of this blog, but if they do exist I doubt they'd have trouble guessing what my show of 2013 is. I don't think anyone who's ever met me would have trouble guessing what it is. If you missed this nigh-on perfect little show, it's not for lack of me telling you to go see it.

Paines Plough at Watford Palace, on tour and at the Bush Theatre

So that's what 2014 has to live up to to impress me. With two shows each in the Top Ten, THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2013 is once again shared, this time by the Finborough and the Almeida - the latter should hopefully be one to watch as Rupert Goold (whose former company Headlong was behind both those shows) settles into his new role in charge there. Being a weird addict-type person, many of my 2014 theatre trips are already booked, so come back in a year's time and see what I thought of them all. Actually, come back in a few days and see what I think as is happens - I don't think I'd like it if nobody read this blog all year and just waited for next December 31st to get a potted version.


  1. Completely agree with your choice of Jumpers for Goalposts, Nick. Superlative and very touching play.

    1. I'll be very surprised if I'm the only blogger who puts it at #1.

  2. Our tastes are running along rather similar lines, Nick. This is kind of scary. On the other hand, I'm feeling like I'm lazy compared to you. But on the third hand, I didn't see any of the shows in your list of losers, so I'm hoping rather than just seeing "less" theater I'm seeing less shit shows. That I am okay with.

    1. Yeah, Titanic gave it a try but wasn't anywhere near boring enough to make my Bottom Five.

      I'd be more worried about the fact that you've got three hands.

  3. Living in Australia, I haven't been fortunate enough to see Jumpers For Goalposts, but when I read the script I got that "ooooooh" feeling in my stomach when you just KNOW that it's good. It's brilliant that the reviews have been almost universally good to excellent!
    On a side note - I am a "regular reader" of this blog. See - we DO exist :-)

    1. Obviously depending on where in Australia you are, but I wouldn't be too surprised if the opportunity to see a production comes around sooner rather than later. For all the specific Hull references in Tom Wells' work there's an obvious universality to it so it's only a matter of time before theatre companies internationally start to cotton on to him.