Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

I don't know if you noticed, but 2014 was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. I know, you'd have thought some theatre or other would have at least mentioned it. So yes, there was one big overarching theme to a lot of this year's theatre, some productions coming up with moving and fresh reactions to the centenary, others treading familiar old ground. But as with any year you never can tell what unexpected subject matters will crop up to make for the best or worst shows, and as usual I'll be listing my 10 favourite and 5 least favourite theatrical experiences this year - including what follows 2013's Jumpers for Goalposts as my Show of the Year, and Barking In Essex as the worst of the worst. But before we get to that, I'm going to babble on about what's caught my eye this year. Don't worry, there'll be pretty pictures to keep you from falling asleep.

I find new writing is usually a good place to start...


...and January wasn't even over before the first of my award-winners came about. Granted, this particular award isn't for the writing (by John Donnelly,) the direction (by John Tiffany) or the performances (by Russell Tovey, Gary Carr, Lisa McGrills and Nico Mirallegro) although all of those were excellent. It tackled a subject that seems like it should have been dealt with in drama a lot more than it has, and it did so brilliantly, and I'll be coming back to The Pass later, but for the time being:

Russell Tovey in The Pass

I mean, not only were they out there for almost the entire show, he even gave them the odd tweak to make sure they were presented to their best advantage. You've got to reward dedication.

But back to business, and Carrie Cracknell and Nick Payne took an inventive look at casual misogyny in Blurred Lines, while a few feet away in the Lyttelton Daniel Kitson created a particularly eccentric piece of theatrical magic in Analog.Ue, and at the Arcola Barney Norris' Visitors impressed with its sensitive portrayal of old age and senility. Not long after I said The Pass dealt with a rarely-discussed subject, Away From Home came around to present a different, but also interesting take on the subject of closeted professional footballers; back at the Royal Court Vivienne Franzmann gave Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews a grimly poetic world to inhabit in Pests. But new writing wasn't all doom and gloom - James Graham may have presented us with a frightening vision of our favourite technology keeping us under constant surveillance, but Privacy did it with panache; and when Mike Bartlett imagined the ascension of King Charles III to the throne (first at the Almeida then in the West End,) he did it with a spectacularly Shakespearean epic.

Following it at the Almeida was a play that definitely split people into love and hate - I found myself very much alone sitting on the fence, as I thought Anne Washburn's ideas for Mr Burns were amazing, let down by her own writing, then raised again by Robert Icke's production. Across town there was a much more interesting exploration of the way story comes to life, in Roland Schimmelpfennig's underrated Idomeneus at the Gate.

Prolific playwright Nick Payne turned performer - of sorts - for the touching Art of Dying, Robin Soans lifted the lid on the family politics behind churches in Perseverance Drive, and I even got a look at what will officially be one of 2015's premieres - Nell Gwynn makes its professional debut at the Globe, but thanks to LAMDA's production I can predict that Jessica Swale's new play should be one to look forward to next summer. Tom Basden's Holes stranded four office workers on a desert island, and among many memorable comic scenes there's two that provide my next awards:

Mathew Baynton in Holes

Daniel Rigby in Holes

Richard Bean's ultra-topical Great Britain was a very funny romp but not quite as memorable as it might have hoped - sketch show The Get Out was compiled within a couple of weeks but managed almost as many laughs. And if Mike Bartlett was ambitious in creating one new rival to Shakespeare's Histories, how much more so was Rona Munro - in The Key Will Keep The Lock, Day of the Innocents and The True Mirror she created a whole new history sequence about the first three King Jameses of Scotland. The ambitious middle play was my personal favourite but director Laurie Sansom gave each part of the trilogy its own identity, and made the whole unmissable.


One of the surprise treats of the year saw Marcus Gardley take Lorca's bleak The House of Bernarda Alba and turn it into a serious, but humour-filled piece of black history in The House That Will Not Stand. Roy Williams delivered political theatre in the form of pure entertainment in Wildefire, while Alistair McDowall's harnessing of RPG and Cthulhu into a modern thriller made Pomona one of the word-of-mouth hits of the year.


One new production of a classic play overshadowed all the rest this year, as Ivo van Hove stripped down everything we associate with Arthur Miller's plays to present A View From The Bridge as a devastating classical tragedy; it's getting a well-deserved West End transfer next year.

But there were other exciting classical revivals - Anya Reiss' take on Wedekind's Spring Awakening was much more successful than her two latest attempts at Chekhov. Two landmark plays with a gay theme got high-profile revivals, the repressed frustration of Another Country and the much more overtly sexual tragicomedy of My Night With Reg. Some early LaBute was resurrected with none of its bite diminished in BASH. Though overshadowed in the press by bigger names, Helen McCrory's Medea delivered one of the classical performances of the year.

The Finborough's strand of forgotten plays didn't dig up quite as many classics as usual, but I did really enjoy the culture-clash silliness of The Flouers o'Edinburgh, while Jermyn Street did some digging of their own and came up with Rattigan's First Episode. Not so well-known here as in America, Our Town is actually a play I had something of a history with, and David Cromer's quietly devastating production was worth the twenty years I've waited to see it. A much more recent revival came from Nina Raine as her 2011 play Tiger Country got a hot new cast and an energetic production that seemed to improve on the original.

Of course, a revival can be memorable for all sorts of reasons...

Warwick Davis' all-dwarf production of See How They Run

Sometimes adaptation is the name of the game, and this year none was more high-profile than Mike Poulton and Jeremy Herrin bringing Hilary Mantel's juggernauts Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies to the stage in Stratford and London. It didn't cause as much of a splash, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was one of my favourite shows of the year - I'm not a big lover of Westerns, but it turns out Jethro Compton loves them enough for it to be thoroughly infectious.

And if many Westerns are based on classic Samurai films, that genre too got its turn on the London stage, Stan Sakai's manga series Usagi Yojimbo turning into an unconventional but very successful Christmas family show. Based on a much more traditional Christmas story, Metal Rabbit's take on A Christmas Carol did a Sherlock to Dickens, stripping it of Victoriana to reveal the story as it might originally have been received.


Song and dance now in what seems to me to have been a huge year for musicals. The X Factor musical seems pretty much to have been doomed long before it even opened, but I know I'm not the only one who was pleasantly surprised by Harry Hill and Steve Brown's I Can't Sing, and sad to see it have to beat such a hasty retreat. There's been similar doom-mongering around another new British musical but Made In Dagenham, whose utter ridiculousness I loved but others hated, has made it at least to the end of the year. The Infidel was another British film being given a daft-but-lovable second lease of life as a musical, and back in the West End a definite hit was Sunny Afternoon - a jukebox musical, sure, but this Kinks retrospective seemed to breathe new life into the genre. And new musicals didn't just come in expensive packages, as The Return of the Soldier proved quietly and effectively at Jermyn Street.

As far as transfers from Broadway went, Dessa Rose continued to confirm Cynthia Erivo (fresh out of the aforementioned I Can't Sing) as someone who should be dominating musical theatre for the next few years. Memphis was in many ways a typical Broadway powerhouse but one with a bit of heart and a lot of entertainment value. Urinetown took a long time to make it across the Atlantic but when it did it certainly had a particular charm of its own; but Spring 2014 was all about In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse transforming into a Latino neighbourhood of New York for one of the most vibrant shows in a long time.


Later in the year Altar Boyz, another one that took a long time to make it from New York to London, was worth the wait - sexy and utterly ridiculous, basically two of the main things I look for in theatre, it had a bafflingly short run for such a slickly produced show. Here Lies Love, meanwhile, was a much more high-profile affair, inaugurating the National's relaunched and renamed Dorfman. A disco musical about Imelda Marcos promised to be bonkers fun, and boy did it deliver, with some great songs along the way.

Musical revivals didn't grab me as much this year though; critics raved about The Pajama Game but I was baffled, and not in the good way. Miss Saigon's return was the year's West End musical triumph but once again I failed to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe it was sitting at an angle where I could see the actors walk straight on and straight back off the famous helicopter that stole the magic for me.

It was left to the tiny powerhouse at the Landor to impress with a couple of American musicals I'd wanted to see for a long time, and which in their very different ways lived up to expectations: Damn Yankees, a classic musical that seems to get frequently referenced in US pop culture; and the outrageously camp, gently biting satire on homophobia provided by Zanna, Don't!

Zanna, Don't!'s "Ride 'Em," a song about lesbians on mechanical bulls

One of my musical highlights of the year was saved 'til last though: Sondheim's Assassins has long been one of my favourite musicals, but the last production I saw made me question if it was really as good as I remembered. Jamie Lloyd's near-perfect production confirmed that I'd been right all along to consider it a work of darkly comic genius. (Plus bonus Aaron Tveit!)


I went into this year wondering if I could achieve the seemingly impossible: A full calendar year without seeing a production of Twelfth Night. I can hardly believe it myself, but I managed it (there was an ETT production a lot of people raved about, but not enough to tempt me.) Of the Shakespeare productions I did see, the highlights are coming up, but 2014 got one of its biggest duds out of the way early on. I was later to be disappointed by the RSC Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, but before that the Barbican would play host to something far worse:


It would soon be followed, though, by Sam Mendes and SRB's long-awaited King Lear, an epic production with the odd big surprise. (Yes all right, I'm talking about Tom Brooke's cock.) A prison-set Hamlet also upped the nudity quota, but allowed itself to get bogged down in its own high concept. Phil Willmott's take on Lear, meanwhile, had a few too many high concepts for its own good. Shakespeare's Globe had a typically mixed summer season, but among the highlights was the best production I've ever seen of a play I've never been crazy about: Antony and Cleopatra has a tendency to become turgid every second its leading lady is offstage. Jonathan Munby's production managed to hold the interest throughout, an especially great achievement considering Cleopatra was played by the force of nature that is Eve Best.

Phyllida Lloyd revisited her Julius Caesar prison setting for a Henry IV which I thought, for various reasons, worked a lot better. The RSC's commitment to stage the complete works means even shows you rarely get the chance to see will crop up, and this year The Two Gentlemen of Verona got a charming, intelligent staging. But the Shakespeare productions that will most stick with me from this year are of plays that are rarely off the stage. Each of these productions had a very different take on how to do Shakespearean comedy, but they both did something very rare: Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It are plays I know very well, but here they felt completely new.

Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe and on tour AND
As You Like It at Southwark Playhouse


The most high-profile newcomer of 2014 was a venue - the long-awaited Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, instantly nicknamed the Swanamaker. The Globe's Candlelit indoor playhouse provided atmospheric productions of The Duchess of Malfi and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, but it was frantic, utterly bonkers comedy where it really shone - The Knight of the Burning Pestle came back for more, and so did I.

The most notable new playwright was probably Chris Thompson - Carthage was a strong debut, but the polarizing Albion later in the year found a fan in me with its ambitious attempt to tell political theatre through the medium of karaoke. Elsewhere the Raine family made a bid to be the next big theatrical dynasty as Nina's brother Moses made a credible writing debut with Donkey Heart.

The Mystae introduced a promising acting trio of Beatrice Scirocchi, Adam Buchanan and Alex Griffin-Griffiths, but I also want to single out someone who's not technically a newcomer: I've seen well-designed shows from her before but this year Georgia Lowe jumped to another level, becoming one of those creatives whose name will get me excited for a show: The Mystae not only transformed Hampstead Downstairs into an underground cave, the pool that formed the entrance HAD TIDES. Then her simplistic-looking Far Away set hid devastating coups de théâtre, and a grim sinkhole set lent Pomona much of its mysterious menace.

Georgia Lowe for The Mystae, Far Away and Pomona

Jack Holden provided one of the most devastating of the year's attacks on war in Johnny Got His Gun, while in the less well-judged and certainly controversial Dogfight, Laura Jane Matthewson and Rebecca Trehearn looked a good bet as future musical theatre stars. A new production of Piranha Heights didn't convince me it was one of Philip Ridley's best, but I did come away from it feeling I understood the play a lot better. In retrospect, the role of Medic had probably been miscast in the original production, but now Ryan Gerald knocked it out of the park. He also dealt graciously with a woman in the pub after the show who broke off her conversation to compliment him on his chest.

Ryan Gerald in Piranha Heights

Honestly, some people. Treating actors like they're pieces of meat.


I know this blog has more of a focus than most on plays where attractive men's clothes all fall off, but even by my standards 2014 had an insane amount of man-flesh on show. In fact the only place it seemed to be missing was the play about man-flesh on show: The Full Monty went to great lengths (ahem) to keep everything in the shadows. Much less shy was Lee Knight, his nude scene in Archimedes' Principle playing out twice, in the unlikely event anyone missed it the first time. Hamlet usually bares his soul, but Adam Lawrence's prince bared parts only his doctor would usually be privy to. Ideally, of course, a show should have more than just nudity to make it interesting; sadly In Lambeth never got that memo.

The Wolf From the Door at least wasn't dull, but it could have done with more than just Calvin Demba's nude scene to recommend it. Andy Rush got it all out in Unidentified Item in the Bagging Area just before playing Dick Whittington, thus providing a gift to lovers of terrible, smutty puns everywhere. The scenes set in an all-male sauna meant DV8's aptly-named JOHN added much to the year's tally, but nothing could beat The Curing Room's all-male cast staying naked throughout the show - probably its greatest achievement was managing to make that not seem gratuitous. (Also, if you saw the show you'll know the "treating actors like they're pieces of meat" thing is... particularly apt here.)


Obviously it would be totally unfair to single people out for something they just happened to be born with. Then again "acting talent" is arguably something some people are born with and people never stop dishing out awards for that, so here goes:

Tom Brooke in King Lear AND
Lewis Reeves in My Night With Reg

They can share. Refereeing a tie-breaker would be awkward, and in any case I don't think there's any way of requesting one that doesn't result in a restraining order.


Male nudity and World War I were the major theatrical memes of the year (the two didn't tend to coincide, although Fear in a Handful of Dust managed it.) But as ever, plenty of other odd little trends kept showing up. The "ridiculously long title" meme from last year carried over into the early part of 2014; I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole gave it a go but it was trumped by We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915. Elsewhere it was a pretty messy year to be an actor, as London's finest found themselves in dire need of a shower for their art. Probably none more so than the stars of Stink Foot after their nightly treacle bath.

The great fun to be had at Never Try This At Home included a lot of custard pies getting flung, some of them at the audience. But mostly theatres stuck to good old-fashioned gore - the Globe joined in both outdoors with Titus Andronicus, and indoors with 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. A View From the Bridge's use of stage blood provided a memorable tableau, while Grand Guignol went in a less serious direction, taking as much glee in eye-gouging as it's possible to take. Superior Donuts didn't feature any hacked-up organs, but it did feature a red velvet cake with an unfortunate resemblance to them. Even the National's Treasure Island splattered more innards around the stage than you might expect from a family show. And of course there was The Curing Room, blending the nudity meme with the gore meme. Possibly in an actual blender. A second Curing Room photo to illustrate this would be gratuitous, but this has already been a very long post and I need something to keep your attention.

The Massacre at Paris could well have joined in with the splatter but instead it represented its bloodshed with another of the year's big memes, the liberal use of confetti. Nothing could compete with the Southwark As You Like It, though, whose seasonal confetti probably used a real Forest of Arden's worth of trees. Then there were the plays taking place in real hotel rooms - I Do and the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin The Hotel Plays. The increased use of technology in theatre saw actors appearing in two plays at once - while the flesh and blood SRB was giving his Lear at the National, a pre-recorded version was providing the ghost for the Faction's Hamlet; and the voice of Robert Vaughn narrated Liberty Valance even as the real thing was still appearing in Twelve Angry Men.

The Royal Court Downstairs came up with a very specific meme of its own, of putting the internet onstage. The Nether, yet another play getting a 2015 West End revival, was an incredibly daring piece in terms of subject matter, its virtual reality stunningly realised. But for sheer demented chutzpah you couldn't beat Teh Internet is Serious Business, director Hamish Pirie being challenged to tell a story taking place almost entirely online, but without any electronic help at his disposal.

Celebrity casting didn't dominate quite as much as in some years, but it was far from absent; Angela Lansbury returned to the West End for the first time in 307 years for Blithe Spirit; Kathleen Turner's return was rather less well-received, with the dull Bakersfield Mist closing early. Kevin Spacey began his final year at the Old Vic with a solo turn as Clarence Darrow, followed by Richard Armitage in an endless Crucible the critics raved at but whose self-indulgence I seriously struggled with. Down the road A Streetcar Named Desire also went over the 3-hour-mark, but Gillian Anderson's performance was only one factor in the show's success. Another long absence was ended by Bill Nighy joining Carey Mulligan in Skylight at Wyndhams, while Lindsay Lohan's turn in Speed-the-Plow failed to get as many headlines as expected, because she actually turned up. You know, I'm not sure if the awards I give out are as scientific as the "proper" ones, so let's do one that uses all the artistic judgement you'd expect of the ES awards or the Oliviers. In other words, I googled the names of all the famouses and the shows they were in, and looked at how many results they got. I thought Scully or Jessica Fletcher would have this one in the bag but I was wrong - I don't know if it was The Hobbit or his association with Bobblehead Cucumberpatch that pushed Bilbo's Dick well above the million results mark but...

Martin Freeman in Richard III


And so to those misbehaving shows that made me wonder why I even go to the theatre in the first place. The Arcola had a pretty disastrous start to the year, its underwhelming Spanish season opening with the painfully unfunny Don Gil of the Green Breeches; but that was nothing compared to the breathtakingly inept In Skagway going on in its second space. At least I only have myself to blame for not enjoying their Waiting for Godot - as with the Young Vic's Happy Days I should have stuck to my own resolution to avoid Beckett and not let the prospect of, respectively, Tom Palmer and Juliet Stevenson sway me.

I'm not sure 2014 was the greatest-ever year for race relations in London theatre: We Are Proud To Present... was an attack on racism, but however much I mulled it over I couldn't find an explanation for the ending that didn't involve an intense hatred of all white people; and while there was nothing wrong with the production values of Pacific Overtures, I found the production's enthusiastic embracing of yellowface uncomfortable to watch. At least some car crashes come with something to point and stare at, and the hilariously misconceived stage adaptation of Fatal Attraction may not have got thrills, but it did get unintended laughs.

Southwark Playhouse was a major player this year but as with any venue producing a high volume of shows it had its duds as well. They had some strong musicals but The A-Z of Mrs P wasn't one of them, and while I sat through to the end of many shows I didn't like, A Bright Room Called Day couldn't tempt me back after the interval.


Southwark also saw the first of Anya Reiss' unsuccessful attempts to recapture her hit Seagull from 2012 - a problematic Three Sisters would be followed later in the year by a downright dull Uncle Vanya. And speaking of dull, the venue receives another dubious accolade from me as Enduring Song told a story about the Crusades, that felt slightly longer than the Crusades themselves. "Enduring" could not have been a more apt word to stick in the title.


Then again, if you wanted to go out of your way to piss off your audience, you could make them pay to watch the same show four times. Officially Simon Gray's Japes, Japes Too, Michael and Missing Dates told a story with multiple endings from different viewpoints. In practice, presenting them together as In the Vale of Health only demonstrated how minor the differences were, leading to an audience who could call the actors' lines out to them by the end, and an experience so boring even the presence of Gethin Anthony couldn't save it.


And if Hampstead audiences didn't get what they were expecting, how about those for Venice Preserv'd, which promised an immersive show with a great cast. To be fair a great cast did turn up, but to a half-baked "event" built largely around selling overpriced bar snacks, and which felt suspiciously like promo for a new riverside development.


Still, we did get to do a lot of doge jokes at its expense.

At the Royal Court promising ideas fizzled out as decades of sexual politics turned into endless nitpicking discussions in The Mistress Contract, followed by Andrew Scott's exciting return to the stage dulled by the bloated Birdland. Later in the year Katie Mitchell aimed to prove that a lecture could be theatre, but all 2071 proved was that this lecture sure as hell couldn't. At the St James, This May Hurt A Bit... well it fucking did, basically, as did the utter mess of a musical See Rock City And Other Destinations at the Union. Neville's Island was more of a theatrical nonentity than actively bad, but The Green Bay Tree was a "lost" play whose downright offensiveness and irrelevance from a modern point of view made me wish it had never been found, and though Golem was praised to the rooftops by the critics, I struggled to see it as anything other than a single twee idea strung out to 95 minutes.


5 - This May Hurt A Bit - Out of Joint at the St James Theatre and on tour

4 - Don Gil of the Green Breeches at the Arcola

3 - Venice Preserv'd - site-specific at Paynes & Borthwick Wharf

2 - In Skagway at the Arcola

Technically, In Skagway was the most inept piece of theatre, but my true stinker of the year has to go to something that had a good (if not to my taste) script, some strong performances and a solid production. But it only had one show's worth of these, and tried to pass it off as four different plays. We hear a lot about people who think theatre "isn't for them." Dull, smug and self-indulgent, this quartet is precisely the sort of thing that would convince them they were right.

In the Vale of Health: JapesJapes TooMichael and Missing Dates
at Hampstead Theatre

The shows might have been more fun to watch but the Top Ten is harder to compile - unless I give in to the temptation of doing a Top Twenty there's always something I'm sorry to leave out. This year it's The Knight of the Burning Pestle - it's one of my most memorable shows of the last 12 months but too many musical interludes made it overstay its welcome. This is also the first year since I've been compiling a Top Ten that a Philip Ridley play didn't make the cut - although after last year's absence, Shakespeare returns with two productions standing out. At the top end, there was hardly anything to separate my 3 favourite shows, with the final order more or less decided on points.


10 - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Park Theatre

9 - My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse

8 - Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory

=6 - Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe and on tour

=6 - As You Like It at Southwark Playhouse

5 - In The Heights at Southwark Playhouse

4 - The James Plays: The Key Will Keep The Lock, Day of the Innocents and The True Mirror - National Theatre of Scotland at the National Theatre

3 - King Charles III at the Almeida Theatre and Wyndhams Theatre

2 - A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic

Having debuted in January, I think a lot of end-of-year lists might have forgotten this one but for me it won, as I say, on points. Or maybe a penalty shootout. A play that perfectly balanced comedy and drama; great performances in an inventive production from John Tiffany; and, this being my blog after all, a lot of flesh on show without it ever feeling gratuitous. It's even the second year in a row to be won by a play about gay football players, but this couldn't be more different from Jumpers for Goalposts:

The Pass at the Royal Court

It did also offer up more than its share of duds but, with two shows in my Top Ten, Southwark Playhouse is my THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2014, the first time a single venue has taken that title.

Thanks for reading all this, and all I've written in the last year. Or maybe you just looked at the nice pictures? Can people even read any more? Sorry, 2014 was also the year I turned 40, so I'm now biologically programmed to despair at The Youth. Hope you'll stick with me and be back in a few days' time, when it'll have magically turned into 2015. I'll still be a grumpy old perv, but in a subtly different, more "2015-y" way. Yay.


  1. Excellent digest, thanks for all the reviews in 2014. I'll be once again be using your blog to discover the best in London's small-scale and big-stage theatre through the coming year.

  2. I still have memories of Russell standing by that fridge close enough to touch :-). Keep up the good work I do like reading your reviews.

  3. Surprised there was no mention for Coriolanus at the Donmar.
    Then I realised you went when it first opened in Dec 2013.
    I went for my birthday in Jan 2014.

    Just seen The Knight of the Burning Pestle as it closes (again). Can't see that being in your review of 2015. Which is a shame as it was good enough that I failed to have any time to look around at the lovely candle lit theatre.

    New years resolution, comment on two plays I heard of because I saw them first here.....

    1. Well to be fair Pestle did get two reviews out of me in 2014. And if they'd cut a few of the songs to make it about 20 minutes shorter it probably would have made it into my Hit List, but I do think if something rates as among the best ten out of 300-odd shows it ought to be a "leave 'em wanting more" show rather than an "overstayed its welcome" one.

      Glad my recommendations have been of use.