Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

2015 feels like a strange old year to try and look back on; or, at any rate, to know where to start. Its theatre, in London at least, hasn't been dominated by one or two major themes or memes. It hasn't even been quite as full of disrobing men as we've become accustomed to, and if you've read this unholy excuse for a blog before you'll know that really leaves me up the creek. I guess I'll just have to look at how good or bad the shows were then... Last year I went against the general tide by making The Pass my Show of the Year, and I think my 2015 favourite is just as unlikely to feature in too many of the "official" lists. I've also got the successor to In the Vale of Health as Stinker of the Year to award, and this one I think might find a lot more agreement. But before the Top Ten and Bottom Five I've got the Everything Else to look at, and maybe that'll be where we figure out what this theatrical year was all about.

As ever, new writing seems the best place to start.

PREMIERIN'


One of the first hot tickets of the year saw Daniel Kitson return, with a two-hander instead of a solo show, some charming tall tales and an impressive-looking Tree. The Chronicles of Kalki presented us with a Hindu deity with more than a hint of Faith from Buffy, and after Cock we got the rest of Mike Bartlett's trilogy of life-as-bloodsports, with the almost unbearably intense Bull turning out to be a lot better than the high-concept Game. Turning nuclear science into gripping entertainment, the RSC's Oppenheimer got a deserved West End transfer while, powered by intense performances, The Wasp was the first of a run of Hampstead Downstairs shows to make a similar journey. So did Farinelli and the King, but I was lucky enough to see it in the Swanamaker, where both Mark Rylance's performance and Claire van Campen's delightful  play were displayed at their best.


Already an actor with a prolific stage CV, Harry Melling added playwrighting to it as well with peddling, before returning to James Graham's uneven but interesting The Angry Brigade. This played at the Bush, which is going to feature in this review for the wrong reasons a lot, but The Royale is another show to get a mention for the right ones. A new adaptation of Trainspotting managed - to an extent - to carve out a new identity from the film, and speaking of adaptations, Enda Walsh's attempt to bring Roald Dahl to the stage was roundly panned, but The Twits worked for me and a bunch of similarly silly people. Robert Holman's understated style is wildly hit and miss to me, but his latest, A Breakfast of Eels, fell into the hit category. And it may not have had the scale of The Curious Incident but Plastic Figurines was a beautiful, in its intimate way, look at autism and family.


Another writer I find hit or miss is Simon Stephens, but 2015 was a good year for him as far as I'm concerned - first up, Michael Longhurst found a hypnotic beauty in Carmen Disruption, which exploded the opera's story into numerous lonely monologues, circling each other in an unnamed big city.


Although Liberian Girl has been rightly praised, I thought an even better look at the women caught in that country's civil wars was the Gate's Eclipsed. Mental illness was well-served in The Dogs of War but nowhere more devastatingly than in The Father, which took us into the head of a man lapsing into dementia. When I see a show I love I usually want to see it again; I wouldn't want to revisit the heartbreak of The Father but I'm very glad I did see it, and its effect has stayed with me.


The Royal Court served up a devastating double-whammy with hang Downstairs and Violence and Son Upstairs; the latter was set in Wales, setting for a more optimistic story in the verbatim play about gay rugby player Gareth Thomas, Robin Soans' Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage.


A lot of theatres bring their big guns out in Autumn and smaller venues impressed with The Christians at the Gate and The Sweethearts at the Finborough. The larger theatres had a run of shows getting West End transfers - I liked much about People, Places and Things but never quite saw why it was quite so universally loved, while of the two premieres starring Simon Russell Beale, Mr Foote's Other Leg wasn't as good as Temple, but it was Hampstead's show that made it to the West End. Hangmen's success was well-deserved but of the shows getting transfers it was one that was officially new, but not to me, that was the best: I saw Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn when it was a drama school showcase, again this year when it got a joyous production at the Globe, and will be returning when it moves to the Apollo. I've gone quite a while without giving out any awards this year, haven't I?

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST HAT DESIGN:
 Hugh Durrant for Nell Gwynn


Lela & co used literal darkness to look at a dark subject matter, while this year's Papatango winner James Rushbrooke offered a sinister future - but promise as a playwright - with Tomcat at Southwark Playhouse, where Harvey Fierstein showed how minorities don't always look out for each other in the charming but thought-provoking Casa Valentina. Two actresses alternated the roles, bringing a depth to the family dynamic of Sparks, Caryl Churchill polarised audiences with her short play about death - enjoy isn't the right word but I appreciated much about Here We Go - and there was much lighter fare as The Odyssey got a witty modern retelling in the Swanamaker. From someone theatre fans have been raving about for years but most people haven't heard of, Noma Dumezweni suddenly became the world's most talked-about actress for a few days following her casting in next year's Harry Potter stage play; but she's hardly had an uneventful 2015 either, stepping into the lead role of Linda with less than a week of rehearsals, and unsurprisingly nailing it. But there was great stuff going on Upstairs at the Royal Court at the same time as Mia Chung's You For Me For You found an unlikely fantasia in the oppression of North Korea. There were some very impressive set designs this year, including the aforementioned Linda, but for the sheer joy and constant surprises its kaleidoscope set concealed in an intimate space...

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST SET DESIGN:
Jon Bausor for You For Me For You


LOLLERSKATES Vol. 1


They say comedy's harder to do than tragedy, but 2015 has made it look easy, with more comedies than dramas fighting for a place in my Top Ten. Mischief Theatre gave up some of their nights off to make up a film on the spot in Lights! Camera! Improvise! - my friends and I ended up seeing three of their makeshift movies this year. An unlikely title concealed a big hit in Bad Jews, a play that may have contained almost as much violence as Lardo, which somehow got an insane Scottish wrestling federation into the Old Red Lion. Nicholas Hytner ended his time at the National in party mood, his parting shot the high-concept Rules for Living, while Hampstead Downstairs went full-on classic rom-com for Sunspots. And don't knock only going to see a show because someone off the telly's in it - if it hadn't been for Game of Thrones' Jack Gleeson, we might have missed out on the utter insane joy of Bears in Space.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015
FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY A TAPE RECORDER:


For the third - and possibly last - time Tom Wells made sure the script for the Lyric Hammersmith's panto was as hilariously near-the-knuckle as ever, with a Cinderella featuring a song about balls. There was a serious point underlying Marcus Gardley's A Wolf In Snakeskin Shoes but it never got in the way of a lot of laughs, and it was followed at the Tricycle by Ben Hur, which didn't let anything like a deeper meaning distract from all the silliness. Comedy-drama Pine also managed the surprisingly rare feat of perfectly mixing the comic and dramatic elements in its story. But nobody mixed comedy with a serious point like Philip Ridley, whose Radiant Vermin was dark, disturbing, bitingly political - and one of the funniest things on the stage in years. David Mercatali's production was also blessed with the perfect cast for the job, who gave the strong impression the roles were written specifically for them.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE:
Gemma Whelan, Sean Michael Verey and Amanda Daniels for Radiant Vermin


I might not be able to single any of them out in this show, but Ridley did give one of his actors another challenge in Tonight With Donny Stixx, more of that dark humour now mixing with terrifying psychopathy:

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE:
Sean Michael Verey for Tonight With Donny Stixx


A REVIVING TONIC


Classics and other revivals now, and we got the full spectrum of Arthur Miller, from his most famous play Death of a Salesman to one that isn't a revival at all but can hardly be called new either - No Villain was his first play but had never made it to the stage before. Another American great getting an obscure early play revived was Eugene O'Neill with Ah, Wilderness! while Tennessee Williams obscurities came off very well in Man and One Arm. There was a lighter side to the English 20th century playwrights: The annual dip into the Ayckbourn back catalogue found Communicating Doors, the one I've enjoyed most in a long time. Rufus Norris took over at the National by going right back to the start of English theatre, bringing Chiwetel Ejiofor back to the stage and Everyman up to date. But if it's one of the world's oldest pieces of theatre brought into the 21st century you want, nothing can hold a candle to one of the undoubted shows of the year, the Almeida's Oresteia.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BIGGEST TRANSFORMATION:
Robert Icke's reinvention of Aeschylus' Oresteia


The Ameida's Greek season would have trouble living up to that; Bakkhai was decent but rewriting Medea into a bizarrely narcissistic tribute to its own adaptor didn't float my boat. By contrast, Justin Audibert took one of the least palatable English classics and turned The Jew of Malta into a black comedy, while more recent works got perfect casts in Product and The Heresy of Love. That was at the Globe, whose own Oresteia's only real flaw was timing, overshadowed as it was by the Almeida's. Rattigan continued to be a regular presence on London's stages - the big star vehicle was the Harlequinade double bill, but the highlight was the terribly traditional, but perfectly-constructed comedy French Without Tears. DH Lawrence's brand of misery porn doesn't really appeal to me in a single play let alone three, but somehow Ben Power and Marianne Elliott made something epic and intensely watchable by combining them into Husbands and Sons. Les Liaisons Dangereuses retained power despite a surprisingly faltering lead, while the Young Vic's smallest space remained the home of new directors: JMK winner Liz Stevenson offered a bruising Barbarians, but while not perfect, the Genesis winner turning Strindberg's Creditors into a modern gay love triangle showed promise for his ability to go high concept with a light touch:

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST NEWCOMER:
Rikki Henry for Creditors


BARDOLATRY


It wasn't a classic year for Shakespeare, all things told, although neither was it a disastrous one (unless you were a non-white actor who quite fancied a role in Trevor Nunn's Wars of the Roses.) In fact let's admit from the start that one of the usual suspects, Cheek by Jowl, has got Shakespeare production of the year sown up:

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST SHAKESPEARE PRODUCTION:
Cheek by Jowl's Measure for Measure


And no, not just for reasons involving Russian male models with their shirts off. The other most high-concept productions - Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice and Frantic Assembly's Othello - were both revivals from recent years. Those three plays were in fact the Shakespeares that kept coming up most often - I saw three of each, and another strong Othello was Iqbal Khan's production, which had more than just the novelty of the RSC's first black Iago to recommend it. International productions didn't quite bring the spark of originality they usually do - a Japanese Hamlet was very traditionally Western in all but language, and though a Chinese Richard III improved as it went on, the Macbeth that formed the other half of this year's Globe to Globe season was disappointing. I really liked the National's new As You Like It despite it not being as funny as the play can be, and while The Globe's main season wasn't a classic - the always-underrated King John was the outdoor highlight - the venue made a couple of strong late entries with its indoor productions, both Pericles and Cymbeline defying those plays' reputations as minor, difficult works.

And hey, I made it a second year in a row avoiding Twelfth Night, that's not to be sniffed at.

LOLLERSKATES Vol. 2


We've had the LOLs, now for the skates, which showed up in another strong category: Musicals. Eighties roller-disco fantasy Xanadu lived up to its promise of being insanely camp and very funny, and if we're lucky it might replicate the success of In the Heights, which this year transferred from Southwark Playhouse to a larger venue, where it's enjoying an extended run.

THE PIPPIN MEMORIAL AWARD FOR ENDEARING WHATTHEFUCKERY:
The procession of mythical creatures in Xanadu


It was a different story for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which went straight into the West End and straight out again, a strong cast not enough to salvage the dodgy material. Shows that had struggled in the West End fared better on the fringe, Loserville and Closer to Heaven getting two runs each at the Union, the Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment at the King's Head also getting extended despite an offputtingly late start time. Jamie Parker was announced as the adult face of Harry Potter but before that continued his hit run of musical roles in High Society and Guys and Dolls, the latter show featuring a memorable turn from Sophie Thompson. And Thompson's sister Emma made a long-awaited return to the stage in a concert Sweeney Todd, while a former London Mrs Lovett quite rightly became one of the most talked-about performances of the year, as Imelda Staunton dominated Gypsy (although if you're wondering why the show itself isn't in my Top Ten - there's only so many reprises of "Let Me Entertain You" that the human body can tolerate.) Neither the moving Stony Broke in No Man's Land nor the rocking Teddy were traditional musicals but both used music effectively, and new British musicals were successful both on a big scale - Bend It Like Beckham - and a much smaller one - The House of Mirrors and Hearts.

The Lorax managed an unlikely feat of converting Dr Seuss' environmental allegory into a musical, and speaking of unlikely, Showstopper! made up a new musical every night. Kinky Boots was great although not quite as great as the high expectations I'd been given, while the opposite effect might have been in play when the much-derided wonder.land proved to have its good points, even if it felt unfinished overall. But if the National are looking for a fairytale for next year, the fringe could again be the place to find it, because Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn's debut musical was accomplished, tuneful, funny and moving, all seemingly effortlessly. There was never any doubt what my musical of the year would be:

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015 FOR BEST MUSICAL OF THE YEAR:


F‡*!¿*#§!


One of the undoubted shows of 2014, Ivo van Hove's production of A View From The Bridge returned (before moving on to Broadway) this year, but its influence could be felt as others rushed to use some of its techniques, usually without it quite coming off - The Faction's Romeo and Juliet used ambient music throughout (although its biggest problem was a dogged insistence on an unedited text,) both Man and The Glass Menagerie stripped back Tennessee Williams, but the most blatant homage was in Forget Me Not, much to the disadvantage of the play itself.

Not so much a bona fide 2015 meme as a suggestion of things to come, where Game was a shoot-'em-up, Arthur's World actually attempted a narrative inspired by video games, with power-ups and different levels, all contained in a single set.


After years in the theatrical wilderness, Patrick Marber became a one-man meme himself, with a well-acted revival of Closer failing to disguise the play's nasty sense of misanthropy, and the new regime at the National dominated by him: He tinkered with the OK revival of The Beaux' Stratagem and provided an underwhelming new play in The Red Lion, while probably most successful was his Turgenev adaptation Three Days In the Country. The Menier came up with its own Barbra Streisand theme, with Buyer & Cellar a fictional look into her basement, before Sheridan Smith reinvented her breakthrough role - and had the year's fastest-selling show in the process - in Funny Girl.


There's evidently a lot of confidence in child actors at the moment: They had a devastating role to play in Icke's Oresteia, the Swanamaker's Young Players returned with Dido, Queen of Carthage and of course they dominate the cast of Bugsy Malone. A former Matilda had a lot resting on her shoulders in Tomcat but the most ambitious use of child actors came in a Medea told entirely from the point of view of the doomed kids. Let's hope all these child actors steered clear of another 2015 meme, of plays with sweary titles: Fuck the Polar Bears will get mentioned in a later section, Fucking Men got revived, and The Motherfucker with the Hat was my highlight of a wobbly six months at the National.


Celebrity casting is never too far from the West End, and in an extraordinary coincidence James McAvoy not only gave a performance worthy of an Evening Standard Award in The Ruling Class, but he was also famous enough for them to let him win it. I was much more excited to see John Goodman in American Buffalo than I was the other big US import of the spring, Bradley Cooper, who showboated his way through the dull, dated Elephant Man. Nicole Kidman's vagina returned to the West End and this time it brought the rest of her with it; Kidman gave an excellent understated performance but Photograph 51 was a bit too intimate a play for a West End stage. Similarly, Judi Dench lifted Kenneth Branagh's otherwise unimpressive Winter's Tale. In my highly scientific process for determining the next award, Cooper originally got the most Google hits, but that included the run on Broadway, and I'm only going by London performances. So adjusted for that, it'll be no surprise that...

THE RUSSIAN OLIGARCH AWARD FOR MOST FAMOUS ACTOR 2015:
Bibendum Cunnilingus in Hamlet


I HAVE HIDDEN SHALLOWS


Early on this year looked like it'd follow 2014's excellent track record for onstage male nudity, with the stars of The Mikvah Project demonstrating that they'd been cast with an eye to religious accuracy, while there was a triple whammy in the interesting but ultimately flawed Gods and Monsters.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2015
FOR MOST ARTISTICALLY-JUSTIFIED PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL:
Will Austin for Gods and Monsters


He might not have gone full monty but Damien Molony in his pants, and even in a woman's dressing gown, was the highlight of the otherwise tedious Hard Problem, and Lardo wasn't made any less enjoyable by the sight of Nicholas Karimi wrestling. Speaking of wrestling scenes, Simon Harrison's in the Globe's As You Like It is the first time I've heard an actor booed for putting his shirt back on; not a problem that bothered the same venue's Romeo and Juliet, where the nipples stayed exposed and perky much of the time. Alexis Gerred showed off a buff new look in American Idiot, which also featured Aaron Sidwell in his pants to make up for its general incoherence to anyone who hadn't memorised the album. Actual nudity started to make more of a resurgence in, unsurprisingly, Fucking Men.


That featured ten actors in varying states of undress, but it still couldn't measure up (ahem) to monologue Song From Far Away. Another Simon Stephens play that got a mixed reception but really struck a chord with me, the "literal nudity as a metaphor for baring one's soul" also got on some people's nerves, but for me Ivo van Hove's production made it work. And Eelco Smits spending a solid (ahem, again) 45 minutes naked on stage wasn't exactly unpleasant either.

THE SCHLONG FROM FAR AWAY AWARD 2015:
Eelco Smits in Song From Far Away


Of course you don't have to take your clothes off for me to have a good time (but it helps.) The Old Red Lion cornered the market in arms bulging out of T-shirts courtesy of Wilf Scolding in The Win Bin and George Turvey in No Villain. John Hopkins sported a ridiculously short toga in Ben Hur, Matt Whitchurch and David Mumeni heated up the frosty weather in Pines, the flawed, but not deserving of the scorn it got, Teddy Ferrara had a sexy cast as a university LGBTQ group, and I certainly have no complaints about seeing Andrew Leung on stage again, albeit a bit too fully clothed in You For Me For You. Of course, as Ted Reilly proved in Plaques and Tangles, you can keep covered up and still leave little to the imagination if the clothes are so tight they might as well be painted on - as proven when I was given precise instructions where to sit to get the best view of, and I quote, "dat ass."

THE CAPTAIN TIGHTPANTS AWARD 2015:
Ted Reilly in Plaques and Tangles


ROLL OF DISHONOUR


It can't all be good news, and the Bush alone put in one hell of an effort to dominate my Shit List with the likes of the dry and dusty The Invisible and the egregious Fuck the Polar Bears (with even one of the cast admitting to enjoying my scathing review.) But it was the opening salvo, Islands, that pissed off the most people: When a few writers tried to defend it, there was an unprecedented backlash-to-the-backlash, as others (myself included) felt that nobody had mounted a convincing defence for a show that went out of its way to waste the audience's time. Well, Islands had no interval but some shows do give you an exit strategy. I rarely take it but this year two shows saw me giving up at the interval:

THE EARLY BATH AWARD 2015 FOR BEING MARGINALLY
LESS ENTERTAINING THAN WATCHING PAINT DRY:
Stevie AND


I'd heard "so bad it's good" rumours about Happy Ending but no, as it turns out a musical (without songs) about cancer is so bad it's bad. Also making me cringe on the fringe were The Glass Protégé and McQueen, the latter getting an underserved (but mercifully short-lived, despite Stephen Wight's excellent central performance) West End run. You could see another good cast thoroughly wasted in Michael Frayn's terrible sketch show Matchbox Theatre - no transfer for that, but it did somehow make it to Radio 4. Over at the Young Vic, The Trial did get many rave reviews but not from me - a couple of hours of Richard Jones telling you how much cleverer than you he is isn't my idea of great theatre. This is another non-award that'll have to go two ways, and I'm sad to award it to one of my favourite directors and leading ladies but while radical reinventions of Greek tragedy were often very successful this year, Rupert Goold's choice of text for Medea was more problematic the more I thought about it, Rachel Cusk turning Euripides into a tribute to how amazing... Rachel Cusk is.

THE SELF-ADMINISTERED PROCTOLOGY EXAM AWARD FOR SELF-INDULGENCE:


Meanwhile, back at the National, the Artist Formerly Known As Shed reopened with a rant against pornography so confused it made actual porn scripts seem like Ibsen - it may have been called We Want You To Watch, but I'd only wish having to watch it on my worst enemy. One of Rufus Norris' early themes for his tenure was to take plays written for small-scale production with hectic doubling and give them the epic staging treatment. While Our Country's Good is a strong enough play to withstand it, Caryl Churchill early historical drama Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was turned into a jaw-droppingly dull experience by being plonked onto a massive stage.

FRAM OF THE YEAR FOR MOST AGGRESSIVE COMMITMENT
TO CAUSING AUDIENCE TEDIUM:


The physical embodiment of #FirstWorldProblems, Dear Lupin spent some time as summer filler in the West End, while any concerns Dinner With Saddam might have had about the tastelessness of its subject matter were irrelevant under the sheer weight of its terrible script. So which of these are the shows that'll make 2015 live in infamy?

THE SHIT LIST 2015:
NICK'S BOTTOM 5 SHOWS OF THE YEAR


5 - Happy Ending at the Arcola

4 - We Want You To Watch at the National Theatre's Keith

3 - Fuck the Polar Bears at the Bush

2 - The Trial at the Young Vic

After my Stinker of the Year got suitably stinking reviews, a few writers defended it. Usually people would respect that opinions differ, but not this time, as people responded to this backlash, finding it unconvincing. I have to agree with the latter stance because all I saw in its defence was "yeah, it fails on literally every conceivable front, but that's intentional." Sorry, Caroline Horton's Islands may have been angry about offshore tax havens but it failed to make the audience feel the same, because they were too busy being angry with Caroline Horton.

STINKER OF THE YEAR 2015:
Islands at the Bush


And now for the fun part, and an unusually low-key Top Ten: Most years there's a couple of little shows that don't seem like obvious contenders but stick with you for one reason or another. This year, quite a few of them joined the more obvious big-hitters in my roll of honour. You can probably tell which one made it on the strength of pure silliness alone.

THE HIT LIST 2015:
NICK'S TOP 10 SHOWS OF THE YEAR

10 - You For Me For You at the Royal Court

9 - Bears in Space at Soho Theatre

8 - Tonight With Donny Stixx at Soho Theatre and on tour

7 - Carmen Disruption at the Almeida Theatre

6 - French Without Tears at the Orange Tree Theatre

5 - The Father at the Tricycle Theatre and Wyndhams Theatre

4 - Nell Gwynn at Shakespeare's Globe

3 - The Clockmaker's Daughter at the Landor Theatre

2 - Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre and Trafalgar Studios

There's a few notable dramas but a lighter touch has dominated this year's Top Ten, so it's apt that my show of the year combines the two perfectly: One of the darkest, most cynical themes anyone put on stage this year, wrapped up in hands down one of the funniest shows, and with a couple of breathtaking - almost literally, in that I wondered how they found time to breathe during the climactic garden party scene - central performances. Not only does he appear twice in this list but after 2012's Shivered, Philip Ridley becomes the first playwright I've awarded Show of the Year to twice.

SHOW OF THE YEAR 2015:
Radiant Vermin at Soho Theatre and on tour


With three appearances in the Top Ten Soho Theatre is my THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2015 although with a caveat - the sheer volume of shows they put on is so hard to keep up with that I essentially only went to things I knew in advance I'd like. The Almeida is another big hitter as it manages two shows in the hit list again. Thanks as ever to the blog's regular readers, it's nice of you both to keep popping in. I've somehow ended up with a theatre-free week ahead but if I survive it I'll be back with some shiny new 2016 theatre - it should include a possessed puppet, Mischief Theatre doing a play that doesn't go wrong (at least not intentionally,) and something or other involving broomsticks.

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