Theatre highs and lows in 2019

Well it’s been a while. But be assured that’s not because I haven’t been going out and seeing things/doing things- I absolutely have (even if they haven’t always made it to the blog). But I thought, before 2019 ended, I would try and at least do a quick roundup of my favourites (and, er, least favourites) from this year. Some have been on the blog, some haven’t!

Highs

‘The Phlebotomist’, Hampstead Theatre

This really was one of my standout plays of this year, because it was such a shocking prediction of how the future might, quite easily, turn out. For me a good measure of a play is whether I’m still thinking about it when I left the theatre. If I’m still thinking about it months later, that’s really remarkable. And this one, I definitely was (and am). Deserves a West End transfer.

‘A German Life’, The Bridge Theatre

Seeing Maggie Smith on stage was a dream come true. She captivated the entire theatre singlehandedly. Enough said.

‘Small Island’, National Theatre

I really thought I had written about this one at the time and it makes me sad to see that looking back I obviously didn’t, because it was amazing. So many themes to think about, including how Jamaican immigrants to the UK were treated and all that they had to encounter, not to mention a couple of epic love stories. One of the best historical plays I’ve ever seen.

‘Lungs’, Old Vic

Another one I should have written about at the time and didn’t. I mainly booked to see this play because I’m a fan of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in ‘The Crown’, and they were brilliant, but I also loved the topical and funny discussions in this play about children, relationships and gender equality.

‘Follies’, National Theatre

My favourite musical of this year. Big, glamorous and glitzy with a great heart- what more could you want?!

‘High Fidelity’, Turbine Theatre

Second favourite musical of the year! Based on one of my favourite books, there was always a good chance I’d like it, but I was impressed by the energy of the songs and the enthusiasm of the cast. Also my first visit to the Turbine Theatre, and I love visiting new theatres.

‘Noises Off’, Garrick Theatre

Funniest play of the year, it’s that simple. Brilliant farce and a super performance from one of my favourite actresses, Meera Syal.

‘Anna’, National Theatre

Most innovative play of the year for sure. The audience had to wear headsets in order to hear what was happening in different rooms of the house, as a party in East Germany takes place and events unfold. Very, very well performed and staged, another triumph at the National.

‘The King of Hell’s Palace’, Hampstead Theatre

This was another play about a historical event I knew nothing about- when the Chinese government paid people to donate blood and plasma to be sold on to pharmaceutical companies, and the health risks that resulted. Really eye opening and well performed.

‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, Bridge Theatre

Sneaking this one in at the end because it’s still on now (until February 2020) and is well worth a watch. One of my favourite stories as a kid, I’ve seen the various TV and film adaptations over the years but wasn’t sure how well it would work on stage. Magically, is the answer. The cast is brilliant and the staging really inventive.

Lows

‘The American Clock’, The Old Vic

This had so much promise, but ultimately I found it longwinded, confusing and depressing. Which is interesting, because I felt exactly the same about…

‘Death of a Salesman’, Piccadilly Theatre

Perhaps Arthur Miller plays aren’t really for me (though oddly, I did like ‘The Price’ ).

‘9 to 5’, Savoy Theatre

The music was good, but then you could listen to that without paying out for a ticket for this somewhat ridiculous and OTT storyline.

‘Waitress’, Adelphi Theatre

There was SO much hype about this musical that I thought at the very least I would like it, if not love it. I was wrong. Everything about it irritated me, from the appalling morals to the disappointing storyline. Reminds me of ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, another show that everyone loved and I was underwhelmed by!

‘My Dad’s Gap Year’, Park Theatre

A play that could have been brilliant on the topic of father/son loyalties and family dynamics, but crossed just too far into ‘ridiculous’ territory for me.

‘Rutherford and Son’, National Theatre

I thought this would be a powerful play about family and loyalty. While there were some strong moments, I was mostly underwhelmed.

So there you have it- my theatre highs and lows of 2019. Have you seen any of them, and if so what did you think?!

I’m hoping to put together another post in the next few days of the productions I’m most looking forward to in 2020… and not to mention the travel posts I am waaaayyy behind on!! But in the meantime, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Play – ‘Actually’, Trafalgar Studios, Thursday 8th August 2019

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‘Photograph 51’ was one of the biggest plays in London when it opened a few years ago. Featuring Nicole Kidman playing the role of Rosalind Franklin (surely one of the most underappreciated women in the history of science)- it was a stunning piece of theatre. Anyway, playwright Anna Ziegler hadn’t had another play in London since then… until now. ‘Actually’ tells the story of Tom and Amber who meet as students at a prestigious American university and share one special night… but what really happens?!

I think it’s fair to say there have been a lot of plays in recent years looking at relationships, consent and the contentious issues surrounding this. And I suppose that’s why this play disappointed me slightly (well, that and the playwright’s impressive debut).  I can see the point of ‘was she clear in her refusal’ and ‘who was in the right’, but it lacked the full development of these concepts and certainly didn’t give me the same emotional goosebumps, or even food for thought, as the truly exceptional ‘Consent’ (which impressed me so much I saw it twice).

Overall: not a bad piece of theatre, but it’s certainly no ‘Photograph 51’.

Play – ‘Grip’, Tristan Bates Theatre, Wednesday 1st May 2019

[AD- I was invited to review and I received a complimentary ticket to attend]

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I always enjoy it when I end up seeing something I wasn’t expecting to see, or which wasn’t on my radar. Seeing as I’ve never been to the Tristan Bates Theatre before, that was exactly the case with this play.

‘Grip’ is the story of a young guy called Trev (played by writer, Scott Howland), who’s living with his father following the death of his mother. It starts out with the whole cast on stage displaying exaggerated behavioural tics, and then they melt away to the side of the stage. Trev displays fairly typical teenage behaviour, including telling his father he’s going travelling, which leads to what I thought was the best line of the whole play ‘you’re getting one of those ‘millennial running-away-from-your-responsibilities’ packages!’ But before any of that can happen, Trev meets Louise in a club…and everything starts to unravel…

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I don’t want to give too much of the story away so I’m not going to say much more. But what I will say is that this play is an impressively zeitgeisty look at the important topic of mental health, and how quickly something or someone can fall apart.

Overall: this is a fascinating play performed by a very talented cast. Well worth a watch.

 

Play – ‘A Monster Calls’, The Old Vic, Thursday 12th July 2018

One of the risks when you are part of a group of keen theatre-goers is that someone will message saying ‘do you fancy seeing X?’ and you immediately reply saying ‘yes’ without properly checking what X is (particularly if you generally like the theatre or if you generally agree with your friends’ taste). I’ve made this mistake before, particularly with opera (I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m not really an opera person, I’ve tried and tried but I’m not). Anyway, so that is how come I found myself on my way to the Old Vic with absolutely no idea what ‘A Monster Calls’ is about; because I like the Old Vic and my friend K (whose taste I generally trust) is similar to mine.

And in the end, it’s probably a good thing I knew nothing about ‘A Monster Calls’ because had I known it’s the story of a teenage boy losing his mother to cancer, I might well not have gone (for those of you who don’t know, I lost my mother to cancer, not as a teenager but 6 painful years ago). While it was sad to watch, I didn’t find it anything like as hard as ‘Calendar Girls Musical’ which I sat through in tears… And this stunning production had much to recommend it, from the performance of Matthew Tennyson as a wonderful Conor to the clever acrobatics and rope skills. The music really added to the overall ambience and gave a real feel of magic.

Overall: don’t be put off by the slightly sad subject matter; this is a beautiful piece of theatre.

Play – ‘Genesis Inc’, Hampstead Theatre, Thursday 5th July 2018

I’ve mentioned before that I see pretty much everything that’s on at the Hampstead Theatre because it’s my local (never underestimate the appeal of having a theatre 5 minutes from your home). But oddly I hadn’t made any specific plans to see their latest play, ‘Genesis Inc’ – so when I spotted a special offer for last minute tickets on sale on their Instagram last week, I snapped one up quickly for that very evening.

And it’s a good job I did… because it meant I didn’t pay full price for what I can only describe as a disjointed, disappointing and just plain weird piece of theatre. I was excited to realise Harry Enfield was in it (yes that’s right, I hadn’t realised that was who the man was on the posters I walk past every day) but he was woefully underused and oddly cast as the fertility clinic director who was analogised to God. The same applies to the very talented Ritu Arya playing Serina. The basic storyline (of a fertility clinic director making parenthood possible for those who have been unlucky enough not to manage it naturally) is quite a good one, but was cluttered with too many undeveloped and extraneous subplots -the woman in a violent relationship, the gay man trying to buy a flat… why were they there and how were they relevant? I never figured it out.

Overall: Pared down (because it was also too long for my liking at 2h40, you know how I dislike long plays) and without all the subplots, it could have been great, but this version definitely is not.

Musical – ‘Chicago’, Phoenix Theatre, Monday 25th June 2018

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I will admit that, while I try not to be swayed by a celebrity name, sometimes I can’t help being so. But of course a rollicking good musical is always persuasive too, and I have loved ‘Chicago’ for years – since I saw the stage version in London in the early 2000s with Denise van Outen playing Roxie, through the stunning film version which won Oscars for best picture and for Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, to the present day version which just so happens to have Cuba Gooding Jr playing Billy Flynn… so of course it was only a matter of time before I succumbed, despite the ticket prices being considerably more than I would usually pay.

Sadly, a show that didn’t quite deliver in the end. The band were placed right in the centre of the stage (indeed the highlight is when there are a few solos from the brass section) which meant there was almost no set; disappointing when you’re expecting the dramatic jailhouse backdrop with the bars and railings which the girls dance on in every production I’ve seen before. Cuba Gooding Jr certainly has mesmeric stage presence, but his singing falls far below par. The only really outstanding performance came from brilliant veteran Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton, who really owned ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.

Overall: Music great, but still could have been so much better (and for the price we paid, should have been).

Play – ‘The Strange Death of John Doe’, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, Monday 18th June 2018

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If I had to use just one word to describe ‘The Strange Death of John Doe’, it would be ‘divisive’. I am not sure I’ve ever been at a theatre where so many people left at the interval (well, possibly I have, but it’s much more noticeable in a small theatre). And I can only presume that this is because the majority of the first half involved an autopsy taking place. So yeah- not for you if you’re squeamish. Luckily myself and my friends R and J couldn’t be less so, and hence we loved it.

The play is based on the true story of the man, known as ‘John Doe’, who fell from a plane into Mortlake, South-West London, in September 2012. No one knows his true story, but playwright Fiona Doyle has woven a fascinating backstory about his possible life in Africa and what led him to try and stow away on a plane to London. The action flips back and forth between the present day (autopsy room) and the preceding events in Africa.

I don’t want to say too much as I don’t want to give the story away. But it’s a fascinating and different story, well worth a try.

Overall: caution if you’re squeamish, but otherwise, definitely try and catch it.