Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's been like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Whenever I do my annual roundup of the theatre year in and around London I like to say a little thanks to the readers (both of them) who've put aside a few minutes of computer time that could have been more usefully spent masturbating, and have used them to read my reviews instead. Although given my preferred policy on what photos to illustrate this blog with, there's probably been a couple of times when multitasking was possible. I may already be getting off track a bit - the point is especially thanks this clusterfuck of a year when there's been enough other stuff you could have been worrying about. Maybe my blog's a diversion from it all for you, like theatre largely is for me (although of course, The Horrors Of 2016 have already been creeping into shows and will no doubt be doing so with a vengeance in future years.) But for now let's look back and give out the least important theatre awards in existence (or the most important - it really depends on how strongly you feel about nipples.)

Eventually I'll be listing my Top Ten and Bottom Five, and 2015's Radiant Vermin will be passing on the Show of the Year crown while Islands takes a shit on the head of this year's Stinker, but first...

FRESHMAN INTAKE


...new plays. Not long after a play about North Korea snuck into my 2015 Top Ten, another took a different, but also interesting look at the subject of P’yongyang, while another repressive regime - the attitude to homosexuality in Uganda - was the subject of The Rolling Stone. The dark social themes continued with Yen, and the first of this year's major contenders, Owen Sheers' Pink Mist, which took an unexpectedly lyrical look at brutal realities of war. It also introduced a new blog favourite - Phil Dunster's performance was excellent but one part of his body threatened to distract from it: Yes, despite a valiant effort from Simon Manyonda later in the year, "dat ass" ensured that one Partially Obstructed Award was in the bag from January:

THE CAPTAIN TIGHTPANTS AWARD 2016:
Phil Dunster in Pink Mist


It doesn't hurt that he tweeted me to say thanks for the research I did into how he got his buns of steel (rugby, if you were wondering.) Fine, so these awards are corrupt, but only as much as, you know. All the other ones.

Back to Dame Theatre, where Florian Zeller continued to be London's favourite new foreign playwright - The Mother was excellent if not quite as devastating as its companion piece, and we later got a taste of his comedy as well, although The Truth didn't quite do it for me. We were still in a dark place for Iphigenia in Splott, which again I liked but didn't love as much as many critics did, but Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone, returning in 2017, was as cleverly odd as everyone said. Pub theatres tackled interesting issues in Weald and Four Play, but a big Broadway transfer got short shrift from the critics - I didn't hate it but Hand to God certainly felt underdone to me. Still, even after the many times I've seen Avenue Q, it did still manage to find something new to do with a puppet sex scene, for which its excellent cast deserve some recognition.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST RELATIONSHIP:
Harry Melling and Jemima Rooper in Hand to God


A big year for Noma Dumezweni included her making a powerful directing debut with I See You. Mel Giedroyc provided further proof to the theory that comic actors can really bring something to dramatic roles in Luce, and the success of French playwrights extended to French-Canadians with Right Now. Alistair McDowell's X was very good - I did find some elements of it flawed but there's no doubt for many people it was one of the shows of the year. Upstairs from it at the Royal Court was playing Cyprus Avenue, a play that went from darkly funny to unforgettably brutal, while much more everyday brutalities got inflicted on the Almeida's Boy, and The Flick proved you could create a lot of emotion out of the seemingly uneventful. Political playwright James Graham's had some big hits; his new one for 2016 didn't pull in the punters as much as some of his plays but I absolutely loved Monster Raving Loony with its combination of history, comedy and flawlessly accurate pastiche, and the cleverness with which Graham and the cast pulled them all together is something I still remember with awe.


Another big hitter Round These Parts is Tom Wells, whose Folk was a bit more of a slow-burner than usual, but had the familiar mix of comedy and heart, and with the help of James Frewer's music packed an emotional punch. This Is Living brought Michael Socha to the stage in Trafalgar Studio 2, which I was probably more excited about than the show in the main house - although unlike certain Hollywood actor/writers who visited the UK, Jesse Eisenberg acquitted himself pretty well with The Spoils. Paines Plough sometimes make their London dates very difficult to seek out, but I'm glad I made the effort to find Luke Norris' Growth. That show might have struggled to find an audience but there were no such problems for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Part One and Part Two. There was never any question it was the theatrical event of the year, but I didn't expect it to not only meet expectations but exceed them. A loving mix of retread of the original story and new chapter, it didn't just provide spectacle but did so in resolutely theatrical fashion, as well as introducing some new hugely popular characters to the Wizarding World - not to mention plenty of online discussion over whether they should have been explicitly made a couple or not.


Time for another award, and one I always enjoy. It could have gone to Philip Ridley, who after delivering 2015's Show of the Year went a bit too weird, even for him, with Karagula. But then it got overtaken by a single performance when Unreachable, a fun comedy already, got stolen by a performance from Jonjo O'Neill that redefined chewing the scenery. A couple of months later things got narrowed down not just to a performance but a single moment in that performance. You can trust perennial Big Favourite Round These Parts Philip Cumbus to kick things up to a certain level - and after all, if you had to play a psychotic Roman Emperor trying to chat up one of Christ's Apostles, how would you do it? Yeah, it still probably wouldn't be like this.

THE PIPPIN MEMORIAL AWARD FOR ENDEARING WHATTHEFUCKERY:
Philip Cumbus in The Inn at Lydda


An interesting September continued with a more sensitive look at mental illness than the title Diary of a Madman might suggest, and another chance for Kathryn Hunter to demonstrate her extraordinary talent in The Emperor, while Nathaniel Martello-White's playwrighting took a strong leap forwards in Torn. There was a trio of plays with some LGBTQ interest, starting with love on the wrong side of the tracks in If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You, a teenage friendship with a homoerotic edge in punkplay, and finally a breathtakingly moving twist that made Jess and Joe Forever one of my most highly-recommended plays of the year. Zoe Cooper came up with a play that still chokes me up just thinking about it, and the young cast utterly sold it - there's a lot of actors who could be this year's Best Newcomer, but the likes of Anthony Boyle and Charlie Stemp will no doubt get plenty from the mainstream awards - and it would be a crime if this show went unrecognised:

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST NEWCOMER(s):
Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones in Jess and Joe Forever


A mixed evening from Robert Icke in The Red Barn, whose stylishness distracted from the play's flaws but only so much; the politically charged One Night in Miami... and clever, creepy Harrogate were October's best new plays. Going back to basics suited the usually overblown Richard Bean with Kiss Me, while the Gate's excellent track record on plays about international politics continued with I Call My Brothers. I saw two shows in the same venue on the same night as the Royal Court hosted Shôn Dale-Jones' typically disarming The Duke Upstairs, which looked at our responsibility towards both those close to us and the world at large, while Downstairs an older generation contemplated their responsibility towards The Children. And then there was Nice Fish, which wasn't so much good or bad, as Mark Rylance being Mark Rylance. After a year that started with pessimistic new writing and went on to bear out that attitude, my last premiere of the year struck a note of sweet, if slightly naïve but infectious optimism in Platinum.


DEATH TO SHAKESPEARE


In 2017 I'll be breaking my run of avoiding Twelfth Night - Tamsin Greig as Malvolio is too tempting an idea to say no to - but three whole calendar years without seeing one of his most-produced plays is a record I didn't think I'd manage. Instead it was A Midsummer Night's Dream that became this year's ubiquitous Shakespeare: I saw three, the RSC's, the Globe's, and Southwark Playhouse's, and there were more productions on offer that I skipped. Of course 2016 was another Shakespeare anniversary year, but as the anniversary in question was the fourth centenary of his death, the celebrations were a bit more subdued.

Much less low-key were events at the Globe, where Emma Rice made a rod for her own back even before taking over as Artistic Director, with a number of controversy-baiting interviews about how she doesn't really get Shakespeare. It came back to bite her when despite a very popular first season she met with a lot of hostility as well - by the end of her first season her departure had already been announced thanks to a too-expensive lighting rig, and a badly-worded statement from the board only made things worse. It's a shame because although I've had a lot of problems with Rice as a director, her approach showed promise: After her own Dream there was an interesting Shrew that still couldn't overcome my problems with the play, a highly divisive Macbeth, and a 1960s Two Gents. Saving the best for last, Imogen was a hip-hop take on Cymbeline that would have blown the roof off if the Globe had one.


The RSC had a Cymbeline of their own that wasn't quite as explosive but still had some pointed things to say, and elsewhere the Faction got some of their mojo back with productions of Richard III and Much Ado that harked back to the company's old inventiveness. Ivo van Hove's Kings of War had a typically fresh take on the History Plays, while Rupert Goold's Richard III was interesting but had some serious mis-steps as well. A big moment for me personally was The Two Noble Kinsmen meaning I've now seen the entire Shakespeare canon on stage (although stuff keeps getting added to the canon so who knows any more...) The RSC's Tempest went super high-tech for SRB's return to the company - perhaps to make up for the fact that, with the First Lady of the RSC in the role, their King Lear was always going to be pretty old-fashioned. Poor Tom didn't even get his genitals out, which is all the rage at the moment - a shame given it was Oliver Johnstone (fresh from going all evil-sexy in Cymbeline) in the role.


The RSC did come up trumps in one area though: When looking back at the best Shakespeare of the year, Imogen did put up one hell of a fight, but in the end I've seen a lot of Hamlets in my time, and Simon Godwin's production starring Paapa Essiedu is the best I've seen in many years. The fact that it was missed out of the company's programme of transfers to London is one of the big disappointments of the year, though.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST SHAKESPEARE PRODUCTION:
Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre


SING STAR


Music and comedy now - both of them very much together in the very first show I saw this year. Jenna Russell might have ended 2016 with a surprise appearance on Eastenders, but she started it by getting her Jinkx Monsoon on in the Grey Gardens musical.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST COMEDY PERFORMANCE:
Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens


Still on the fringe, Jamie Muscato then had to carry a whole musical on his own with Stay Awake, Jake, Princess Caraboo got an official premiere years after I saw a rehearsed reading of it, The Toxic Avenger delivered the schlocky fun it promised and The Burnt Part Boys was a modern off-Broadway musical I didn't hate, which is unusual. On a much larger scale I found the adaptation of Mrs Henderson Presents misjudged, while Show Boat was beautifully staged but, for me, really showed its age ("So what if he killed a man? Why, I killed a man when I was 18! He should marry our daughter." *cakewalks*) A significant gap in my theatregoing was filled when I finally saw The Rocky Horror Show live, and experienced its unique attitude to heckling, then my attempts to understand what the hell opera is supposed to be went about as well as they ever do with Pleasure, set in the gents' of a Northern gay club; easier to get a handle on was the ELO-infused night out of a group of Scottish schoolgirls in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. And while the Old Vic continues to be hit-and-miss, they certainly had a hit with their new musical - a risky-sounding proposition but it's now off to Broadway, and once it's settled there I'm sure London would like to see Groundhog Day again (and again.)


A couple of classic American musicals arrived in London - Rent making one of its occasional returns in one of the better versions I've seen, while Dreamgirls is only here for the first time - having taken over thirty years to make it. Still, it was probably worth the wait to get Amber Riley knocking the Savoy's socks off every night (not Wednesdays.) Much, much more British was Half a Sixpence, which in some ways deserved the praise that was showered on it, but in others the fact that it was recently rewritten meant its all-white cast and numerous outdated attitudes were hard to forgive. As I said earlier, its big discovery Charlie Stemp will be getting enough Best Newcomer awards elsewhere. But that doesn't mean we can't look at him, does it?

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR SONG AND
DANCE-BASED ENERGY AND STAMINA THAT I DEFINITELY DIDN'T
SPEND ANY SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF TIME IMAGINING
BEING TRANSFERABLE TO OTHER ACTIVITIES
Charlie Stemp in Half a Sixpence


One of the biggest names in musical theatre is far from a favourite of mine, but for one reason or another there were a number of Dr Baron Dame Sir Andrew Lloyd Lord Webber BA (Hons) MEng, QC's shows that I ended up seeing. Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard was a hot ticket too exciting to miss, and Lloyd Webber, together with Julian Fellowes, became the unlikely team to bring School of Rock to the stage. But I guess it's only fair when dealing with a Conservative peer that it should turn out things were better in the old days: Yes, it seems the show that made his name did so deservedly, and Timothy Sheader bringing it to the Open Air lent it an extra edge, plus another career-making performance - this time from Tyrone Huntley as Judas - that gives us a winner I wouldn't have predicted this time last year.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST MUSICAL:
Jesus Christ Superstar at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park


Although plenty of shows have had humour in them, all-out comedy has been a bit thinner on the ground - though Spymonkey's contribution to the Shakespeare anniversary was typically bloody and bonkers with The Complete Deaths. But to be honest, there really was no point anyone trying to compete because Mischief Theatre, a company who've pretty much taken over the West End already, are all over TV and radio for Christmas, and have Broadway in their sights next, added to their roster with their funniest show yet.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST COMEDY:


BACK FOR GOOD


Hang on in there, there's still a way to go - this one's classics, adaptations and other revivals of a non-Shakespeare nature (but there's still plenty of topless men coming up so bear with it.) Speaking of topless men, a couple turned up in Lord of the Flies BUT IT'S FINE, THEY WERE OLDER THAN THE CHARACTERS THEY WERE PLAYING and the production had some interesting takes on a familiar story as well. The RSC lit matches to decide the leads in a Maria Aberg Doctor Faustus much better than a certain other version of the play. What turned out to be a very strong year for the National kicked off with the brilliant - although lacking as much Sharon D Clarke as I might have liked - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and then went for something explosive in a play from a writer (Sarah Kane) and director (Katie Mitchell) I've found problematic before. I heard Kane enthusiasts say Mitchell missed the point of the play, but whether that's true or not it worked for me, the controversial Cleansed becoming something I found magnetic: So relentlessly and unapologetically ugly, it became beautiful.


Their run of hits continued with Les BlancsThe Threepenny Opera and The Deep Blue Sea, but when I finally got to see Blue/Orange when the Young Vic revived it, I had trouble seeing what the fuss was about. Someone I've been gradually seeing the fuss about is Robert Holman, and German Skerries is another of his low-key works with an indefinable something to them; meanwhile the Gate's occasional theme of reinventing Greek tragedy saw the Iphigenia myth reworked from four different points of view over two evenings in The Iphigenia Quartet: Iphigenia and Chorus, and Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Someone else who doesn't need an award from me because she'll get enough from the mainstream - even her ES award was actually on merit - is Billie Piper, in a Yerma that straddled a line between revival and adaptation.

There was plenty of Chekhov to go round, starting with Robert Icke coming up with the first Uncle Vanya I've actually loved.


But once again the National delivered the big "event," transferring Chichester's Platonov, Ivanov and Cherry Orchard in the "Young Chekhov" marathon - although by the time Platonov rolled round again in the Wild Honey version I might have been all Chekhov'd out. In more recent classics of an explicitly gay nature, The Boys in the Band aged better than expected, while the Lyric Hammersmith's expressionistic style was probably a better match to Shopping and Fucking than the original production I saw. And then it was yet again the National Theatre's turn to triumph, as Michael Longhurst put an orchestra on stage and Lucian Msamati relished the antihero of Amadeus.


That play's author, Peter Shaffer, along with director Howard Davies, were among the theatrical names who died in a year full of high-profile deaths. So there was certainly a bleak appropriateness to a play about celebrity deaths coming back to the West End - Dead Funny lived up to both parts of its name, but whatever you thought of the whole thing there was one thing about the evening that made it unmissable.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR
PERFORMANCE THAT OUTSHINES THE ENTIRE SHOW
Katherine Parkinson in Dead Funny


I loved The Mountaintop in 2009 and its revival this year was a welcome one. The Finborough's talent for unearthing obscurities hit twice as the year came to an end and both After October and Dr Angelus were worth seeing; the Orange Tree managed something similar with the kind-hearted Sheppey. Among the Christmas big-hitters, the Donmar's Saint Joan was hampered with a too-literal high concept; no fear of that happening at the Old Vic, where Matthew Warchus' original production of  "Art" essentially continued its long run where it left off, without messing with a successful formula. Finally, for the days between Christmas and New Year I booked myself some serious shows I hoped I'd love, although that does mean I potentially complicated things with last-minute contenders for the Top Ten; Ivo van Hove's Hedda Gabler did indeed give the shows I had in mind a run for their money.

COO!


Theatres introduce seasons with themes, or all take inspiration from the same events or anniversaries; and then something completely random will come along and be what defines the year for regular theatregoers who keep seeing the same thing crop up over and over. The first of the year's major memes is something a bit more deliberate: Colour-blind casting has been becoming the norm over recent years (although as the recent Print Room fiasco showed, theatre isn't quite there yet with regards to race.) But the big push this year was for gender parity. Productions featuring casts balanced between the sexes was a major element of Emma Rice's mission statement for the Globe, while the ongoing Donmar project of all-female Shakespeares concluded with The Tempest. There were high-profile male leads being given over to female actors, with Michelle Terry an impressive Henry V and Glenda Jackson's King Lear standing out despite a flawed production.


The RSC did something similar with their Cymbeline, although I'd still question whether giving over a memorable female villain to a man, just so a woman can play one of Shakespeare's dullest title roles, is really that much of a victory - the Globe's aforementioned Imogen focusing on the play's actual interesting female role was more successful in that respect. Meanwhile, in a different kind of gender breakthrough, the Orange Tree have been quietly striking a blow for trans representation on stage, first with the wonderful and surprising Jess and Joe Forever, and then in the casting of Sheppey. Disability is also becoming more visible, and not just in plays where it's on-theme, like The Solid Life of Sugar Water and Wendy Hoose (which also introduced us to James Young - what can I say, "Scottish and undernourished" is very much one of my types.)


We also saw disabled actors being cast a bit more in mainstream roles, and not just Nadia Albina, who this year stole the Globe's Macbeth - Sugar Water's Arthur Hughes showed up in the Donmar's St Joan, while both Herons and, once again, Imogen showed you could cast hearing-impaired actors and not only would it not be a problem, you could use it to come up with some interesting new twists on how you tell your story.

Not all memes are good of course, and if you're the sort of person who likes to shamelessly illustrate your reviews with scantily-clad men, production photos that leave out the best bits are a pain. Cymbeline didn't think we'd want to see Oliver Johnstone slinking around the stage with his shirt off, the Globe's Dream chose to leave Ned Derrington out of the publicity entirely, never mind capture the scenes of him in his pants, and most egregiously of all the extended wine advert Sideways largely consisted of Simon Harrison in a state of undress, and didn't see fit to capture it for posterity/to get the punters in. Look, I'm having to use a leftover photo from 2015 to illustrate it, is that the kind of world we want to live in?


Popular men in a state of undress also featured in another irritating 2016 feature - Found111 actually opened in 2015 but with James Norton in Bug and Matt Lewis in Unfaithful it made it hard to skip shows in what - despite a lot of competition - put in a real bid to be London's most overpriced, inaccessible, uncomfortable theatre. Luckily it was a temporary space but it's looking to pop up again somewhere else. With any luck it'll resurface with the same ability to attract big names, but without such an unpleasant audience experience to go with it.

But the worst 2016 trend of all has to be one that started at the Almeida with Uncle Vanya - at least that venue learnt their lesson and have been adjusting their start times for long shows accordingly. Yes, it's shows with very long running times, most of which have a 7:30 start that makes for a very late finish. The Old Vic were particular offenders, culminating in a huge amount of admin and some embarrassment for them: King Lear's start time had to be put back when its nearly four-hour running time would have barely let the audience out by midnight.

THE "WE HAVE HOMES TO GO TO, YOU KNOW" AWARD FOR
2016 MEME WE MOST NEED TO SEE THE BACK OF IN 2017:
Plays with a late start time going over the three hour mark


I mean, plays going over the three hour mark at all if they don't absolutely have to, but this was particularly bad this year. No need to dwell on the negative though (I've got an entire section later dedicated to just that,) as this was also the year of the very grand coup de théâtre: They Drink It In The Congo and Unreachable radically changed their set designs mid-show, Faith Healer put a rainstorm inches away from the front row, the Harry Potter plays had a number of them to create their magic - one simple trick involving projection is one of the cleverest effects of the year - and YOUARENOWHERE's mirror audience was the most audacious mindfuck of the year. The most discussed had to be Hampstead's Wild, which conjured up a very memorable image. And then, after Jack Farthing put his shirt back on, the room flipped over.


But you don't have to go that big to make an impact, and who would have though the Finborough's Andy Capp would be the birth of a craze? It showed up again in Mrs Henderson Presents, Monster Raving Loony, The RSC's Dream, Folk, 946 and plenty more - yes, Alanis Morissette's dire warning about the spoons finally came true.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR MEME OF THE YEAR:
Playing the Spoons


Some things don't happen enough times to qualify as a meme, but do happen coincidentally close together - within five days of each other, Wild Honey and The Red Shoes both ended with - SPOILER ALERT! - their protagonists getting squashed by a train.

Around this point I usually give out the Russian Oligarch Award for Most Famous Actor, but this year's ES awards surpassed even themselves with the "Beyond Theatre" award, also known as the "I'd Quite Like David Attenborough To Come To My Party But Can't Think Of A Theatre-Related Excuse" award. And if that's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

THE RUSSIAN OLIGARCH AWARD 2016 FOR THING THAT HAS NOTHING
TO DO WITH THEATRE OR THIS REVIEW BUT I LIKE IT ANYWAY:
Garlic Mushrooms

You forget how nice they are, don't you?

PURE THEATRICAL SANATOGEN


What's that? This review of the year has spent a lot of time perving over men? You must be new here, we haven't even got started. Who would have thought, watching the opening scenes of the Harry Potter films at the Dursleys', that within a few years I'd have seen three out of four of those actors naked on stage? With the greatest respect to the late Richard Griffiths, it's probably best for all involved that he was the one exception, but this year Harry Melling added himself to the list in King Lear. (I've seen productions of King Lear give Edgar a full frontal at various points, but there's one moment I have in mind that would work brilliantly and I've not seen yet, if and when a director ever goes for it I'll let you know.) Otherwise 2016 wasn't exactly cockapalooza on stage - Shopping and Fucking had a couple of flashes, and although there was a lot of nudity in Cleansed, there actually are some contexts where it doesn't really do much for me - cutting it off and stitching it onto Michelle Terry? Yeah, that would be one of them. Still, just because there wasn't as much competition as usual doesn't make this year's winner any less deserving:

THE SCHLONG FROM FAR AWAY AWARD 2016:
(pictured on the left, with Will Alexander)


Of course keeping your pants on isn't a bar to me enjoying your... performance. Four Play was an interesting play but I did manage to notice its cast weren't exactly physically repellent, for example.


Sunset at the Villa Thalia will probably be remembered more for Sam Crane dancing in shorts than for its rather vague themes, Dean John-Wilson filled the vest of Disney's© Aladdin®, and Hampstead Theatre seemed determined to make a star out of Sean Delaney with Rabbit Hole and Labyrinth - fine by me. Of course, just because your show doesn't feature any opportunity to sex things up doesn't mean you need to give up completely: Confessional is a lesser-known Tennessee Williams play that does feature some openly gay minor characters but is overall a rather grim look at a world of lost souls, and the production that came to Southwark Playhouse had a particularly grubby take on it. Not that this discouraged them when coming up with a publicity image.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016
FOR MOST ARTISTICALLY-JUSTIFIED PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL:
Confessional at Southwark Playhouse


Nothing to do with the show. Nothing. The Old Red Lion staged a couple of interesting gay-themed plays (plus one we'll be looking at in the next section) in Odd Shaped Balls and If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You - if he does more theatre in London in the next few years I can see the latter's Alan Mahon becoming a future Big Favourite.


Then there's shows that just had a homoerotic edge like punkplay, or Drew McOnie making a play for the choreography big leagues in a hugely entertaining (and, dammit, spotting exactly what the problem with adapting that story is and trying to fix it) ballet of Jekyll & Hyde.


Very much a heterosexual story but you won't see me complaining about any excuse for Jonathan Bailey to get his tits out, like in The Last Five Years. But is that enough to clinch the most coveted of all my annual awards? As the photo much further up the page will attest, Phil Dunster could have taken this one as well despite not actually taking his top off in Pink Mist (some nipples just insist on making their presence known regardless.) But ultimately it was another new face of the year who not only gave a performance that showed a lot of range, but did so with the right amount of gratuitous toplessness to catch the attention of this unholy excuse for a blog.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR BEST NIPPLES:
Matthew Marrs in Odd Shaped Balls


BOO!


For a sane person, 228 new theatre productions in a year is a ridiculous amount, but for me that counts as cutting down, and trying to avoid things I know I won't like. So that's resulted in fewer terrible shows, but you can never correctly pick out every stinker. Still, if a show's got an interval, that's always one escape route - like if you find out precisely why Ernest Hemingway isn't known as a playwright.

THE EARLY BATH AWARD 2016  FOR BEING MARGINALLY
LESS ENTERTAINING THAN WATCHING PAINT DRY:


Some of the year's most irritating and tedious shows came from the same few offenders. Sometimes it's just disappointing, like the Old Vic - who improved later in the year - doing downright plodding revivals of The Master Builder and The Caretaker. It looks like 2017 will see Jamie Lloyd going a bit more low-key after his high-profile West End season went off the rails in 2016: Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton were as good as I'd hoped in the title roles of The Maids, but the play itself and its production just bored me. It was nothing compared to Lloyd's next project, when an unnecessary rewrite, miscast lead and shit-flinging production made a mess of Doctor Faustus. The West End's most consistent bore was round the corner from that show though: SirKenBran's Garrick season plodded to its conclusion from the painful Painkiller to the entertainment-free Entertainer, via another show with a miscast Game of Thrones actor in the lead which somehow made Romeo and Juliet even duller than I usually find it.

Some bad shows make me bored, annoyed or even angry, and then there's Miss Atomic Bomb, a new musical with two synonyms for "flop" right there in the title, and boy did it. Its heart was so obviously in the right place, it's just a shame nothing else about it was.

PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2016 FOR
"YOU WERE TERRIBLE BUT BLESS YOU FOR TRYING SO HARD":


And then there's shows that are just a trying experience; London theatres are prone to falling for vanity projects from American stars, but The End of Longing was one of the worst - Matthew Perry's play about his own substance abuse was enough to drive the audience to drink. Michael Crawford's return to the stage might have been a bigger deal if every other facet of The Go-Between didn't have such a whiff of the pound shop about it, the cast of Breakfast at Tiffany's would have been out-acted by actual breakfast foods, and though the onstage reunion of Serena and SirPatStew didn't disappoint, the cast were the only reason to bother with this particular revival of No Man's Land. Away from the West End, the Royal Court scored a dud when Human Animals was funny for the wrong reasons, and the National didn't get everything right, A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer proving that cancer musicals are still as bad an idea as they sound - especially when you throw in some truly questionable emotional manipulation. A guaranteed audience of Leyton Orient fans meant The Greater Game didn't have to bother actually being any good, and a long and pretentious title proved all too accurate for The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Among the good gay-themed plays there were the usual duffers in Savage and The Past is a Tattooed Sailor - but you can't say blogs aren't a force for good, because my review of the latter helped get an egregiously anachronistic costume changed (I couldn't fix the script, I'm not a miracle worker.)

However much I dislike a show I can usually find something to write about it, but this year one show defeated me. For some it was an apt tribute, for me David Bowie's songs are best remembered on their own, rather than in a long, pretentious piece of performance art that's barely visible in a catastrophically bad theatre space. After it took up two hours of my life, I didn't have the energy or inclination to give it the extra time it would take to write a review.

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


And so I can put it off no longer, time to decide what was best and worst in 2016 theatre, starting with the shows best forgotten - if only it was that easy.

THE SHIT LIST 2016:
NICK'S BOTTOM 5 SHOWS OF THE YEAR


5 - A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer at the National Theatre's Dorfman

4 - The Past is a Tattooed Sailor at the Old Red Lion

3 - Lazarus at the King's Cross Theatre

2 - The End of Longing at the Playhouse

It was very tempting to put The End of Longing at the bottom of this year's pile, if only for using London's Glittering West EndTM as a dumping ground for vanity projects Broadway wouldn't touch. But in the end one show took all the very best things about Dame Theatre - namely gratuitous nudity and gore - and made them look a bit shit.

STINKER OF THE YEAR 2016:
Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York's


If picking the worst is a difficult task, picking the best is even harder. Like every year, what sneaks into my Top Ten and what misses out, never mind the order of the shows in it, comes down to a combination of shows that have really stuck with me and/or I'd happily see again, plus a bit of gut feeling. In the week or so I've been compiling this end-of-year review, these are the ones that kept jumping out at me.

THE HIT LIST 2016:
NICK'S TOP 10 SHOWS OF THE YEAR


10 - Pink Mist at the Bush

9 - Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre's Lyttelton

8 - Cleansed at the National Theatre's Dorfman

7 - Amadeus at the National Theatre's Olivier

6 - Hamlet at the RSC's Royal Shakespeare Theatre

5 - Folk at Watford Palace

4 - The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion

3 - Monster Raving Loony at Soho Theatre and on tour

2 - Jess and Joe Forever at the Orange Tree

I'm going to get stick from certain quarters for this, and it's certainly something that would only have the same kind of impact on people who are already fans. It's going to get a whole generation interested not just in theatre, but in the kind of storytelling only theatre can do; it's responsible for turning Noma Dumezweni and J.K. Rowling into Twitter's premier troll-hunting superhero team-up; but what did it in the end was that this was a show I had such high expectations of it couldn't possibly live up to them - and then it did. And if a show's going to do the impossible, it's only apt that it's a show about magic.

SHOW OF THE YEAR 2016:


No musicals in the Top Ten this year - Groundhog Day almost made it* but Ivo van Hove jumped in at the last minute to grab a slot. I usually treat each of their auditoria as a separate theatre but nowhere got multiple shows into the Top Ten this year so the National Theatre is my THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2016 with one from each auditorium making the list - and several other productions ranking highly. And that's been my theatrical 2016 - hope whether you're agreed or disagreed you've enjoyed it, and I'll be back in a few days to start passing judgement on 2017.

Photo credit: Matt Crocket, Tristram Kenton, Steve Tanner, Marc Brenner, The Other Richard, Ellie Kurttz, Manuel Harlan, Scott Rylander, Johann Persson, Stephen Cummiskey, Alastair Muir, Eamonn McGoldrick, Simon Kane, Graeme Braidwood, SM Publicity, Richard Lakos, Henryk Hetflaisz, Claudia Marinaro, Luke W. Robson.

*yes, I know I made Jesus Christ Superstar Best Musical ahead of it, but that was in part to do with the atmosphere of the location; I guess Groundhog Day ticked different boxes that made it a contender in the overall list

4 comments:

  1. Thanks Nick, keep up the great work, you are a "must read" blog for this keen London theatregoer.

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  2. Wonderfully entertaining summary. Thank you

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    Replies
    1. Glad people are enjoying reading it ( /looking at the pictures.)

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