2017 Round-up – partial and prejudiced

Last year, I wrote: `Recalling the year past …I’m struck again by the richness and talent of so many shows I’ve seen, particularly in the smaller and off-West End and Fringe venues.

With the demise of the repertory system, it is the fringe and alternative theatre that has stealthily and often in unrecognised ways provided the apprenticeship and forcing house in recent years for all that is best in our theatrical, cinematic and televisual life.

We take it so for granted, the unstinting hours, the passion, the labours of love, for little remunerative reward, that forms our cultural backbone. ‘

I see no reason to change a  word of that. Once again, my theatregoing in 2017 has shown a super-abundance of collaborative effort and excellence and inspirational, collaborative performances by unsung heroes and heroines who will never figure in `Best Of’ categories.

I’d like to pay tribute again to company members, to those who take on the small parts and selflessly give their all to productions with few of the starrier rewards coming their way.

I salute them.

As I complete something like my thirtieth year of theatre reviewing, I find our theatre awards systems increasingly invidious. How can you pit a new piece of work in a tiny fringe venue against the all singing, all dancing technologies and resources of a Cameron McIntosh or NT production? Each may have their value, each their supporters.

I’ve seen some terrific, satisfying, thought-provoking and sensational theatre in places as diverse as The Bunker Theatre with Cardboard Citizen’s pantheon of plays on Housing, as well as the NT’s Lyttelton Theatre with Lindsey Ferrentino’s extraordinary, powerful Ugly Lies the Bone, my second best play of the year for the Critics Circle, although so many others were competing, not least director Stephen Unwin’s extraordinary debut play, All Our Children and another `veteran’ though making her playwright debut, Judith Burnley’s Anything that Flies – both at the re-energised Jermyn Street Theatre under Tom Littler.

© Mark Douet, Kate Fleetwood (Jess)

© Mark Douet, Kate Fleetwood (Jess)

It was a good year again for Mehmet Ergen’s Arcola Theatre with his rich, always challenging diet of new plays and reworked classics. Paul Miller’s excitingly innovative  Orange Tree continues to go from strength to strength as does the Gate Notting Hill, the baton now passed from Christopher Haydon to Ellen McDougall.

Neil McPherson’s Finborough Theatre still leads the field in the quality and eclecticism of its programming whilst Theatre503 continues to provide a vital platform and support for emerging young writers.

Congratulations too to the Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone for strong leadership in the recent media fire-storm around sexual abuse.

Sadly, in a latter half of the year interrupted by ill health, there is much and many shows and venues I simply didn’t get to see including BAC, James Graham’s Labour of Love with the incomparable Tamsin Greig and Martin Freeman apparently on top form.

Graham’s Ink, a devastatingly enjoyable account of one Rupert Murdoch’s intrusion into British public life via the press deservedly transferred to the West End and looks set to mop up a few more awards before it closes on January 6, 2018. Graham has become the political playwright de nos jours and hugely entertaining with it.

Nor did I get to see Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, or latterly the blockbuster musicals, Dream Girls, 42nd Street, An American in Paris, Barber Shop Chronicles, Everyone’s Talking about Jamie etc etc…! Clearly a bumper year, again, for musicals with Hamilton leading the way into 2018 – a game-changer feel many.

So here, in no particular order, are a few highlights of my year:

© Robert Day, Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi in setting by Lydia Denno

© Robert Day, Ulrika Krishnamurti as Aditi in setting by Lydia Denno

Hats off to Tamasha, founded in 1989 by Kristine Landon Smith and Sudha Bhuchar and still going strong. Their Made in India by Satinder Kaur Chohan, about surrogate Indian mothers was a small gem of writing, acting and direction. Equally impressive Cordelia O’Neill’s No Place for a Woman at Theatre503, a haunting physical/music variation on the Holocaust highlighting parallels with the oppressors and oppressed.

T’Shan Williams in Michael Blakemore’s acclaimed revival of Cy Coleman’s The Life shone out from a stellar company which included the magnificent Sharon D Clarke – my compensation for not being able to see her at Chichester in Caroline or Change, due into the West End early in 2018.

Other quick mentions: Juliet Stevenson bravely mesmerising, a truly high-wire act, in the revival of Arthur Kopit’s awkward but moving account of a stroke victim, Wings at the Young Vic. Kenneth Cranham in Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle, craggy, pinched and ultimately finding love and life; Caollfhionn Dunne, harrowing as a mentally bullied wife in Suzy Storck at the Gate, Notting Hill; Victoria Hamilton waspishly brilliant in Mike Bartlett’s pugnacious, deeply enjoyable Albion about our national identity; Helena Wilson, a name and face new to me in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Caribbean set Lady from the Sea at the Donmar,  producing the most delicate of portraits of blossoming innocence and intellectual ambition. Look out for her in the coming years. So too, the prodigiously talented Seiriol Davies, laying down the gauntlet in his own How to Win Against History.

© Kristina Banholzer, Seiriol Davies as the cross-dressing Henry Paget, Marquis of Anglesey, starring in his own show and theatre...

© Kristina Banholzer, Seiriol Davies as the cross-dressing Henry Paget, Marquis of Anglesey, starring in his own show and theatre…

So many more – but ultimately some of my absolute highlights came from abroad, the master magician, the immaculate Robert Lepage in 887 (Barbican), the story of his childhood and growing up in Quebec, creating a theatrical magic carpet of technological sleight of hand and personal intimacy. And finally catching up with the revival of Ninagawa’s majestic Macbeth (again the Barbican) – a feast for the eyes, one visual coup de théâtre after another.

The Barbican has indeed supplied me with more exquisite moments of pleasure and intellectual stimulation than possibly any other theatre in London. There is nothing like being exposed to other cultural sensibilities and aesthetics for shaking up your pre-conceived notions and prejudices.


© Timeline photos. Lepage in 887, the story of his growing up in Quebec. Barbican 2017

It’s been the greatest joy to experience their international programming which has also offered several Ivo van Hove banquets and finally, at the year’s end, on film, Stage Russia with outstanding productions by Moscow’s Vakhtangonv State Theatre of Eugene Onegin, the play and Satirikon Theatre in Chekhov’s The Seagull – so utterly different to British stagings in their passion, their physicality, their abandonment and controlled anarchy.

Last but not least, a word too in praise of small scale Opera, quite in vogue these days, and seen in abundance at the Arcola with their Opera Up Close season. The Cunning Little Vixen and Eugene Onegin (again) were both lovely examples of what can be achieved on tiny budgets, with big voices and chamber size orchestrations.

Wishing you all a happy and peaceful New Year and a theatregoing year that will hopefully not be crowded out by too many extraneous sounds of munching and guzzling. Despite enthusiasm for the new habit of taking your meal to your seat, I have to confess it’s a future I don’t look forward to with any degree of relish. Pop- corn in a cinema is just about bearable. In a theatre, in the seat beside you, really, I’d rather not…