As 2016 draws to a close it is worth recalling the highlights of what has been a golden year for theatre. If good new plays were a bit thin on the ground, then this was not the case for musicals, which had a great year with a wide variety to choose from. It is an unenviable task to select my top ten shows of the year but here goes.
The Glass Menagerie
In top spot is John Tiffany’s superb production of Tennessee William’s 1944 masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, which certainly hit up this year’s Edinburgh international Festival. This stylised, evocative new production of a drama often described as a ‘memory play’ takes this idea seriously, not as an excuse for misty nostalgia but a fierce, involving and lyrical work. However, it was the marvelous performances that really brought this iconic play in the American theatre canon so vividly to life. The great American actress Cherry Jones, at the centre of the drama, was particularly impressive as the matriarch – agonisingly ambitious for her family yet fearful of the darkness that surrounds them. This heartbreaking, five-star production made the play seem as fresh today as when it was first written. It is coming to London in the New Year and should not be missed.
The Deep Blue Sea
The National Theatre’s perfectly judged, exquisitely sad production of one of Terence Rattigan’s finest plays, The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Carrie Cracknell. This devastating portrait of a woman adrift on loves’ ocean, desperately afraid of loneliness and blighted by the social conventions of the time was blessed with a brilliant central performance from Helen McCrory. Rattigan himself said his prime concern was “the illogicality of passion” and this was beautifully conveyed by Ms McCrory. The drama provides a powerful insight into the emotional turmoil of post-war Britain and Cracknell made each of the characters the embodiment of a broken Britain scarred by the hardships of war.
The Master Builder
Matthew Warchus’ masterful revival of Ibsen’s 1892 classic The Master Builder (Old Vic) adapted for the stage by David Hare. This is a play about the conflict between duty and desire, reason and imagination and the invasion of the daily world by demonic troll-like forces. Mathew Warchus’s beautifully controlled and intelligent production was all shifting nuance and finely calibrated detail, David Hare stayed true to Ibsen’s structure and sharpened the text without in any way subverting it, skillfully mixing realism and myth, and making the play seem alive and fresh today. But what really singled out this production was a stunning central performance by Ralph Fiennes as the protagonist of the title, whose transformation from a harsh employer with a capacity for casual cruelty to a sympathetic, flawed and vulnerable individual was totally believable.
Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull
Young Chekhov – a trio of works, Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, by Russia’s greatest dramatist. These plays, presented in absorbing new versions by David Hare in productions that originated at the Chichester Festival Theatre, found a London home at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium. The productions, dealing with love, longing, melancholy and despair, could be seen in one day and marked a triumph for director Jonathan Kent. A rich and rewarding theatrical experience vividly brought to life by a superb ensemble of actors and providing a unique chance to explore the birth of revolutionary dramatic force.
Lonny Price’s compelling semi-staged version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s magnificent musical Sunset Boulevard (Coliseum Theatre) with a magnetic central performance by Glenn Close, in her West End stage debut, as Norma Desmond, the fallen Hollywood star lost in a world of illusions. I have always felt that Lloyd Webber’s lush score which included such memorable melodies as Sunset Boulevard, With One Look and The Perfect Year is among the composer’s best works and it was truly a pleasure to hear the music performed so well by a 48-strong onstage orchestra conducted by Michael Reed. A powerhouse of a production that gave a renewed lease of life to a great musical.
One of the landmark musicals of the 20th century steamed back into the West End in the shape of Daniel Evans’s marvellous production of Showboat, which transformed from the Sheffield Crucible to the New London Theatre. A true legacy musical, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 work, based on Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel, still feels as fresh and powerful today as it did then. The beauty of the show is that its characters change significantly from beginning to end; experiencing the highs and lows of a life, lived over four decades. From the moment we hear the musically stirring opening of the emotionally charged song that is synonymous with the show, namely Ol’ Man River, we know we are in for a treat. A glorious unforgettable score, engaging storyline and terrific performances from a first-rate cast, what more could you ask for?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
The boy wizard is back but he’s no longer a boy in Jack Thorne’s ambitious adaptation of the spellbinding theatrical story that is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Palace Theatre), marking the iconic hero’s stage debut. Adapted from a J.K Rowling short story, the two-part play, directed by John Tiffany and running at almost 5 ½ hours in total, may start 19 years from the end of the last Harry Potter novel, but really it returns to the story’s very beginning. Set in a world in which good and evil are in perpetual combat, it has a Dickensian sweep and momentum to the storytelling, aided by some breathtaking special effects while the cast work wonders to bring the time-travelling plot fully to life, in particular, Jamie Parker who makes a studious and likeable Harry, haunted by dreams of his abusive childhood.
Guys and Dolls
One of the most enduring and best-loved musicals of all time, the prohibition-era classic Guys and Dolls returned to the West End (Phoenix Theatre) in a scintillating and new production directed by Gordon Greenberg. This witty and engaging show, based on the Broadway stories of Damon Runyon is full of panache, heart and exuberant joy, while the music by Frank Loesser which included such timeless classics as I’ve Never Been in Love Before, A Bushel and a Peck, Luck Be a Lady and the barnstorming Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat is unforgettable. Greenberg draws excellent performances from his first-rate ensemble who are full of energy, gusto and devotion and dance up a storm!
Simon Stone’s updated version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Yerma (Young Vic), a mesmerising study of isolation and obsession set in the cosmopolitan, contemporary London of today, which charts the way longing for a child becomes an obsession which destroys a young woman’s life and the lives of those around her. What made the production partiality memorable was a performance of such blistering intensity by Bille Piper that it left me entirely shattered.
Michael Longhurst’s powerful revival of Peter Shaffer’s iconic 1979 play Amadeus (National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium), with a tour de force performance by Lucian Msamati who brings a compelling, mixture of anger, pain and envy to the role of Salieri, a man forced to confront his own mediocrity in the face of a musical genius, Mozart. Longhurst makes a point of skillfully integrating music into action onstage – there are 20 musician members of the Southbank Sinfonia and their presence, together with some excellent singing, means that we get a keen sense of Mozart in the very midst of creating a masterpiece. A truly accomplished production that resonates in the mind long after the final curtain.
The three runners-up which just missed out on my best of the year line-up but all equally worthy of praise are Funny Girl, Blue/Orange and Richard III. Happy theatregoing!Last modified: November 25, 2016