This was a year where the work touring into Bristol and the work I saw in Latitude, London, the cinema and New York dazzled. This is a list of 10 (actually 13 but that would be too unlucky) shows that I fell in love with this year.
Latitude’s joy is usually in the total immersion of culture that it gives but this year’s festival brought two of the best pieces of work I saw all year and provided a panoply of what the festival offers. Hot Brown Honey raucously took down stereotypes and blasted the roof off the theatre tent with their cabaret/party. It showed women at their most powerful, political, sexy best. Meanwhile Dickie Beau took on the legacy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a show that delved into the psyche of the Danish Prince and those actors who have tackled the role. The poses and facial tics was extraordinary, his Ian McKellen turn as memorable a moment as has been on stage this year. As quiet a work as the troupe from Australia were exuberant, it was a theatre geek’s paradise, a show you just slipped comfortably into and hoped never to leave. It was probably my show of 2017. I’m still hoping its picked up for next year and seen in Bristol, perhaps as part of Mayfest.
My top show of 2016 has to be included in my round up of best shows of 2017 as well. Cleaned up and clearer in its West End run, its melodies and discordant harmonies are even more ravishing now. Louis Maskell has improved on an already impeccable turn as the young man with a Glasgow smile and Julian Bleach is a macabre delight as a psychotic court jester. It’s a unique West End prospect, darker and grittier than the usual Shaftesbury Avenue Fair but it truly deserves to be a hit. On its third showing it knocked me out as much as its first. Bristol Old Vic has come to the heart of the establishment and scored a bull’s eye.
Kneehigh were barely away from Bristol in 2017 and ensured the city was constantly being fed with theatre that dazzled senses. IfThe Tin Drum was a flawed but fascinating scale of a mountain and Flying Lovers a low-key turn, Tristan and Yseult was five star joy from first to last. Making us look at the classic tale from afresh, no other show brought such joy this year. Returning to a company’s greatest hit its always worrying if the work doesn’t live up to expectations. Yet over two and a bit hours innovation after innovation pile up until one was left with no alternative but to stand and applaud a rightly appointed modern classic. Emma Rice on form is arguably one of the greats, no one since Joan Littlewood has caught that sense of pure rigour and utter joy at the possibilities of theatre. With the creation of her new company Wise Children being based in Bristol, expect plenty more nights of joy in the years ahead.
Even without Denise Gough’s much heralded central performance PPT fizzed. Lisa Dwyer Hogg brought her own talent to the role of Emma, an actress checking into rehab and confronting her demons, a performance less explosive but no less sad and full of exquisite painful in a virtuoso turn by an under the radar performer. If a great performance is at the heart of the work and been much discussed in the reviews, it’s also writing of the highest order. Duncan McMillan’s play scorches, no-missed beats or clunky lines here, building to a climax and familial confrontation that left its audience breathless in its seats. Seating on stage seating, facing directly into the stunning BOV auditorium it was a treat to see writing and acting of the highest order mere inches from your face. It gave you the intimacy of a Netflix show with the scope of the best of theatre .Bunny Christies inventive designs and Jeremy Herrin’s precise direction completed a clean sweep of a work that should justly become a modern classic.
How To Win Against History– Wardrobe Theatre as part of Tobacco Factory
Seirol Davies cabaret/revue concerning the flamboyant sixth Duke of Anglesey had been an Edinburgh smash hit twice over and sparkled just as brightly as part of its UK tour on the back of those reviews. Okay it had the feel of a clever undergrad show at times, but students haven’t had the wit and droll irony in such stores since Fry and Laurie headlined Footlights. It was a work that blended high camp style and witty pastiche with big heart and ultimately probing insight. It’s a show I would have remained in my seat to gorge on again straight away. A marvel.
Groundhog Day- August Wilson Theatre Broadway
Polish, sheen and spectacle. Nobody does it better than Broadway. Add Tim Minchin’s witty book and Matthew Warchus clever staging and Groundhog Daywas just one caffeinated dose of pleasure. Andy Karl made sleaze and arrogance charming, his hard working turn not even hampered with a leg injury picked up on press night. It may have had a short run on 42nd street but this is a show much better than its commercial run suggests. An Olivier for Best Musical will hopefully ensure it won’t be long until this is back in the West End. Bill Murray, the star of the original film ensured he had his own Groundhog Evening, seeing it on consecutive nights. It really wouldn’t be a bad way to get trapped.
War Horse- Bristol Hippodrome
Slightly streamlined for the 2017 tour it may have been, but War Horse still feels a game changer all these years later. Joey is without doubt the most iconic character of 21st century theatre, up there with Lear and Mother Courage, his transformation from foal to stallion still enough to bring goose bumps to the back of the neck. This is the show that every theatre- both commercial and subsidised- are looking to find. One that secures legacies both financially and critically. Ten years on Joey still reigns supreme.
Amadeus/Angels In America/Follies (NT Live)
It may have been a fairly ropey year for the Nat but viewed from a little distance and with their big hitters playing as part of NT Live it still seemed like a pretty good year all told for this monolith of the South Bank. Amadeus with Lucian Msamatti (a belter) was just the beginning of the epic work seen their this year, the 7 ½ hours of Angels In America with Andrew Garfield and Russell Tovey especially breaking hearts and Follies hauntingly realised proved that nowhere does it better for the big classics of world theatre.
Die Flaudermaus- Welsh National Opera at Bristol Hippodrome
Strauss’ opera was a charmer, a full on romp from the first note of its overture to its resolution filled conclusion. With no musical on offer this touring year for the WNO, it felt like orchestra, chorus and principals let their hair down with this crowd pleasing operetta instead. This was opera for everyone, a night of pure music theatre that dazzled the ear along with the heart.
The Winters Tale- Cheek by Jowl at Bristol Old Vic
I have never seen the concluding scene bettered then in Cheek by Jowl’s ravishing version of Shakespeare’s late tragi-comedy. So much of the work was exquisite, both in performance and in design, that it made the Bohemia scenes especially jarring, a mess of a middle that fell off a cliff. Still, it couldn’t stop a work so rich from falling onto this list.