With the Menier Chocolate Factory riding high on both sides of the Atlantic with productions starring powerhouse divas, Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith is rightfully returned to Mark Shenton’s regularly updated list of top ten ticket recommendations, catapulted back into the number one slot. What are the other risers and fallers? Follow links to book tickets.
My top ten shows this week
1. Funny Girl
London’s Menier Chocolate Factory is currently riding high on both sides of the Atlantic with hit transfers of The Color Purple (to Broadway, where London star Cynthia Erivo has been Tony nominated) and Funny Girl (to the West End’s Savoy Theatre), marking this 1960s show’s first appearance in the West End since the original transferred from Broadway with Barbra Streisand in the title role (who subsequently recreated that performance forever in the film version). So Sheridan Smith has massive shoes to fill – but fill them she does. No one’s going to rain on her parade. Michael Mayer’s production also gives it a charming domesticated scale in the Menier way, but the show is so full of heart and charm that you can forgive its sentimentality and slightly obvious backstage story.
2. Show Boat
London is currently experiencing a rare history lesson in the both where Broadway’s great musical era began with Show Boat in 1927, and would land so triumphantly just 23 years later with Guys and Dolls, possibly the greatest musical of them all in my opinion. But Show Boat is pretty astonishing, too, not least for one of the most rapturous, enchanting scores ever written; the standards just pour out of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, including ‘Ol Man River’, ‘Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, ‘Why Do I Love You?’ and ‘Bill.’ Its been given a gorgeous production (pictured above) by Daniel Evans, transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible to the wrap-around intimacy of the New London, and featuring a cast full of stunning voices.
3. People, Places and Things
Harrowing, intense, emotional, gripping and exhilarating, Duncan Macmillan’s transfer from the National to the West End’s Wyndham’s even had the critics on their feet for the first night standing ovation. As Fiona Mountford declared in her five-star review for the Evening Standard, “It’s rare to see a group of critics, cynical devils that we are, rise to their feet for a sweeping standing ovation on a press night. But this wasn’t any old opening, or any old leading actress. For my money, Denise Gough gives the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.” And (for once) I entirely concur with Mountford. Gough deservedly won the Olivier for Best Actress.
4. Les Blancs
The National is on a roll at the moment: as well as People, Places and Things and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, there’s also this utterly astonishing production of a virtually unknown play by Lorraine Hansberry. Best known for A Raisin in the Sun, she never finished this play before her death at the age of just 34, of pancreatic cancer. But now the National has visionary South African director Yael Farber directing a ritualistic production that burns with rage and feeling in is portrait of an African country falling apart on the edge of civil war. An outstanding cast is led by the magnificent, towering Danny Sapani, and also includes Sian Phillips, Elliot Cowan, James Fleet and Anna Madeley.
5. The Book of Mormon
I’ve not seen this gloriously irreverent, hilariously knowing musical send-up of Mormonism and musicals themselves since its 2013 West End opening night – and returning to see it again nearly three years later it remains as fresh, funny and brilliant as it was then. The current cast is led by American imports KJ Hippensteel as Elder Price and Brian Sears as Elder Cunningham, while Olivier Award-winning Stephen Ashfield remains in the cast as Elder McKinley.
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The National revisit August Wilson’s early play in his ten-play cycle of American black experience across the last century that they previously presented the UK premiere of back in 1989 to offer a stunning new production in the Lyttelton, starring Sharon D Clarke in the title role. Lucian Msamati, who’ll play Salieri in the NT’s forthcoming production of Amadeus, is extraordinary, too, amongst a superb ensemble that also features Clint Dyer and Giles Terera.
7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s Globe has a new artistic director Emma Rice – who has admitted that, not only has she not read all the plays, but doesn’t understand them, either. But her debut production is a rollicking romp that is full of her own directorial trademarks yet also honours the play and its audience. I’ve seldom had such fun at the Globe – one of the happiest shows ever.
8. In the Heights
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony winning Broadway musical returns to London in the exhilarating production first seen at Southwark Playhouse last year, and now at the new Olivier-eligible King’s Cross Theatre, where has now extended until October. I saw it again recently and it remains brilliant – and a vivid reminder that Hamilton, the current smash hit Broadway show, didn’t happen in a vacuum, but its creator’s musical and lyrical inventiveness was on full display already in this show. It saw David Bedella win his second Olivier Award this year for Best Supporting Performance. The thrilling choreography is by Drew McOnie, who will soon be represented at the Old Vic by Jekyll and Hyde that he is creating for the venue, opening in May.
9. Guys and Dolls
Frank Loesser’s immortal Broadway musical jut gets better and better. Chichester’s transfer to the West End has just moved from the Savoy to the Phoenix and has a new cast who are just wonderful. Oliver Tompsett, who is possessed of one of the best male voices in British musical theatre, has stunningly inherited the role of Sky Masterson from Jamie Parker, and Samantha Spiro has taken over brilliantly as Miss Adelaide. It is also simultaneously on a UK tour I can’t wait to see, too, because Louise Dearman and Richard Fleeshman are playing the roles of Miss Adelaide and Sky there. It has long been my absolutely favourite of any musical: as I wrote when this production premiered at Chichester in 2014, Guys and Dolls is, to my mind and even more my heart and soul, simply the greatest of all the classic musicals of Broadway’s golden age of over half a century ago. No show for me summonses a mythical, virtually mystical version of its own mean but colourful streets with as much serious style and witty panache as Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s incisive, clever distillation of Damon Runyon’s classic story and characters, set to Frank Loesser’s irresistibly tuneful but acerbically pointed songs. This slice of Broadway is set in and around Times Square itself whose famous advertising billboards loom large in a stunning fanned vista of them in Peter McKintosh’s design for this polished, stylish new production.”
10. Mrs Henderson Presents
With closure now announced for 18 June, there are only a few weeks left to catch this transfer from Bath Theatre Royal of this touching, terrific new musical version of the 2005 British film set backstage and frontstage at the Windmill Theatre, which offered audiences live, nude (but completely immobile) women. The cast includes Emma Williams as one of the showgirls, plus Tracie Bennett in the title role, originally played by Judi Dench in the film.
Mark Shenton has been a full-time freelance London-based theatre critic and journalist since 2002, and is proud to have co-founded MyTheatreMates with Terri Paaddock. He has variously (and sometimes simultaneously) been chief theatre critic for the Sunday Express, The Stage, WhatsOnStage, What's On in London magazine and LondonTheatre.co.uk. He has taught at ArtsEd London in Chiswick on musical theatre history since 2012. He was until recently President of the Critics' Circle, and is also on the board of Mercury Musical Developments and the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). You can follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage, and on instagram at @ShentonStage. His personal website is www.shentonstage.com.