Ah, the ever-controversial ‘best of’ lists… Don’t you just love them? Reminders of shows you’re (still) kicking yourself that you missed coupled with utter bemusement at the ones who made the cut. So, I thought, I know, I’ll stride into the crossfire and light myself up with my list of my ten favourite shows as, you know, who doesn’t like to be shot down in flames?
Now, I’m not usually crazy about rankings and hierarchy in the creative arts so, please, see this as more of a summary of all the shows that really shook me. Except for the Number One. I’m all about cheerleading that star at the top of my own personal Christmas tree. But I loved each of these shows and, if you caught them, I hope you did too.
First, let’s just have a quick word on those that I adored but just couldn’t push into my Top Ten. It hurts that I couldn’t squeeze in Wish List, The Fall or Every Brilliant Thing (which I saw for the first time at the Orange Tree this year). Each was superb. Damn these Top Ten lists…
But hey, enough of my yakkin’; whaddaya say? Let’s boogie!
10. The End of Hope, Soho Theatre
My list is dominated with dramas this year, and I do notice that. Comedies are damn hard to get right so, please, let’s have a standing o for, by far, the best comedy on the London stage this year. The End of Hope was a comedic gem, magnificent from start to finish. Centred around the most absurd of one-night stands, the laughs aome thick and fast but weaved within the wit was writing of real depth about identity, how we see ourselves, and the barriers we all have up. I tell you, this show was superb. And special mention for Elinor Lawless who gave a masterclass in tragicomic figures.
9. Barber Shop Chronicles, National Theatre
I said when I saw it that this would be one of the shows of the year and, indeed, it was. Surely one of the best examinations of men and masculinity, of community and identity, put on the stage in recent years, and all wrapped in an exuberant production full of rhythm that also pulled back the curtain on the cloistered world of Black men and the networks and support structures they find in their local barber shops.
There is humorous bravado here as well as worrying prejudice. There is heart-breaking pain and there are plenty of laughs, but this is a terrific depiction of how Black men find paternalistic support and guidance, even when their own fathers let them down.
8. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Harold Pinter Theatre
Not a new play (obvs) and not a radically reworked production by any means but it easily made my list because, my God… In the mighty Imelda Staunton, we were honoured with a Martha the likes of which we will never see again. We will never see a more nuanced depiction of this woman so angry at the way her life has panned out, so much so that she channels all that fury, resentment and self-loathing into a destructive co-dependent relationship with her husband who, incredibly, cares enough about her to play the games she insists on playing.
To say this was a masterclass from Imelda is an understatement. This was a performance so layered, so complex, that it was just on another level from any other performance I saw this year. At times I laughed, at other moments I winced and clenched my jaw. It was a hell of a rollercoaster, this production, but one that was unforgettable. By the time the curtain fell, I was devastated.
7. The Jungle, Young Vic Theatre
What does it take for a house to become a home? What is necessary for strangers to become family? And is it possible we can set aside our divisions to come together? These are the big questions in the extraordinary, The Jungle, a play with both actors and refugees that is centred around the Afghan Café, a restaurant in the Calais migrant camp that became the hub for all those who passed through, forging a community where only fear, trauma and enmity lay before.
Such a humbling production. And one that displayed both the injustice of the world, and the will of the human spirit to overcome. And to program this during the festive season, as we in the UK close our borders and go to church to sing Christmas carols, celebrating Jesus’s birth as we become complicit in the deaths of people from his very homeland.
There, simply, hasn’t been a more powerful production on the hypocrisy and the fallacy of the term, ‘global community.’ Those with humanity and compassion… That’s not us; it’s those who lived in that migrant camp we terribly termed, “The Jungle.” Extraordinary.
6. Consent, National Theatre
There wasn’t a play, this year, that traumatised me as much as Consent. I knew a piece of theatre about a woman who was raped and seeking justice through the Courts would be challenging, but this was a punch to the gut. There were moments where I genuinely sat with my hands over my open mouth. This hurt. At times, this play really, really hurt.
But this was also a play richly layered with themes of class and even the very nature of truth itself. I found Nina Raine’s writing very emotionally affecting and Heather Craney’s performance, as the woman who was raped, was the best supporting performance of the year. There were moments where I felt real rage towards some of the characters, and moments where a couple of them broke my heart. We talk glibly about being moved by theatre, but Consent really shook me.
5. Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court Theatre
When a show affects you as much on a personal level as Anatomy of a Suicide did with me, it’s important, I guess, as a reviewer to separate yourself from it as much as you can, to stand back, and see if that play works on other levels. Or maybe you should dive in deeper and pull apart why and how that play affected you so profoundly. Well, I did both and whichever way I cut it, this Alice Birch-Katie Mitchell production delivered.
Depression and mental illness may be emotional states and experiences many can relate to, but that doesn’t mean that we can all capture the tsunami of emotions or the numbness in words. Yet it seems Alice can – and that is quite breath-taking. Anatomy of a Suicide followed three women across three different periods of time and what we examine, as the lives of these three women tumble and unravel in front of us, is the role of nature and nurture in mental illness. The theory of inherited trauma.
Each performance was top drawer, the production design was haunting. The impact was devastating.
4. The Ferryman, Royal Court Theatre
This is an interesting one. Quite a lot of talk since about the use of stereotypes, and whether a play about Ireland and the Irish was really that for an English playwright and director to tell. I understand these concerns, but I cannot erase the fact that my reaction on seeing The Ferryman was one of astonishment. This show was shattering.
Set in Armagh, 1981, it examined the pervasiveness of violence in a society, once it the seed is sown, and the moral corruption it eventually brings. A former member of the IRA, Quinn Carney, is informed that the body of his brother, one of the Disappeared, has been found in a bog with a bullet in his head. This discovery sets off a chain of events that promises to irreparably destroy the uneasy peace in his household and extended family.
Yet what hit me the most was the weight of history in this production, how the pattern of broken families and violent lives has lasted for generations in Ireland – and how the ghosts of the dead linger heavy in the Irish air
3. Hamlet, Almeida Theatre
This was a revelation. Has there been another tale as mined and reinterpreted as many times as that of the Danish Prince? It gets to a point sometimes when you don’t think you can ever face another Hamlet but, my word, this Icke-Scott production was breath-taking.
Andrew Scott’s performance was one I feel honoured to have witnessed – the lines so fresh, spoken as if the thoughts were only just occurring to him at that very moment – and this was Robert Icke’s finest production in eons. Yet more than this, this radical and intriguing interpretation brought out the themes of love and loss, and the destructive power of grief, far more powerfully than I’ve ever seen before.
This Hamlet, truly, was a gut-wrenching tragedy that left you emotionally crushed and broken-hearted. It’s expected on the BBC next year – I won’t be missing it.
2. Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre
What else can I say? What more could I possibly add? I sat down in Victoria Palace Theatre, one of the few in the audience who knew nothing about the show, had never heard the cast recording, wasn’t even 100% sure of the plot – indeed, all I knew of Hamilton was the hype and the hip-hop. So, did it deliver? Did it, HELL??!!
JE-SUS. What a production. What energy, what rhythm. What verve and verse. So extraordinary is the flow and the lyric that it puts Jay Z and Marshall Mathers to shame. Plus, it’s so rare to have a musical with a book entirely absent. Song after song after song. Each segued, mixed, into the next, and each at such a high level. Never once did I lose my place, never before have I been so deeply excited about The Federalist Papers. Terrific.
And for such a radical show to not only be so good, but to put diversity on the front foot (perhaps a bit more on the gender front would have been nice), is a real challenge to theatre. Hamilton is, of course, a game-changer but, watching it, you wonder how other shows could even keep up let alone exceed it. It will be a while. Musical theatre for the 21st century and for all.
1. An Octoroon, Orange Tree Theatre
So, here it is – the stand-out show of 2017 BY A COUNTRY MILE! Of course, this choice will be of no surprise to those who’ve been following me for most of the year. As I said in my review at the time, I knew within thirty seconds of the start of the show that I was witnessing something incredible, and I’ve been singing the praises of An Octoroon ever since.
Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took the 19th century play, The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault about the heroism of a white planation owner who falls in love with a woman with black ancestry, and ripped it up – injecting satire, modern vernacular, blackface and redface – to provoke a dynamic, fresh and ruthlessly frank examination of race. There are moments of joy and hilarity, and there are moments of fear and confusion. And there were also the very necessary moments of pained discomfort for all us White people. As it should be.
And a quick special mention for Director, Ned Bennett, as it’s worth noting that word was coming in from New York (where this play premiered) of its fascinating production design. Well, Ned threw all that away and directed his own interpretation – creating a thrusting, confrontational, and almost immersive production. It was exhilarating. And I am so please that more will get to see this game-changer when it opens at the Dorfman in June 2018. GO!