I started the year intending to see fewer shows than in 2015, when I made 304 visits to the theatre – but, somehow, I seem have crept up to 332 for 2016. The only consolation is that it is still some way off the high water mark of 2014… 383. Anyway, here’s my selection of the shows that made me sit up and sometimes stand up this year, the ones that truly stood out in a crowded diary and on whom I look back most fondly. (For reasons best known to myself, I’ve decided not to include my NY trip on here, on which case Hamilton would have been in first place, second place, third place etc etc…).
1. Mary Stuart
I always feel slightly guilty about putting a play I’ve seen in December on this list but Robert Icke’s adaptation of Schiller’s queen-off was pretty much everything I want from theatre. A director influenced by van Hove but making his own mark too, two of the best actors in the country in Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, plus a company and creative team on fire. I went back the next week, got the same casting arrangement but still enjoyed it just as much, if not even more. If there’s tickets left, for love of God book now!
2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
A titanic production by Dominic Cooke of August Wilson’s classic, which set the tone for a superb year at the National Theatre, making a mockery of those who too easily decried the opening salvos of Rufus Norris’ reign. Startling performances from O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati kept the drama pinsharp, invaluable contributions from Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey herself kept it unpredictable, its racial commentary feels only too pertinent in the light of this tumultuous year.
Much of the LIFT 2016 programme was fascinating but Lola Arias’ examination of what we ask of our armed forces was unexpectedly enlightening and thoroughly unmissable. Working with veterans from both sides of the 1982 Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict, the melding of documentary theatre with something more, well, theatrical was piercingly strong and one of the most emotionally true things of the year.
4. Escaped Alone
So much of this production has etched itself onto my mind, I barely need to go and see it again when it returns to the Royal Court in January: “terrible rage”, Miriam Buether’s Jekyll and Hyde design, “terrible rage”, that amazing cast, “terrible rage”, Churchill’s vivid imagery, “terrible rage”.
5. A Raisin in the Sun
My first time seeing Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece in an interpretation from Sheffield-based Eclipse and what a powerhouse of a play it is. I spent the journey home googling the amazing casts who have previously performed it but to my mind, the slightly ramshackle nature of this touring production suited it down to the ground perfectly.
6. Pink Mist
I described this as “as much dramatic poem as pure drama, a deeply lyrical response to the war on terror” and I can’t think of any better way to reword it. A striking combination of powerful source materials, physical theatre, stunning design and a (if there’s any justice) star-making lead performance from Phil Dunster.
7. Steel Magnolias
I was a little nervous seeing this as the film is so beloved and the previous stage adaptation didn’t quite hit the mark but in the (literal) sweatbox intensity of the Hope in high summer, all the joy and tragedy of Robert Harling’s tale came vibrantly to life. And given the intimacy of the space, it was brilliantly almost an immersive production, the company’s laughter and tears at one with our own, it was all I could do not to embrace them and then get onstage for a shampoo and set.
8. The Grinning Man
This macabre Victor Hugo adaptation was a jewel in Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary celebrations and it must surely, surely, have future life whether in this theatre or another. Musically interesting, dramatically thrilling and altogether exhilarating, this was the kind of exciting musical theatre that makes me glad that I get myself out of London every now and then.
9. Jess and Joe Forever
Achingly, delicately tender yet seriously committed to the sensitivities of its subject matter, Zoe Cooper’s coming-of-age two-hander just blew me away. Derek Bond’s nuanced direction of two deeply soulful performances from young actors Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones made this a tear-soaked winner, I only wish I’d gone earlier in the run so I could have seen it again.
Another show returning in 2017, as it transfers to the Trafalgar Studios, and Stuart Slade’s adventurous writing is certainly deserving of the wider attention it will get, examining the ways in which society responds to times of crisis, both in terms of those directly affected and those who have to join in via social media.
And here’s 11-25:
11. The Maids
12. Cuttin’ It
14. Grey Gardens
15. Les Blancs
16. Hedda Gabler
18. Two Short Plays About Gays
19. The Children
21. Anna Karenina
22. Scenes from 68* Years
23. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
24. Kings of War
25. The Last Five Years
And my least favourite shows…
- Under new ownership, the St James will become The Other Palace in 2017 as a home for new musical theatre and here’s hoping it avoids anything as cringeworthy as Miss Atomic Bomb
- No amount of drugs could induce me to go back to The Painkiller, an embarrassing throwback that formed part of Kenneth Branagh’s residency at the Garrick
- A flawed take on Gatsby
- Against the popular trend I know but I’ve never known as quickly that a comedy was not for me as The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
- And last but by no means least, Bill Kenwright’s most shameful hour in hanging Sarah Harding out to dry in Ghost.