In a year that brought seismic political changes, alongside the tragic deaths of a huge number of talented artists, the showbiz talents of the world continued to turn out first class gigs. My favourite moments of the shows that I saw in 2016 are below and include performances from across the UK, together with the USA and also Europe. Theatre, cabaret, dance and concert performances are all included and there’s no ranking – the list is entirely alphabetical. These shows were quite simply my (and with one exception a guest reviewer’s too) highlights of the year. Enjoy this look back on what was another year of stunning performances.
The Understudy – Ceili O’Connor
A newcomer to London’s cabaret scene, Ceili’s one night gig in the West End was as relaxed and chatty as it was perfectly rehearsed. With a set list that included some of the biggest numbers that this talented West End performer has understudied, through to an unexpected Billy Joel megamix…
Ennio Morricone at the O2
To be one of the few critics invited to review this one-off gig at the packed O2 was a privilege in itself – But in an era when good film scores can be the modern equivalent of symphonies, to see this 87 year old legend conducting orchestra in choir through some of the most evocative and globally recognisable compositions of the last 50 years will stay with me forever.
The Red Shoes – Sadler’s Wells
Matthew Bourne’s newest work from his envisioned and inspirational New Adventures Company is a ballet inspired by a classic film that was all about a ballet inspired by a classic fairy tale. And all styled as a loving tribute to a Golden Age of cinema. A selection of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores have been carefully stitched together to form Bourne’s musical backdrop. Ashley Shaw leads the sold out run at Sadler’s Wells before New Adventures tour the show around the country and with Lez Brotherston’s mesmerising set, this ballet is unmissable.
THEATRE – DRAMA
The Father – Duke of York’s Theatre
Florian Zeller’s play was an ingeniously agonising examination of the effects of dementia on an elderly man. Kenneth Cranham brought his heartbreakingly perceptive tour de force back to the West End, in a play (rare these days) that educated and informed its audience about the debilitating nature of the illness, as Cranham palpably shared the nightmare of dementia.
No Man’s Land – Wyndham’s Theatre
Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart made Pinter’s deliciously absurdist take on Hampstead and Camden life a theatrical treat. No one can claim to understanding the definitive meaning of the play, but who cared? In a production as unflinchingly 1970s as The Sweeney or Derek and Clive, these two starriest of knights shone brilliantly.
King Lear – The RSC at Stratford upon Avon and London’s Barbican
Another play and quite possibly the first in the canon about the effects of ageing, Greg Doran’s time hopping take on the ageing pagan monarch was world class theatre from the RSC. Antony Sher revealed new layers of howling grief in what is perhaps the most timeless of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The Railway Children – King’s Cross Theatre
I know its frowned upon for a critic to review his own efforts, but the opportunity to ACTUALLY DRIVE THE STEAM TRAIN (!!) in a performance of this enchanting production will stay with me forever. Appearing alongside a talented cast, and meeting the show’s fabulous crew, my crash course (literally!) in becoming an engine driver might have been a Health and Safety nightmare, but to this big kid it was a five-star dream come true.
THEATRE – MUSICAL
42nd Street – Theatre du Chatelet, Paris
The UK’s Stephen Mear has shipped New York to Paris with his stunningly, lavishly, choreographed take on this most American of musicals. In a cast built around talents that Mear trusts implicitly Ria Jones, Dan Burton and Jennie Dale were magnificent alongside newcomer Monique Young. Big Broadway shows don’t come more lavishly staged than this. 42nd Street is still on for a few more days and well worth the Eurostar fare!
Burnt Part Boys – Park Theatre
Modestly staged with minimal design, director Matthew Iliffe and his MD Nick Barstow brought this off-Broadway gem to London. Moving and exciting, the production was one of the tightest pieces of ensemble acting.
Fiddler On The Roof – Broadway Theatre, New York
Lyricist Sheldon Harnick told me recently that he considered this production of his classic musical as the best revival since its 1964 Broadway opening. Hofesh Shechter’s re-imagined choreography made for a glorious whirl of Chagall and Klezmer inspired magic, while Alexandra Silber and Adam Kantor’s Tzeitel and Motel gave a youthful integrity to the young lovers that was as relevant to 21st century New York as it was to Tsarist Russia.
The Fix – Union Theatre
The Union Theatre moved across the road, and to mark its reopening Michael Strassen reprised his take on Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey’s musical swipe at the all-American political scene, with a pre Presidential Election run of The Fix. The cast was as excellent as the show’s timing, with Lucy Williamson and Ken Christiansen being masterfully Machiavellian – and beautifully voiced too.
Funny Girl – Natasha J Barnes on for Sheridan Smith
Funny Girl was recognised last year as one of my best shows – But this year, when Natasha J Barnes came on to play Fanny Brice whilst Sheridan Smith was indisposed, she became another of this year’s jaw-dropping sensations.
Grey Gardens – Southwark Playhouse
With a fabulous cast headed by Jenna Russell and the inimitable Sheila Hancock, this quirky Tony-winner made its European premier. Thom Southerland worked his genius over the piece and the queues stretched down to Elephant and Castle – proving yet again that London’s fringe can provide a brave and quality platform for the widest range of shows.
Jesus Christ Superstar – Open Air Theatre
Timothy Sheader in conjunction with Drew McOnie’s excruciatingly brilliant choreography gave London an unforgettable take on this early Rice and Lloyd Webber collaboration. Declan Bennett may well have been outstanding in the title role, but it was Tyrone Huntley’s Judas, hands dripping silver blood, that lives on. The show returns to Regents Park this year. Don’t miss it!
Oliver! – Curve Leicester
I caught up late to the Curve’s Oliver, deliberately, to see Laura Pitt-Pulford take over the role of Nancy and of course she was marvellous. Played out against takis’ glorious designs that were as dark as they were colourful, Laura’s Nancy was amongst the best I’ve seen and proved a great way to start the year!
Parade – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Parade is one of the best modern musicals written. A tough and ultimately devastating story – but one in which Jason Robert Brown has painted a picture of the Southern USA at the turn of the 20th century using a flamboyance of musical styles. Parade is a tough show to do well and up in Manchester James Baker did just that. Spines were tingling from the opening chords of The Old Red Hills Of Home and it was gratifying to see that top notch fringe theatre can exist outside of both London and August in Edinburgh. It was also a privilege to be invited to write the programme notes for Parade, a musical that I love. You can read them here: Review link
Sunset Boulevard – London Coliseum
Life imitated art at the Coliseum as a real mega movie star (Glenn Close) trod the boards as Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond. Close’s stunning solos, a top notch supporting cast including Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon and Stephen Mear’s clever choreography made for a phenomenal concert staging. The show heads to Broadway next year for a limited run and New Yorkers are in for a treat!
Sunset Boulevard – Ria Jones on for Glenn Close
I didn’t see Ria Jones step up to this most magnificent of plates myself – but luckily that most versatile of theatre PRs Kevin Wilson was there, who reviewed the performance for me.
Waitress – Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York
Jessie Mueller leads a top notch cast in this intelligent and stylish screen to stage translation. Sara Bareilles has offered a veritable dessert buffet of delectable tunes. A modern tale that’s as all-American as apple pie, the cliche-free story is an uplifting tale of discovery and strong women.