I’m a little late with this…but I’ve had cake and Christmas treats distracting me M’Lord! So here’s my belated round-up of the best shows of 2016, complete with some of the best bits from the full reviews. The categories have been chosen on the grounds of the variety of shows seen, rather than adhering entirely to ‘traditional’ categories…
Best show of my 2016 theatre year:
By a hop, skip and a jump, it’s Kneehigh’s ‘946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ (at West Yorkshire Playhouse) for its sheer genius:
‘There was not a single minute of this performance in which I was not totally entranced with the energy, the vibrancy, the heartbreak and the genius of what Kneehigh was showcasing on stage…The creative approaches to almost every challenge presented by such an ambitious production seem to have been greeted with relish and mind boggling innovation; gifting us with some stunning visuals and infinite moments of adulation as each element of masterful trickery played out…Kneehigh really do make the possibilities seem endless, and I honestly believe that there is nothing they could not conjure upon a stage. What’s more, the precision in this production was superb, with absolutely no detail spared- after all, why have the actors simply bring desks on stage when they can make the chore a parade, complete with swirling choreography and a little ditty? It simply oozed quality from every pore; everything, from the tossing of underpants and change-over of props, to the many perfectly timed entrances, somehow coinciding with some sort of physical gag on the other side of the door.’
‘An Inspector Calls’ (at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre).
I didn’t see many dramas in 2016 so the competition is limited; I loved many elements of this production, but it was not without its flaws…
‘I had very high hopes for the production as soon as I saw the impressive set. The play opened with copious amounts of smoke, befitting a famously ambiguous and yet didactic play; the dramatic smoke cleared to reveal a powerful symbol: the Birling’s house. A complete house, without the invisible walls; a solid, imposing structure on an otherwise bare and purposefully dreary street set. The concept of that house, on an uneven and unstable pedestal, rough around the edges and with a clear ‘black hole’ beneath was a fantastic image of where the Birling’s foundations met the grey and decaying world of the lower classes out on the pavement. Two worlds colliding without touching…Priestley’s enduring message ended up centre stage in this production and appropriately so.’
‘Wicked’ (at The Apollo Victoria Theatre, London).
I’ve seen it before…but it remains as glorious as ever and with Rachel Tucker back at the helm, accompanied by the brilliant Suzie Mathers for the 10th Anniversary, it was truly magical! Here’s what I said about it late last year:
‘My point is this: ‘Wicked’ is a ‘belter’ musical; it’s a feast for the ears as well as the eyes; it’s utterly, totally, thoroughly, quintessentially West End in both style and substance. It oozes quality and parades its cast like no other show; it gives folks like me lots and lots of musically-induced shivers which is, after all, one of the greatest things about musicals for musical lovers. What’s so special is that every cast member has pipes and unlike in other shows, they really do get the opportunity to be heard-even if it is brief, it is a moment of real glory. The visuals are gripping and grand while the sounds are well and truly glorious. I can’t think of any other show which is more West End from every angle, in every category…’
Best Comedy Show:
‘Tapeface’ (At The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds).
This was a delight which still makes me smile:
‘I think that the elements of surprise and anticipation are probably the real heart and soul of ‘Tape Face’; of course, the humour is visual and the laughs come from wonderfully clever combinations of inanimate objects and exceptionally well applied hit tunes, but these things are used, ultimately, to play to the key strengths; the expertly formed anticipation-surprise combination. While I was of course aware of Wills’ turn on America’s Got Talent, I avoided any clips (bar the one posted on the theatre website), and I was so glad that I didn’t- I’m sure the laughs would still have come, but I wouldn’t have been so gripped as I was to find out where exactly the action/prop/audience participation would lead…’
Best Kids’ Show:
A tough one here- both Erth’s ‘Dinosaur Zoo’ and ‘Aladdin’ at Nottingham Playhouse were wonderful. I think the Dinosaurs snag the win though!
‘The success of course emanates from the beautiful and gigantic dinosaur puppets which tower above those in the front row. Although set up as a zoo meet-and-greet-the-animals, with lots of interesting information provided, there were of course lots of lovely theatrical elements. What’s more, the fact that children were given the opportunity to meet a selection of the dinosaurs after the show for photographs and petting really was the cherry on the cake- kissing the nose of an adorable baby dinosaur is the stuff of children’s dreams, I’m sure!’
Best Alternative Show:
‘Joan’ by Milk Presents (at Rough Trade, Nottingham).
This was a surprising show in many ways. Beautiful writing and very topical subject matter, despite being about Joan of Arc…
‘At the centre of this piece is the issue of identity, particularly challenging gender norms and the long struggle for acceptance for those straying from the ‘norm’ in any way. Right from the beginning, Joan’s dad is critical of her gender-defying wardrobe which would apparently bring shame on her family and make her a laughing stock, and thus the battle commences. Joan dons the identity of various males throughout the performance with swift and magical transformations consisting of just facial hair, jackets and hats; the transformations are no less impressive for this simplicity of design… ‘Joan’ had a varied and thoroughly entertaining style, combining cabaret, comedy and history to explore a very modern and topical issue facing so many in the here and now. ‘Joan’ is an important piece of contemporary theatre which rightfully and commendably challenges society to be much more discerning and intelligent when it comes to identity and gender identity in particular; with the dramatic ending seeming to say that the answer is not conformity, but strength on the part of those struggling and greater understanding on the part of those needing to support rather than condemn.’
Best Shakespeare Production:
Oddsocks’ ‘Macbeth’ (At Harlow Carr, Harrogate).
A modern, comical rendition of ‘Macbeth’? Yes. And they pulled it off, too!
‘From the comical, ditzy witches to the very visual gags of ‘is this a dagger I see before me?’ and ‘trifles’, this production was hell-bent on re-branding tragic ‘Macbeth’ as a giggle-fest, with oodles of success. What’s more, the comedy in this production came from more directions and means than I can include here, which, I think, is a perfect indication of its success as a fresh take on an old classic; the clever comic aspects are so well woven into the fabric of this once-tragedy that it undeniably, and somewhat inexplicably, works. This ‘steam-punk style’ rendition plows full steam ahead for the duration and it is brilliant. Much like the work of Propeller, my absolute favourite Shakespeare company, this is Shakespeare as it should be if we are to entice and engage younger modern audiences; unruly, adventurous and anything but tired and stuffy. Would I recommend? Thoroughly. Would I see An OddSocks production again? Abso-blummin’-lutely.’
Best Puppetry/Mask show:
Vamos’ ‘The Best Thing’ (at The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds) A master class in bringing the inanimate to life:
‘Although I relish the artistry of puppet and masked theatre, I was definitely dubious of a silent, be-masked company…I was, however, more than pleasantly surprised; it took all of three minutes for me to fall head over heels in love with the beauty of a silent (but for perfectly timed musical accompaniment), be-masked company; somehow entirely captivated by entirely fixed expressions, which seemed to play the scene in so many colours. The masks themselves are fantastically done; seaside caricature in style for the most part and amazingly, completely believable as the narrative unfolds. Their incredibly immersive style has since made me a long term fan.’
Best Physical Theatre Production:
‘The Maids’ by Square Peg Theatre Company (at Harrogate Theatre). A brilliant display of the many merits of physical theatre:
‘There were powerful performances from Katie Robinson and Olivia Sweeney as Solange and Claire, respectively. Katie’s performance as Solange was fantastically uncomfortable and arrestingly sensitive. Those chaotic monologues betraying her apparent growing psychosis were brilliantly played; particularly impressive for those in her eye line as she spat her venom at imaginary entities. Olivia’s performance as Claire, the younger sister battling for some sense of ownership in her helpless situation, was entirely believable and the more sensitive moments in this role allowed her to showcase both malignant rage and great vulnerability; quite a feat in such an intense production with no interval. Deborah Pugh was eventually transformed from the invisible hands of furniture and prop provider to the outlandish, delusional Madame and it was a relief to see her step out of the shadows to match her counterparts in their accomplished performances.’
Here’s to another great year of theatre in 2017!