Remember when going to packed, bustling, lively theatres was a thing? You know, we’d collectively shut out the world with the closing of the doors and the dimming of the lights; we’d spend more than twenty minutes without a phone in hand; we’d let ourselves be completely taken in by the creations of talented theatre folk? LIVE? Good times.
Miraculously, I managed to see twenty shows before lockdown hit, mid-March – one of which has taken a place in this list in fact, so I did quite well considering… It’s a far cry from the 150+ tally of 2019 or previous years though, and my chances of seeing many more live performances for the remainder of 2020 seem slim, but instead of moping, I’ve been mulling again. Mulling over which shows I’d currently name as the best I’ve ever seen take to a stage – the kind of shows which shape or sharpen a love of theatre. So here’s my latest trip down memory lane, looking at what makes the shows in my top ten list so bloody brilliant…
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
Always one of the first shows I mention when cracking out the old ‘what’s the best show you’ve seen’ chestnut over a coffee with a theatre type. I’d never seen theatre quite like it before and in fairness, I haven’t seen any theatre quite like it since. Combining live action with animation to the tune of perfectly jaw-dropping precision, 1927 offer up theatre which is unique and transcendental in style and in the case of this particular narrative, also pretty damn fantastic with its darkly comic storytelling. Set in a crumbling crawling bayou, this show looks at the frictions between the haves and the have-nots and Susanne Andrade gets 10/10 from me. Review here.
The Color Purple
Where to start with this one? Its soul-lifting sound? Its humour and pathos? Its beautifully written source text? Its phenomenal cast led by the vocal and emotional powerhouse that is Cynthia Erivo? Well, yes! This was a great experience of truly beautiful and deeply affecting theatre – based on Alice Walker’s brilliant novel, the stage production used music and no-fuss staging to bring the story of Celie to life in the most beautifully gripping way. We saw it in its last week at the Menier Chocolate Factory and I will kick myself to eternity for missing the opportunity to see it a second time before Broadway had its turn. Full ‘lasting impressions’ review here.
Christ I loved this show! I see few shows more than once, but this one called me back three times. Quite apart from the stellar cast, fabulous music of Stephen Sondheim, sublime design from Bunny Christie and truly brilliant direction from Marianne Elliot…no wait, that list is precisely the entire recipe for success here. Love love LOVE. Could rave about it forever (and probably will) so I’ll just stop now and direct you to the full glowing review. As someone who booked to head over to Broadway to see the NYC incarnation in May 2020, I can only hope that the Broadway show will go ahead with a future run I’ll be able to see with a re-booked trip… Review here.
A new and recent addition. My God what a buzz to see this incredible tale of female emancipation from all kinds of restraint and control. It’s a timely piece from Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, full of wit and timely messages in the era of #MeToo. I can’t remember a time when I’ve experienced such a collective and vocal reaction to a show either – the way the audience burst into a hubbub of chatter at both interval and curtain was really something special and entirely a testament to the strength of the work. So with its obscenely brilliant script, obscenely talented cast, big laughs and big heartbreak, it’s very easy to fall hard for this show. Full review here.
Hansel and Gretel
My grand introduction to Kneehigh. This is one of only a handful of times I feel like a theatre experience transformed my whole idea of what live performance could do and be. There was no going back when it came to my standards and expectations of theatre after seeing this – it really did set the bar. I can still see the daring relay contraption travelling the length of the set and I can still feel the awe of seeing that level of theatrical prowess taking place live. It was a whole new world of storytelling for me – stylised, rule-breaking, inventive and outrageous to boot. And so layered too – I distinctly remember getting a lump in my throat at the sight of a collection of tiny, tiny shoes laid out in a neat row at the edge of the stage. How they managed to move and inspire so much hilarity with one show made me an instant Kneehigh lifer. (I saw this show pre-site so it isn’t reviewed here but a quick bit of typing in the search bar will take you to a collection of more recent reviews of Kneehigh’s work).
Matilda The Musical
There are few I’d label a lyrical genius… but Tim Minchin is just a bloomin’ lyrical genius, isn’t he? No matter how many times I listen to this cast album, it never gets old and I’m for ever finding new lines cling to my ear for appreciation. The Smell of Rebellion is the pinnacle for me, but highlights are gloriously plentiful. This show is also responsible for bringing the incredibly entertaining David Leanard to my attention – rarely has there been more splendid villainous casting. Not only does the RSC’s Matilda immeasurably raise the bar for theatre aimed at children, it offers one of the most layered and thoroughly entertaining works of recent years. No one was more surprised than me when Matilda’s jarring key-change entrance genuinely left me choked up, and that’s just one example of the heart-breaking moments powerfully nestling within such a fun staging. Lively, intelligent, moving and full of visual spectacle, Matilda is a show I could quite happily watch on repeat. Review of the touring production here.
Being a fan of the music styles of the 50s and 60s in general, Memphis was always going to be a winner of a musical for me. Factor in the surprise of a gospel track or two and the powerhouse of a leading lady that is Beverley Knight and I was pretty much in musical heaven. The storyline of Memphis packs plenty of variety with a love affair across a dangerous divide offering up everything from harrowing racial aggression to kick-ass female empowerment and plenty of laughs. And the music? In a league of its own. Memphis was seriously superb and it needs and deserves a revival. There, I said it. (This show was also pre-site so there’s no review, but with time on my hands I may get to work on a ‘Lasting Impressions’ version…)
I was a wreck of a lass after seeing this gorgeous play from Jeffrey Solomon at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre a good few years ago. With its devastating combination of rich comedy and a lacerating conclusion, Mother/Son hits like an eighteen wheeler. It’s definitely one of those productions which stays with you and it was all the more moving seeing it at the exact time I did, when a pal had just come out and was struggling. As a one man show about a gay man and his relationship with his hilariously fussy stereotypical Jewish mother, it got pretty much everything note perfect, from the understated performance to the no-fuss staging to the sharp shifts between roles and the gorgeous observational writing. *Chef’s kiss*. (Another pre-site show so there’s no review, but because the theatre gods are good even when they’re on furlough, the first eight minutes of this show are available on YouTube).
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)
Another new addition which saw me booking rare repeat trips. Not only does this show fly the flag for truly exciting adaptation work full of theatrical flair, charm and belly laughs, it was my first introduction to Blood of the Young and the first theatre-love-affirming new company discovery since Kneehigh back in 2009. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is a work of pure invention and fun which is in truth a joint win of Jane Austen as original satirical genius and Isobel McArthur as canny adaptor for contemporary tastes. Delivered with all the gusto of talented women who’ve finally got their hands on properly cracking material, it’s a show which has the power to make you smile long after seeing it. A few pals have had copies of the script posted out to them but I’m definitely going to need another tour so I can take all of my literature and laughter loving pals to see this magic live. It’s SO GOOD to helplessly laugh at the theatre. I miss it. Sigh… Review here.
Easily a timeless modern classic, right? As a huge fan of all things puppetry, mask and associated spectacle, this show is an absolute dream. Having such exquisite large scale puppetry work lead a production rather than just feature in it is pretty spectacular to see and I’d happily see it again and again – in fact that’s a pretty concrete plan. Marianne Elliot appears a second time in this list with good reason – she knows how to wring every drop of nuance from a tale and Michael Morpurgo’s story gets the royal Elliot treatment here. Have I mentioned that little Joey is a delight? Mischievous and charming and vulnerable and hugely sentimentally appealing…and made of wicker and wood. War Horse highlights not just the magic of theatre but the beauty of puppetry and supremely ambitious staging – I can’t wait to take the wee ones to see it just as soon as they’re old enough! Review here.
So there you have it, my top ten shows to date – the order unranked and the love unfiltered. It’s a list that will change, obviously, and soon I hope. The real beauty of being a theatre lover is discovering work which tops the last top notch piece to remind us exactly how much can be done on a stage, and precisely what we mean when we say a show is truly exceptional. That said, it’s taken a long time to see new entrees to the list…the gap between the shows I would have had in this list pre-2019 and the newbies is six years, so here’s hoping theatre sees some golden years ahead. Now if we can just get those lights back on, I’d love to see what could possibly top this lot…