Theatre shows of the year 2015

Out of the 100 theatre shows I’ve seen in 2015, which ones were good enough to get ★★★★✩ or higher?

Counting up, I have been to 100 theatre performances in 2015 (so far – there are still a couple of days left!). Many of those were under my own steam, but I’m also a frequent reviewer for both Musical Theatre Review and The Reviews Hub (formerly The Public Reviews). Those professional reviews come with star ratings; ones I went to for myself, or as a guest without a commitment to review, do not.

Below is a chronological list of those theatre, cabaret and comedy shows that gained a four star rating or above from me (up to a maximum of 5 stars; TRH allows us to allocate half stars, whereas MTR does not). I’m also including shows I also went to that would have merited such a rating had I been reviewing them professionally.

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The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, and also one of his best. This new production at Shakespeare’s Globe is a finely crafted, raucous interpretation that creates one of the funniest theatrical evenings for some time.

Slapstick is a key element of Blanche McIntyre’s direction, starting even before curtain up as Dromio of Ephesus (Jamie Wilkes) evokes the spirits of Keaton and Wisdom with a step-ladder based silent routine. The evening is peppered with impressively choreographed fight sequences that mix thrills and humour in equal measure.

The tale of two pairs of estranged identical twins relies not upon the battles, good as they are, but on pace, scripting and delivery from the four principals. It is here where The Comedy of Errors really begins to fly. Wilkes and his Syracusian counterpart, Brodie Ross, excel as the put-upon servants whose attempts to do what they are told are perpetually foiled by the frequent cases of mistaken identity. As the Antipholus brothers, Simon Harrison and Matthew Needham are just as equally matched. The quartet are each discrete individuals, but the constant mistaking of one brother is utterly believable – one of the hardest tasks in making this play work, but due to good casting, high quality performances and designer James Cotterrill’s sumptuous costumes, it appears to be truly effortless.

The supporting cast of Ephesians help propel the story forwards at every turn. The women vying for the attentions of the Antipholus brothers – Hattie Ladbury’s Adriana, Becci Gemmell as her sister Luciana, and Emma Jerrold threatening to steal the show as a platform-heeled courtesan – bring ferocity, charm and vitaility to characters which can so easily be ciphers. Paul Brendan’s jeweller is a master of comic timing, while Andy Apollo elevates his otherwise straight roles as the town’s law enforcement officials with a performance as outlandishly absurd as his costume.

With any production of The Comedy of Errors, the most difficult passages are often the framing serious elements, as the Syracusian duke Egeon (James Laurenson) is threatened with death. That is the same here, not helped by a delivery by Laurenson that lacks the zip and warmth so prevalent elsewhere.

But there is so much excellence on display thoughout the evening that the occasional misjudged performance can easily be overlooked. As frenetic, farcical slapstick comedies go, the Globe has come up with a superb production that succeeds on every level.

The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe5Scott Matthewman2014-09-06 21:15:46This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, and also one of his best…

Briefs – The Second Coming, London Wonderground

Drag and male burlesque make for unashamedly trashy bedfellows. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Briefs’ return visit to London Wonderground, mixing sequins, striptease and circus skills to enjoyable effect.

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Drag and male burlesque make for unashamedly trashy bedfellows. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Briefs’ return visit to London Wonderground, mixing sequins, striptease and circus skills to enjoyable effect.

Held together by self-described “bearded Aussie drag queen” Shivannah (the show’s creative producer Fez Faanana), who combines effortless MC duties with a fun line in magic tricks, the show opens to the sound of audience whoops and cheers that are so raucous they could only come from the troupe’s established fans. By the end of the first big showpiece, a traditional ensemble fandance striptease, it’s fair to say that fanbase is already growing.

The first big solo number comes from some stunning aerial hoop work by Tom Worrell, his contortions and choreography having the air of effortless impossibility of a truly great cirque show. Similarly, Mark Winmill (aka “Captain Kidd”) closes the show with a trapeze and birdbath act that is muscular, graceful and fierce, while also drenching the first couple of rows.

Between these two impressive solos, the pieces are more patchy in nature. Drag act Dallas Dellaforce’s lip synching feels like it comes from a different, less accomplished show, while the anarchic simian comedy of Adam Krandle (or, as he is billed, “Evil Hate Monkey”) will not appeal to all.

But the breakout star, and absolute highlight, of the show is Australian Louis Biggs. Whether stripping out of a school uniform while playing with a Rubik’s cube and a yoyo, performing an impressive juggling act with bowler hats, or even just letting a raffle-winning audience member drink tequila from his torso, Biggs’ personality and charm elevates the whole show.

While it may be of variable quality and occasionally even more trashy that it seeks to be, the Briefs troupe nevertheless delivers a fast-paced, amusing and entertaining show that demands smiles and laughter from its audience, and is suitably – and justifiably – rewarded.

http://vimeo.com/68692361

Briefs – The Second Coming, London Wonderground4Scott Matthewman2014-09-06 18:56:42Drag and male burlesque make for unashamedly trashy bedfellows. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Briefs’ return visit to London Wonderground, mixing sequins, striptease and circus skills to enjoyable effect.

A round-up of reviews

Links to reviews posted elsewhere in the last couple of months.

While this blog has been quiet for a few weeks, I’ve been writing elsewhere. Below is a collection of reviews I’ve been writing – the most recent at the top.

Relative Values, Harold Pinter Theatre

17 April, The Public Reviews:

…It is the satire of social class and obsession with Hollywood celebrity that helps Relative Values seem relevant today. It’s such a pity, then, that director Trevor Nunn chooses to open every new scene with newsreel footage from 1951, as if to force the play into some status as a historical piece… [it] feels like some bizarre form of theatrical taxidermy, attempting to cement the play into a form which does it an injustice.

ShellShock, Waterloo East Theatre

11 April, The Public Reviews:

What is perhaps most annoying about ShellShock is that one can see the germ of a good idea being strangled by ham-fisted writing and direction. It cannot seem to decide if it is a gruelling family drama, or a children’s musical…

The Beautiful Game, Union Theatre

9 April, Musical Theatre Review:

Where The Beautiful Game works is in those moments where it tries less hard to be a political statement, and more to expose the conflicting emotions felt by a group of young people struggling to grow up in an inner city riven with violence and prejudice. And it is those moments where the intimacy of a fringe space, the performance of the young cast and some spirited direction and choreography works most effectively.

Damn Yankees, Brockley Jack Studio

April 7, Musical Theatre Review:

…It is not the Devil who gets the best tunes, but his subordinate, the sultry temptress Lola (Charlotte Donald), who does her best to get Joe to succumb to her charms while unwittingly falling for his. Her two Latin tempo numbers, ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ and ‘Who’s Got the Pain’… are the highlights of the show’s musical score

Another Country, Trafalgar Studios

5 April, The Public Reviews:

It feels remarkable that this play is over thirty years old… In a year which has seen Russia clamp down on gay rights while England and Wales celebrates same-sex marriage, while government clamps down on benefits cheats but turns a blind eye to a cabinet member cheat her expenses, Another Country feels utterly contemporary, wholly relevant – and completely unmissable.

Stephen Rahman-Hughes in cabaret, London Hippodrome

March 31, Musical Theatre Review:

The audience at the Hippodrome’s Matcham Rooms was not quite as packed for Stephen Rahman-Hughes’ cabaret gig on Saturday night as it has been for other, perhaps better known, faces from the world of musical theatre. But for anybody who stayed away, it was their loss, for they missed a soulful, inspirational, unpretentious performance.

Thérèse Raquin, Finborough Theatre

March 21, Musical Theatre Review:

This is not a show that contains stand-out solo numbers, preferring instead ensemble recitative, repetition upon repetition building up tension. The result is a show that sounds musically different from much of today’s musical theatre – but at the risk of understanding characters’ internal struggles that much less.

Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

Editor’s Rating
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Written for The Public Reviews

“Please keep the secrets of Ghost Stories,” implores a tannoy announcement at the end of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s show. What is no secret is the production’s undoubted success, from its first days at the Liverpool Playhouse, to a record-breaking 13-month run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and international performances since. Now the show returns to the West End, at the rather more boutique Arts Theatre.

And certainly the smaller auditorium, creaking seats and all, lends itself to the air of apprehension and suspense. Dyson and Nyman’s play comprises a series of short, seemingly unrelated stories, which form part of a presentation by a slightly nervy professor who seeks to suggest that “percipients” – people who believe they have had supernatural experiences – are, in fact, more likely to have other, more mundane, reasons for their encounters with ghosts. As Professor Goodman, Paul Kemp is a genial and engaging host, combining wit and warmth with elements of the sinister that set the tone for the evening.

The stories themselves are, save for discussions with Goodman at the start of each, solo performances – one person, on a mostly darkened stage, with the dread that he may not be alone as he thought… While the structure of each story is, in hindsight, pretty similar, there is enough variety of character and performance to stop the simple formula from interfering with the audience’s enjoyment.

[aesop_video align=”center” src=”youtube” id=”4GT-grJN1Fg”]

As one might expect, the stage lighting – or lack of it – adds substantially to Ghost Stories’ sense of atmosphere. Many a scene is played in near darkness, illuminated only by a single torchbeam. Combined with some impressive audio – and, at one point, olfactory – cues, the principle that “less is more” certainly plays out here, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill the dark onstage void.

As the play progresses, clues begin to surface that these stories may not be as disparate as first suggested. Naturally, to say more would be to give away too many secrets, but the show saves its most chilling, most gruesome visual trickery for last. It’s also the portion of the play that is the creepiest, while being the least engineered for the quick shock reaction – and becomes all the more effective for that.

The lack of an interval means that Ghost Stories’ pace never lets up. And at under an hour and a half, nor does it overstay its welcome – instead, delivering a steady, heady mix of spooks, chills and macabre comedy, with plenty of chance to recover one’s composure before bedtime.

Just, you know, remember to check under the bed when you get home. You never know what may be lurking there…

Photo shows David Cardy in the 2011 production of Ghost Stories. Photographer: Helen Maybanks

Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London3.5Scott Matthewman2014-03-17 23:58:55Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

We were expecting an immersive experience, with notifications of dress codes, secret identities, and all – but what followed was a straightforward play

Note: Because of this play’s supposed “secret” nature, I should warn that this review talks about specifics of the play, including its title and characters. I also explain why, but if you want to see a spoiler-free review you should go elsewhere.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been running a series of “secret theatre” projects recently – encouraging people to book tickets without knowing what they’ll be seeing, and as a result come to a piece with little to no preconceptions built up in their heads.

This Secret Theatre project is not like that. It was, I was told by the PR, more modelling itself on Secret Cinema. This series shows movies in suitably appropriate surroundings, but also with a deeply immersive experience that is just as entertaining, if not more so, than the film itself. So The Shawshank Redemption is presented in an old prison, Bugsy Malone in a speakeasy, Blade Runner in a grimy, industrial near-future where oriental noodle bars rub shoulders with security agents scanning all visitors for signs of replicant behaviour.

So we were expecting a similarly immersive experience for this piece, and notifications of dress codes and secret identities fed into this.

What we got instead was a straightforward play. A truly immersive piece needs to do more than say, “Oh, this piece about the aftermath of a botched heist is set in a warehouse, so let’s stage it in a warehouse”. Especially when that warehouse already hosts events, drama classes and art exhibitions, and the play itself is staged so conventionally.

So the failed promise of an immersive experience was a huge let-down. And that was a shame, because the play itself – an adaptation of a justly popular film – has the potential to be a great stage piece. As presented here, it’s still some way from that – but I think the false promise of an immersive experience will cloud the audience’s judgement of what this show has the potential to be.

And it’s all the more bizarre that the “secret theatre” concept also robs this production of its biggest appeal. I’m not going to beat about the bush any longer: if you go to this play knowing what it is, if you read about this play knowing what it is, it’ll be better for everybody.

Because I, for one, would bite someone’s hand off if they offered me the opportunity to see a stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs.

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Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)

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I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I was never particularly taken with Westerns, and back then all the singing and dancing in the world couldn’t counteract all that gingham.

Older and wiser (and less Western averse), I found the current touring production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a delight. As an adult, there are story points that one should certainly feel dubious about: it’s basically about a group of uncultured heathen brothers who decide to abduct the women they want to marry – and whose crime is mitigated by the women collectively and conveniently falling in love with their abductors. It’s only down to the no-nonsense attitude of eldest brother Adam’s new wife Millie that the brothers have any redeeming qualities at all, as her place as a surrogate mother for the brood civilises them so that they can, in effect, rejoin society.

You could spend ages discussing the sociopolitical aspects of the story. Or, you could sit back and enjoy a riot of dance and song that can’t help but lift the spirits. Leading the cast as Millie is Helena Blackman – a friend who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for several years, including working on Rodgers and Hammerstein in London together. Helena’s voice is perfectly suited to this era of musical, her soprano belt coming to the fore several times throughout. She also lends a calm determination to Millie, balancing the character’s independence and spirit with a genuine affection for her new husband and his unruly brothers.

In contrast, her fellow lead, Sam Attwater as Adam, has rather less opportunity for comedy or character, although he makes excellent use of what he’s given. Vocally, he has a much more contemporary vocal style – but whereas this might work against him in a staging of a 1950s musical, the stage production includes a number of additional songs which themselves feel more modern in style, and so the casting feels particularly astute.

However good Blackman and Attwater’s singing and acting, though, it will be the dancing for which audiences will remember this show. The town dance number that forms the climax of Act I in particular, which sees the Pontipee brothers compete in a game of choreographed one-upmanship with their competitors for the ladies’ hands, is that rarity in modern musical theatre: a large group number which is visually thrilling, technically daring, and yet which also manages to propel the storytelling.

With a large ensemble cast performing so well, this is the sort of show that demonstrates the virtues of touring theatre. And for a show that’s set in the Oregon winter, it brings an awful lot of sunshine to Aylesbury Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-10-29 09:17:19I must admit, the original MGM film version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was never among my favourites of the era. That was probably because I w…

Thriller: Live – 2,000th performance

Last night, Steve and I went to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see Thriller: Live, which was celebrating the show’s 2000th West End performance.

It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.

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Reviewed: Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Over on Musical Theatre Review, I’ve reviewed Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, currently playing at the Leicester Square Theatre Studio.

This is no murder mystery, no ‘The Mirrorball Crack’d’ – the killer couldn’t be more obvious if he were twirling a moustache. And this is a show so unsubtle that it’s almost a surprise that he doesn’t.

The characters are almost uniformly one-dimensional, drawn in crude, glitter-speckled strokes, a comic strip writ large. But all the actors know exactly what it is, ensure their performances are as broad as the characters are shallow, and encourage the audience to buy into just how ridiculous – and fun – the show can be.

Musical Theatre Review: Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens

Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre

Editor’s Rating
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The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In America, it is New York’s longest-running show, with the original off-Broadway run lasting for 42 years until January 2002, and the current revival continues since opening in 2006.

In the UK, however, it’s a very different story indeed. The original 1961 West End production ran for just 44 performances, and a 2010 revival closed after three weeks. Smaller scale revivals with short fixed runs have fared better, demonstrating perhaps that this is not a West End show, but one which suits the size of a fringe venue. And in the Jermyn Street theatre, which has the intimacy of fringe just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it nestles pleasantly and inoffensively for a week.

The plot, which is very loosely based on one of Rostand’s, has echoes of a medieval morality tale – indeed, the lovers at the heart of the story are initially separated by a wall that directly echoes the Pyramus and Thisbe production performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, it transpires, the wall is a fake – the supposedly warring fathers of the romantic leads are in cahoots, assuming correctly that their being at loggerheads will cause their children to rebel and fall in love with each other.

As the young lovers Luisa and Matt, Emma Harrold and James Irving bring the characters’ naiveté to life. Both have strong voices, full of character, with Harrold in particular possessing a sweet soprano trill that she ought to be able to put into good use once she graduates from the Royal Academy of Music’s musical theatre course.

Brian McCann and Tim Walton give their one-dimensional parent characters their all, but all the principals are dwarfed by the narrator and troublemaker, El Gallo. Gavin James’ character is hired by the parents to pretened to abduct Luisa so that Matt will come to her rescue, and as such he is really the only character that progresses the story along to any degree. Comedy character moments from Seamus Newham as a faded Shakesperean actor and, especially, James Weal as his acrobatic, mostly silent assistant certainly enliven the show’s duller moments, of which there threaten to be rather more than there should. And Greg Page’s permanently exasperated stage manager, while completely superfluous to the plot, bears enough of a resemblance to Michael Billington to wonder if the critic has started taking a hands-on role in a show he panned a few years ago.

Musically, the show is sweet and has plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their vocal talents. However, because the musical’s stand out songs, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the more well-known Try to Remember dominate the first act, and the principal story peters out by the interval, it’s a bit more of a stretch for the audience to enjoy the show throughout.

So, for the life of me, I fail to see just why off-Broadway has taken this show to their hearts so much. But I’m glad I’ve seen it, and delighted that I’ve seen some fine performers show what they’re capable of.

Rose Bridge Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 27. For more details, visit rosebridgetheatre.com

Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre3Scott Matthewman2013-07-25 13:59:57The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you…