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The first full year of theatre going since 2019 and I saw 129 shows in the 42 weeks I was in the UK (my travels resumed too!). A good indication of its quality was that a third made my long list.

BEST NEW PLAY – PATRIOTS at the Almeida Theatre & MIDDLE at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre

It was a particularly good year for new plays, perhaps because playwrights had more time during lockdown to craft and perfect their work. There were twenty contenders and after much deliberation 7 rose above the rest. Nell Leyshon’s Folk at Hampstead, about the song collecting of Cecil Sharp, proved a real treat, as did Marvellous, the life-affirming inaugural offering @sohoplace about the extraordinary Neil Baldwin. At the National, an adaptation of Sheriden’s restoration comedy The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, was by far the funniest new play, whilst down the road at the Young Vic The Collaboration was a fascinating examination of an unlikely relationship between two artistsWarhol & Basquiat. Prima Facie was a great play exposing the broken legal system of trials for sexual offences, but it was really all about the sensational star performance from Jodie Comer. It was two plays about relationships – Peter Morgan’s Patriots, about Berezovsky, the kingmaker of both Putin & Abramovitch and David Eldridge’s Middle about the divergence of a couple in mid-life, that stood out most.

BEST REVIVAL – The Crucible & The Corn Is Green at the NT and Handbagged at The Kiln Theatre

I couldn’t choose between the three, and there were six other very good contenders too. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Crucible, but few had the intensity of the NT’s revival in the Olivier. Next door in the Lyttelton, what made The Corn is Green was the addition of singing by the miners, fully anchoring the play in Wales. I was surprised how much Handbagged, about the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, resonated twelve years on and how clever and funny it still was.

The six ‘bubbling under’ were the return of Jerusalem after 13 years as good if not better than before, two Shakespeare’s at the NT – Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, Age of Rage – a Greek Tragedy ‘mash up’ from Amsterdam, a timely revival of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in Chichester and To Kill A Mockingbird, transferred from Broadway to The West End.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – TAMMY FAYE at The Almeida

Every year is a lean year for new musicals these days, but this new musical had it all – great book, lyrics and music, given an audacious production with as fine a set of performances as you could hope for.

The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel, was a joy, understated and full of hope, which could have won in any other year. I loved Newsies too, but more as a dance showcase than a musical. The others on the long list were Mandela at the Young Vic, Local Hero in Chichester, Bonnie & Clyde in the West End and The Lion, though I was late to that party.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – Spring Awakening at The Almeida, Crazy for You in Chichester and Billy Elliott at Curve Leicester.

A leaner than usual year for musical revivals; covid related costs and delays I suspect, but these three matched (Billy) or bettered (Crazy For You and Spring Awakening) all previous productions. Four of the seven contenders were in the regions (the other two being a terrific revival of Gypsy in Buxton and Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods exiled to Bath). As much as I enjoyed Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club and Oklahoma at the Young Vic, they didn’t match these three.

So that’s it for another year. Here’s to as much, if not more, in 2023.

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Yet another occasion where reading reviews is bad for your health. I almost didn’t go to see this on Monday, snow and travel disruption adding to the critical mauling, but I’m glad I did. April De Angelis’ new play has its flaws, but it’s very much a play for our times.

She’s putting up a mirror to our new world, where everything is black and white, no shades of grey, and you’re either for or against everything. Class wars, Brexit v Remain, gentrification or preservation, woke and anti-woke. We either sympathise with immigrants and the homeless or we see them as parasites, to be sent home or left to rot.

The setting is Walthamstow Village, where working class Essex girl Kerry is trying to fulfil her dream and ambition of owning a Spanish tapas restaurant. Her chef Athena is struggling to get Leave to Remain even though she’s been her since she was 5; a hold Kerry has over the person who is clearly key to her chance of success. Outside homeless Will is putting off the customers. She seeks to recruit local worthy Stephen to deal with this, and at the same time publicise her venture in his news sheet for the gentrified. Stephen is recently widowed and he and his gap year daughter Alice are struggling to move on. An unlikely relationship develops between Kerry and Stephen, as ex-copper Warren, a very old and very vague acquaintance of Kerry, turns up with only one thing on his mind.

The problem is that De Angelis throws in the kitchen sink and allows her characters to become caricatures and stereotypes spouting cliches, and the humour sometimes crosses the line to gross, even for someone as broad-minded as me (well, I suppose I would say that!). This waters down a potentially strong argument that our divisive world, fuelled by social media and fake news, is exceedingly unhealthy, sacrificing intelligent debate and free speech at the alter of point-scoring.

The cast work hard to develop these characters and get every laugh they can, though I thought Fay Ripley was dangerously close to over-acting on occasion. The most successful characterisations were Madeline Appiah as Athena, Michael Fox as Will and Gavin Spokes as Warren. I would have expected its flaws to have been ironed out before it got on one of the National’s stages, particularly by a director of the quality of Indhu Rubasingham. Still, I don’t regret going and making my own mind up, which is more 3* than 1* or 2*. Decide for yourself.

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I’ve lost count of the number of productions of this play I’ve seen, but few of them unfolded like a thriller, or seemed to fly by so quickly. Clint Dyer’s production is a very fresh take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.

The setting feels like a 1930’s fascist state. There’s a silent chorus, called ‘system’, all dressed in black, who sit on steps on three sides of a rectangular amphitheatre with the fourth side steps down into the auditorium. The edgy soundscape is the final touch in creating a sinister atmosphere. The racism is heightened by this, together with the fact Othello is the only black character on stage, but the misogyny is heightened too, particularly with the abuse of Emilia by Iago clearly visible.

Iago, black-suited with a Hitler moustache, is a very malevolent presence throughout, signalled by every gesture and expression, though his motivation isn’t entirely clear; is it really just racism? Othello’s origin in slavery is suggested by a back covered with scars from whipping. Much of the time he seems so alone, our sympathies are intensified, though we still can’t stomach his treatment of Desdemona. In the final scenes the soundscape is silenced but the tension increased.

Paul Hilton’s Iago has a touch cartoon villain about him, but this didn’t detract from the personification of evil. Tanya Franks was excellent as Emilia, clearly afraid of her husband, eventually struggling to come to terms with his villainy. Desdemona is a bit of an underwritten role, but Rosy McEwen somehow brought her to the fore more than I’ve seen before. I thought Giles Terera had great presence as Othello, and brought passion and physicality to the role. His Othello is one man against the world.

It’s only nine years since the NT last staged it, with Adrian Lester & Rory Kinnear in the Olivier next door, but this proves to be a very welcome and very impressive new look at what I think is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.

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This is a true story adapted by Phil Porter from Hamed & Hessam Amiri’s memoir of their journey as refugees from Afghanistan to Wales and their lives upon and since arrival. It has transferred from the Wales Millennium Centre to the National’s Dorfman Theatre.

The sparks that lead to their decision to leave are mother Fariba’s campaign for women’s rights, as a result of which the Taliban target her, and eldest son Hussain’s need for treatment for his heart condition. Their journey is as tortuous as we have come to expect, exploited by handlers, targets for thieves, spending long periods of time in confined spaces in cars, lorries and containers. We’ve heard similar tales many times and this one is told in a style that may have been intended as accessible to children, but felt a bit patronising to me. The second half was a much more personal story and as a result captivated more, as the family establishes itself and goes about getting treatment for Hussain.

I liked a lot of director Amit Sharma’s inventiveness, particularly when actors changed characters, and the use of movement and physical theatre, but I found the continual use of surtitles in English, even when English was spoken, distracting. The five actors, who play all roles as well as the family members, are all excellent. The second half really won me over, a deeply moving story of resilience and familial love which also showed the welcome the real people of Britain are capable of, despite their leaders.

Lovely to see this heart-warming true story make it onto one of the National’s stages.

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This 1995 play, set in 1930 Harlem, was the 10th by American playwright Pearl Cleage. She went on to write 7 more, but I think this is the only one we’ve seen in the UK. Based on this showing, with a great production by Lynette Linton and a handful of terrific performances, I’m wondering why we haven’t seen more.

Harlem in 1930 was going through what was called a renaissance. Writers and musicians flourished. Clubs. bars and speakeasies managed to navigate prohibition. The place had real style and white people flocked there to experience this edgy and somewhat hedonistic cocktail, but it’s four local characters and an arrival from Alabama that are at the centre of the story, with references to real people like Langston Hughes and Josephine Baker. I was surprised that homosexuality and birth control featured so prominently at this time in this place.

Guy Jacobs is a fashion designer who dreams of creating costumes for Baker. He’s openly homosexual, refusing to hide, something that seems to have been accepted by more people than it offended. He shares his apartment with singer, showgirl and friend Angel, who struggles to find her place in the world. Guy’s best friend Sam is a doctor who spends much of his free time letting his hair down with Guy & Angel, all three consuming large quantities of alcohol.

Neighbour Delia is preoccupied with promoting birth control, important in liberating local women, trying to set up an advice centre. She’s sweet on Sam and he on her, but they are more reserved than Guy and Angel so things take time to evolve. Angel’s latest man is like a fish out of water, religious and conservative, shocked by the open homosexuality and promotion of birth control, but she sees stability with him. His arrival, though, turns all of their world’s upside down.

The lead performances are all terrific. Giles Terera plays Guy as out and proud, loud and defiant. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is shy but finds steely determination in her ambition for birth control and melts when her affection for Sam is reciprocated. Sule Rimi conveys Sam’s commitment to his profession as well as his love of the good life. Playing the unsympathetic character against these is hard, but Osy ikhile pulls it off as Leland. We’ve got used to valuing understudies more in recent years and on the night I went Helena Pipe stood in for the indisposed Samira Wiley and acquitted herself really well, with a word perfect interpretation in the pivotal role of Angel.

It lagged a bit in the first half as there was so much back story and scene setting, but the second half was a real dramatic tour de force. I really enjoyed this and would like see more of both Cleage’s writing and Linton’s directorial work.

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This modern classic isn’t produced that often, probably because it requires the resources only a big theatre company can marshal, though it was seen in London three times in relatively quick succession between 2010 and 2016, at The Open Air Theatre, The Old Vic & The RSC, all great productions. Though it’s about the 1692 Salem witch trials, Arthur Miller wrote it as an allegory for the McCarthy Un-American Activities Committee, which he defied shortly before, resulting in a conviction for contempt of court. Every time it’s staged it resonates, no more than at the present time.

The trials took place after the last witch was executed in Britain, the country where these puritans came from. They lived in a theocracy where the church was clearly in control. The spark was lit by children, seemingly out for revenge, naming almost all the townswomen as witches. The girls are seen in the forest, in trances, looking as if they are possessed. It escalates rapidly and hysteria develops extraordinary quickly. To escape execution, the accused had to lie, something these people were led to believe would turn god against them. So if they told the truth, they would die, if they told a lie they would be punished by their god.

The reason the play is timeless is that it reflects human nature. Though the consequences are of course different, people have always lived in a world of witch-hunts, these days by social and printed media, which can produce as much hysteria just as quickly. It seems to be human destiny to live with conflict, in politics, religion or other belief, in neighbourhoods, communities, sport. In recent years it’s manifested itself in attitudes to the pandemic, right vs left, brexit vs remain, monarchists vs republicans, woke or anti-woke, as well as more personal attacks on J K Rowling and most recently This Morning presenters. This is a 70-year-old play about an incident 330 years ago that’s bang up to date.

The most striking thing about Lindsay Turner’s brilliant production is the extraordinary contribution Tim Lutkin’s lighting makes, illuminating individuals like I’ve never seen before. The soundscape too adds much atmosphere, and there are curtains of water on three sides before the start and between acts, which look stunning even if I still struggle for their meaning. I was so involved I wanted to audibly denounce the unfairness and tell John Proctor what he should do.

Though it’s invidious to single out actors in such a fine company, I have to say Brendan Cowell’s John Proctor was as fine a characterisation of this role as I’ve ever seen. Erin Doherty inhabits the role of Abigail, a chilling portrayal, and there are passionate performances from Fisayo Akinade as Rev. Hale and Karl Johnson as old-timer Giles Corey. The girls send shivers up your spine.

This is what the National is for. Don’t miss it.

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In my view it’s one of theatre’s roles to put up a mirror to our society. Another is to entertain. This play examines the impact of recent welfare changes on the disabled. It managers to do both successfully, and perhaps surprisingly, though less so given it’s written by a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy who refers to her condition as wobbly.

Jess has a successful career as a therapist. Her parents have been very supportive, as is her flatmate Lottie. She has a lovely Polish carer called Nadia who often goes way beyond her responsibilities. She introduced Jess to Poppy, a younger disabled woman with an extraordinary love of life and bags of energy, charm, cheek and an infectious naughtiness. They are both hit, in different ways, by the introduction of assessments. Jess loses her car and ultimately her job. Poppy becomes bed-bound for 12 hours a day.

Though both challenge their treatment, they react differently. Jess fights back using the appeal process, Poppy gets angry. There’s a pivotal scene at the beginning of the second half at a public meeting with their MP. His responses to theirs, and others, questions is patronising and dismissive. Some in the audience air their views of benefit scroungers and the failure of disabled people to just get on with it and stop whinging, though it soon transpires that some may be plants, so it’s unclear if their views are sincere or stage-managed. Jess makes an important connection with a referred client with alcohol addiction and after his initial dismissiveness of therapy she breaks through, they bond and the connection becomes significant.

Government policy targeted at benefit fraud has created much bigger issues for disabled people. The assessment process isn’t fit for purpose (best judged by the extraordinary number of successful appeals) and the squeeze on the caring services has created more vulnerability and dreadful treatment of the carers, whilst the contractors continue to profit. I’ve long been ashamed that I live in a country which has allowed this to happen, so I guess the play is preaching to the converted in my case, but it isn’t preaching, it’s presenting facts which anyone who approaches them objectively can process for themselves. Given playwright Francesca Martinez’ background, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s littered with laughs which sit comfortably with its campaigning message and prevent it from becoming too earnest and mawkish.

The playwright plays Jess herself in a fine understated performance, with Francesca Mills brilliant as Poppy. They are supported by a fine ensemble of fifteen other actors.

Important and urgent theatre.

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I was wondering, not for the first time, why Shakespeare chose this title for his play. It seemed to me dismissive of the piece. Then I found out ‘nothing’ was a play on words with ‘noting’ meaning gossip, rumour, overheard discourse in Shakespeare’s day, which is of course the crux of the play. I was also wondering why it’s so long since I saw it last, fifteen years I think, in the Olivier with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker. I loved that production as I did this one in the Lyttelton by Simon Godwin.

They’ve chosen to set on the Italian Riviera in the Hotel Messina c.1920’s, which allows set designer Anna Fleischle and costume designer Evie Gurney to produce something visually sumptuous and gorgeous. I’d have been happy just looking at it. They’ve added music, with a live band playing in the style of the period from an upper balcony of the hotel. I don’t know the play well enough to know if it has been cut, but with the addition of music and dancing, coming in at 2.5 hours suggests it has.

Don Pedro and his soldiers have returned from the war, settling in at the hotel run by Leonato & Antonia. Claudio falls for their daughter Hero and the whirlwind romance leads to a wedding in next to no time, but enough time for Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John to spread rumours about Hero’s purity, resulting in her being dumped at the alter. The hilarity and jollity increases the gravity of this story and the malevolence of Don John’s plotting. In another plot, Antonia’s niece Beatrice and returning soldier Benedict continue their sniping, whilst ideas are planted in their respective heads that the other really loves them. In this production, their sniping seems more inferred than expressed (cuts?). Of course, it all ends happily.

Katherine Parkinson makes a fine Beatrice whilst John Heffernan, an unsung stage hero, gives a superb comic performance that makes Benedict a perfect match for her. Here, the relationship comes over more loving than spiky from the outset. Ashley Zhangazha has great presence as Don Pedro and there are delightful comic turns from David Fynn as a brilliant Dogberry and Phoebe Horn as Margaret the maid (a professional stage debut no less). I have to confess I was baffled by the decision to play Claudio with some sort of urban street dialect.

It worked brilliantly as a comedy, yet it brought out the underlying impact of gossip and rumour, which can be tragic (Hero & Claudio) or positive (Beatrice & Benedict). Another summer treat at the NT.

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Though I wanted to see this, I wasn’t prepared to pay the inflated prices for a decent seat. Then an acceptable stalls offer turned up; I have no willpower. It’s another Lincoln Centre transfer, hot on the heels of the overly reverential 2018 The King & I, with Bartlett Sher at the helm, also currently represented in the West End with To Kill A Mockingbird, It exceeded my expectations, particularly because it got to the heart of Shaw’s story, hiding behind all those lovable cockneys. The staging of the second act scene back at Higgins’ home after the ball is masterly in underlining this.

I won’t bother with the story; anyone who doesn’t know it must have been in hiding or hibernation. What it brings out more than other productions is the arrogance and inhumanity of Higgins’ experiment to turn a flower seller into a Duchess and then ignore her whilst he’s celebrating his triumph. The success in doing this owes much to the casting. Harry Hadden-Paton, a musicals virgin if his biography is to be believed, is a revelation as Henry, bringing a more youthful, animated interpretation, most importantly with zero emotional intelligence. Malcolm Sinclair is the perfect sidekick as Colonel Pickering, more benevolent with genuine affection for Eliza. Amara Okereke has already wowed in very different leading roles in Oklahoma & The Boyfriend and here she gives another wonderful performance as a more defiant, feisty Eliza.

If the last year has taught us regular theatregoers anything, it’s that understudies and alternates don’t mean you are shortchanged. On the night I went to see this Adam Vaughan replaced Stephen K. Amos as Doolittle, Heather Jackson covered for Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Higgins and Annie Wensack stood in for Maureen Beattie as Mrs Pearce, and all three acted like they’ve owned these roles from the outset. Michael Yeargan’s sets are a bit conservative and look a touch dated, but they do make the piece flow seamlessly through it’s many scene changes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are sumptuous and her hats for the Ascot scene a joy to behold.

It’s unquestionably the best of the 8 shows Lerner & Loewe did together. Their five big hits – Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Gigi and this – were very diverse, sometimes bizarre material for musical theatre. It’s 21 years since the last London production of MFL at the NT, transferring to the West End (I even managed to see Martine McCutcheon’s Eliza; many didn’t!) though there was a brilliant small scale revival at The Mill at Sonning just under 5 years ago. This is a lot better than Sher’s The King & I and gave me a new perspective on an old show. I’m really glad that offer came through. Look out for one yourself.

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I studied Sheridan’s The Rivals for something called ‘O level’ English Literature a lifetime ago. It was one of the first plays I ever saw, in a local school production. I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since, and it’s one of only a few 18th Century comedies that is still regularly produced today, so there have been a number of opportunities to reacquaint myself with it, all of which I’ve enjoyed. The best was on the same stage as this, the NT’s Olivier, 39 years ago, where designer John Gunter built Bath’s Royal Crescent, individual houses coming out and revolving to reveal a variety of interiors, and Sir Michael Hordern getting more laughs just eating a boiled egg that many comedies get in a whole act. Then along comes Richard Bean & Oliver Chris to produce an adaptation set in the Second World War, specifically the Battle of Britain. As it is currently customary, it arrives on the NT’s Olivier stage two years later than planned.

Mrs Malaprop’s country estate has been requisitioned as an air base. The rivals in question are vying for the hand of her niece Lydia Languish. Mrs M. is promoting pilot Jack Absolute, whose father Sir Anthony owns a lot of land in Devon, well the whole county actually. Sikh airman Tony Khattri seeks to woo her with his dodgy poetry and Aussie pilot Bob Acres will do anything to win her hand. Lydia is obsessed by Dudley the aircraft mechanic, a bit of northern rough, but Mrs M’s maid Lucy is determined to see her off. The adaptation works brilliantly, bawdier, naughtier and funnier. It’s littered with both verbal and visual gags. I haven’t laughed so much since Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors eleven whole years ago.

There are so many star performances I’m not sure I know where to start. Caroline Quentin relishes every malapropism (the play coined the term) and there are way more than in Sheridan’s original, so many that it’s hard to keep up. Peter Forbes is simply terrific as the bombastic Sir Anthony, who eventually gets his girl too. We know how good Kerry Goddard is at comedy from a string of TV performances, well she’s just as good on stage. Jordan Metcalfe’s weak-at-the-knees turn has the same effect as Michael Hordern’s boiled egg. James Corrigan’s creation of Bob Acres from the outback is an absolute delight. Many of them break the fourth wall regularly to superb comic effect.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of director Emily Burns, who appears to have been learning her craft at the feet of masters like Nicholas Hytner and Simon Godwin. Her production is brilliant, and propels her into the directors premiere league in one move. Designer Mark Thompson fills the Olivier stage with the English countryside and a country house, with a nod to John Gunter (intentional or accidentally) when the interiors come out of the house. There’s even a thrilling dance scene choreographed by Lizzi Gee which gives former Strictly contestant Quentin and winner Kelvin Fletcher (playing mechanic Dudley) an opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is a joy from start to finish. I can’t wait to go back and see it all over again.

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