My favourite shows of 2014

This has been a ridiculously difficult list to come up with, considering the fact that I went to see 34 different shows last year (63 trips in total)…

Shaftesbury Avenue

There are 12 months in a year, so I’ve collated my top 12 shows of 2014. Let’s start the countdown, shall we?

12. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I actually ended up seeing this fantastic show (the first time) on its second night of previews! (My theatre education has been a bit ‘learn on the job’ since it all started in 2012 – I learned about previews and opening night in July this year…) Consequently I was lucky enough to see the entire original cast performing together.

An obvious standout is the perenially smooth Robert Lindsay; for want of a better phrase, he really owns the stage! I’m not sure I could’ve laughed more at Rufus Hound’s portrayal of Freddy (even the way he says “gout” had me in stitches) – and Katherine Kingsley was dazzling deceptive as Christine Colgate. Actually one of my favourite aspects of the show was the partnership of John Marquez and Samantha Bond: both hilarious and ‘aw’ out loud sweet at varying intervals. The sets are stunning and the songs are ridiculously catchy (‘All About Ruprecht’ is my favourite)! It closes at the Savoy on Saturday 7 March, so catch it while you can.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

11. The Commitments

My love of The Commitments started with a brilliant radio adaptation from late 2013, developed when I read the book in a single day (New Year’s Eve 2013, actually) and continued when I finally got to see the stage show. It’s a soulful, rocking, swear-filled delight!

Aside from the brilliant collection of songs, my favourite part is the audition scene (“Relax!” … “Fuck off!”). And the interesting weather effects (“Feckin’ rain!”)

Denis Grindel is fantastic as Jimmy Rabbitte – it’s just a shame his character doesn’t get the chance to sing more; his rendition of Mr Pitiful is properly beautiful. Killian Donnelly was starring as the super-talented, arrogant Deco (he’s now moved on to Memphis) at the time. Now that’s a performance I’m glad I managed to catch! Even if I did get sprayed with half-chewed sandwich the first time I saw it… That’s row A for you, I guess!

Favourite song? Got to be Try A Little Tenderness. Epic way to end the show!

Some of the cast have changed since my last trip, but I’m assured it’s as good as ever – and booking until 13 September…

The Commitments

Killian Donnelly  Denis Grindel

10. King Lear

First play in the countdown! This was an absolute must-see for me. I love a bit of Shakespeare and am always keen to learn more and see plays that I’m not completely familiar with. Plus Lear is considered an important role for actors of a certain age, and Simon Russell Beale is one of our best. He easily conveyed the range of emotions Lear is put through during the course of the play: from his initial complacency to his absolute vulnerability in the midst of his madness.

Other memorable performances came from Sam Troughton as Edmund (the Duke of Gloucester’s bastard son), Tom Brooke as Edgar (Gloucester’s legitimate son) and Adrian Scarborough as the Fool.

Really wish I could have gone to see it again!

King Lear

9. Jeeves & Wooster

This shouldn’t be in this list! Basically because I was due to see it for my birthday in 2013, but that performance got cancelled due to cast illness… But it was definitely worth the wait!

I do love shows with a minimal cast. If they’re bad it really exposes any weak links, but if they’re good it makes them look even better.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget Matthew Macfadyen’s Jeeves’ quick-changing (& cross-dressing) antics – all whilst maintaining the straightest of straight faces. And Stephen Mangan was the perfect Bertie Wooster: suitably goofy and fantastically funny!

And thanks to this great play I’ve now discovered the brilliance of P.G. Wodehouse! It’s back on tour next year, with Robert Webb reprising his turn as Bertie.

Jeeves & Wooster

Stephen Mangan   Matthew Macfadyen

8. Birdland

Andrew Scott was simply mesmerising in this Simon Stephens play at the Royal Court. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Birdland is a study on the price of fame – all based around popstar Paul and bandmate Johnny. It begins with them at the height of their powers, but that slowly disintegrates through a series of unfortunate events and a creeping sense of disillusionment on the part of both Paul and Johnny. This is brilliantly represented in visual form by an ever rising water level on the stage itself.

This show managed to be entertaining as well as thought-provoking. It’s just a shame that it didn’t get a chance to transfer to a larger theatre for an extended run; the overall message of the piece is something that should be broadcast to as many people as possible.

The playtext is available to buy, which is a good alternative to seeing the actual thing I suppose.

Birdland

Andrew Scott

7. Strangers on a Train

I managed to see this wonderful play twice, in February of this year – I just wish I’d had the opportunity to see it a few more times!

Before my first trip I had not idea about the story, other than the whole thing of a murder being arranged by the eponymous strangers on a train. I’d mainly decided to go and see it because I’m interested in the era in which it’s set (the costumes & design in general did not disappoint me on that score!), and I was keen to see its stars in action on stage. In particular, Jack Huston, who was utterly brilliant as Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire.

The script was tight, the actors fantastic; I especially liked that the set rotated to change scenery, even including a staircase up to a higher level.

Largely dark with hints of comedy – can it please come back for a re-run in 2015?

Strangers on a Train

Jack Huston

MyAnna Buring Laurence Fox

6. Once

Here’s one I wasn’t expecting to love…

I’d expected a saccharine, lovey-dovey story – really I only went the first time because I wanted to see Arthur Darvill (most known for playing Rory in Doctor Who; he also played the role of Guy in Once on Broadway). I’ve no shame in admitting that!

Especially as I got completely & utterly sucked in… The music is beautiful, and performed from the heart. My favourite songs are Gold and When Your Mind’s Made Up – although the reprise of Falling Slowly had me in floods of tears by the end of the show. It was Arthur & Zrinka’s last night, so they were also more emotional than usual!

Something that makes Once stand out on the West End is the fact that they set up a bar onstage before the show, and the cast comes on to do a few pre-show songs to get everyone warmed up. I made sure I experienced that on my second visit – and got my very own Once cup into the bargain!

David Hunter made a fantastic Guy for my second time at the show; I’m not particularly keen to go and see it with Ronan Keating in the lead role (partly because ticket prices have suddenly become extortionate, and also because I’m not confident how believable he’d be in the role – to me, anyway) but if you haven’t seen it yet, you really should see it Once before it closes on 21 March.

Once

5. Let It Be

Thanks to this show I rediscovered my love for the 60s and developed my appreciation of The Beatles. It was a mini-obsession!

Let It Be‘s USP is that it basically is a concert, rather than a show per se. There are several different Johns, Pauls, Georges and Ringos in the company (plus a couple of keyboard guys to provide the extra ‘instruments’ in the background) and I did manage to see a few of them over the three times I saw the show this summer. They didn’t just have the look, they got the sound replicated to a tee – as well as some of the Fab Four’s onstage habits. You’re also allowed to take photos (good) and go to the bar (potentially very annoying) throughout the show. It can be all too easy to spend the entire night watching through a phone or camera screen, but I made sure I experienced it properly, don’t worry about that!

There are so many great songs (they play around 30 each time, with slight variations in the set lists), but my favourite each time had to be In My Life. I just couldn’t help but burst into tears each time; the lyrics were particularly pertinent to me at that stage of the year, and it was just beautifully performed.

Let It Be is returning to the Garrick for a few months in 2015 – if you have even the slightest interest in The Beatles, make sure you get yourself a ticket!

Let It Be

4. The Crucible

One of my favourite ever plays. I genuinely enjoyed studying it in GCSE English (got an A* for my coursework essay, if I remember correctly!), but had never seen it performed onstage. What made this event more special was that I had managed to get a ticket for opening night, and that it was the 60th anniversary of the play being performed in the UK for the first time (also at The Old Vic).

Interestingly, this adaptation was set in the north of England – and it actually really worked. It was a dark, oppressive and intense experience that sent chills up my spine.

It was a real thrill to see Richard Armitage at work. He was utterly immersed in the role of John Proctor; I can’t imagine anyone else more suited to it. He was very ably supported by the rest of the cast – highlighted by the fact that Anna Madeley, Adrian Schiller and Samantha Colley have been nominated (alongside Armitage) for WhatsOnStage Awards.

The play was also shown in cinemas during the summer – with any luck it will be shown again, as it is something everyone should have the chance to experience for themselves.

The Crucible

Richard Armitage

3. Richard III

It was a real honour to be able to witness this. Trafalgar Transformed is one of the best things to happen to the West End, and is utterly suited to Jamie Lloyd’s directorial hands.

I won’t lie, the chance of seeing Martin Freeman onstage was a big draw for me – but it also happened to coincide with my ongoing interest in the Cousins’ War (or Wars of the Roses), and it was definitely interesting to see a piece of Tudor propaganda being played out live.

You wouldn’t necessarily think it of a Shakespeare history play, but Richard III is actually a really funny piece – Richard himself is brilliantly sarcastic (something I think Martin Freeman plays very well, making the casting even more spot on) – albeit very dark in the process.

I remember Mark Gatiss saying in an interview somewhere that they’re always able to cut a lot of Watson’s lines in Sherlock because Freeman is fantastically adept at portraying the lines with a simple look. It was amazing to see this in the flesh – a real masterclass!

I decided to splash out and get a seat in row B (well, why not?) – although I ended up a little disappointed that I didn’t get covered in fake blood! After being emailed a warning and all…

If you’ve not been to an instalment of Trafalgar Transformed, make sure you do. East is East is still playing (this is a brilliant play too) and The Ruling Class will begin soon after (14 January).

Richard III

2. Shakespeare in Love

Yes, I’ve written about this wonderful play recently – and after my birthday – but I can’t just leave it there!

One review stated that the show was “a love letter to theatre itself” and I’d definitely agree. Non-fanatical theatregoers can obviously still really enjoy it, but some parts are made for the fanatics among us. One particular favourite is when Spot (the dog, played by Barney or Amber) gets onto the stage at the wrong time, and Burbage shoos him away with “Out! Out, damned Spot!” – a nod to part of Lady Macbeth’s very famous speech from the Scottish Play.

For a while this was my number 1 show (of all-time, and obviously the year): 8 trips between July and December, including a two nights in a row special (Friday & Saturday at the end of August), and something I could rely on to pick me up when I was in a questionable mood.

I’m not sure whether I will return to see the new cast – the play itself is brilliant, but do I want to risk tarnishing the memory of the brilliant original company? At least I am sorted for their final performance on 10 January. We shall see what the rest of the year holds!

Shakespeare in Love

David Oakes

1. Sunny Afternoon

Now I think we can safely say I’ve never ever written about Sunny Afternoon before. Ever. At all. Oh, come on!

OK, well I’ve been to see this wonderful show 16 times – and am starting to get withdrawal symptoms as I haven’t seen it since 22nd December… My first visit was on 31st October (yeah, I’m still absolutely gutted that news from Hampstead Theatre reaches Somerset so slowly that I missed the original run!), so that averages out to around a couple of shows a week. Although in reality it’s been more of a binge-watch over the past month or so! (I’ve managed to do a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday in the same week – yet to “do the double” but that is on my itinerary!)

So I’ve been getting the same question whenever I tell people I’ve been to see Sunny Afternoon 16 times: what is so good about it?

  • The music’s amazing (Raymond Douglas Davies, you genius!);
  • The book is fantastic – hilarious one minute, tear-jerking the next;
  • It’s set in the 60s;
  • The cast is just brilliant – I’ve gone on & on about the stars previously, and failed to mention the rest of the company! They’re just so good you can almost take them for granted. Particularly given the fact that they all sing, dance, play musical instruments and have a multitude of roles within the show…

Hopefully that answers that question!

 

George Maguire & John Dagleish

Here’s to 2015! Already got a few things pencilled in: The Ruling Class (James McAvoy in the final play of Trafalgar Transformed 2), The Hard Problem (a new Tom Stoppard play at the National Theatre featuring Damien Molony) and Hamlet (starring a certain Mr Benedict Cumberbatch)… Oh, and the final ‘original cast’ show of Shakespeare in Love – plus a handful of Sunny Afternoons!

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