My favourite shows of 2015

And I thought it was difficult to pick my top shows of 2014… In 2015 I’ve been to see 55 different shows – but, as you’ve probably figured, a few of those have been seen on multiple occasions! In all, I’m up to a total of 230 shows so far, and am hoping to make it 231 with a final repeat trip on New Year’s Eve.

Like last time, I’ve narrowed this down to my top 12 shows; it’s tough to order them (there’s quite a range!), but I think I’ve just about managed it…

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12) Edward II – Scena Mundi, St Bart’s Church

A bit of a turning point in my theatregoing life. In the height of the summer, the Theatre Tourist took me to see theatre company Scena Mundi for the first time. They performed Marlowe’s Edward II in rep with Richard II as their ‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings‘ season, and I got to see the former. It was an innovative take on the 16th century piece, all leather & 80s hair rock! I was curious about it beforehand, but any misgivings were set aside as soon as it began. The style & sound of the piece implied power, which is what the play is all about – and performing it in the historic surroundings of St Bart’s just took it up a level.

Edward II
Ava Amande and Edward Fisher in Edward II
Photo credit: Scena Mundi

11) Farinelli and the King – Duke of York’s Theatre

I just managed to see this in time! And I’m very glad that I did. Obviously Mark Rylance comes with a reputation as one of our finest actors, and he definitely didn’t disappoint. He becomes his character in such a way that everything feels entirely natural. It was also intriguing to see Farinelli played by two different people: Sam Crane acting and Iestyn Davies singing. The transitions were very subtle & it was all so beautifully done. The fact that I had tears in my eyes at the final aria says it all.

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Mark Rylance and Melody Grove in Farinelli and the King
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

10) Harlequinade | All On Her Own – Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, Garrick Theatre

The first two productions in the Branagh residency at the Garrick are being performed in rep – and by far the better of the two is the Rattigan double-header. Zoë Wanamaker is transfixing in her 20-minute monologue, journeying from light humour to absolute heartbreak. This then goes straight into the all-out comedy of Harlequinade. It is entirely suited to Branagh, playing an OTT actor – and Tom Bateman is completely brilliant as stage manager Jack, with perfect delivery & some great facial expressions. It is an interesting combination of pieces, with no obvious link (aside from the playwright) but at a running time of under two hours, you can’t go wrong!

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Kenneth Branagh and Kathryn Wilder in Harlequinade
Photo credit: Johan Persson

9) Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre

I love dark humour. You couldn’t get a lot darker this year than Hangmen! Martin McDonagh’s newest play proved to be a big hit of late 2015 (transferring to Wyndham’s in December) – thanks to a combination of a clever script and an exceptional cast. When I saw it at the Royal Court I was really impressed by Johnny Flynn in particular; he captured the atmosphere of the piece & was a real charismatic presence. I’m very glad he’s come over to the West End with it, and will do my best to get to see the transfer in its limited season.

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Johnny Flynn in Hangmen
Photo credit: Simon Annand

8) The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios

It could be difficult to remember a show that you saw in January & February, but not when it’s as crazy as The Ruling Class! You get the feeling that it was almost made for Jamie Lloyd to reimagine; it’s a full-on play that suits his bold approach. I loved the design, especially the flowers emerging from the floor to create the garden. And, as you’d expect, James McAvoy was magnificent. It really highlighted what a good comic actor he is – I laughed an awful lot! He’s fully deserving of the accolades coming his way.

Ruling Class James McAvoy Kathryn Drysdale Johan Persson
James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class
Photo credit: Johan Persson

7) Oppenheimer – Vaudeville Theatre

A powerful piece of drama that brought science to the masses. It managed to combine out-and-out science communication with raucous party scenes, high drama & a glorious final monologue from the title character that left me in tears. To me, it was pretty much perfection: beautiful costumes, a gorgeous combination of set & lighting design, and some knockout performances. None more so than John Heffernan in the eponymous role, showing the confidence & genius of the scientist, as well as the insecurities & troubles of the man. I’m very pleased to see him & the show getting award nominations – they couldn’t be more well deserved.

Oppenheimer John Heffernan Keith Pattison
John Heffernan and the cast of Oppenheimer
Photo credit: Keith Pattison

6) Kinky Boots – Adelphi Theatre

Finally it’s made it over from Broadway! It seems absurd that such a quintessentially British story (& a true one at that) has taken two years to get to the West End. I really didn’t expect to love it so much! Out of curiosity I was going to go anyway, but Amy Ross’ casting gave me extra incentive – so much so that I found myself there as part of the full house on first preview night. It’s such an inspiring story and is in very capable hands with its cast. Matt Henry gives the gold star performance as Lola – I really was blown away when I first saw it. I wasn’t as convinced by Killian Donnelly (as Charlie) initially, but over the three times I’ve seen it I’ve become happier about it. And there are too many other to mention individually! If this show doesn’t sweep the board at the next Oliviers, I’ll be very surprised indeed.

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The cast of Kinky Boots
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

5) Xanadu – Southwark Playhouse

Here’s one of my biggest surprises of the year. And I’m unashamed to admit that I fell in love with Xanadu over its short run this autumn. I’d never seen it in any form before – but the film that it’s based on… Well, its reputation precedes it! I went (again, to the first preview) to support Sunny alumnus Carly Anderson – after that I somehow managed to bag a press ticket, and one final trip just before it closed. Carly was every inch the star, which made me incredibly proud, and the rest of the cast were simply brilliant too. The set may not have been much to look at, but that just added to the show’s charm. I’d really hoped that we’d have a transfer on our hands – nothing as yet, sadly, but you never know…

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Carly Anderson and company in Xanadu
Photo credit: Paul Coltas

4) The Beaux’ Stratagem – Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

Restoration comedy. That’s new for me! I probably wouldn’t have gone if the Theatre Tourist hadn’t recommended it, and I’d have definitely missed out. I ended up seeing it twice, the second time being the NT Live broadcast – from right near the front… That was an experience in itself! The buzz in the auditorium was amazing. And the show itself was just so funny. A brilliant find, which was cast & produced so well. I loved the unexpected musical element (I will wish forever that ‘A Trifle’ had been recorded somewhere), and there were some great performances. I especially loved seeing Samuel Barnett & Geoffrey Streatfeild work together to great comic effect. Fingers crossed there’ll be an encore screening soon, as I really would like to see it again.

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Geoffrey Streatfeild and Samuel Barnett in The Beaux’ Stratagem
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

3) The Lorax – The Old Vic

It was a surprise

That I enjoyed this old story

It opened my eyes

And showed me the glory

Of family theatre & talking in rhyme

So much so I thought that I’d try it this time.

The Lorax is the tale of a tree-loving creature,

The show’s talented cast just so happened to feature

A Sunny alumnus called Silas Wyatt-Barke

Whose skills before this were mostly kept in the dark.

The set looks so pretty

The songs are all great

It is quite a pity

That we don’t have much of a wait

Until it closes

When we’ll rub our eyes & our noses

But keep our fingers crossed for a West End transfer

As surely that has to be the only answer.

Until then, I’ll be back as much as I can

And I think you should too – it really is grand!

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The cast of The Lorax
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

2) Volpone – Scena Mundi, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

I made up for only seeing Scena Mundi once in the summer by going to their autumn production three times! Jonson’s Volpone tells the story of a Venetian gentleman on the make; he & his manservant concoct a variety of schemes to trick their neighbours out of their precious goods, but ultimately get their comeuppance. This production was set in the 1920s, which could not have been more perfect. And the cast were even more brilliant – Edward Fisher definitely provided one of my theatre moments of the year with his tortoise-based exit! I absolutely cannot wait for their next production, as whatever they touch seems to turn to gold.

Steve Hope-Wynne and Pip Brignall in Volpone
Steve Hope-Wynne and Pip Brignall in Volpone
Photo credit: Scena Mundi

1) Sunny Afternoon – Harold Pinter Theatre

You really shouldn’t be surprised at this! At time of writing, I’ve seen it 174 times now; 158 in 2015 alone. Nothing else has given me so much joy in so many ways. Some of the best evenings of my life (50th show, Olivier Awards, 100th show, Doomsday), the best morning (West End Live) & the best day (OnBlackheath). I’m often asked what keeps me coming back, and the answer is always the same: everything! The writing, the songs, the cast (including the wonderful understudies) & all else besides. It has made the transition to the 2015-16 cast well – after a period of adjustment, I love it just as much as ever. It feels renewed & like a new show, but just as good in its own way! I was thrilled to be given press tickets for their media night (the only time so far that I’ve seen the entire current regular cast!), and celebrating my ‘Sunnyversary‘ & birthday there was great too. I have every confidence it will keep going – perhaps even beyond this cast…

Sunny Afternoon Kevin Cummins
The cast of Sunny Afternoon
Photo credit: Kevin Cummins
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