Favourite performances of 2016

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It almost goes without saying that over my nearly three hundred shows this year there have been some incredible performances on display – from actors I’ve seen in other productions, as well as my fair share of newbies. None fresher than new RADA graduates in their production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Obviously you expect excellence from RADA, but it’s pretty mindblowing nonetheless to think you could be watching the next big name in one of their earliest big public shows.

I’ve seen so much talent on various stages that I thought it only right to share some of my favourites (a top 12, as with my favourite shows). They are performances that mean something to me personally, rather than being overly objective; I’m presenting them in no particular order, as all I want is to draw attention to their brilliance.

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Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in The Taming of the Shrew
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Before I get into the main list, I’d like to take the opportunity to applaud understudies one more time. I have seen a serious amount of covers in 2016, but I do want to heap a bit more praise on a few in particular:

  • Christina Bennington as Magnolia (Show Boat, New London Theatre). I was there for her very first cover performance and it was absolutely flawless. There’s no way you’d realise that a) it was her first time, or b) she wasn’t the regular Magnolia. Her voice is too beautiful to describe.
  • Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as Katherine (The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe). I may not have seen the entire play, as I was incapacitated, but what really blew me away was the short amount of time in which she had to prepare – and the fact that she would normally play Bianca, the very different sister.
  • Alice Cardy as Rasa (Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre). She began as Joyce & second cover Rasa on joining the cast in July 2015 – at cast change she switched to Peggy, keeping her cover role but not needing to be used until about a year after she began. As a superfan it was wonderful to see something I never thought was going to happen, and for it to completely exceed all expectations.
  • Tibu Fortes as Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe). Luckily under the direction of Emma Rice, a few understudies have been properly produced at the Globe – and probably none more called upon than Tibu Fortes! I saw him take on a few covers, but the most memorable was his very last-minute call-up to be Bottom for the midnight matinée. He kept the likeability displayed by regular Bottom, Ewan Wardrop, but well & truly put his own stamp on it.
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Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn (Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre)

I’m sad I only ended up seeing this show just once – partly because of how brilliant Arterton was in the lead role. I got day seats for me & a friend, and we ended up in the middle of the row because I wasn’t first in the queue. Prime position to watch Arterton’s confident, flirty Nell in full flow!

The Buskers Opera - George Maguire and Natasha Cottriall - cSimon Annand
George Maguire and Natasha Cottriall in The Buskers Opera
Photo credit: Simon Annand

George Maguire as Macheath (The Buskers Opera, Park Theatre)

2016 was the year of the Beggar’s, Threepenny & Buskers Operas, but it was this one that kickstarted things for me. This was Maguire’s first role since Sunny Afternoon, and one to which he was so well suited: he could be political, comical & musical in the same show! It was a fantastic show full stop, but Maguire’s performance was undoubtedly its heartbeat.

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Zubin Varla and Katy Owen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Katy Owen as Puck & Lily (A Midsummer Night’s Dream & 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, Shakespeare’s Globe & UK tour)

This is cheating a little bit, but I couldn’t mention one without the other; they overlap slightly, in that Lily is a 12 year old girl & Puck is full of childish energy. Not that long ago, I’d have been quite terrified of interacting with people onstage, but Sunny Afternoon increased my confidence – and Owen’s antics at the Globe, and then on the 946 UK tour, completely drew me in. (In fact, she even told me that she enjoyed watching me, so I must be on the right lines!) With her talent it’s quite astounding that she’s not more well known, but I’m sure that won’t remain the same for long.

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Oliver Hoare in Sunny Afternoon
Photo credit: Kevin Cummins

Oliver Hoare as Dave Davies (Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre)

One of the things I enjoyed so much about the second version of Sunny Afternoon was the partnership between the new brothers. Hoare’s energy made for a captivating performance, as well as his propensity for doing things differently each time – I respect that approach immensely. His skilful guitar playing was also a highlight, and he had a knack for making me laugh & cry in equal measure every single time.

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Jamie Muscato in A Subject of Scandal and Concern
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

Jamie Muscato as George Holyoake (A Subject of Scandal and Concern, Finborough Theatre)

Not only was this a 5* production, and one of the best uses of fringe theatre space I’ve seen all year, but Muscato’s performance was something else. He portrayed a highly principled man with such honesty & integrity that you couldn’t help but feel moved & inspired.

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Sophie Thompson and the cast of Guys and Dolls
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls, Savoy Theatre)

It was an absolute privilege to get to see one of our most treasured actresses onstage several times in the early months of this year. Thompson’s performances were effortlessly hilarious – I was often crying with laughter – but also touching. And I’m still annoyed that there was no Olivier for her!

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Ncuti Gatwa and Ankur Bahl in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Ankur Bahl as Helenus (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe)

I may have said once or twice before that one of my favourite things about Emma Rice’s Dream was the switch from Helena to Helenus… But what makes this even more of a brilliant decision is the choice of actor to take it on. Bahl was always sassy & witty, yet emotional all the same – and, thanks to his performance, I’ll find it very hard to get used to Helena in future.

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Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps (Half a Sixpence, Noël Coward Theatre)

Quite often hype is never to be trusted – but if it’s Stemp’s glorious turn in Half a Sixpence you’re talking about, it can’t be hyped enough! It’s wonderful to see someone cast on merit rather than their name; I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to the back teeth of former reality show popstars being handed musical roles on a plate when there’s plenty of trained talent going spare. Charlie Stemp is proof of that, and really has to be seen to be believed!

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Martin Prest in Twelfth Night
Photo credit: Scena Mundi

Martin Prest as Malvolio (Scena Mundi’s Twelfth Night, French Protestant Church)

When I heard Scena Mundi were taking on Twelfth Night as their spring production, I immediately cast Prest as Malvolio. Having seen a couple of the company’s previous productions, I felt like his sense of comedic acting would suit the role completely – and I wasn’t disappointed! The yellow stockings scene alone was enough to bring tears of joy to my eyes… But there were also moments where you did stop to think about his treatment at the hands of Sir Toby Belch & co., which is testament to Prest’s work.

Danny Horn (as Ray Davies)  in Sunny Afternoon. Credit - Kevin Cummins.jpg
Danny Horn in Sunny Afternoon
Photo credit: Kevin Cummins

Danny Horn as Ray Davies (Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre)

I’ve written a lot about Horn over this past year, but that only proves what a stellar job he did with each & every performance. Not only was he a good visual likeness of a young Ray, but his singing made it feel like the man himself was behind the mic – and he did brilliantly as incorporating many of the characteristics associated with Ray. Add to that the real feel of sibling rivalry with his onstage brother, and it’s no wonder I couldn’t stop going back.

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Simon Maeder, Adam El Hagar, Tope Mikun and Daniel Foxsmith in Licensed To Ill
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Licensed to Ill ensemble (Southwark Playhouse)

Just to throw the cat amongst the pigeons, I’m including a group performance in my top 12. Slightly cheating, but I was so blown away by all four of them, and each actor was as important as the other, that I felt it had to be done. The show was devised by the company & they’ve been honing it for a while, and this showed in its slickness & how instinctive every little move seemed to be. Adam El Hagar, Simon Maeder, Daniel Foxsmith & Tope Mikun were all hilarious (& natural performers) – and watching them certainly brightened up a drab end to the year.

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Adam Sopp in 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Adam Sopp as Boowie/Barry (946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, Shakespeare’s Globe & UK tour)

You can call me biased if you like, but it’s not going to stop me! In all, I think I saw about a third of all of Kneehigh’s UK 946 shows (from the very first preview at the Globe) – and each time I was blown away by the show in general, and Sopp in particular. I can’t deny that I found it hilarious that he was just about to turn 30 & was playing a 12 year old boy, but his performances (in a wonderful partnership with Katy Owen) were pitch perfect & always entertaining. Add into that a large involvement with the band, mainly on drums (even with a bit of a drum solo), and you’re onto a winner! Anyone who can make me cry & beam with joy in the same show is doing something very right indeed.

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