The best of 2014: The highlights of a year of London theatre

This time of year is full of lists – Christmas lists, shopping lists, guest lists… well if you can’t beat them, join them, so here’s a quick round-up of my blog highlights from 2014.

1. In The HeightsSouthwark Playhouse, 9 May – 7 June

What’s it all about? After making waves stateside, winning a whole heap of Tonys with its mix of salsa, hip-hop and Broadway belters, the creative team of Luke Sheppard (director), and Drew McOnie (choreography) brought this sizzling musical about the people of Washington Heights to London for a limited season in Southwark.

What did I say? “With a cast who are right on top of their game, there’s barely a fault to be found. The small space at the Southwark Playhouse is filled with colour, song and vibrancy… It’s not hard to get swept along in the blazing emotion, heat and colour of this production; the beat of the music, a mash-up of Latin and rap, of street music and Spanish salsas, carries you on the crest of its joyful wave and the whole show radiates joy and energy. It would simply be a travesty if this show doesn’t transfer somewhere” [still waiting on that transfer!]. Full review here.

2. The Nether: Royal Court Theatre, 25 July – 9 August
Photo: Johan Persson
Photo: Johan Persson

What’s it all about? The Royal Court gets back to its best, teaming up with Headlong theatre company to present Jennifer Haley’s shocking play about paedophilia and the online world. Cleverly questioning some of the most difficult issues of modern society, the play is notable for casting a child actress as the child avatar with whom adults may have sex in this virtual realm. The show transfers to the West End (Duke Of York’s Theatre) from 30 January.

What did I say? “Haley’s script deals with such a dark theme with intelligence and force, not shying away from the difficult social and moral discussions; yet she refrains from making it purely an ‘issues play’ by also creating a thriller of a plot, whose twists genuinely shock… the digital screen work is truly inspired, fusing the digital, the imagination and the natural in a realm with elements of magical realism. The whole thing is truly hypnotic… an engrossing, fascinating and deeply disturbing production.” Full review here

3. A Streetcar Named Desire: Young Vic, 23 July – 19 September
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Photo: Tristram Kenton

What’s it all about? Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece became the hottest ticket of the summer thanks to the combination of the Young Vic, Benedict Andrews and Gillian Anderson. With an innovative rotating stage and updated setting the production was anything but safe, but if the queue to buy tickets was anything to by, expectations were high. A UK-wide NT Live screening followed on 16 September.

What did I say? “[Anderson’s] performance is simply wonderful, imbuing every note of her Southern drawl with tragic humour, heart-wrenching yearning and fearful desperation… Each scene is crafted meticulously to give us a full bird’s-eye-view, fly-on-the-wall experience… a triumph not just for Andrews in another successful restaging; not just for Anderson, whose performance is shatteringly good; but for the whole production, which is a forceful, disturbing and truly brilliant Streetcar.” Full review here.

4. Memphis the Musical: Shaftesbury Theatre, 9 October – currently booking until 31 October 2015

Memphis the Musical posterWhat’s it all about? Fresh from Broadway, Memphis recreates the vibes of 1950s Memphis and its sizzling music industry and bubbling racial tensions. With leads who had recently proved themselves in other West End hits (Beverley Knight in The Bodyguard and Killian Donnelly in The Commitments), there had been plenty of whispering about this show for a long time, and it finally hit London in October.

What did I say? “Space is used well to create pulsating, high energy routines that seem to fill the whole theatre. It’s infectious, pulling you into its world of 1950s Memphis and the rhythms of Beale Street… The groove and spirit of the piece gets under your skin and it’s best to just let yourself get carried away in its rhythm… A barnstorming piece of theatre that showcases powerhouse vocals and pure soul, Memphis is a fantastic, and hopefully long-lasting, addition to the West End.” Full review here.

5. The Scottsboro Boys: Garrick Theatre, 4 October – 21 February 2015
The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick Theatre (Photo: David Sivyer)
Photo: David Sivyer

What’s it all about? Yet another Broadway transfer, The Scottsboro Boys was Kander and Ebb’s last collaboration and once again uses an unusual conceit: the outdated minstrel show is utilised to depict the terrible miscarriage of justice in the racially-charged tensions of early 20th century Alabama. A big winner at this year’s Olivier awards, this Young Vic production transferred to the West End for a limited season.

What did I say? “It’s uncomfortable to watch: while the dazzling choreography makes the ensemble numbers hugely enjoyable, the provocative characterisation of false smiles, jazz hands and a innocent willingness to perform for our benefit makes for an uneasy tone that captures the biting satire of Kander and Ebb’s work… a brave, unmissable and magnificent production that truly deserves this West End transfer. With show-stopping musical numbers, a cast on top form and a real serious bite in its intelligent story-telling, I only wish it were sticking around for longer.” Full review here.

2014 seems to have been the year of the musical, as newcomers and Broadway transfers re-energised the West End. Thanks to all the folks who have read my blog this year – there’ll be plenty more to come next year as, ridiculously, I’ve already booked for twelve shows! So keep an eye on the blog for reviews of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s Oh What A Lovely War, the Barbican’s Antigonethe biggie that is Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, and many more.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and see you in 2015!


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