The best of 2015: Highlights of the year at The Play’s The Thing

By the time this year ends – I’m squeezing in one more in the dying days of 2015 – I will have seen 86 shows, in venues from Broadway razzle dazzle to a Suffolk coastal festival to underground London pub theatres. Most of these I have reviewed here and/or on A Younger Theatre. Here’s my top 5 picks of the year (in chronological order):

1. Trainspotting: King’s Head Theatre, 20 March – 11 April

Chris Dennis as Begbie in Trainspotting (c) Christopher Tribble
Chris Dennis as Begbie in Trainspotting (c) Christopher Tribble

What’s it all about? After critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe, including praise from Irvine Welsh himself, In Your Face Theatre brought their immersive production to the King’s Head Theatre in the spring, shocking and entertaining audiences in equal measures. The show will be returning in February 2016.

What did I say? “Immersive, intense adaptation that throws you unavoidably right into the action… an impressive cast who show nuance and skill in their craft, as well throwing in plenty of blood, sweat and tears… relentlessly forces your attention onto the downward spiral of these characters… you depart with some sense of relief that you can leave this horribly realistic world behind. Yet at the same time it’s a thrilling ride, and a real lesson in how to do immersive theatre well… a wild night of theatre that is unlike anything else you’ll find in London.”

2. Clarence Darrow: Old Vic, 3 March – 11 April

What’s it all about? Kevin Spacey’s one-man tour de force returned to the Old Vic to mark his swan song as artistic director, before Matthew Warchus took over the reins this year. After a sold-out and critically-acclaimed run in 2014, Spacey returns with his portrayal of the prominent civil rights lawyer.

What did I say? “Let’s face it, the subject could risk being a little dry … Yet Spacey’s performance blows all of these concerns out of the water. I’ve never seen anyone connect with an audience in the way he does; even sitting up in the circle, it’s easy to feel that he’s talking directly to you… the energy radiating from this characterisation touches every corner and cranny of the theatre… the audience is held spellbound as he winds his way through this tale… This production gives you a real theatre thrill moment: the feeling that you’ve seen one of the great actors of this generation.”

3. Gypsy: Savoy Theatre, 15 April – 28 November

Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose in Gypsy

What’s it all about? Do I even need to tell you? Styne and Sondheim’s classic transferred from Chichester, where stars rained down on it, to the Savoy Theatre, once again starring the incomparable Imelda Staunton alongside Lara Pulver and Peter Davison, with choreography by hit-maker Stephen Mear and directed by Jonathan Kent. On paper, it could hardly fail. In reality, it was everything we’d hoped and more.

What did I say? “From start to finish, this show belongs to Staunton. As the ultimate pushy stage mother Momma Rose, she is domineering, funny, ferocious, loving, over-the-top, frustrating but somehow likeable – and utterly brilliant… her rendition of ‘Rose’s Turn’ at the climax of the show is goose-pimpling, shivers-down-the-spine sublime…  the best musical theatre performance I’ve ever seen… A divine piece of musical theatre, this production will surely remain in the memories of those who have seen it for many years to come – most of all for a powerhouse, magnificent, shattering performance from Imelda Staunton. Absolutely unmissable.”

4. The Car Man: Sadler’s Wells, 14 July – 8 August

The Car Man (c) Johan Persson
The Car Man (c) Johan Persson

What’s it all about: Another of Matthew Bourne’s smash hit adaptations returned to Sadler’s Wells this summer. Loosely based on the music of Carmen, but borrowing plot from The Postman Always Rings Twice, the production assembled the cream of the New Adventures for a sizzling revival. Yet tragedy followed triumph when, heartbreakingly, lead dancer Jonathan Ollivier was killed in a road accident just hours before the final show.

What did I say? “The grittiest work in Bourne’s repertoire… Flesh is flashed, sweat drips, blood is spilled and the pulsating beat of the music drives this electric performance through to its violent conclusion… Chris Trenfield is masterful, elegant and powerful… understated stars of the show are Liam Mower (previously of Billy Elliot fame) as the put-upon Angelo and his initial love interest Rita (Kate Lyons)… propels its narrative more powerfully than many a piece of spoken drama. A sensual feast for the eyes and ears, fifteen years on from its premiere The Car Man is still full of exciting urgency – captivating and unmissable.”

5. Jane Eyre: National Theatre, 17 September – 10 January

Jane Eyre (c) Manuel Harlan
Jane Eyre (c) Manuel Harlan

What’s it all about: Originally seen at the Bristol Old Vic, this transfer to the National is an opportunity for London audiences to see the riches of regional theatre. This innovative adaptation directed by Sally Cookson uses an industrial-looking set to recreate Brontё’s Yorkshire moors, with a multi-roling cast and surprising musical choices.

What did I say? “Despite some odd pacing captures the spirit and elemental heart of the treasured novel…. The inventive staging steals the show… This devised play takes risks, most notably in the music… intelligent and captivating, with flashes of both witty humour and high drama that almost entirely dispelled my reservations about this page-to-stage adaptation. Certain striking images remain in fixed in your mind… a wonderful opportunity for London audiences to encounter a taste of fantastic regional work – well worth a watch.”

If last year was the year of the musical, 2015 seems to be the year of the reprise, with all my top 5 picks either transfers or revivals. It’s perhaps a tad concerning to note that none of my favourites of the year have been brand new works; yet it’s also pleasing to see productions returning, developing, taking on new lives and reaching new audiences. The London theatre scene seems healthy and full of promise, and I can’t wait to see what 2016 brings.

Thanks to everyone who’s been my plus one to reviews, often without knowing what they were letting themselves in for. Thanks and love also go to friends (Twitter and real-life varieties) and colleagues at #LDNTheatreBloggers and A Younger Theatre, press and PR who have invited me to shows and anyone who reads my blog. Happy new year!


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