Theatre highlights of 2016

It’s that time of year when we all start counting up the highlights of the year. On a global scale, this year has had rather more downs than ups, but luckily the theatre was there to transport us to other worlds. Here, in no particular order, are my favourites from the last 12 months.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre

Image result for harry potter cursed child
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Part 1)

I had to start with this. The theatrical event of the year, it felt like we were waiting for years before we finally got to see the result, but oh boy, was it worth the wait. Putting aside the cash-cow of having two separate plays (no-one is buying the “we just couldn’t fit it all into one play” argument…), this was a feat of theatre magic. From the utter nostalgic joy of reuniting with these much-loved characters, to the brilliant comedy by newcomers Anthony Boyle and Sam Clemmett, to the wondrous effects created by the illusions team – it was an all-round success and, put simply, just so much fun.

Groundhog Day, Old Vic

After the runaway success of Matilda the Musical, Tim Minchin returned with another new musical created with Matthew Warchus, new artistic director of the Old Vic. The result was a slick, sizzling and impressive production that was carried with huge energy by Andy Karl, and showed off a creative team at the top of their game. With a limited run, it’s only a shame that this new hit didn’t stick around in London for longer. With a Broadway transfer on the cards, let’s hope it comes back to town soon.

People, Places and Things, Wyndham’s Theatre

People Places and Things - Wyndham's Theatre, Denise Gough
Denise Gough as Emma

This show appeared on most people’s 2015 lists, but I didn’t make it until the final weeks of its West End transfer – and I’m so glad I did. This is an intelligently written piece about addiction, but what made it so special was the central performance by Denise Gough. Her Olivier Award was certainly well-deserved: as I wrote at the time, “for a character who is probably on the brink of death, given the cocktail of drugs that her body has absorbed in a myriad of ways, Gough’s portrayal is so full of life. It is full of pain, yes – pain that comes flooding out through her verbose speeches, her wild physicality and her frustrating refusals to engage. Yet it is also full of humour, vitality, rudeness, at times a dose of mean spirit and a whole ladleful of sparky defensiveness.”

The Rolling Stone, Orange Tree Theatre

This was my first visit to the Orange Tree Theatre, back in January, on reviewing duties for A Younger Theatre. Chris Urch’s play was lifted from a skilfully written piece into a scorching production by the fine acting of its cast. Focusing on the struggles of young gay men in Uganda, this was a riveting family drama, impeccably researched with a powerful sense of urgency, which manages to create sympathy for the characters on both sides of the rift. Read more about the show here.

Letters To Windsor House, Incoming Festival / New Diorama Theatre

Whilst many other shows on this list are slickly performed with impressive production values, this one was rather more rough around the edges – and yet this was what made it work so well. Produced and performed by Sh!t Theatre, the show managed to tackle such a big issue as the London housing crisis, while also focusing in on an intimate friendship. It was also incredibly funny, as the duo attempt to trace the previous occupants of their flat via their post. In the year of Trump, it was wonderful to see these two women being bold, silly, clever, funny, witty and fearless on stage. You can see the show at the Soho Theatre in 2017 – but I warn you, you’ll be seeing “Rob Jecock is an adult baby” for weeks… (it’ll make sense when you see it).

The Father, Duke of York’s Theatre

Amanda Drew and Kenneth Cranham in The Father - Duke of York's Theatre
Amanda Drew and Kenneth Cranham

Another transfer that I took my time to see, Florian Zeller’s The Father broke my heart with its final tableau of confusion and pain. Kenneth Cranham was another deserved Olivier winner with his portrayal of a man whose mind is fogged by Alzheimer’s, yet there was warmth in this show that saved it from being entirely bleak. Clever tricks with script and set meant the audience became as baffled as our central character, while Amanda Drew gave a devastating performance as a daughter trying to do the best she can. Find out more about my thoughts on the show here.

Grey Gardens, Southwark Playhouse

Jenna Russell is one of my absolute favourite actresses, and this was reinforced by her performance in Grey Gardens, which had its European premiere at the Southwark Playhouse earlier this year. Add the legendary Sheila Hancock into the mix and it’s no surprise this was one of my highlights of the year. The piece itself is a quirky number, based on an even odder true story. Hancock and Russell played Edith and Edie Bouvier, hysterically funny and hauntingly sad at the same time. Not all the critics were fans, but for me this was an example of superb character acting and a triumph for Russell.

One Night In Miami, Donmar Warehouse

one-night-in-miami-c-johan-persson-1Another play that it’s hard to believe was based on true events, One Night in Miami… portrays the events after Cassius Clay’s first heavyweight world title win, as he celebrated with friends Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. Swinging from jubilance to high tension, the play shows four men on the brink of changing the world in the fight for civil rights. It’s an extraordinary meeting of minds and souls and the show was perfectly cast. Kemp Powers’s script asks big questions but balances things out with humour for a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes, which I reviewed here.

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