MY TOP TEN SHOWS OF THE WEEK
1) Show Boat. London is currently experiencing a rare history lesson in the both where Broadway’s great musical era began with Show Boat in 1927, and would land so triumphantly just 23 years later with Guys and Dolls, possibly the greatest musical of them all in my opinion. But Show Boat is pretty astonishing, too, not least for one of the most rapturous, enchanting scores ever written; the standards just pour out of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, including ‘Ol Man River’, ‘Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’, ‘Why Do I Love You?’ and ‘Bill.’ Its been given a gorgeous production by Daniel Evans, transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible to the wrap-around intimacy of the New London, and featuring a cast full of stunning voices. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://showboatmusical.co.uk/
2) People, Places and Things. Harrowing, intense, emotional, gripping and exhilarating, Duncan Macmillan’s transfer from the National to the West End’s Wyndham’s even had the critics on their feet for the first night standing ovation. As Fiona Mounford declared in her five-star review for the Evening Standard, “It’s rare to see a group of critics, cynical devils that we are, rise to their feet for a sweeping standing ovation on a press night. But this wasn’t any old opening, or any old leading actress. For my money, Denise Gough gives the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.” And (for once) I entirely concur with Mountford; my review for LondonTheatre.co.uk is here. Gough deserviedly won the Olivier for Best Actress; I’ve also written here about what a life-changing performance and show it is. Webbsite: http://www.peopleplacesthingsonstage.com/
3) Les Blancs. The National is on a roll at the moment: as well as People, Places and Things (see above), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (see below), there’s also an utterly astonishing production of a virtually unknown play by Lorainne Hansberry. Best known for A Raisin in the Sun, she never finished this play before her death at the age of just 34, of pancreatic cancer. But now the National has visionary South African director Yael Farber directing a ritualistic production that burns with rage and feeling in is portrait of an African country falling apart on the edge of civil war. An outstanding cast is led by the magnificent, towering Danny Sapani (pictured at the top of this column), and also includes Sian Phillips, Elliot Cowan, James Fleet and Anna Madley. Website: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/les-blancs
4) The Book of Mormon. I’ve not seen this gloriously irreverent, hilariously knowing musical send-up of Mormonism and musicals themselves since its 2013 West End opening night — and returning to see it agaion nearly three years later it remains as fresh, funny and brilliant as it was then. The current cast is led by American imports KJ Hippensteel as Elder Price and Brian Sears as Elder Cunningham, while Olivier winning Stephen Ashfield remains in the cast as Elder McKinley. Website: http://www.bookofmormonlondon.com/
5) Nell Gwynn. A ravishing, rambunctious and hilarious new play by Jessica Swale that’s about a love affair both in and of the theatre, revolving around the true story of the 17th century actress who ended up as mistress to King Charles II. First seen at Shakespeare’s Globe for a run of just 11 performances last summer, it now gets a West End transfer the Apollo, starring the wonderful Gemma Arterton in the title role of Chris Luscombe’s production. Shakespeare’s Globe previously also transferred Twelfth Night and Richard III with Mark Rylance to the same theatre. It has just won this year’s Olivier Award for Best Comedy. This is your last chance to see it — it closes April 30. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://nellgwynn.co.uk/
6) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The National revisit August Wilson’s early play in his ten-play cycle of American black experience across the last century that they previously presented the UK premiere of back in 1989 to offer a stunning new production in the Lyttelton, starring Sharon D Clarke in the title role (pictured above). Lucian Msamati, recently announced to play Salieri in the NT’s new forthcoming production of Amadeus, is extraordinary, too, amongst a superb ensemble that also features Clint Dyer and Giles Terrera. See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/ma-raineys-black-bottom
7) Motown. Not everyone loved this one — critical opinion was, to say the least, mixed. But even though I thought it was a bit of a cruise ship revue when I first saw it on Broadway, seeing it again in London, with a really fine mostly British cast pumping out the hits, warmed me to this show’s infectious and multiple pleasures. There simply hasn’t been a songstack quite like it in a jukebox musical ever — sure, it’s a pity some of the songs get cut off in their prime and the book makes Rock of Ages seem deep, but I still loved it! See my review for The Stage here. Website: http://motownthemusical.co.uk/
8) In the Heights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony winning Broadway musical returns to London in the exhilarating production first seen at Southwark Playhouse last year, and now at King’s Cross Theatre, where it is currently booking to October. I saw it again recently and it remains brilliant — and a vivid reminder that Hamilton, the current smash hit Broadway show, didn’t happen in a vacuum, but its creator’s musical and lyrical inventiveness was on full display already in this show. It saw David Bedella (pictured right) win his second Olivier Award this year for Best Supporting Performance. The thrilling choreography is by Drew McOnie, who won his first Olivier for it as well, and who will soon be represented at the Old Vic by Jekyll and Hyde that he is creating for the venue, opening in May. See my review here. Website: http://intheheightslondon.com/
9) Guys and Dolls. Frank Loesser’s immortal Broadway musical jut gets better and better. Chichester’s transfer to the West End has just moved from the Savoy to the Phoenix and has a new cast who are just wonderful. Oliver Tompsett (pictured left), who is possessed of one of the best male voices in British musical theatre, has stunningly inherited the role of Sky Masterson from Jamie Parker, and Samantha Spiro has taken over brilliantly as Miss Adelaide. It is also simultaneously on a UK tour I can’t wait to see, too, because Louise Dearman and Richard Fleeshman are playing the roles of Miss Adelaide and Sky there. It has long been my absolutely favourite of any musical: as I wrote when this production premiered at Chichester in 2014, “Guys and Dolls is, to my mind and even more my heart and soul, simply the greatest of all the classic musicals of Broadway’s golden age of over half a century ago. No show for me summonses a mythical, virtually mystical version of its own mean but colourful streets with as much serious style and witty panache as Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’s incisive, clever distillation of Damon Runyon’s classic story and characters, set to Frank Loesser’s irresistibly tuneful but acerbically pointed songs. This slice of Broadway is set in and around Times Square itself whose famous advertising billboards loom large in a stunning fanned vista of them in Peter McKintosh’s design for this polished, stylish new production.” My review for The Stage is here. Website: http://www.guysanddollsthemusical.co.uk/
10) Mrs Henderson Presents. Transfer from Bath Theatre Royal of this touching, terrific new musical version of the 2005 British film set backstage and frontstage at the Windmill Theatre, which offered audiences live, nude (but completely immobile) women. The cast includes Emma Willimas (pictured above) as one of the showgirls, plus Tracie Bennett in the title role, originally played by Judi Dench in the film. My review of the original production at Bath last summer for The Stage is here, and my review of last week’s opening of the transfer is here. Website: http://www.mrshenderson.co.uk/
This column is the first of my now monthly Diary of a Theatre Addict columns, as I tried (and failed!) to update them on a weekly basis before. It will enable me to keep a month-by-month tally of what I’ve seen and reviewed, as well as other things I’ve seen and done.
Across April I’ve duly seen 13 shows in London, one of them twice within the space of four days — namely the current revival of Guys and Dolls (pictured right). I’d seen it twice before that, first when it originated at Chichester two summers ago and then when it transferred to the Savoy in January, and now again when it moved across town to the Phoenix with a substantially re-cast set of principals and I reviewed it for a third time here. Then I returned to it yet again the same weekend to accompany a friend who was in town visiting from New York (yes, it’s that good!).
The London tally also included another two repeats: for the Menier’s Funny Girl, when it transferred to the Savoy (to replace Guys and Dolls, reviewed here, pictured left), and for Show Boat,transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible to the New London (reviewed here).
Then there were new productions for shows I’d seen several times before in previous versions, including Sunset Boulevard at English National Opera (with Glenn Close reprising the role of Norma Desmond 22 years after she first played it on Broadway, reviewed here) and Forever Plaid at the St James Studio (reviewed here); and the new plays Boy (which I loved at the Almeida, reviewed here, and have already booked to see again later this month) and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery ditto at the Criterion, reviewed here), plus X at the Royal Court (which I hated, reviewed here) and a new contemporary re-write of Erdman’s The Suicide at the National, which I was unimpressed by, reviewed here).
I also saw a number of shows I didn’t formally review but saw for my own interest: Les Blancs at the National, The Caretaker at the Old Vic and Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War at the Barbican. I wasn’t the only critic playing catch-up on the latter: at the same penultimate performance of the run I also saw the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish and the Standard’s Henry Hitchings, plus actor/director Sam West and director Lucy Bailey, amongst others.
Beyond London, I visited Watford, Bromley, Manchester and Colchester, to review a new musical Laila at Watford Palace (reviewed here), the tour of American Idiot at the Churchill (reviewed here), King Lear at the Royal Exchange (reviewed here, pictured left) and Clybourne Park at the Mercury (reviewed here) respectively, and a non-reviewing trip to Cardiff to see a new British musical called Only the Brave at the Wales Millennium Centre.
Then I also had 9 days in New York, catching up on the pre-Tony rush of openings and reviewing a number of them: the transfer of American Psycho from the Almeida (reviewed here), the new musicals Tuck Everlasting (reviewed here), Waitress (reviewed here) and Shuffle Along (reviewed here).
I saw 7 more shows as well, including return visits to The Color Purple (my third time on Broadway, and what a privilege to see the astonishing Cynthia Erivo yet again, pictured with me here backstage after the show) and Finding Neverland (now with a cast that includes Brits Alfie Boe and Sally Ann Triplett), as well as the recently opened productions of the musical Bright Star (a new musical co-written by film actor Steve Martin, who is also a bluegrass musician) and the plays The Effect (originally premiered at the National and now in a new production at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre) and The Crucible, directed by Ivo van Hove.
And no sooner did I arrive back in London than the first thing I saw was another van Hove show — Kings of War, his amazing distillation of three of Shakespeare’s history plays (Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, into a single evening) at the Barbican.
That ended a month that was bookended at the other end by the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House — my column about the results is here. So I’ve had a lot to see and write about this month! In May, I’ll actually be taking a holiday — yes, a HOLIDAY — to San Francisco, so although I’m bound to squeeze in a few shows, I expect to have a slower month, at last, ahead — though I have a few things to catch up on that I missed last month, so the week ahead will see me at Bug, Dr Faustus, The Flick and My Mother Never Said I Should in London, as well as Travels with My Aunt and the opening of Enemy of the People in Chichester, before I go…. More on all of that next month!