2017 was a huge year for theatre with revelations rocking its core, new portfolio organisations being created, and the arrival of one of the most hotly anticipated musical productions from the states. We take a look at the stand-outs of the year.
Critics and theatre-goers alike have criticised the recent absence of plays in a theatreland dominated by long-running musicals but 2017 saw a new era of plays taking up some of the largest stages. James Graham in particular has had an incredible year, the spellbinding Ink under the direction of Rupert Goold (who is himself working magic at the Almedia theatre as artistic director) saw a transfer to the Duke of York in the heart of the West End. Delving into the birth of the Sun newspaper Grahams tight script and the impeccable casting of Richard Coyle and Bertie Carvel was certainly news-worthy. Next door at the Nöel Coward Graham’s second big budget production of the year Labour of Love starred Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig (a late stand in for Sarah Lancashire). Keeping with his political themes this sharp comedy reunited Graham with Jeremy Herrin following their acclaimed production of This House focuses on a labour MP and his constituency agent. Hardly the usual smash hit material yet both plays received huge critical acclaim.
The play on everyone’s lips this year has been The Ferryman which transferred from The Royal Court. This gritty production has been a huge sellout and has seen its run extended with new casting into 2018 who deliver an equally forceful piece woven of honesty, humour and heartbreak.
Giving strong competition for play of the year with the critics has been the spookily well-timed Tony award-winning Oslo starring Toby Stephens and Mona Juul. A play about the mediation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine in the 1980’s and the creation of a dialogue fostered by Norwegian academics under the nose of the Americans has all the more resonance following recent decisions on the status of Jerusalem. Oslo does not take sides or offer itself any political standpoint instead demonstrating how a heavily politicised topic can be adapted to the stage with sensitivity and still offer historical critique and perspective.
Emma Donaghue’s Room which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional prize (Caribbean and Canada), shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker prize and turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 2015 made it onto the stage in a spell-binding and revolutionary production at Stratford East. The five year old Jack was played by Fela Lufadeju alongside one of three child actors whilst the rotating stage conjured up the full claustrophobia of this Joseph-Fritzel-esque encounter and its aftermath.
As well as being a huge year for new writing there have been some exceptional adaptations with strong female leads. Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre saw Ruth Wilson captivate audiences in the role often dubbed “the female Hamlet”. Ibsen’s deeply psychological play had a modern simplistic staging that directed all the more focus onto Wilson’s sublime performance. Over at the Young Vic another incredible performance was seen by Billie Piper in their short re-run of the 2016 hit Yerma. While exploring vastly different themes to Hedda Gabler, both productions delved into the female psyche and the toxic and destructive nature of societal pressure. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf also delivered a tense production on the toxic relationship of Martha and George starring Imelda Staunton and Colneth Hill. Staunton’s performance had the audience on the edge of their seats as the infamous party degenerated over the course of the evening.
2017 has been another spectacular year for Shakespeare programming and Twelfth Night has seen two titanic productions side by side on the Southbank at the National Theatre and The Globe. Tamsin Grieg shone as Malvolia in a gender-switching production on the Olivier stage that focused on poignant relationships and some of the more tragic elements. This year few productions have utilised the full revolving stage and the design is truly exceptional as the bow of a ship seamlessly opens out to reveal multiple sets.
Over at The Globe Emma Rice weaved magic in her upbeat reimagining. If music was the food of love there was certainly no shortage. Here Feste was played by drag queen Le Gateau Chocolate and dance numbers brought high energy to the sometimes sleepy venue. While unpopular with purists and in the controversy of her forced resignation it delivered a high class production with tight casting.
The Young Vic presented a very muddy Midsummer’s Night Dream which resembled a music festival expertly directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins in a production that focused on the nightmarish fantasies and darker elements of desire. In a production with a similar aesthetic Andrew Scott starred in the Almedia’s Hamlet to great acclaim. The production Merged haunting Bob Dylan songs with a modern staging proving to be a huge hit with critics and theatre goers seeing Scott nominated for multiple awards. Juliet Stevenson also shone as Gertrude in the modern adaptation. However the real Shakespearean gem of the year has to be Ian McKellen’s triumphant return to the eponymous role in King Lear at the Chichester Festival Theatre, a role he previously played in an RSC production directed by Trevor Nunn. The hype around the production did not disappoint and the intimate production in the adjacent Minerva Theatre provided a timely examination of dictatorship and familial rule very different from the Lear McKellen played in his younger years.
In the world of musical theatre Imelda Staunton had another huge success and retained her crown as the Queen of Sondheim in the National Theatre’s hotly anticipated revival of Follies. One of Sondheim’s lesser performed musicals Follies is set in the ruins of an old theatre Transferring to the West End after a successful run at the Crucible in Sheffield, Everybody’s Talking about Jamie has steamrolled in to become a firm favourite with audiences. The story of a teenage boy’s journey to become a drag queen is uplifting and humorous with one hell of a catchy soundtrack. Following Bob Dylan’s surprising win of the Nobel Literature Prize Connor McPherson staged the incredible The Girl from the North Country over at the Old Vic starring Ciarán Hinds and Shirley Henderson. These are Dylan’s songs as you have never heard them before combined with an emotive story-line that is far above your average “jukebox musical”. At the close of the year Hamilton has finally arrived on a London stage. Running a paperless system has almost eradicated ticket touts and the first few weeks and has as expected received rave reviews from all the newspapers.
On the fringes Edinburgh has seen another record breaking year as audiences continue to increase and more and more artists fill the city. All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Middle Child was an absolute stand out performance in the round at the Paines Plough Roundabout in Summerhall. This piece of gig theatre was a definite boundary pusher charting the two separate lives of Leah (Bryony Davis) and Chris (James Stanyer). Originally performed in a nightclub in Hull as part of the City of Culture lineup All We Ever Wanted skilfully unpicked the attitude of the millennial and the struggles facing a generation, all the while an asteroid circles, poised to render everything to oblivion. MC (Marc Graham) delivers an incredible last line with such passion and truth it left the space after a cacophony of noise, deadly silent. Another hit over at Pleasance was A Super Happy Story about Feeling Super Sad which was a musical about depression. With such a subject matter it is surprising that a comedy musical to match Tim Minchin managed to get so many laughs (and unsurprising plenty of tears too). A number of one person shows recounting personal stories dominated the Fringe and are now touring. Dust by Milly Thomas looking at depression and suicide, The Mental Show written and performed by Kane Power whose mum has bipolar disorder and The Shape of the Pain in which Hannah McPake recounts the story of a woman suffering with chronic pain all received high recommendations and demonstrated the important work previewed at the Fringe, reflected by this years addition of the ‘Mental Health Fringe Award’.
Just sneaking into this year was James Fritz new play Parliament Square. The play shows one woman’s attempt to change things and presents a provoking thought experiment around the nature of protest in today’s society without ever naming her cause. After a short turn around from its preview at the Royal Exchange Theatre this play is refreshingly unapologetic in its ambiguity, presenting an action and leaving the audience to sit with it in their own personal way.
It’s been a wonderful year all round – and we’re excited as the curtain goes up on 2018!