Our reviewers' picks of 2015
Reporter: David Chadderton
Dateline: 2nd January, 2016
This year, we asked some of our reviewers to give their top five productions that they had seen in 2015. The following lists are not necessarily of productions that these reviewers reviewed for us and may not even be in their usual areas—geographical or expertise—and some couldn't keep their lists down to just five, but they still make interesting reading.
Dave Jennings (North Wales reviewer)
- Matilda—Cambridge Theatre
Expectations were high but it exceeded them with all the 'big-show' touches and some very effective moments of subtlety.
- The Herbal Bed—Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Outstanding set design and a climax that was gripping in the extreme.
- Hamlet—Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Terry Hands's farewell which he promised would be free of gimmicks and focus on the text and succeeded accordingly.
Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati gave performances that oozed hatred and paranoia in brilliant style.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor—Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre
Falstaff as a 1970s playboy lothario was a stroke of genius and to see it performed in defiance of the weather encapsulated the true joy of theatre.
Vera Liber (dance specialist, London)
In no particular order, the productions that made me laugh and lifted my spirits—much needed in a year of wars, poverty and crass politics.
- Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
- L'Ormindo—Francesco Cavalli's baroque opera—ROH at the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
- Torben Betts's version of The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
- Hangmen by Martin McDonagh at Wyndham’s Theatre
- The Little Match Girl by Arthur Pita at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells
- Pina Bausch Company double at Sadler's Wells (Auf dem Gebirge... and Ahnen)
- Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre
Thomas Magill (London reviewer)
As a massive fan of Martin McDonagh’s previous work, I was delighted to see his wit and ability to address dark and sometimes disturbing subjects with a touch of humour was as strong as ever. Hangmen was one of the most intelligent plays I’ve seen this year, with its ability to spin an audience from side-splitting laughter to shuddering fear with the words of a single line.
- Dinner with Saddam
It's always a pleasure seeing Sanjeev Bhaskar and Shobu Kapoor in whatever they do. But seeing them together within the confines of their chaotic Bagdad home in this farce was an absolute treat. The ridiculousness of proceedings left my sides sore after relentlessly laughing.
- Kinky Boots
It lived up to all the hype. I knew the story but didn’t appreciate how well it would work on stage. Cyndi Lauper’s songs were catchy, upbeat and everything a big West End musical should be.
- The Weir
I’m not normally a fan of thriller style plays but I’m a massive Conor McPherson fan so I had to give this a chance. Set in my home country, it captured the essence of rural life perfectly. It’s as much about relationships and other issues we can all relate to as the haunting element of the play which was fabulously scary.
- An Audience with Jimmy Saville
I was initially uncomfortable about going to see this play at The Park Theatre, but the writing treated the subject and victims with respect and integrity. Alistair McGowan’s portrayal of Saville was initially quite off-putting and my disgust and hatred for him never weakened throughout the play, which is a credit to the brilliant acting of McGowan.
Sandra Giorgetti (London reviewer)
- Big-budget musical Gypsy—CFT transfer to Savoy Theatre
(Sorry Kinky Boots.) Even seven months on, just thinking of Imelda Staunton's career best performance gives me goose bumps, wonderful songs and so much heart.
- Mid-budget musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—Regents Park Theatre
Great choreography and a charming performance from Laura Pitt-Pulford in a wonderful classic musical judiciously updated.
- Fringe budget musical Spitfire girls—Union Theatre
An early Goodall, intimate, simple and a joy to listen to; all things considered I enjoyed it more than Beckham.
- Emerging artist Dog Country written by Joseph Wilde—Jack Studio Theatre Write Now festival
A well-crafted play where the non-linear narrative revealed an absorbing plot and increasingly complex central characters each played by two actors; all credit to director Mark Leipacher for the clarity of this rehearsed reading.
- Funny Radiant Vermin by Philip Ridley—Metal Rabbit and Supporting Wall Tobacco Factory Theatres Bristol, then transfer to Soho Theatre London
Dark and quirky, comically excellent but with a serious and relevant moral, first class central performances.
Rachel Elderkin (dance specialist, London)
- I loved you and I loved you—Sweetshop Revolution (Sally Marie)
Sensitive and unassuming storytelling, I loved you and I loved you is a beautiful insight into the life of prolific but little known Welsh composer, Morfydd Owen.
- Sacre—Sasha Waltz and Guests
Savage, powerful, passionate.
- Of Land and Tongue—Theo Clinkard
Playful, intelligent and unpretentious, Of Land and Tongue is one of the most entertaining and human works of dance I've seen this year.
- Bloom—Caroline Finn (for Phoenix Dance Theatre)
With the tone of a dark cabaret-style show this detailed, and at times comic, work is charming in its oddness.
- A Passing Cloud—Royal New Zealand Ballet
Although there were no stand-out pieces in RNZB’s mixed programme, the pure enthusiasm and energy of the company made this a truly enjoyable evening of dance.
Other stand-out pieces were to be found among mixed programmes of work, such as Kim Brandstrup’s Transfigured Night (Rambert), Mark Bruce’s Second Coming (Ballet Black) and Russell Maliphant’s Spiral Pass (performed by Bayerisches Staatsballett as part of Conceal|Reveal, a mixed programme celebrating Maliphant and Michael Hulls's 20 years collaborating together).
Othniel Smith (Cardiff reviewer)
- A Doll’s House—Sherman Cymru
Ibsen’s classic tale of a middle-class housewife’s journey towards true adulthood, given a shot in the arm by the turn-on-a-sixpence mood swings of Leila Crerar’s Nora. Unexpectedly enthralling.
- The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time—Royal National Theatre
The touring version of Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel about a young autistic savant was visually stunning and emotionally resonant even from the cheap seats at the back of the cavernous Wales Millennium Centre.
- Iphigenia In Splott—Sherman Cymru
A beautifully angry performance from Sophie Melville as a Cardiff “skank” in Gary Owen’s drama about the human cost of cynical political decisions.
- Blasted—The Other Room
The company who this year brought us Cardiff’s first purpose-built pub theatre made a bold debut with Sarah Kane’s horrifying war-zone epic; all the more disturbing for its intimacy.
- Yuri—August 012
Fabrice Melquiot’s surreal comedy about a couple’s abduction of a mute, near-adult child had its weirdness turned up to 11 by director Mathilde Lopez; a meditation on identity, family and nationhood, with willy jokes.
Georgina Wells (Manchester reviewer)
- Top Hat—Manchester Opera House
A witty, glamorous and faithful adaptation of the Astaire Rogers classic packed with spectacular song and dance. I was smiling for weeks after seeing it.
- Swan Lake—The Lowry
Birmingham Royal Ballet's version stood out for its spectacular Odette (Momoko Hirata), gothic staging and some original twists on the traditional narrative.
Contact's collaboration with National Theatre of Scotland resulted in a sensitive, intelligent and thought-provoking piece on the controversial subject of FGM.
- The Car Man—The Lowry
Matthew Bourne's dark, passionate take on Bizet's opera is electrifying, combining a thrilling plot with full throttle dance performances.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—The Lowry
I saw the National Theatre's production twice this year and was captivated on both occasions by its ingenious staging and design, excellent supporting cast and strong central performance from Joshua Jenkins.
Nina Romain (London reviewer)
- Shakespeare's R&J—Chapel Lane Theatre, London
Shakespeare's textbook takes over the lives of gang of schoolboys ripe for mischief. By reading the play, the cast adroitly morph from blazer-clad classmates, to the world's most famous doomed lovers, and back again.
- Alice’s Adventures Underground—The Vaults, London
Plunging into the rabbit hole, or rather Waterloo's The Vaults, the audience enters a Carrollian caper that is claustrophobic, intense, and funny. The characters, dressed as playing cards, the Walrus, and the mad twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee and everyone else in Wonderland, hector you along the corridors.
- The Haunted Dolls’ House—Greenwich Theatre, London
A Jamesian look at miniature evil in a Victorian nightmare in an effective summary of two of his best-loved horror shorts.
- Picture of Dorian Gray—Greenwich Theatre, London
The ultimate Victorian anti-hero, in a natty mustard suit, is played as a spoilt, eager naïf, who warps swiftly into an accomplished, worldweary murderer.
- Alice!—Zombie Joe's Underground Theater, Los Angeles
As soon as a hyped-up Alice (Lara Fisher) whips off her electric blue '60s swing dress to reveal a Moulin Rouge bustier and frilly, shocking-pink can-can knickerbockers, you know this isn't going to be your average Alice adaptation. Purists probably need not apply for a ticket to this zany "zombie musical" and Carroll would not recognise his story, 150 years later in another continent, but everyone else enjoyed it.
Martin Thomasson (North West reviewer)
- Alaska—devised and performed by Cheryl Martin at Z Arts, Hume, Manchester
A tale performed, literally around a table, that challenged my prejudices regarding autobiographical pieces: intimate, challenging, moving.
- Constellations—written by Nick Payne, seen at Liverpool Playhouse
A 21st century meditation on the ‘road not taken’. The Royal Court’s production of a love affair viewed through the Many Worlds theory of the Universe, is a cleverly structured piece with versatile acting and imaginative sets.
- Happily Ever After—adapted from Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s book, King and King. Unity Theatre, Liverpool
A lovely production showing all the strengths of Action Transport Theatre; enchanting for children, charming for adults and an important issue (gay love) presented by emphasising finding the right person to love, rather than being gay, as the key problem in life.
- Hetty Feather—adapted by Emma Reeves from the book by Jacqueline Wilson. Quays Theatre, The Lowry
Director Sally Cookson (and aerial director, Gwen Hales) in tandem with a winning central performance from Phoebe Thomas, produce a show to make children love the theatre.
- Something then, something now.—Seeta Patel, The Studio, The Lowry
A captivating, marvellously adept and nuanced performance by Bharatanatyam star, Seeta Patel. A treat for aficionados and newcomers to this South Asian dance form. A love story told with passion and grace.
Simon Sladen (Panto Editor)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—Marlowe Theatre Canterbury
Evolution Productions always creates a stunning panto for Canterbury, but this year's was really outstanding. The now regular trio of Phil Gallagher, Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett have become an institution in themselves. They know each other so well that their comic performances are a cut above most of Pantoland's, with comic timing to perfection and a great sense of trust and joy in performing alongside each other. Rita Simons was the find of the season in terms of panto debuts and made for a great Villain whilst great use was made of flying. Casting was also spot on for the Principal Boy and Girl bringing the genre into the 21st century and the dwarves were given much rounder parts than their usual on-and-off.
- Aladdin—Birmingham Hippodrome
No pantomime can compete with the Hippodrome's spectacle or wizardry and celebrity. Julian Clary holds the accolade of panto performance of the season for me and really captures the essence of contemporary pantomime. Marti Pellow made a strong pantomime debut and it is great to see that Matt Slack will be back for Dick Whittington next year. Slack is another true pantomime performer and it is only right that his home should also be the home of modern pantomime—the Hippodrome.
- Red Riding Hood—Greenwich Theatre
A title rarely seen these days, it's always a treat to see something new, especially under the leadership of one of our top pantomime practitioners Andrew Pollard. I've been reviewing at Greenwich since 2009 and each year gets better. This year was Pollard's Dame decade and his Dame continues to be one of the best in the country, as do his scripts. The venue will be charting new territory next year with Peter Pan and this is significant as it will be the first of 'traditional panto' producing venues such as Hackney Empire, Nottingham Playhouse, Oldham Coliseum and York Theatre Royal to embrace the title.
- Dick Whittington and his Cat—Wilton's Music Hall
A celebration of all things panto, Dick Whittington also celebrated the re-opening of Wilton's, a venue steeped in history, but one without a pantomime until now. The opportunity to see Roy Hudd, a master in the art of pantomime, was almost a pilgrimage for many a panto fan. Every aspect of the show was full of charm and panto fun, with its song choice giving it a right old cockney knees-up feel. A lesson in the art of panto and a very special celebration of panto, music hall and Hudd.
- Dick Whittington—Nottingham Playhouse
Charm, elegance, grace and strong storytelling sum up a playhouse panto. The most beautiful of any, this year's production really excelled in reminding us about pantomime's opportunity to teach through strong morals and its sense of family. John Elkington is one of the finest Dames in the country and to watch him interact with the audience is always a treat. This year's production also brought Matthew Chase to the pantomime stage—he's definitely one to watch and will hopefully be back at the Playhouse next year in Aladdin.
There are a couple of others I'd like to highlight:
- Basildon's Jack and the Beanstalk
The use of the prologue always gives greater depth to the story and their child ensemble is completely integrated into proceedings rather than simply come on for a few dances. The choreography is always energetic and Brad Fitt's scripts are some of the best in the Industry.
- Loughborough's Aladdin
Quite how Little Wolf Entertainment makes any money, I really do not know! Their set and costumes are exquisite and bespoke for the Loughborough Town Hall. A lot of care, research and passion goes into their production and it shows. Many a production company could learn a lot from seeing one of their pantomimes.
Allison Vale (South West / South Wales reviewer)
- The Encounter
Complicté's Simon McBurney's sensory assault at Bristol Old Vic in September was a staggering, game-changing, immersive experience, quite unlike anything else I have experienced. Catch it on its transfer to the Barbican in February 2016.
- Pink Mist
Theatre Ad Infinitum's George Mann made a shimmering debut as Associate Director at Bristol Old Vic, co-directing this remarkable production with John Retallack. A pitch perfect ensemble, Owen Sheers's spectacular script and seamless sound and light design from Jon Nicholls and Peter Harrison, left critics spent and breathless in their seats long after curtain on press night in July.
- Beneath the Streets
A spectacular immersive collaboration between Punchdrunk and Cardiff's Hijinx Theatre companies in July, perfectly showcasing the enormous potential to be unlocked by truly inclusive theatre practice.
Cora Bisett and Yusara Warsama's profoundly affecting verbatim piece for National Theatre Scotland toured to the Tobacco Factory Theatres in May, tackling the enormously emotive subject of female genital mutilation with a clarity, empathy and dignity that is all too often lacking in politically-skewed press coverage.
- The Mother
Laurence Boswell's fascinating staging of Florian Zeller's harrowing and discordant look at maternal grief at the Ustinov, Bath in May, with a haunting performance in the title role by Gina McKee.
Ray Brown (Yorkshire reviewer)
- Death of a Salesman
Superb performances from Antony Sher and Harriet Walter. I’ve seen several productions of this play, but this is the first to leave me in tears.
- Henry IV parts I and II
Antony Sher again, creating laughter without begging for it, finding emotional depth. Fantastic set. The language seemed as fresh as a trip round a contemporary market.
- Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare's Globe
A good production, but I guess the main thing was my first experience as a groundling... I loved it!
- Richard III—West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Theatre
Great set and music and an increasingly mesmeric central performance by Reece Dinsdale.
- Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage—by Robin Soans, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Theatre
A co-production with Out of Joint, National theatre Wales and Arcola Theatre with Sherman Cymru. As a on-sporting writer I was intrigued to find Stafford-Clark directing a play about the ‘Welsh rugby legend’ Gareth Thomas. But Stafford-Clark is high on my list of great contemporary directors. And this play pushed him a little higher. No one does ‘visual’ better than Stafford-Clark, he is a master of the stage. Enough said.
Sally Jack (Leicester reviewer)
- Hamlet—The Barbican, London
After all the hype and hoo-ha surrounding 'that' Sherlock star, the placing of 'that' soliloquy and those preview 'reviews', seeing the final performance of this infamous production didn't disappoint with great performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Karl Johnson, together with an impressively dramatic set.
- The Car Man—New Adventures touring production at Curve Theatre, Leicester
The master storyteller Matthew Bourne presents another stunning production: hot, grimy and gritty, this is a powerful and emotional show.
- Death of a Salesman—RSC production at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
A privilege to see Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter on stage, perfectly capturing the nuances in character as well as convincing in the switches between fantasy and reality in Arthur Miller's classic play.
- Manuelita—Popelei Theatre at Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
Demonstrating how one performer (Tamsin Clarke) with the aid of one musician (Camilo Menjura), can take you to another world via a well-constructed story, brilliant physicality and use of a few well-chosen props; a charming and charismatic performance in an intimate space.
Mark Smith (Yorkshire editor)
- Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)—Lost Dog Dance, Bush Theatre (RADAR Festival), London
The most moving and involving piece I’ve seen this year, by far. A solo physical theatre show with wit, visual gags, and masses of heart, which repeatedly moved me to laughter and tears at the very same time.
- The Railway Children—York Theatre Royal, National Railway Museum, York
This year I finally got round to seeing Mike Kenny’s much-lauded adaptation of the E Nesbit favourite, at York Theatre Royal’s temporary venue in the National Railway Museum. Polished, inventive and heartfelt all-round entertainment, even for those unfamiliar with the original.
- The Great Gatsby—The Guild of Misrule, The Fleeting Arms, York
Another adaptation in an unusual venue. This December’s must-see show in York was an immersive adaptation taking over most of the pop-up pub venue the Fleeting Arms. Stylish and joyous, with a superb cast and soundtrack.
- Confirmation—China Plate Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
A blistering 80-minute monologue which earns a place on my list for the force of Chris Thorpe’s performance and the memorable form and text.
- Absent—dreamthinkspeak, Shoreditch Town Hall (LIFT Festival), London
Questionable whether this was a performance as such, but this installation/self-propelled tour of a heavily remodelled Shoreditch Town Hall was enigmatic, allusive and mind-bending in its exploration of memory, scale and ageing.
Richard Vergette (Hull reviewer)
Richard has put one of his own plays in his top five, but he certainly justifies its inclusion below. Unfortunately we couldn't get another of our reviewers there to see it, but it certainly seems by all accounts to have been one of the most significant home-grown productions of the year in the region.
- Dancing through the Shadows—by Richard Vergette, Hull Truck Theatre
I’m in a bit of a quandary for the top 5 because—with, I hope some justification—I feel that someone else might have put Dancing through the Shadows on it! I’m advised that it has been the most successful new play (commercially and critically) for Hull Truck since they moved into the new building in 2009. Alan Dix, the chairman of Hull Truck Board, described the production as a "game changer" for the theatre and staff said that they had never witnessed such an emotional response to a production. For me, the joy of the production was seeing literally thousands of local people (some of whom had never been in the building) coming to see their story. Obviously it was the most important project for me so far (including American Justice) so am I being horribly arrogant in recommending that it’s part of the top 5?
- A Steady Rain—by Keith Huff at East Riding Theatre in Beverley
ERT is a new theatre and should have garnered more attention from the theatre establishment than it has. Andrew Pearson’s searing production starred the theatre’s Artistic Director, Vincent Regan, and Adrian Rawlings. It was hard hitting, compelling and gritty—with excellent performances from both Regan and Rawlings.
- The Lady Killers—by Graham Linehan and directed by Mark Babych at Hull Truck
This production was at once faithful to the essential elements of the movie but vitally fresh and physical as well. The piece was characterised by a fabulously funny central performance by Anna Kirke as the dotty Mrs Wilberforce.
- Dancehall—Cast in Doncaster
This was a dance show which told the story of a community between the end of the second world war and the present day. The production successfully used a combination of professional performers and community players. Using dance of the various eras and live band music this was a triumphant and vibrant show for the recently opened Cast.
- Playing for Time by Arthur Miller, based on the memoir by Fania Fenelon, directed by Richard Beecham at Sheffield Crucible
An account of the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. This is a play I fell out of love with once I discovered that Fenelon’s recollections were hotly disputed by most of the surviving members of the orchestra. However this was an excellent production dignified by an outstanding performance by Sian Phillips as Fania. At 81 she has lost nothing of her energy, focus and emotional intensity.