Our reviewers' picks of 2016
Reporter: David Chadderton
Dateline: 8th January, 2017
We asked some of our reviewers to give their top five productions that they had seen in 2016, not necessarily ones that they reviewed for us. Here's what they came up with.
James Ballands (Yorkshire reviewer)
Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)—Lost Dog Dance, Skipton Town Hall
The highlight of my theatre-going year was this spellbinding one-man show in which Ben Duke combines a retelling of Milton’s epic poem with his own experiences as a husband and father. The show was imaginative, heartfelt and often very funny.
Fire in the North Sky—Adverse Camber Productions, Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds
In this riveting show, storyteller Nick Hennessey and a trio of talented folk musicians brought to life the stories contained in Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips—Kneehigh in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds
This family show by Kneehigh was a blast of joy from beginning to end, and proof positive—if any was needed—that the director Emma Rice is one of our most extraordinary theatre-makers.
The Suppliant Women—Actors Touring Company and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, Northern Stage in Newcastle
David Greig’s new version of the Aeschylus play—in which 50 women seek asylum in Greece in order to escape forced marriage in their homeland—could not be timelier. Ramin Gray’s mesmeric production captured the ritualistic power of Greek drama.
French Without Tears—English Touring Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre in association with Exeter Northcott Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield
I was pleasantly surprised by this superb revival of Terence Rattigan’s breakthrough play. Although French Without Tears reflects the chauvinism of its period, Paul Miller’s production highlighted the ridiculousness of the young male protagonists and their infantile fear of women.
Martin Thomasson (North West reviewer)
Sans Merci—Play With Fire, Hope Mill Theatre
Not because of a great play or a fantastic production, but because of Hannah Ellis Ryan’s restrained and nuanced performance as Kelly, the bereaved activist being ruthlessly interrogated by her lover’s homophobic mother. Marvellous.
The Rocky Horror Show—Opera House, Manchester
Shamelessly bawdy and working the audience to the max. No holds barred (almost literally). Unbridled interplanetary fun.
Andrea Chenier—Opera North, The Lowry
Probably the finest Opera North production I have ever seen. A stunning characteristation of Carol Gérard by Robert Hayward, but a production in which every element (musical, visual and dramatic) came together to tremendous effect.
Two Men, Three Musketeers—The Pajama Men, HOME Manchester
Very funny, inventive, partly-improvised take on a classic tale, long in need of a total makeover. The Pajama Men gave it one. I still pine for Tony the Centaur.
- Locus Amoenus—Atresbandes, The Lowry Studio
Atresbandes’ thought-provoking, inventive and persistently funny reminder that “hell is other people”, featuring three characters on a Spanish train in the final hour of their lives.
Sandra Giorgetti (London reviewer)
- Peter Pan Goes Wrong / Comedy About a Bank Robbery
- The Hound of the Baskervilles
- People Places Things
- London Stories Made by Migrants
- Beauty on the Piste / Tinderella
- George Egg
- Vault Festival
Failed to live up to the hype
Othniel Smith (Cardiff reviewer)
A clever and irreverent (and sweary) show using puppetry to talk about disability without actually mentioning disability.
An all-female take on Shakespeare performed in the highly atmospheric roof-space of the Wales Millennium Centre, the other-worldliness of the King represented via aerialism.
Constellation Street—The Other Room
A series of monologues by Matthew Bulgo, performed as a promenade piece - a logistical tour-de-force in a miraculously transformed venue.
Kiss Me Kate—Welsh National Opera/Opera North
Classic Broadway-style musical theatre at its wittiest, slickest and most illogical.
Jem & Ella—Run Ragged
A touching father-daughter dance/performance piece, with technical ability undercutting any sentimentality.
Colin Davison (Midlands and South reviewer)
Seven Acts of Mercy—Swan, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
Split between turbulent artist Caravaggio’s 1606 Naples and a 2016 Bootle of food banks and frustrated ideals, author Anders Lustgarten’s gritty new play creates complex, credible characters to stab home the polemic. Patrick O’Kane’s Liverpudlian Caravaggio stomped around with cheerful belligerence.
The Dresser—Everyman, Cheltenham
The brilliant Reece Shearsmith in the title role pours out recriminations as he pours in the brandy at the climax of Ronald Harwood’s poignant portrait of a life spent in thankless service to ‘Sir’, the ageing, vain Shakespearean thespian played with bravura confidence by Ken Stott. But it is Shearsmith likely to merit an Olivier nomination following its transfer to the West End.
Toast—Festival Theatre, Malvern
He shambles on, lollop-lipped, shedding flour dust like a mummy from the tomb. Matthew Kelly was terrific as Walter, 45 years in the bakery, where nothing has happened—until the oven jams. Snapdragon Productions’ tour of Richard Bean’s funny, affectionate play based on the year he spent in a Hull bakery opens on Broadway in 2017.
Invincible—Festival Theatre, Malvern
Torben Betts’s comedy of class and cultures revolves around Alan, wonderfully played by Graeme Brookes with a back-thumping, bollock-grabbing boorishness, a man whose verbal diarrhoea makes people stare at their shoes in embarrassment. My jaw ached in guilty laughter.
The Rover—Swan, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
That libidinous scoundrel Charles II must have loved it, as his Cavaliers have their cavalier way with women. Joseph Millson as the roistering Rover forms a virtuoso double-act with Alexandra Gilbreath’s courtesan in Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy.
Lucia di Lammermoor—Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Kasper Holten transforms this familiar vocal showpiece into a visceral drama of real flesh and blood—actually quite a lot of blood—realised by superb singing actors, notably Diana Damrau as a pregnant Lucia.
Iphigenie en Tauride—English Touring Opera, Everyman, Cheltenham
Catherine Carby combined beauty and emotional intensity in the title-role. James Conway’s production was effective for all its economy, with John-Colyn Gyeantey as Pylades left without followers to fight off the Scythian horde single-handed.
Kiss Me Kate—Welsh National Opera
Wunderbar—Cole Porter’s musical delights throughout, from "Another Op’nin’, Another Show" to "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" with fantastic support from the WNO chorus. A hugely entertaining show that caused a young lady in the audience to turn a cartwheel in the foyer as we left.
The Merchant of Venice—Welsh National Opera
David Pountney turned down Andre Tchaikowski’s only opera when it was only half-completed, but plucked it from obscurity for WNO, no doubt persuaded by its wonderful, heart-rending final act. Lester Lynch is a great Shylock, noble in voice and dignified in humiliation in a production that makes a claim for the piece to be more than a musical curiosity.
Tannhäuser—Longborough Festival Opera
A bold, almost pugilistic performance by boxer Henry Cooper’s nephew Neal was the highlight of this year’s Wagner-inspired festival in the Cotswolds. His thrilling, heroic tenor could shake the foundations of a larger auditorium, and here felt like being taken to the shops in a Porsche.
Mark Smith (Yorkshire / North West reviewer)
Andrea Chénier—Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre
I’m not an opera aficionado, but this was a memorable production by any measure. Annabel Arden’s staging made great use of projections and brought out strong tensions between the privileged elites and the downtrodden masses in Revolutionary France. I ended my review on a hopeful note about love triumphing over demagoguery and lies; had I seen the show later in the year, I may have taken a different tone.
Jane Eyre—Northern Ballet, Cast, Doncaster
Again, a performance form in which I’m not well-versed, this ballet stunned me with its recurring and beautifully nuanced motifs, intelligent storytelling and complex but clear imagery. Cathy Marston’s choreography and direction avoided any cliché and told the story with inventiveness and wit.
The Encounter—Complicité, Barbican, London
This production rightly garnered widespread praise and discussion. Its innovative use of headphones and binaural microphones (along with pre-recorded sound) brought a new twist to some familiar though beautifully effective storytelling tricks of Simon McBurney’s. The questions about cultural appropriation which the production opened up after the event also demonstrated the strength and value of the community debate made possible by theatre.
People, Places and Things—Headlong and National Theatre, Wyndham’s Theatre, London
I finally caught this long-lauded show in its West End transfer and it more than lived up to the hype. Denise Gough’s central performance was rightly garlanded. Duncan Macmillan’s text and Jeremy Herrin’s direction showed us the world through the eyes of an actress with an addictive personality—for drugs, but also for reinvention and pretence.
Two Man Show + honourable mention for Transform Festival
I’d seen RashDash in previous years and had been intrigued but often frustrated. This year they could do no wrong, in my view. Two Man Show intelligently, provocatively, brilliantly tore down gender identities as well as historical, political and narrative certainties.
Transform Festival in Leeds was a mixed bag but never dull, with a fantastic atmosphere of innovation and anarchy throughout. It was there that I saw RashDash’s scratch performance of material towards The Darkest Corners. This looks set to be another thought-provoking production, by turns discomforting, funny, and angry—it’s something to look forward to in 2017.
Velda Harris (Sheffield reviewer)
Velda has selected her six best at Sheffield Theatres excluding most but not all of the travelling shows that went into the Lyceum.
The Nap—Richard Bean
Flowers for Mrs Harris—Rachel Wagstaff/Richard Taylor
Cuttin' It—Charlene James
Operation Crucible—Kieran Knowles
The Wipers Times—Ian Hislop/Nick Newman
The James Plays—National Theatre of Scotland
Georgina Wells (North West reviewer, dance specialist)
Akram Khan’s Giselle—English National Ballet
I was honoured to be at the world première of this ground-breaking, haunting and beautiful production. I’ve no doubt it’ll be on lots of other people’s lists too.
The Red Shoes—New Adventures
Matthew Bourne’s highly anticipated production of the iconic film did not disappoint. It’s coming back to The Lowry in July this year so I hope to see it again.
NOTHING—Royal Exchange Young Company
The young company’s production of a dark, dystopian story was so mature and compelling I felt like I was watching professional actors. I was also thrilled to see a quote from my original Manchester Theatre Awards review featured in the Exchange brochure, promoting the play’s return this season.
Neon Sonnets—Manchester After Hours collaboration
This very special event saw musicians and singers from the Royal Northern College of Music team up with actors and presenters to give a promenade performance around the John Rylands library, all in tribute to Shakespeare. It was totally unique and drew big crowds – I was very lucky to squeeze in!
Seeing Marianela Nunez in my favourite ballerina role was an absolute highlight of 2016.
Simon Sladen (Panto editor)
Peter Pan—Greenwich Theatre
Of the regional pantomime powerhouses, Greenwich has become the first to embrace Peter Pan as a narrative. Hackney Empire, Nottingham Playhouse and York Theatre Royal have yet to stage the show, but after Greenwich's superb rendering of the tale they might just consider it. Set after the usual Pan, Andrew Pollard created a strong narrative full of adventure and pantomime magic.
Sleeping Beauty—Hackney Empire
Susie McKenna can always be relied upon to bring narratives up to date and make them relevant for 21st-century society. Her refreshing Sleeping Beauty saw the Princess save the Prince as she reminded the audience that anyone can achieve and be anything. Sharon D Clarke's soulful Carabosse was a performance not to be missed and so it was wonderful to hear she'd been acknowledged in the New Year's honours lists along with Clive Rowe, who has appeared as the Empire's Dame in the past.
Dick Whittington—Birmingham Hippodrome
Although pantomime returned 'home' this season courtesy of Qdos, the Birmingham Hippodrome's production equalled, if not topped, the Palladium's due to its stellar cast. Now resident Comic at the venue, Matt Slack's skill and expertise in the role makes him one of the best in the country and Jodi Prenger's Fairy was an excellent panto debut.
No show this season could match the budget or production values of the Palladium's pantomime. After almost 30 years of absence, pantomime returned 'home' and will do so for two further years. The highlight of the production was seeing Julian Clary as Dandini and Paul O'Grady as the Baroness united onstage in a narrative that pitched them as childhood sweethearts.