North of England
The following is a condensed version of David's article 2019: musicals trump serious drama in Manchester.
While 2019 was a disappointing year for original drama, there were some fine performances in dramas. Elysium Theatre’s Danny Solomon seemed to be aspiring to the old James Brown title of the hardest working man in showbiz, cropping up in three productions (four if you count a revival). Solomon gave his usual exceptional performance and his standard was matched (and one might argue surpassed) by his co-stars Alice Frankham and Hannah Ellis Ryan in, respectively, Miss Julie and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (both at Hope Mill).
From famine to feast—it would be possible to compile a ‘best of’ list consisting of nothing else than musicals so rich were the pickings in 2019. In a crowded field, the Royal Exchange probably just about pushed ahead by virtue of staging two stunning musicals. West Side Story ought not to have worked; the theatre-in-the-round stage meant that the original choreography could not be used and it was the first time Sarah Frankcom had directed a musical. Yet this was a vivid, stripped-back production in which little was allowed to interfere with, or distract from, the important business of singing and dancing. Lightning struck twice with the same venue staging a breath-taking version of Gypsy in which Ria Jones gave a powerhouse vocal performance that raised the roof.
Joshua Harmon’s Admissions at The Lowry addressed the highly-topical themes of unearned privilege and the complexities arising from positive discrimination. The play was dominated by a storming performance from Alex Kingston who did not hide the monstrous aspects of her character but managed to draw out the internal conflict of maternal concern for a son’s progress clashing with sincerely-held principles.
There was a glut of delights on the fringe, particularly from companies that refused to acknowledge any limitations imposed by the scant resources available to that sector of theatre. Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women‘s all-female production of the full text of Hamlet stood out, although the determining characteristics were the enthusiasm and talent, rather than the gender, of the cast. Laura Harper’s A Quick Guide to Ruining your Life was comedy gold with a charming performance from Diana Atkins.
The Rite of Spring – Seeta Patel, Quays Theatre, The Lowry
Move over Nijinsky. It has been a year of contemporary choreographic reworkings of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. Working to a much tighter budget than many of her rivals in this crowded field, Patel’s piece honoured the soul of the work whilst giving the dance new power, through her deft melding of classical South Asian dance (Bharatanatyam) with western contemporary elements.
Trojan Horse – LUNG Theatre, The Lowry Studio
Verbatim theatre is a minefield of an art form—how to respect your contributors, whilst sculpting their words into clear and effective drama. LUNG’s work on the 2014 controversy around alleged islamist extremism in Birmingham schools was both brilliantly staged theatre and eye-opening revelation for those of us who had bought into the official Department of Education and right wing media account. One small but vital step towards righting a serious wrong.
As You Like It – RSC, Lyric Theatre, The Lowry
Up and coming young director Kimberley Sykes wrings every ounce of comedy from Shakespeare’s text (this should have been required attendance for every GCSE student studying AYLI). Tim Sutton’s exquisitely eclectic score played a major role in the fun. The cast were inventive and brilliant, none more so than Lucy Phelps, whose Rosalind may soon be part of RSC legend.
Katya Kabanova – Opera North, Lyric Theatre, The Lowry
Whilst their revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s take on La Bohème was delightful, this, for my money, was the jewel in the crown of 2019’s ON offerings. Janacek’s tale of repressed emotions, oppressive village mores, hypocrisy and tragedy was a joy in every aspect. Shining through a strong ensemble, Stephanie Corley gave a performance to be proud of in the title role. Sian Edwards conducted with great sensitivity, enhancing Tim Albery’s insightful, multi-layered direction.
Hobson’s Choice – Royal Exchange Theatre
Of course, it may seem an obvious ploy to transpose Brighouse’s early twentieth century play about a domineering father and his wily daughter into a British Asian context, but you first have to have the idea and then execute it. Set in the Thatcherite 1980s, Tanika Gupta’s adaptation—in which Hari Hobson is an expelled Ugandan Asian who has rebuilt his life and his tailoring business in Manchester—worked a treat. Esh Alladi (in the role made famous by John Mills) deservedly won Best Supporting Performance in this year’s UK Theatre Awards.
The King and I – Opera House, Manchester
In a time when theatres are inundated with new jukebox musicals, it was a joy to see a classic revived and reinvented, with beautiful music, sumptuous designs and excellent vocal performances across the cast. Jose Llana and Annalene Beechey excelled in the lead roles, bringing the moving, relevant story of Anna and the King’s friendship, love and respect across a cultural divide to fresh life.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella – English National Ballet
Christopher Wheeldon’s family-friendly take on the fairytale is guaranteed to endure in English National Ballet’s repertoire, thanks to its pantomime character comedy, touching romance and fantastical Gothic staging—which is spectacular in both proscenium arch and in-the-round versions. Highlights include the enchanted forest transformation scene, replacement of the Fairy Godmother with four masked Fate figures and the Prince and Cinderella’s ball scene duet, a heartstoppingly romantic pas de deux bursting with flowing partner work, sweeping lifts and emotional exuberance.
Les Misérables – Bradford Alhambra
While the decision to retire the original 1985 production of Les Mis was met with some criticism, the touring ‘new’ production (originally conceived in 2009) is meeting with huge acclaim. When I saw it in Bradford, I was left breathless by the sheer scale—the bustling, bawdy ensemble scenes immerse you in the Parisian streets and barricades, and whole cast numbers such as "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" inspire revolutionary fire.
Romeo and Juliet – Royal Ballet
While I’ve been fortunate enough to see it several times before, catching one of my favourite Royal Ballet principals—Vadim Muntagirov—in one of the greatest lead roles for a male dancer was a real highlight. His skill and artistry is showcased to breathtaking effect as Romeo, and his partnership with Sarah Lamb was brilliant.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong – Mischief Theatre
Mischief Theatre’s masterclass in physical comedy was an excellent way to end my reviewing year, crying tears of laughter at their accident-strewn retelling of J M Barrie’s story—complete with collapsing bunk beds, an electrocuting fairy light skirt and many other nods to the perilous world of amateur dramatics.
Ahead of the curve as ever, my show of the year has to be this little-known musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I finally saw this January. It lives up to the hype, and then some.
A more up-to-date recommendation. I was gripped by Annie Baker’s latest play, which provoked in-depth post-show conversation on the journey home. Its imagery, stories and themes will live in my memory a long time.
Similarly enigmatic, though relying much more on visual rather than verbal imagery, this odd, enchanting dance theatre piece made me lean forward in my seat with a bewitched smile on my face. Again, the ideas and visceral emotions it provoked have stuck with me, and I’ll be looking out for more work by Clod Ensemble.
Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum with Expats
A chaotic, booze-fuelled, joyous but also poignant examination of life on Malta which delves deeply into questions of national identity and politics. It also takes us into political territory around the appalling story of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, murdered, it seems, for attempting to expose government corruption and the scandal of cash for Maltese passports. All of this is served up with infectious energy, fierce intelligence, irony and rum.
Are we not drawn onward to new erA
Another show I saw in Edinburgh this year, and another that refuses to be neatly categorised, Ontroerend Goed’s palindromic masterpiece was intricate, challenging, characterful and very funny. An unexpected but, again, potent and memorable combination.
- Keep – Daniel Kitson
- It’s True, It’s True, It’s True – Breach Theatre
- Standing at the Sky's Edge (Sheffield local history);
- Matthew Bourne's Cinderella (brilliant setting in WW2);
- Barber Shop Chronicles (NT and Leeds production);
- The Last King of Scotland (dynamic Sheffield Theatres production);
- Guys and Dolls (a Xmas treat directed with pace and energy by Sheffield Artistic Director Robert Hastie whose work I am always impressed by).