Midlands and Wales
Seedy, sordid, grotesquely offensive, it’s everything your mother warned you against. It’s terrific, of course, and no-one could top John Partridge as the Emcee in a great production of Cabaret as the outstanding performer in a musical this year. But the award for the greatest show goes to The Boy In The Dress, a belter of an RSC creation that seems set to emulate the success of Matilda a decade ago.
Ayckbourn shows no signs of losing popularity although revivals of the lesser-known plays did not always wear well. But there was one laugh-a-minute show, with a particularly long and loud one for a tour-de-force by Stephen Tomkinson in Art by Yazmin Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, which gets my Chucklecup.
Best classic revival
By their very high standards, there were some unremarkable roductions at the RSC this year. Then along came Sandy Grierson as baddie Angelo, whose look could curdle milk, and the brilliant direction of Greg Doran, that won me over to Measure for Measure, a play I’d never greatly enjoyed in five previous outings. But it was the pairing of Jonathan Slinger and Alexandra Gilbreath at the RSC that remained most vividly in the memory, making John Vanburgh’s The Provoked Wife, just, my choice for best classic revival.
Best drama on tour
Travel anywhere in Europe or further afield and one appreciates how lucky we are in Britain to have touring theatre of such high quality. This was a good year, with plays like Prism with the admirable Robert Lindsay, the intriguing Murder, Margaret and Me and the stage version of My Beautiful Laundrette all winning praise and good audiences. Early in 2019 came a riveting Glengarry Glen Ross with Mark Benton and Nigel Harman excelling in the dynamite dialogue. But my vote goes to The Entertainer starring Shane Richie, updated from the time of Suez, and still bristling with resentment 50 years on.
I was lucky enough to see productions by Opera Australia who produced a near-perfect Cosi fan tutte. Buxton presented an elegant Eugene Onegin with modest sets—in line with Tchaikovsky’s intentions. But who could not be won over by the winner in this category, Welsh National Opera’s superb, irresistible Cunning Little Vixen, delightfully sung, wittily designed by the late Maria Björnson, and played with distinction by 70 musicians under the baton of the incomparable Tomaš Hanus?
Production of the Year
National Theatre Wales has been much criticised over the past few years, but On Bear Ridge, Ed Thomas’s return to writing for theatre featuring a powerhouse cast headed by the magisterial Rhys Ifans, was a beautifully-staged, timely, moving and funny Beckettian meditation on love, loss and language.
Touring production of the year
The Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, with the music of the Beatles subtly re-arranged by Ethan Iverson, was a colourful and heartening reminder of a more optimistic age.
Performance of the year
Theatre of the Year
Making the most of a challenging financial situation, The Other Room has continued to punch well above its weight, whether hosting a curated Spring Fringe season of adventurous small-scale work, collaborating with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in a powerful production of Sarah Kane’s Crave, or presenting a trilogy of new, dystopian dramas under the banner of The Violence Series.
Moment of the year (on-stage)
The breathtaking use of 19th century all-done-with-mirrors stage effects by choreographer Fernando Melo and lighting designer Peter Lundin in Afterimage, part of National Dance Company Wales’ Awakening show.
Moment of the year (off-stage)
Spotting Sir Ian McKellen and Frances Barber supporting old friend Sean Matthias as he revived his first play A Prayer For Wings in an intimate Swansea venue.
Playwright of the Year
Having seen over two dozen productions of plays by Welsh and Wales-based dramatists in 2019 (not counting scratch nights or rehearsed readings), often produced or co-produced by the writers themselves, I would give this collectively to The Playwrights Of Wales—an undervalued and marginalised but resilient species.
My usual places for enjoying theatre are Leicester and Northampton, and whilst I admire and often enjoy the work produced locally, I am also grateful for the touring shows which stop off in the Midlands. Reading about the many shows making an impact elsewhere and which I can’t get to is frustrating (but hey, first world problems). However, in April, I ventured down to London to see Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, a wonderfully exuberant, lively show with a cracking score. Not long after my return, I heard it will be on tour in 2020, including Curve Theatre, Leicester. Hooray!
A pleasant surprise
The blurb for Notnow Collective’s Pepper and Honey (Attenborough Arts Centre) brought on a tremour of Brexit-fear and I have to admit I felt a little wary. I needn’t have worried though—turns out it is an engaging and charming story about home and what it means to different people; it’s about the choices we make and the cultures which inform us. More dates are planned for 2020.
A brave revival
West Side Story for me is in a league of its own. With its thrilling score, still-relevant themes and heartbreaking story, it is a masterpiece. The film is sublime, the stage version can be, although I’ve seen some rather under-par productions over the years. Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster therefore made a brave choice to have this as Curve's Christmas production for 2019, likewise choreographer Ellen Kane stepping up to revisit the iconic choreography. Pleased to report this is an inventive and assured production.
A lesson in performance
I ventured off-patch in March, this time to the RSC to see Anthony Sher and John Kani at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in Kunene and the King. A rich, reflective piece, it was a pleasure to see two great actors at work, with many big themes confronted in a convincing performance.
A beautifully-imagined nightmare
The bright heat and dust of Africa came to Northampton’s Royal and Derngate stage with their production of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho. Tackling racial tension and religion in Rwanda (and before the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s), this piece examines an odd incident where three girls claim to have been visited by the Virgin Mary who warns them of impending violence. Performances from the whole cast along with James Dacre’s direction did not resort to cliché or stereotype in chilling and affecting scenes.
A series of punches to the gut
At last, a chance to see Cabaret on stage in Bill Kenwright’s touring production. The gut punches aren’t a bad thing, more a reflection of the impact on my emotions. This is a dirty, decadent show, brilliantly staged and performed, particularly John Partridge as Emcee. The feeling of dread builds to the final awful (and gut-wrenching) scenes.
Another stunning year in the Midlands, with a number of high-quality productions illustrating the enormous reserves of talent the region possesses. Here are my top five (in chronological order):
Ghosts – Royal and Derngate, Northampton
Three exceptional performances: Penny Downie gripping as Helen, James Wilby superb as Pastor Manders and Pierro Niel-Mee measured as Osvald in an unforgettable show deftly directed by Lucy Bailey.
Wait Until Dark – Tabs Productions at the Theatre Royal Nottingham
One of the four plays in the continually improving Classic Thriller Season, a masterful offering with Anna Mitcham giving a stunningly good performance as blind burglary victim Susy.
One Man, Two Guvnors – Derby Theatre
The theatre’s artistic director Sarah Brigham succeeding admirably in her desire to give audiences a good night out, with David O’Reilly the perfect choice to play Francis Henshall.
An Enemy of the People – Nottingham Playhouse
Ten months after persuading Mark Gatiss to leave London to take the lead in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III, another coup by artistic director Adam Penford by casting Alex Kingston as Dr Teresa Stockmann, giving an engrossing production considerable depth and meaning.
Prism – Theatre Royal, Nottingham
A rare opportunity to see Derbyshire actor Robert Lindsay in the East Midlands; a mesmerising performance as cinematographer Jack Cardiff with an impressive display by Tara Fitzgerald as his wife Nicola.