Our reviewers have chosen their favourite shows from the past twelve months. This list, in no particular order, is their top choice. Below they say why and also which other shows they have liked.
THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK at Bristol Old Vic
TARTUFFE at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres
THE MARKED at Tobacco Factory
THE MISER at Bath Theatre Royal
PINK MIST at Bristol Old Vic
FLOWN at Oxford Playhouse
AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS at Cheltenham Everyman
BALLISTIC at The Old Fire Station, Oxford
THE WEIR at Cheltenham Everyman
101 DALMATIANS at Birmingham Rep
Picture shows Gryff Rhys Jones and Lee Mack in The Miser at Bath Theatre Royal in February
Looking back over my reviews for the past year I am reminded what a rich mixture of theatrical offerings it has been my pleasure to report on. From the fantastical, beautifully articulate yet silent, Translunar Paradise through the magical realism of The Tin Drum, and 1927 Theatre’s spin on an ancient myth in, Golem, with it’s breathtaking mix of live action and projected animation. There was the timely political revival of Gore Vidal’s, The Best Man, and the wonderfully immersive promenade production of Ice Road in a repurposed Victorian swimming pool. Individual performances that stay in the mind must include F Murray Abraham for his juicily calculating one hit playwright in, The Mentor, Jodie Prenger’s cri de coeur in Shirley Valentine and Henry Goodman’s richly rounded performance of Lucian Freud in, Looking at Lucien.
However, The Miser with Griff Rhys Jones gets my vote for top slot for it’s brave reworking of Molière’s original reworking of Plautus’ reworking of a Greek comedy, thus reminding us with a smart squeeze on the funnybone that much still connects us with our ancient forbears. Writers Foley and Porter came up with a script that was true to the spirit of the French play – sharp, funny and clever, whilst all the performances were well-turned cameos. Entertainment and ‘cultcha’, what more could you want?
Top of my list is The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk which I saw at Bristol Old Vic in August. Occasionally, when all the elements that go into making theatre come together successfully, there can be alchemy, an enchantment that lifts a production to a level where it not only delivers delightful story telling, but also elicits a deeply emotional response from an audience. Such was the case with this exceptional Kneehigh production at the Old Vic.
I also really enjoyed The Red Shoes at Bristol Hippodrome. Rarely off-stage during the two-hour performance, Ashley Shaw danced with abandon in a role that demanded sensitivity and athleticism in equal measure throughout. Her triple floor slide while hanging on to lover Craster was nothing less than awesome.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 13 at Tobacco Factory Theatres in June would be third. Prophetically, Mike Bartlett’s extraordinarily powerful political and faith-based play, written in pre-Brexit Britain in 2011, uncannily tackled many of the issues that most concern us six years on. To succeed, ‘13’ needed fast-lane concentration and commitment. The very talented BOVTS ensemble gave it all the welly it needed to give us a memorable night’s theatre. Also at Tobacco Factory Theatres in Waiting For Godot, Beckett’s great existential dialogue was revitalised in this mesmeric and captivating production. David Fielder and Colin Connor as the two down-and-outs, Estragon and Vladimir, triumphantly raged and angsted their conjoined ways through two hours of ‘nothingness’.
Finally La Bohéme by Welsh National Opera, Bristol Hippodrome in March swept us up with Puccini’s glorious melodies throughout this performance, the singers’ understated body language always gave their performances plausibility. This was a memorable night at the Hippodrome – there were cries and roars of approval, and no doubt a few tears, at the final curtain. This was Puccini at his heart-pounding, heart-rending best.
A strong contender is From The House Of The Dead, Janáček’s challenging one-act opera that brought the very best out of the WNO’s orchestra. It was wonderful musically, but for the most memorable drama of the year I am going for Andrew Hilton’s and Dominic Power’s audacious adaptation of Tartuffe at the Tobacco Factory Theatres. Its witty take on the dangers inherent in populist politics has made it more and more relevant as each day passes, and Anna Elijasz’s performance as Danuta the Polish housekeeper remains my favourite comic performance of 2017.
The best show I saw was The Marked by Theatre Témoin at Tobacco Factory in Bristol. It tackles issues of mental health and homelessness in a sensitive and entertaining way. Three actors perform all the roles; they work the puppets, wear masks and full body costumes. They bring us horror, pathos and the odd comic moment. A visceral piece of engaging theatre.
Second place would go to the very funny Six Wives of Henry the Eighth by Living Spit at Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre. Third would be Junkyard at Bristol Old Vic, great entertainment and a good story. I would put Bristol Improv Marathon at the Improv Theatre in fourth – 26 hours… how do they do it? And fifth would be Dirty Dancing at the Hippodrome for its sheer professionalism.
Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic was quality theatre delivering the lot; great writing, performance, staging and direction. It approached a familiar theme of young men at war, but avoided the obvious narrative and delivered scenes that will live long in the memory. Other shows I liked, in order of preference were Othello (Bristol’s Tobacco Factory), Nativity by Living Spit, (Tobacco Factory), People, Places and Things (Bristol Old Vic) and Fossils (Wardrobe, Bristol).
I’d also like to mention the Wardrobe theatre becoming a genuine part of the Bristol theatre scene; quirky shows, great food and genuinely friendly bar staff in comfortable surroundings.
My favourite shows in Oxford in 2017 were, at The North Wall Give Me Your Love by Ridiculusmus, And Here I Am, a one man show from Ahmed Tobasi, Stolen by The Devil’s Violin. At the Playhouse I loved Jack in the Beanstalk, but top of the list for sheer joy, magic, skill and energy is Flown by the superb Pirates of the Carabina. We follow a group of circus artists and their efforts to stage their show amidst comedy, chaos, acrobatics and a fabulous live musical score. For me, the perfect show!
My favourite show in 2017 was Around the World in Eighty Days which I saw at the Cheltenham Everyman. Given the epic RSC, Roman programme, why chose a low profile, comedy? Surely, theatre should be transformative and inspirational: Imperium will cure you of demagogues, Titus of revenge. All the inspirational, split-second humour of Eighty Days does is reduce you to a heap of laughter. In grim 2017, that was worth its weight in rubies!
At Stratford my preferences were Venus and Adonis at the Swan, Imperium Part I, also at The Swan and, in the main house, Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar.
For me, 2017 was a year of smaller theatre, with the majority of my reviews featuring shows from the Burton Taylor Studio, Arts at the Old Fire Station, and the North Wall Theatre. These intimate spaces have provided Oxford (and me) with some wonderful productions, including stunning spoken word performances in Luke Wright’s The Toll and René Sharanya Verma’s Dis-Covery, and damning social critique in Jane Upton’s timely drama, All the Little Lights. However, when asked to recall my outstanding show of 2017, I immediately thought of Ballistic, a play which I’ve thought about frequently since seeing it in the summer. Mark Conway plays a young man, obsessed with gaming and girls. He has little success with the latter, and the audience is drawn inexorably towards this angry, lonely boy as he plots and enacts his revenge on the world. This piece of theatre has continued to resonate with me. Here’s to another year of great theatre in Oxford!
It’s always a bit of a worry looking back at the year in review. You risk finding out you were unduly critical of something that stuck with you a lot longer than you expected. By the same token, you found you praised something effusively when its merits may have been quite fleeting. I’m relieved to say that – for the most part – I have agreed with my past self about 2017 and those shows that really impressed me at the time are those I find myself reflecting on most warmly.
For seasonal delights that really put in a lot effort to cheer in Christmas, A Gloucestershire Midwinter was a great show. There’s little surprise that English Touring Opera’s production of Tosca was the standout opera I saw this year, hitting precisely the right note between the dignity and melodrama of the Puccini classic. Planting the flag for the virtues of comedy in the midst of despair, The Wipers Times was a moving and funny commemorative piece. And The Kite Runner was a gripping staging of Khaled Housseini’s novel.
Ultimately though, my grand prize must go to The Weir. The productions which you keep thinking back on to tease out more depth are always the best. And even without its ruminations on loneliness and a certain kind of Irish identity, the sheer atmosphere that soaked the stage – be it the smoky old pub or the trepidations that the uncanny borders our consciousness – was masterful. In only hope 2018 can offer me as much.
My nomination for best show of the year is the Birmingham Rep’s production of the classic 101 Dalmatians. This show was fantastic for keeping all the family happy. Filled with some outstanding puppetry to create truly heart warming characters in which the entire audience just fell in love with. 101 Dalmatians was a truly creative marvel.
Some honourable mentions include Eurohouse, an interesting take on the relationship between Europe and Greece, which left the audience with so many questions that needed to be answered. Also the UK tour of Beautiful – the Carol King Story at the Birmingham Hippodrome was a real highlight, brimming with foot-tapping songs and wonderful performances from the talented cast.