I was lucky/sad/unsociable enough to go to the theatre 174 times in 2016 (list here, in case anyone cares). Here’s my top 10 shows, plus 10 that *almost* made the cut and 10 that absolutely didn’t.
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with me: fair. I guess I like watching how directors, performers and designers ‘make people feel stuff’, and working out what I’d have done differently. I like having a reason to leave the office at a sensible hour each evening, and I want to make decent theatre myself. I believe you need to watch a hell of a lot of other peoples’ work to have a hope in hell of making anything worthwhile yourself – so I try to.
Before I tap out my top 10 shows of 2016, I just want to say that if seeing 174 a year is appealing, you absolutely could and should. You don’t need to be a millionaire (I’m certainly not, unfortunately). If you’re U26, there are particularly mental deals – but even if not, there’s the occasional genuinely brilliant ticket offer out there. The trick’s just knowing how to sniff them out. And if you’re even savvier, there’s sometimes ways to get into stuff for nothing at all. I’ll try my best to give you some tips for doing both of those things in my next post.
Anyway, having done a recce of my memory, here’s the top 10 shows that had the most impact on me (plus 10 I still wanted to mention for being amazing, and 10 for being pretty shite). I don’t really expect anyone to read this properly, it’s primarily just for me to reminisce about some of the most epic moments of my year. But if you are – cheers! And feel free to let me know what yours were down the bottom:
My top 10 shows (no particular order)
#1: The Flick @ Dorfman, National Theatre. Yeah, a safe first choice (it’s on all the critics’ top 10 show lists too) – but it bloody well deserves to be. A spellbinding 3 ¼ hours (about half in complete silence) about what counts as ‘real’ in our world, with the strongest acting performances of my year. A transfer from NYC, yet felt like it had been written for both the Dorfman and its cast. Takes a lot to makes me want to run on and group-hug all three of the characters, but hell I wanted to.
#2: Bad Jews @ Theatre Royal Haymarket. A pleasant, brilliant surprise. The funniest show I saw all year, and infinitely more fantastic than its marketing campaign made it look. The writing was the sharpest I’ve seen in a long time, and the performances were well observed, high-energy and fun. ‘Summertime’ was a genius set piece, and the one time in 2016 that I cried with laughter.
#3: McConie Company’s Jekyll & Hyde @ Old Vic. The best dance piece I’ve seen since Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands (which was bloody ages ago). Stylishly designed, with playful, accessible and crowd-pleasing choreography, a particularly superb female ensemble and a consistently coherent narrative (pretty rare for dance, right?).
#4: Super Night Shot (Gob Squad) @ Theatre Tent, Latitude Festival. The most logistically impressive out of my top 10 shows, and of my year. Running riot around the festival an hour before the audience arrived, Gob Squad embarked on a ‘Victoria’-esque quest to find and film ‘narratives’ that already existed amongst festival-goers they drag into the piece, as well as inventing their own. The film I saw – edited as it’s being screened in real-time – was stupidly impressive, the cameras and actors movement synchronised beyond comprehension. It’s easy to just think of it as a logistical tour-de-force but that wouldn’t give it the full credit it deserved either. It was funny, celebratory and genuinely mischievous, one I’d love to see play out in real cities when participants may not be quite immediately receptive to strange bunny rabbits giving them instructions as the drunk-on-Pimms Latitude clan.
#5: People, Places and Things @ Wyndham’s Theatre. I mean, obvs. Expect it was even more spectacular back at the NT (still kicking myself I overslept on entry pass booking day), but it was good enough at the Wyndham’s for me. Gough’s performance was as good as – if not better than – the seemingly impossible hype suggested, and the writing, projection and choreography is something I could bang on at/bore you about until 2018.
#6: Blanc de Blanc @ Hippodrome Casino, Leicester Square. Downright superb cabaret which, like every cabaret show ever, didn’t get the critical attention it deserved. The finest lip-sync act I’ve ever come across, and a stunning balloon set piece (not the one in the pic below, though that was fun too) that’ll make me smile for years. The MC was admittedly the most bizarre casting decision of all time, and the only weak link in an otherwise world-class class – but I hope it returns in a bigger venue, with even more fantastic set pieces (and a new host. I’d happily give them suggestions).
#7: Dreamgirls @ Savoy Theatre. Another one that wasn’t perfect (shoddy blocking. Baffled that anyone could think placing a massive ugly table in-between Effie and the audience during ‘And I Am Telling You’ would be a good idea…she didn’t need it to lean on. Plus a couple of truly awful filler songs that needed to be cut). But who gives a monkeys about things like that when the audience get the vocals they do. I expected Amber Riley to be good, but nowhere near as good as she is. Anyone who’s seen/heard her AIATY and doesn’t admit its their single theatre (as well as musical) highlight of 2016, and possibly of all time, is lying. 100%.
#8: Cirque Inextremistes: Extrêmités @ Teatro Circo Price, Madrid. Thanks to a £2 Ryanair-sale-flight, I found myself in Madrid and inadvertently saw my circus highlight of 2016. I’ll admit, I decided it was the best night ever before the show even started: it’s impossible to not fall in love with the venue instantly. But the three effortlessly cool performers – one a wheelchair user – made me feel like I’d never seen circus before. The worst thing about seeing lots of circus is you get desensitised to the ‘risk’ and start taking things for granted. But this show made me sweat as profusely as the first time I ever went. Everything was so makeshift, so wonky, so ‘imperfect’ – that I was convinced these guys could and would literally die at any second. Bluntly, that’s the way circus should be.
#9: LOVE @ Dorfman, National Theatre. The most affecting piece of my year, though it lacked the call-to-arms of Beyond Caring. This one left me not knowing what to do, other than just cry/set job centres on fire, but still – it’s essential viewing. The fairy liquid scene is one I’ll never forget, and the performances – especially from the elderly incontinent lady, but maybe that’s unfair on the others – were profound and respectful and subtle. The play’s not entirely dissimilar to The Flick, more than content with silence, and just rocked. Never seen so many critics unanimously jump up at the same time for the ovation, and rightly so.
#10: Triple Threat (Lucy McCormick) @ Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Festival. 2016 was a dud Edinburgh year for me – I saw a hell of a lot of good stuff, but little that left me excited. This, though, made the 11hr Megabus single-handedly worth it. An X-rated, Marina-Abramovich-meets-RuPaul’s-Drag-Race ‘reenactment’ of the New Testament, it was queer, beautifully disgusting and fabulously irreverent. Two fingers were stuck up (specific orifices, at times, as well as) at anyone in the audience who shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and their reactions alone made it the best thing I saw. The show seemed like a personification of what the Edinburgh Fringe should be about, and I had all of the fun.
10 that didn’t quite make my ‘top 10 shows’ but were bloody sensational too
- Yerma @ Young Vic – Billie Piper was insane. The rest of the cast were insane. The re-write of the play didn’t entirely work in my opinion , which is why it’s here and not above. But be under no illusion that BILLIE PIPER WAS INSANE.
- He Who Falls (Celui Qui Tombe) @ Barbican – the most visually epic production of my 2016
- Iphigenia in Splott @ Temporary Theatre, National Theatre – probably the best one-woman show I’ve ever seen and a strong contender, alongside Denise Gough and Billie, for most memorable performance of my year
- Soho (2nd Year Ensemble Show) @ National Centre for Circus Arts – more ambition and imagination behind it than any other circus show I saw this year
- The Maids @ Trafalgar Studios – political and stylish and superbly performed. Uzo is a goddess.
- Familie Flöz presents Teatro Delusio @ Theatre Tent, Latitude – pure puppetry magic, and a close-second for most logistically impressive endeavour of the year
- The Talk @ Forest Fringe at Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh – my favourite interactive show of the year, seemingly effortlessly performed
- The Tempest (Donmar Trilogy) @ King’s Cross Theatre – my favourite of a colossally amazing trilogy, truly accessible Shakespeare for OITNB fans (like me)
- If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You @ Old Red Lion Theatre – my pub theatre highlight. Effortlessly impressive performances and design elements, doing justice to an interesting, thorny and witty new play. I really really hope it goes further.
- Hedda Gabler @ Lyttelton, National Theatre – with the exception of the GCSE drama ‘now I’m going to staple some flowers to the wall for a ridiculous amount of time’ section, a bold and sexy belter of a production that I actually preferred to his View from The Bridge
10 that were not so great…
- The Suicide @ Lyttelton, National Theatre – great ambition and great that it aimed, and succeeded, to have one of the NT’s most diverse casts ever. But the material that cast had to bring to life was excruciating. They seemed a little apologetic during the curtain call, and I felt quite sorry for them (not a great sign). We also need to talk about the design. There’s a fine line between a production being made to ‘look’ hectic, and it just being an actual mess. I’m not sure it was the former.
- Kinky Boots @ Adelphi Theatre – just didn’t get it. It was a rainy weeknight, fine, but the drag queens couldn’t have been less happy to be there (and I refuse to accept that’s part of their ‘characterisation’). My only conclusion is someone in the cast must have died seconds before the curtain came up, because they barely even marked the choreography. The music were samey and forgettable (I left humming nothing), story tedious, and it just made me want Made in Dagenham to be still there. So much.
- The Raunch @ Underbelly Southbank – admittedly saw it’s first preview, so I cross all my fingers and toes that it improved over time. But unless they changed every element of every act, bar the cyr wheel sequence which was alright-ish, I worry it was beyond saving. Over half of the performers literally didn’t display any talent/skill other than the ability to walk around the stage pretending to be a cowboy, and I’ve never seen a show flow from scene to scene less fluidly. It was sort of hilarious in its clunkiness but sort of not OK.
- Adler & Gibb @ Unicorn Theatre – undoubtedly won the prize for ‘most times I looked at my watch and wished I was literally anywhere else’. Pretentious drivel, in my opinion. So smug. SO smug.
- No’s Knife @ Old Vic – an elderly man sitting behind me kept angrily muttering ‘GET OFF’ during this one-woman show. I don’t usually tolerate people talking around me, but I quite happily let him carry on…
- Art @ Old Vic – the most unfunny ‘comedy’ of my year. Lazy and dated and tedious and, again, SO smug. Felt like the people around me were only laughing because they thought they should, because they’d paid so much to see it, because it was ‘Art’, because that’s like a seminal play. So haha it must be funny….nah.
- Once @ Assembly George Square, Edinburgh – one of those Edinburgh shows when you spend the whole hour thinking about how many amazing things you’re probably missing out on in the surrounding venues. I felt like I’d taken some really dodgy drugs, tripped out and left wanting counselling.
- The War of the Worlds @ Dominion Theatre – lol. So bad. SO bad. I mean, of course it was going to be, I was mentally prepared. But this was even worse than expected.
- Fucking Men @ The Vaults – ropey writing, cringe-worthy performances, another LGBT fringe piece which should – and probably could – have been so much more interesting
- Removal Men @ Yard Theatre – I wanted to like it a lot (the venue is always just so great), but I’m not ashamed to admit I just couldn’t follow what was supposed to be going on – and after a while, I just got pissed off and stopped bothering to pay attention. I hate shows where you leave feeling stupid or inadequate, especially when you have a first-class honours in theatre from Warwick and kind of think you usually know what you’re talking about, but this made me feel that way and I didn’t enjoy that.
I’d love to hear what anyone else’s top 10 shows were – feel free to post them below, or I’d be more than happy to show anyone how they can set up their own blog and do a similar type thing if you’d like to do the same! Thanks for reading and hope you had a fantastic new year.