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Top shows of 2019 from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

West Side Story Cast - Photo by Ellie Kurttz
West Side Story Cast – Photo by Ellie Kurttz

1. West Side Story, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester “Gangs, fighting in the streets, tensions relating to race and immigration, crimes against the person committed using knives: it’s indicative of some elements of urban Britain today, making this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story all the more relevant.

and West Side Story, Curve Theatre, Leicester
Leicestershire’s Curve Theatre has put on many good shows in recent years – this one must surely rank amongst its very best. A remarkable, astounding and outstanding production.”

2. Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road
There is much to learn here about the ways in which kindness can be shown to strangers, and much to enjoy in the tuneful melodies through which this assortment of characters finds their lives permanently affected, for good or for ill, by what happened over five days in Gander in mid-September 2001. A stunning, powerful and passionate production.”

3. Six, Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street
“…there’s something about the feistiness, the sassiness, the riotousness of it all. I liked the music so much I bought the cast recording on the way out. It only leaves me to wish Six a long and glorious reign.”

4. Dear Evan Hansen, Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane
If anything, this is a show that reminds its audiences that nobody deserves to be forgotten. May Dear Evan Hansen’s sun shine bright in the West End, and (we can but hope) for forever. It’s emotionally exhausting but wholly rewarding: I’ve already booked to see it again.”

& Juliet Cassidy Janson (Anne Hathaway)
& Juliet Cassidy Janson (Anne Hathaway)

5. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
All things considered, it’s a gloriously fun and enthusiastic production. Or as one of the musical numbers rather colourfully puts it, it’s ‘F**kin’ Perfect’ – or, to quote the Bard himself, “If music be the food of love, play on”.

6. Brawn, King’s Head Theatre, Islington
There isn’t an overarching critical incident that overshadows everything and everyone else being spoken about in the play, which I found refreshing. Top marks, then, for an absorbing and passionate production. One could even say it packed quite a punch.”

7. Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street
A cast that works very well together and bounces off one another’s energies is also beneficial in a show where what isn’t said can sometimes ‘speak’ as much as what is spoken aloud. A stylish and sharply perceptive production, this is an excellent and fascinating end to the impressive Pinter at the Pinter season.”

8. Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street
The production does not merely attempt to plonk the movie on stage: while there are some scenes lifted from the original script, there are others that are markedly different. The fusion between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is a snug fit, and this enthusiastic, impressive and breathtaking production must be seen to be believed.”

9. Yamato: Passion, Peacock Theatre, Holborn
The choreography is vibrant and extremely precise. The grimacing and yelling put paid to any sense that all this is any way effortless, and there is the right balance between individual and ensemble performances. The so-called Japanese reserved nature, and the so-called British one, for that matter, were set aside for a couple of hours of sheer escapism. This was, all things considered, an exhilarating and worthwhile experience.”

10. Fiver, Southwark Playhouse
It’s a lot of fun overall but also has poignant moments – one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this emotional rollercoaster. I’d rather have the world of Fiver than a completely cashless society any day of the week.”

I Wish My Life Were Like a Musical Cast
I Wish My Life Were Like a Musical Cast

…and from the Edinburgh Fringe
I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical, Underbelly Bristo Square
I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this show, which manages to be both a no holds barred insight into the musical theatre world and a love letter to that same industry. A witty, heart-warming and energetic production.”

Big Band Does Broadway, theSpace Triplex
There’s something here for musical theatre fans of every generation to enjoy, and every so often the band has the stage to itself. One of their arrangements fuses together the likes of Legally Blonde, The Producers and Hamilton, and when the performers are on stage, this is far from a stand and deliver concert – the choreography is tantalising and enthusiastic. A memorable and exuberant experience.”

In Loyal Company, Pleasance Dome
Arthur ‘Joe’ Robinson (David William Bryan) comes across as a likeable figure. The script is, according to its notes, “based on a true story, but also contains fictional characters”, though all of it, whether made up or not, is thoroughly convincing. The performance includes generous doses of physical theatre – Bryan puts every cell in his body into portraying the horrors of the battlefield and the rather rudimentary medical treatment available.”

Jack Bardo, Judith Roddy in Translations by Brian Friel, image by Catherine Ashmore.
Jack Bardo, Judith Roddy in Translations by Brian Friel, image by Catherine Ashmore.

1) Translations by Brian Friel at the Olivier Theatre

I have seen some excellent theatre at Jermyn Street this year, probably the best written and acted being Granville Barker’s AGNES COLANDER, which really suited the intimate space and was well worth reviving.

I found Florian Zeller’s THE SON at the Duke of York’s a totally riveting evening, being both beautifully written and superbly acted.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, a one night event for charity performed by Showtime Challenge at The Adelphi was a truly amazing event with a highly talented cast of 120 rehearsing and performing this show in 48 hours. This was truly uplifting, and of a very high standard.

Amongst many plays seen at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, the one that stands out, and not because it was the most recent, was MARTHA, JOSIE AND THE CHINESE ELVIS, which, unlike many twenty year-old plays, comes up even fresher and more relevant than it was in 1999, and VERY funny.

The Greatest Play In The History Of The World - Photographer credit: Savannah Photographic.
The Greatest Play In The History Of The World – Photographer credit: Savannah Photographic.

However, pride of place in the Number One spot must be THE GREATEST PLAY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, at Trafalgar Studios, a one-handed piece which is very humorous, relevant and, above all, involving. I should love to see it again! (hint!)

1. MUSIK by Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys. One-person show featuring Frances Barber. (Ed Fringe and Leicester Square Theatre).
Many gobs have been smacked.

2. Superstar written and performed by Nicola Wren. (Ed Fringe and Southwark Playhouse) Wren hilariously and consciously uncoupling from her Superstar Brother – Chris Martin of Coldplay.

3. The Ruffian On The Stair by Joe Orton (The Hope Theatre)
Classic Orton classily performed.

4. Rouse, Ye Women! by Neil Gore/Townsend Productions. (Greenwich Theatre) Political theatre at its zenith.

5. Raphael Wakefield: Wengerball written and performed by Raphael Wakefield (Ed Fringe and Soho Theatre) . Football – A matter of life or death? It’s much more serious than that: there’s a pixie-vampire for starters.

Top 6 shows of 2019:
Sam. The Good Person – Bunker
[Title Of Show] – Above The Stag
Thrill Me – The Hope Theatre
Ghost Quartet – Boulevard Theatre
Shida – The Vaults
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button – Southwark Playhouse

1. The Bridges of Madison County – I’ve been waiting for a long time for this musical to reach London and when it arrived it exceeded my already astronomical expectations. Beautiful music, beautifully acted and performed by a very talented cast.

2. Come From Away – A beautiful and heartwarming show that never fails to make me smile, whatever else is going on in the world.

3. The Inheritance – Worth every bit of the 7+ hours spent in the theatre, it was poignant, funny and devastating in equal measure.

4. Company – The gender swap worked an absolute treat leading to a fast paced, funny, and highly relate-able musical.

The Son – Kiln Theatre
Lungs – Old Vic Theatre
All’s Well That Ends Well – Jermyn Street Theatre
The Watsons – Menier Chocolate Factory

The View Upstairs: Soho Theatre
From the vibrant opening to the gut-wrenching finale the audience was taken on a journey. With an outstanding cast, varied score and absolutely riveting story The View Upstairs was the must-see show of the summer.

Once On This Island - Photo by Elza Wilmot
Once On This Island – Photo by Elza Wilmot

Once On This Island: Southwark Playhouse
BTA’s summer show was a delight to see. It’s safe to say that the future of Musical Theatre is in safe hands if the talent on offer at Once On This Island was anything to go by! Stunning vocals, enthusiastic, passionate dancing and skilful storytelling. It was amazing that these performers are all aged under 23 as they give a masterclass in storytelling! Hopefully this is not the last UK audiences see if this beautiful show.

&Juliet: Shaftesbury Theatre
This is quite frankly is a musical extravaganza! It manages to mix Shakespeare’s most well-loved characters with modern pop hits and does so amazingly. A modern masterpiece. Full of fun, wow moments and humour whilst also sending out an empowering message about being true to yourself. &Juliet is a very polished original production and one that will no doubt be enjoyed by many for a long time to come. Look out for this popular show. It is likely to score very highly in the Awards next year.

Come From Away: Phoenix Theatre
There are few shows which tell such a tragic, important, heartwarming story yet manage to do so with humour, humility and conviction as Come From Away does. The spellbinding storytelling from the outstanding cast throughout the production is spectacular. Its moving true storyline, innovative staging, emotive characters and fresh music shows how we can truly support each other and find positives even in our darkest moments. Having won so many awards this year it will no doubt continue to thrive in 2020.

Six: Arts Theatre
2019 really is the year that Tudor queens took over. Sell out shows in London, a UK tour, run in Chicago and now is on its way to Australia and Broadway and already travelling the world on three cruise ships. It is full of sass, incredibly witty lyrics, catchy tunes and femininity. It is easy to see why it has gathered such a large following. With their clever casting and use of alternates meaning that repeat visits are almost expected Six continues to be the hit of 2019.

Gastronomic by curious directive, Bring Them Home by Treehouse, The Illusionists and The Twilight Zone were my favourite experiences of the year.

Operation Mincemeat – best musical or comedy
Anna X – best drama and performances

The Doctor, Almeida
The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, Park Theatre
Present Laughter, Old Vic
The Astonishing Singing Fish, Brockley Jack
Downstate, Dorfman

For reasons associated with the “Day Job”, I was only able to get to 69 shows this year for London Theatre 1 and the Offies.

However, it has still been a pretty good year for me theatrically, with 24 productions receiving 5 stars. This either means I am getting softer in my old age, or there are some very impressive shows out there. Let’s delve into the top 10 of these and see what we think.

Operation Black Antler. Deep swimming in a murky world - Image Credit Blast Theory
Operation Black Antler. Deep swimming in a murky world – Image Credit Blast Theory

No 10 – Operation Black Antler at the Southbank Centre
This is the first of two immersive theatre shows in the top 10, and was a real surprise. To quote the blurb I received – “In Operation Black Antler you are given a new identity as part of a small team; you are briefed and then sent into an undercover operation. You must meet, build empathy with and ultimately try to win the trust of someone whose political and moral views may be the polar opposite of our own. What will you do when the power is in your hands?” – and they weren’t kidding. Like most immersive theatre, you get out of it what you put in and this one had me thinking and facing a scenario that was so against everything the real Terry believes in, and yet it was easy to fall into the extremely well crafted world the team had created, that by the end I wanted to go home and have a shower to clean myself up.

No 9 – King Charles III at The Tower Theatre
First show of 2019 and what a corker. I had seen the play of TV but it was nothing compared to the real thing. The story follows the monarchy as Charles takes over from his mother and finally ascends the throne. Unfortunately – and without giving too much away – he isn’t very good at the role of King, and it falls to his sons and daughter-in-law (this was pre- Meghan) to save the country. Some wonderful speeches and a positively Shakespearean tone make this a really thought provoking play.

No 8 – Vulvarine at the King’s Head Theatre
One to redress the imbalance of female superheroes this. I described it in my review as bonkers and fun, and it certainly was that. A clerk from High Wycombe becomes a super hero fighting crime and righting wrongs in this show that, whilst only being around 70 minutes long, really fills those minutes with great music and entertainment. This is a feminist musical but without going down the ‘all men are b*stards’ route. Even the worst of the men, were enjoyable to watch and I happily laughed at their ineptitude and stupidity along with everyone else

No 7 – Awkward Conversations With Animals I’ve F*cked at the King’s Head Theatre
This was my second time seeing this particular show and since I had seen it the first time, I had met and interviewed the cast – Linus Karp – and read the playtext a few times. For me, the play about Bobby, a sad lonely man who finds ‘love’ with animals instead of humans, still worked and Linus’ portrayal of Bobby, was still both funny and poignant. The main reason it has made the list is because of the discussion it caused between my companion Michael and myself afterwards. Both of us had completely different opinions on Bobby and his actions. The fact that we ended up agreeing to disagree was, for me, the hallmark of great writing and acting.

No 6 – Ghost Stories at the Ambassadors Theatre
I do have a tendency to emotionally connect with plays way too much. I am often moved to tears – either of joy or sadness – and quite often spend way too long thinking over what happened next. However, not many shows leave me terrified. I love stage magic and usually try to work out how something was accomplished on the stage. But, Ghost Stories, was different. Fear permeated through the theatre as we walked into the auditorium, decorated with numbers on the side walls, and industrial lamps as house lights. It all started out very innocently, and then built into something quite terrifying as we went through the various stories to an ending that was both disturbing and totally unexpected. Funnily enough, I don’t think this would work as a movie or on TV. It needs the feedback of a live audience to add to the atmosphere and keep the sense of horror growing.

No 5 – Hello Dolly by Blackburn Musical Theatre Company
It’s off Up North we go for this amateur production of a well known musical. This took me completely by surprise in not only the quality of the show but the sheer professionalism of everybody involved. I know Imelda Staunton is wowing them in London as Dolly Levi, but if she is feeling off one day, then I can happily recommend Sue Chadwick as an understudy. This was as fine an example of perfect casting as I’ve seen in a long, long time and Sue really shone as the interfering Dolly. But it wasn’t just her, the entire case really gave their all delivered a truly first rate production.

No 4 – Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican Theatre
For a show not far off it’s 50th Birthday, JC Superstar is still a crowd pleaser and works as well in the twenty-first century as it did back in 1970. This production transferred from the Regents Park Open Air Theatre and only had a limited run at the Barbican, so I was only able to see it once. I really wanted to go again as there was so much happening that you really needed a second trip to take it all in. The production was superb, especially in simple things like using glitter in ways never thought of before. For example, Judas’ hands after he agreed to betray Jesus and the whipping scene. Matt Cardle as was a welcome addition as Pilte and Robert Tripolin was simply sublime as Jesus. A truly fantastic production.

No 3 – Crisis? What Crisis? at The Colab Factory
2nd immersive experience in the list, and what a little belter this was. Set in 1979 before a crucial vote to determine if Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was going to survive or the country be cast into an unwelcome and unwanted election – sound familiar? The show really did involve everyone in formalising and implementing a strategy to save the government. I was heavily involved in finding and exploiting political weaknesses amongst MPs as well as a little bribery and blackmail when necessary. What I loved about the production was the amount of detail everywhere. Everything was right. The costumes, the furniture, They even had a teletext TV sitting there with the news scrolling through. I can only sum this show up by quoting the final part of my review – “I’ve done quite a bit of immersive theatre in my time, but I have to say that Crisis? What Crisis? is now the yardstick against which any future shows will be measured.”

No 2 – Once On This Island at Southwark Playhouse
While the rest of the reviewing world charged up to Edinburgh, I stayed in London, which was lucky as I got to see this wonderful production by the British Theatre Academy. A story of Gods and mortals, racism, love and duty, Once on this Island is, in itself, pretty impressive. With a running time and a score of twenty songs, the story of Daniel and Ti Moune is beautifully told and, with this highly talented young cast, brought to life in superb style. It’s not often you get a cast where everyone is considered the proverbial ‘triple threat’ but this cast, sang, danced and acted as if they had been born to it. I honestly cannot praise this company and this show highly enough and the entire thing left me with a really good feeling about the future of theatre.

Bleach - Photo credit Steve Gregson Photography.
Bleach – Photo credit Steve Gregson Photography.

No 1 – Bleach presented by Dan Ireland-Reeves at the Vault Festival
This was definitely the highlight of the year for me and it was something I initially thought about turning down. The press release said “When a misguided rent boy finds himself taking the starring role in a snuff film, he’s forced to question whether living in London is really worth the cost of rent.” and my immediate thought was that this wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs.

However, the Vault Festival rarely disappoints so away I went, and I’m so glad I did. Dan Ireland-Reeves, who also performed the show, presents Tyler, a young gay man who has moved to London and wound up as a professional rent boy (prostitute). He is doing well at the work, as he is young, attractive and meticulously organised to ensure his clients wants are satisfied. Then, one night, a very wealthy client has Tyler round and instead of a normal session, it turns into the boy actively participating in a snuff movie. We follow Tyler through every step of the experience and it’s aftermath, seeing how it affects every aspect of his life. Dan’s writing is frank, honest and compelling. I don’t want to give anything away but in the final scene, I found myself totally fixated on Tyler in a way that left me feeling voyeuristic and ashamed.

The next day, I downloaded the playtext and started reading it, then had to stop as I found the same feelings starting to overcome me again. It’s not often something affects me like that and I was really impressed that this show had. One other major thing about Bleach which didn’t strike me until later, was the ending which entirely depended on the person seeing the show. At the time of seeing the performance, I saw Tyler’s story ending a certain way, but then, having read it, I saw a completely different ending to the tale. Speaking with the author, he agreed that is could be interpreted different ways and Tyler really depended on the director, actor and viewer to finish his tale.

So, there you have it. A reduced number of shows seen but still some absolute corkers in there. Bring on 2020.

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