Review of the Year: Theatre and television

Everyone seems to be doing their lists of the top must sees of the year so I thought I’d join in with a list of my top theatrical productions and tv shows of the year.

Theatre

1. After the Dance – National Theatre

This remains the only theatrical production I have ever queued for tickets for in my life. Having completely failed to buy a ticket when any were available 2 episodes of Sherlock later I found myself queuing outside the National at 7:00 in the morning for day tickets. And it was entirely worth it.

After the Dance was just superb. Wonderfully performed by a very impressive ensemble cast it told the story of David Scott-Fowler (Cumberbatch) a historian frittering half his life away on a dreadful book noone will want to read and the other half at vapid parties hosted by his social butterfly of a wife (the brilliant Nancy Carroll) while his merrily drunk friend (Adrian Scarborough) watches all with an all knowing eye.  Into his life comes the sweet, if mercurial Helen who wants to save David from his wasted life and from drinking himself into an early grave.  Only her good intentions result in tragedy for David and those around him.

The play is not exactly a barrel of laughs – Helen’s involvement in David’s life ends up decimating him and his wife and changing his life forever. I came out in need of a very stiff drink. However it is to the credit of the cast that 3+ hours of devastation and tragedy whizzed past in seconds and I never once looked at my watch so rapt was I by the events of stage. The direction by Thea Sharrock was superb, especially the moment where David stands frozen in time while a party forms around him – the guests whirling around him like ghosts. The acting was also some of the very best I’ve seen in a long time. Carroll was magnificent as the bubbly drunken wife who collapses in total grief when she realises that her husband is going to leave her. Her final scene as she hugs David at the piano while he plays her favourite piece was understated, tender and powerfully intimate making the reveal seconds later that she has killed herself all the more devastating. Scarborough fulfilling the role of court jester and stage did his best to steal every scene he was in. And Cumberbatch as Scott-Fowler was superb – understated but commanding he has extraordinary stage presence and was especially powerful in the final act when he breaks down and admits the truth about his wife’s death. I was surrounded in the theatre by people who were there because they’d seen Sherlock and its entirely to Cumberbatch’s credit that his performance as Scott Fowler was so transformative that everyone was diving for their programmes at the first interval trying to work out which of the characters Sherlock was. Superb.

2. La Cage Aux Folles

OK so this was on Broadway rather than the West End but it was worth every penny of the frankly utterly obscene amount I paid for a seat at a cabaret table to watch Douglas Hodge and Kelsey Grammer.  I adore the show and have seen various casts perform the roles in the West End (Hodge and Quast, Graham Norton and Steven Pacey, Allam and Quast and John Barrowman and Simon Burke) and frankly I miss it so when I visited New York this year it was the first show I got a ticket for and the only one I spent money on. And it was fabulous.

I saw Hodge perform as Albin back when the show was at the Menier and his performance has only improved with time. His Albin is arch, witty, funny, sweet, vulnerable and heartbreaking. Yes he can’t sing anywhere near as well as John Barrowman sung the role but it’s such a wonderful performance (and Albin is meant to be a fading star) that the lack of vocal power isn’t an issue. His performance is utterly engaging and his I Am What I Am absolutely heartbreaking. Kelsey Grammer was equally impressive as George. He has a lovely tone to his voice and was utterly convincing as the suave nightclub owner. True as a couple they didn’t share the believable chemistry of Barrowman/Burke or the tenderness of Allam/Quast but it worked well enough and they looked very sweet together.

The show is effectively the same as the West End production with minor tweaks ( I was bewildered that the US version sticks in a couple of f words and yet tones down the (already minimal) sexual content – so you can say fuck but you can’t do it? Weird.). The Broadway version of Anne improved on the West End version – altogether sassier and more likeable. However, Jean Michel was back to being the most slappable character ever (only Gabriel Vick has ever made Jean Michel an acceptable character to me).  And as ever the true stars of the piece were the wonderful Cagelles who were amazing.  The only thing that kept it being sheer perfection was Robin de Jesus portrayal of Jacob which just didn’t work for me at all. Jacob can either be comic brilliance or a total annoyance depending on the actor and his performance grated. But its such a lovely heart warming show that its easy to hand wave one iffy portrayal.

I would kill to see Harvey Feinstein perform Albin next year opposite Jeffrey Tambor but not sure I can justify a trip just for that but well that’s what credit cards were made for…

3. Clybourne Park

Brutally funny and emotionally devastating all at the same time Clybourne Park really challenged its audiences – making them howl with laughter and then question why the hell they’re laughing. Another very strong ensemble cast who pull double duty switching roles entirely during the second act. The Second Act is just extraordinary as polite conversation deteriorates rapidly until within the space of 5 minutes all the characters are insulting each other telling very very un-pc jokes about sex, race and sexuality (the joke about tampons and white women will be staying with me for a while). But its not all edgy scabrous jokes – Sophie Thompson does a very fine turn in the first act as a grieving mother slowly falling apart.  Sadly the upcoming West End transfer is losing its best actor (Martin Freeman who is off to film The Hobbit and who was superb as the priggish racist Karl in the first Act and the laid back idiot in the second who is goaded into telling racist jokes with little prompting) but it’s still well worth catching if only for Sophie Thompson.

4. Design for Living

Funny (well it is Noel Coward), frothy and sporting two brilliant performances from Andrew Scott and Tom Burke this Old Vic production was tremendous fun. It was also the best designed production I saw this year. Everyone looked wonderful in it, the sets were impressive and the New York loft set which opened the final act drew gasps of wonder from the audience when I saw it. I was not at all convinced by Lisa Dillon as the leading lady. I found her character mercurial to say the least and rather hard to empathise with but the male leads turned in splendid performances. Andrew Scott is a marvel, switching from comic highs to distress at the flick of a switch and Tom Burke was utterly charming and sexy as hell. Their entrance together at the beginning of Act 3 actually had the audience gasping in a suitably panto manner at the mayhem that was due to unfold. Special mention must also go to Angus Wright whose lapse into Basil Fawlty-esque rage in the final moments of the play was a comedic highlight.

5. Ghost Stories

A message at the end of Ghost Stories asks you to keep its secrets and certainly it is one play that you need to watch knowing next to nothing about it. With a framing device of a professor debunking tales of the paranormal the show goes on to tell 3 different ghost stories. Possibly something of a case of style over substance it’s never the less an effective chiller. The impressive pervading sense of dread carefully crafted in the first piece is let down by a rather weak (and deriative) pay off but having turned to my friend at that point and glibly stated that they’d have to do a hell of a lot better than that to get a rise out of me they did as a few minutes later I found myself screaming blue murder and leaping about a foot out of my seat. That’ll teach me. The whole thing is nicely bought together by a clever ending with a particularly impressive final illusion (which I still can’t work out how they did it) which I suspect its worth sitting in the stalls for. Original, clever and still on in the West End- go see.

Special Mentions:

Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde. The musical itself is enormous frothy fun (if you’re feeling a bit down go and see it – its very pink and sparkly and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun as Tigger would say) but Sheridan was bloody marvellous in it. Yes OK shes too old for the role- but then so was Reese Witherspoon. But that aside hers was a powerhouse performance that I’m thrilled I got to see.  Shes still in it for a few more shows – grab a ticket before she goes.

Mark Rylance’s 20 minute monologue in La Bete. La Bete was a show I rather unwisely went to see for its cast knowing nothing about it. So my friend and I spent the first 15 minutes looking puzzled at each other until we grasped that the whole bloody thing was going to be in rhyme. Its an odd piece but Rylance’s monologue was just extraordinary – an acting masterclass.

Katie Finneran’s cameo in Promises Promises

Promises Promises was not the most inspiring of Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. Kristin Chenoweth was less impressive on stage than I had hoped and while Sean Hayes is a truly gifted comic actor his singing was almost physically painful to listen to. I was feeling a little disheartened by the whole affair. And then Katie Finneran walked on set as a drunken English barfly and suddenly the entire evening was worthwhile. She very deservedly won a Tony for her performance – it was the best 10 minutes in it..

Simon Russel Beale in Deathtrap – The play itself is somewhat dated and a little old hat (you can read my review on this blog) but Russel-Beale had an absolute ball and was huge fun to watch

And the worst:

The Fantasticks – The only play I have ever walked out on in my entire life. Boring, filled with appallingly unlikeable characters I have absolutely no idea how the hell this is one of the longest running shows on Broadway.

Julie Andrew’s O2 Concert – I was never expecting her to sing so wasn’t perturbed by that. Instead I was somewhat expecting a “sing along to Julie’s greatest hits” – not for her to walk on stage very occasionally and introduce US singers noone had ever heard of or cared about who went on to sing numbers which were mostly entirely unconnected with her body of work. The second half where she narrated her children’s book while the cast of actors ran around pretending to be children while wearing costumes which seemed to be created out of curtains and sticky back plastic had to be seen to be believed. I have never seen so many people walking out during a show. After 5 minutes of the second act I stopped watching the drivel on stage and started watching the audience reactions which was much more fun. Horribly ill judged.

Wolfboy – I’m all for promoting new talent and new musicals and Daniel Boys was quite superb in this but a musical about a victim of incest who gets killed by his psycho lover (who is also probably a rapist and murderer) who thinks he’s a wolf wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs and it wasn’t helped by having two leads who couldn’t really sing a note and a weak score. An interesting oddity I suppose.

Paint Never Dries – Sorry Love Never Dies to give it its proper title. In fairness I should say that I saw this early on before it was changed a million times but it remains one of the worst musicals I’ve ever seen. It seems to have gone down a lot better with people who have never seen Phantom of the Opera and I can see that. For those who have seen Phantom the whole thing was just bewildering – Christine slept with the Phantom? The lovely sweet Raoul is now a gambling wife beating drunk? WTF? All concerned do their best, some of the staging is lovely and it boasts two brilliant tunes in Love Never Dies and Till I Hear Her Sing but the book is a mess and even me being paralytic on a pint of free wine in the second half didn’t improve matters. And the ending did indeed provoke tears from me – of laughter. Avoid.

Television

1. Sherlock

Airing in the summer when tv stations generally bury their worst offerings and launched with precious little fanfare Sherlock took everyone by surprise,  gaining near universal rave reviews from critics and higher audience ratings than Doctor Who. Sharply written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and wonderfully performed Sherlock was hands down my favourite show of the year. Benedict Cumberbatch became an overnight sensation as Sherlock and justifiably so. His Sherlock was manic, childlike, arrogant, ethereal and utterly engaging. It was a superb acting performance and once which should result in Baftas if there is any justice in the world. Martin Freeman was, if anything, even more impressive,  anchoring proceedings marvellously as the battle scarred, ptsd suffering, thrill chasing Doctor Watson. Within minutes of the show starting memories of Tim from The Office had been banished forever. The chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch was electric, instantly forming a truly great double act. The acting was universally superb in fact with even the smallest parts wonderfully cast from Louise Brealey’s dippy lovestruck Molly, Lisa McAllister’s lovely comic performance as “Anthea” and the wondrous Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson. Strong support was also offered by Rupert Graves as Lestrade (gruff, funny and remarkably handsome), Mark Gatiss as the wonderfully creepy Mycroft and Andrew Scott who made the most of his limited screen time as the genuinely deranged Moriarty.

Of course not everything was great about it. The female characters were, in truth, quite appallingly written. There were no fully fleshed female characters in Sherlock, just stereotypes writ large -the timid mousy girl hopelessly in love with the hero (Molly), the bitch (Sally), the interfering old lady (Mrs Hudson), the damsel in distress (Sarah, Soo Lin) etc. There’s also no getting away from the fact that the second episode (the only one not written by Moffat or Gatiss) rather let the side down quality wise and frankly was somewhat jaw droppingly racist (yellow peril? Dodgy Asian smugglers in this day and age? Really? Let’s hope that writer isn’t invited back for the second series). But despite its flaws Sherlock is still a hugely entertaining show and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rewatched the Moffat and Gatiss episodes. Roll on series 2.

2. Doctor Who

When David Tennant finally bowed out in a series of hugely underwhelming, overblown specials I cried many a tear at what felt very much like the end of an era. Within 5 minutes of Matt Smith’s first appearance in The Eleventh Hour it was very much a case of Tennant who? With Moffat at the helm Who was completely reinvigorated this year. Gone was the increasingly tedious sight of the companion making goo goo eyes at the Doctor and the overblown theatrics replaced with a Roald Dahl-esque dark fairytale edge and a much more old school Doctor. Matt Smith was terrific from his very first scene and instantly made the part his own. His doctor is such fun, a breath of fresh air after the over emoting Tennant was frequently forced to do. However he can also handle the dramatic scenes with aplomb. As superb an actor as Tennant is he could never handle the scenes where he had to go all bad ass 900 year old time lord. Smith despite his relative youth is utterly convincing as the man once dubbed “the oncoming storm” effortlessly pulling off the scene in the first episode when he tells the aliens to “basically…run”.

The jury is still out on Karen Gillan. Yes she’s stunningly beautiful but I’m less convinced about her acting abilities. She has lovely chemistry with both Smith and Arthur Darvill but Amy is inconsistently written and portrayed making the character veer from likeable to intensely irritating. I’m rather hoping that some reveal in the next series is going to clear up some of the oddities surrounding Amy but I don’t hold out a great deal of hope.

However it was lovely to get 2 companions for a change and Arthur Darvill was wonderful as Rory (the boy who waited – sniff!), the recent Christmas special didn’t feature him anywhere near enough. Alex Kingston’s River Song may effectively be Jack Harkness with breasts but it’s a joy to see a sexy,  ass kicking actress over the age of 40 on our screens and she works very well with Smith, the awkward almost marriage proposal in the final episode being a particular highlight.

The writing was mostly superb- the opening and closing episodes were especially strong and Moffat’s two parter which saw the return of the weeping angels was disquieting and creepy and boasted a very strong guest performance from Iain Glen as Father Octavian. Of the stand alone episodes Vincent and the Doctor written by Richard Curtis looked stunning and featured my favourite moment of the entire series- the glorious moment when Vincent walks into the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay and Bill Nighy describes Vincent as the greatest painter who ever lived. It should be the cheesiest thing ever, instead it’s heart warming, life affirming and never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

There were some missteps, The Beast Below was a bloody dreadful second episode, the return of the Sirulians wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as I suspect the creators hoped and the Dalek revamp seemed rather cynical and aimed at selling more toys than anything else. But minor whinges apart it was a cracking series.

3. Downton Abbey

I’m not actually a huge fan of period drama but Downton was glorious to look at, superbly acted, had sparkling dialogue and had Maggie Smith playing Maggie Smith. And a hot gay footman. And intrigue and Hugh Bonneville overseeing proceedings splendidly. What’s not to love?

4. Peep Show

Sure this series felt a little weak compared to previous years but my strange love for the utterly inept Mark and Jez knows no bounds. Hell I think my heart even broke just the teeniest bit for Jez at the end of the final episode when he realised that he was about to be homeless and friendless. Plus Matt King as Super Hans continues to steal every single scene he’s in. Mitchell and Webb’s sketch show was also pretty awesome this year although please god no more sketches of Holmes with Alzheimers- most poignant sketch of the year – it had me in tears.

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