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Year in review: 145 shows that defined theatre in 2016

Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton Declan Bennet (front) and Tyrone Huntley (back, centre) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Mark Shenton

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: 2016 saw us lose such diverse cultural icons as David Bowie and Victoria Wood far too soon, both of whom had theatrical form. Bowie once starred on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and his penultimate artistic creation was a disturbing original musical, Lazarus, that’s now in London at the King’s Cross Theatre. It was at the King’s Head in Islington that I first encountered Wood in the early 1980s; later she’d command much larger spaces, such as the Royal Albert Hall.

But the keenest and most unexpected theatrical loss was surely that of Howard Davies, one of our finest directors. Two projects he was working on at the time of his death were completed by others (The Plough and the Stars at the National by Jeremy Herrin and Wild Honey at Hampstead by Jonathan Kent, both just the sort of epic plays he would animate so thrillingly).

We also lost veteran directors Peter Wood and William Gaskill, producers Robert Stigwood (responsible for the original Evita) and Michael White (Rocky Horror Show), as well as actors Alan Rickman and Louise Plowright, both also too young.

Noma Dumezweni, Paul Thornley and Jamie Parker in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Noma Dumezweni, Paul Thornley and Jamie Parker in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It was also the year when Harry Potter took theatrical shape; after eight movies, it was now the turn of the stage. But, instead of adapting an existing story, the unmissable fascination of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for fans of the franchise was that JK Rowling created a new story, with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. This resumed the tale in play form, with a now adult Potter, 19 years on from the final instalment of the fiction series. It became the fastest-selling show in West End history, and when an additional 250,000 tickets were put on sale for performances until the end of 2017, they sold out in a single day. This is a show that I doubt will close during my lifetime, so – bar any return visits to see it – I’m unlikely to see the inside the Palace Theatre again. It’s been nice knowing it.

Harry Potter was co-produced by Sonia Friedman, who has become the most powerful force in the commercial West End: she also brought Mark Rylance back to Theatreland in Nice Fish, a quirky play he co-wrote, and ended the year with the smashing London premiere, 35 years after its Broadway opening, of Dreamgirls. That was just one of a clutch of American (or American-originated) musicals that made their mark in London across the year. Dreamgirls is inspired by the story of the rise of Motown act Diana Ross and the Supremes,  given a blisteringly memorable original score by Henry Krieger (who also saw the premiere of his beautiful 1997 show Side Show at Southwark Playhouse), but Motown the Musical arrived at the Shaftesbury Theatre from Broadway to prove itself to be the ultimate jukebox show, stuffed to the gills with great songs.

Disney’s Aladdin arrived in the summer, well ahead of the panto season for which this title is usually a staple, though Casey Nicholaw’s lavish, ravishing production didn’t shake off those associations entirely. Also first seen on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, School of Rock (his first show to be premiered there ahead of London since Jesus Christ Superstar 45 years ago), arrived at the New London. Featuring a pre-teen band of musicians, it was the composer’s most fun show in years.

There were also a host of compelling fringe premieres of Off-Broadway shows including Grey Gardens (with two of the best performances of the year from Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell as an eccentrically co-dependent mother and daughter), The Adding Machine and The Burnt Part Boys at Southwark, the Finborough and the Park respectively.

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan

But easily the best, most audacious original musical of the year was the stage version of Groundhog Day that originated at the Old Vic and is now Broadway-bound. Composer Tim Minchin, working with the film’s original screenwriter Danny Rubin and reunited with much of the production team from Matilda, including director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling, created a show about deja vu that paradoxically is like no other musical you’ve ever seen. Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it playfully challenges time frames in a production that is at once adorable and funny, yet also affecting and disturbing.

Also Broadway-bound is last summer’s English National Opera co-produced revival of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard that had Glenn Close (at most performances; she was ill for four of them) reprising her Tony-winning performance from 22 years ago as Norma Desmond. I’m not quite convinced it’s a show that demanded the resources of the subsidised ENO, but it certainly sounded sumptuous with a full 40-piece onstage orchestra. Another Lloyd Webber revival, this time of Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, was galvanised by the electrifying choreography of Drew McOnie, who also staged a brilliant, original dance drama version of Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic.

The other best musical revivals of the year were Show Boat (transferred from Sheffield to the New London), a glorious actor-musician version of Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre, Adam Guettel’s gorgeous Floyd Collins at Wilton’s Music Hall and the Menier’s utterly lovely She Loves Me. The Menier had another stunning year, also responsible for transferring its splendid revival of Funny Girl from last Christmas to the West End (and it’s set to tour nationally in the new year), and importing a wonderful Off-Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It also produced Florian Zeller’s The Truth, David Baddiel’s My Family – Not the Sitcom (both transferring to the West End) and a revival of Stoppard’s Travesties (heading to the Apollo in February), while the Broadway transfer for its 2014 production of The Color Purple saw it win this year’s Tony award best musical revival.

On the plays front, the best new ones for me were Leo Butler’s audaciously well-staged Boy at the Almeida, Annie Baker’s The Flick at the National and Simon Stone’s modern overhaul of Yerma at the Young Vic (the latter with the year’s most ferocious performance from Billie Piper). Meanwhile, the best revivals were August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (all at the National), Faith Healer at the Donmar and Blue/Orange at the Young Vic.


Best and worst

Frankie Fox in Boy. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Frankie Fox in Boy. Photo: Tristram Kenton

BEST OF THE YEAR

Boy (Almeida)

I was bowled over and knocked sideways by Leo Butler’s Boy, a teaming portrait of London life that follows a 17-young-old boy being blown over by life as we follow him across a single day, from benefits office to supermarkets, tube stations and bus stops. Sacha Wares and designer Miriam Buether’s staging was one of the most inventive, immersive productions I’ve ever seen.

WORST OF THE YEAR

Doctor Faustus (Duke of York’s)

Stunningly wrong-headed version of Marlowe’s play that substituted shock-and-awe for poetry and thought. But the great Jenna Russell did at least redeem things slightly at the top of the second act with a rendition of Bat Out of Hell that was incongruously brilliant but also demonstrated how crazy the whole thing was.

BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

Billie Piper in Yerma (Young Vic)

There was no more thrilling acting on show – raw, exposed and frighteningly true – than Piper’s portrayal of a woman chasing motherhood fruitlessly in this modern take on Lorca’s classic tale. Piper has regularly showed promise; now she’s arrived at the top of her game.

EVENT OF THE YEAR

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Palace Theatre)

A theatrical game-changer that could attract audiences of the future, this was no cynical attempt to cash-in on a beloved property but a dazzling and original work in its own right.

Mark Shenton is joint lead critic of The Stage. Follow him on Twitter @ShentonStage

Now read: Tim Bano’s best and worst fringe shows of 2016

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