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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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Fringe

Is it over yet? Can we come out from behind the sofa? It has to be said, 2016 has been the epitome of an ‘annus horribilis’ (which is Latin for ‘major balls-up’), and it’s no surprise that on the fringes of theatre the plays have got darker, meatier, knottier. While masculinity became ever more toxic, so theatre responded with pieces that smashed gender stereotypes apart and attempted to put them back together in different ways.

Break Yourself. Photo: Ellie Stamp
Break Yourself. Photo: Ellie Stamp

Ira Brand channelled Bruce Springsteen in Break Yourself, adopting the persona of rockstar wannabe Ollie and looking at the traits, the tics and gestures, the many micro-performances that make a man a man. In Two Man Show by RashDash, set to a live and crashing punk soundtrack, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen bared body and soul as bereaved brothers, all the while plummeting through a history of the patriarchy.

A gentler, but no less remarkable, approach came from Zoe Cooper with Jess and Joe Forever, which started life at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond before touring nationwide. Set in the fens, it followed the friendship of two very different children as adolescence – and all its attendant growths and sproutings – hit them foursquare and gender divisions became more pronounced.

The debasement of the dick-swingers reached its silly, giddy peak in Edinburgh with Rachael Clerke’s drag-cabaret-punk show Cuncrete, in which Clerke – dressed as a grey-suited city type, clay codpiece stuffed into her crotch – mockingly eulogised brutalist architecture. Her merciless derision of puffed-up alpha manbabies encapsulated so much of what went wrong in 2016.

In London, a new theatre arrived in the form of the Bunker, carved out of an underground car park, and showed great promise as Isley Lynn’s comedy Skin a Cat christened the space. A transfer from the nearby Vaults festival, whose programme grows stronger each year, the play sensitively talked about a sensitive part of the body and, in its frankness, was quietly revolutionary. It was followed by Philip Ridley’s chilling monologue Tonight With Donny Stixx, a challenging piece that dared its audience not to judge murderous Donny.

If any fringe venue stands out this year, it has to be New Diorama in London. Not only did it win the Peter Brook Empty Space Award, it became a pioneer in funding young companies by launching its Artist Development Scheme, a kind of bank for theatre companies. It had a strong programme, too, premiering work by companies worth keeping an eye out for: Rhum and Clay returned with noir comedy Hardboiled and Kandinsky presented its slippery, many layered exploration of functional neurological disorder, Still Ill.

The Faction’s Richard III, also at New Diorama, was one of several innovative takes on Shakespeare on the fringe this year as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations. The Arcola had the bright idea to stage Richard II in the House of Commons and at Southwark Playhouse A Midsummer Night’s Dream was deconstructed and reinvented by Go People (featuring Freddie Fox’s extraordinary Bottom).

Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith
Side Show. Photo: Pamela Raith

Southwark Playhouse’s strength, once again, was in championing the small-scale musical: Side Show looked at conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, with detailed -performances from Laura Pitt-Pulford and Louise Dearman. Jenna Russell excelled as Little Edie in a close-to-perfect production of Grey Gardens in January, and Allegro in August offered a rare chance to see this overlooked Rodgers and Hammerstein piece – both directed by Thom Southerland.

In fact, Southerland, along with producer Danielle Tarento, seemed to have the monopoly on fringe musicals, especially since taking over Charing Cross Theatre in March and making his mark with Titanic and then a hefty production of Ragtime.

Joshua Schmidt’s Adding Machine at the Finborough, based on a play by Elmer Rice, was another particularly potent production, a dark and absurd look at technology’s insinuation into our lives.

The Edinburgh Fringe once again overwhelmed with its unfathomable number of shows, ranging from execrable to exquisite, but the ones that stuck out all had a bracing political bent. Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s stunner Counting Sheep was an immersive piece (and how often does one get to use that term and mean it?) that used documentary footage from Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014 and tricked its audience into thinking they were having a party when in fact they were taking part in a revolt. Pepperdine University’s sophisticated, complicated play about campus rape, The Interference, asserted the importance, and sometimes the impossibility, of truth in a year in which it seems to have counted for very little. Vital work from a young company.

Henry Naylor’s monologue Angel followed the life of a young woman on the Turkish/Syrian border as IS forces encroached. The fierce writing, along with the bare staging and a mighty performance from Filipa Braganca, made it one of the stand-out shows of the festival.

Elsewhere on the fringe there were a couple of exciting first full-length plays: John O’Donovan’s tense two-hander If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You at the Old Red Lion had a taut script that belied its bloated title. At Shoreditch Town Hall, spoken-word artist Ross Sutherland, not content with creating a regular play, wrote his dystopian thriller Party Trap in palindrome form.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, the Hope Mill Theatre, which opened in late 2015, enjoyed a successful first full year, culminating with a joyful revival of Hair. The 120-seat venue, housed in a former cotton mill, is to focus on staging small-scale musicals. The Other Room in Cardiff breezed into its second year with a run of strong productions, including a potent Beckett/Pinter double bill with Play/Silence.

And now it’s over. We survived, and so did the fringe – in fact, as usual when set against a straitened and frightening world, it thrived.


Best and worst

Counting Sheep. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh
Counting Sheep. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

BEST OF THE YEAR

Counting Sheep (Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Ukrainian folk music, billowing sheets projected with newsreel footage and a street-party atmosphere that turns bitter – Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s remarkable piece was a genuinely new form of theatre that showed how quickly, and with what small sparks, democracy can tumble.

WORST OF THE YEAR

Code 2021 (Secret Studio Lab, London)

Towards the end of this immersive show from Secret Studio Lab, the audience, playing the jury in a live televised murder trial and sitting in a large council chamber, is encouraged to debate and discuss the evidence. The night I saw it, audience members used the opportunity to rip apart the show’s many flaws – from glaring plot holes to hammy acting. Satire at its weakest

Tim Bano, an arts journalist and theatre critic, is a regular contributor to The Stage

Now read: Neil Norman’s best and worst dance of 2016

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