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Mark Shenton: Is London theatre really the best it has been for 20 years?

David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith in Hangmen at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith in Hangmen. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The Observer critic Susannah Clapp began her weekly review column last Sunday by declaring: “This is one of the best weeks I have had in the stalls in nearly 20 years”. She gave five stars to two shows (Hangmen at the Royal Court and Jane Eyre at the National), and four stars to a third (Mr Foote’s Other Leg at Hampstead).

I’ve not seen Jane Eyre myself yet, but I can vouch for the excellence of the other two, both of which have given the recent sometimes patchy programming at their host theatres a real boost. You only need one or two solid hits to renew confidence in a place (and one or two flops to drain it away). Critics, of course, need to take a longer view, which is why Clapp’s opening statement is so extraordinary: it’s been a stand-out week for her in nearly two decades.

I know we can’t take any of this for granted, nor am I Pollyanna, but I, too, am currently astounded by the breadth and depth of what the theatre is offering us. A good test for me is how many shows I want to see again (and again). The other night I saw Bend it Like Beckham, a show that I (and many of my colleagues) gave five star reviews to, for the fifth time. A fellow critic recently asked me what I do for pleasure and to relax from working, and I said, “There’s nothing I’d like to do more than see Bend it Like Beckham again.” And it’s true: I like nothing more than surrendering and wallowing in a show I really love.

I felt the same way about Once that immediately preceded Beckham into the Phoenix; and I also feel it about the Burt Bacharach show What’s It All About?, now re-titled Close to You, that was seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory over the summer and now re-opens at the West End’s Criterion from this weekend.  I can’t wait to go back again (and again; I saw it three times during its run at the Menier as it is).

Ditto, In the Heights that was produced at Southwark Playhouse last year and also returns this week to the King’s Cross Theatre, the tented construction behind King’s Cross station that was put up to house The Railway Children and where In the Heights will now play in rep with, thanks to a sensationally imaginative transformation that can be achieved in just an hour to completely overhaul the environment and reconfigure it from 1,000 seats to 500. (I was recently shown around the space by produced Tristan Baker, and they’ve added a whole new bank of dressing rooms, with added showers, to accommodate the extra show; the large foyer space will also be made to look completely different for each show).

The co-producer of In the Heights is Paul Taylor-Mills, who is also responsible for another of London’s great productions at the moment, the UK premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina which tells the remarkable true story of a group of heterosexual men in 1960s New York who had a weekend retreat in the Catskills for them to comfortably share their desire to cross-dress at. And if one Fierstein show isn’t enough, I also had two more: the night before Casa Valentina opened saw the West End premiere of Kinky Boots that he wrote the book for (and is far superior here to the Broadway original, thanks to far more authentic accents), as well as the start of a new UK tour for Hairspray (that Fierstein originally starred in but didn’t write) that I caught at Leicester’s Curve. They were all fantastic evenings.

And from Fierstein to Feinstein: there’s no one quite like Michael Feinstein for the rigour and vigour he brings to re-animating the Great American Songbook and keeping it alive. He was in London for one night only last Sunday, providing a gorgeous wallow in great songs known and unknown, and Big Band arrangements for 17 players under the baton of musical director Larry Blank. Full disclosure: two nights earlier he and his husband Terrence were my guests for my aforementioned return visit to Bend it Like Beckham. I was particularly nervous of this, since in my interview with him for The Stage he’d told me, “Attending [musicals] creates such pain for me. I don’t say that in a bitchy way, but it just isn’t fun. Most of the musicals I go to I simply don’t enjoy, so I don’t go to them unless a number of people I trust say I have to. I’ve sort of given up on them.” At the end of ‘People like us’, he turned to me and said, “That’s a great song!”

There are, of course, plenty of great songs being heard around town in musicals right now — I’m heading back to Gypsy next week, and will also be travelling to Cardiff for Welsh National Opera’s Sweeney Todd. Last week I also saw Opera North do sterling work with Kiss Me, Kate in Leeds. Next week is also the 30th anniversary of Les Miserables, the West End’s longest running musical of all time, but I’m jumping the gun by going to see it again this week in New York, where Alfie Boe is now playing Valjean. I’m also seeing the beautiful Tony winning Fun Home there again, and the return of Spring Awakening — one of the landmark shows of the last decade — that has just opened there.

Travelling as regularly as I do between London and New York, I get the best of both worlds. But I never take any of it for granted, either. It’s a pleasure for sure, but also a privilege to be on the aisle reporting on what I love most.

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