Mark Shenton’s top 10 London venues of 2016
Most critics, myself included, have been busy compiling our lists of the best shows and performances of 2016. I recently cast my votes for this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, which takes place on January 31 (just a few days after The Stage Awards 2017) and will for the first time be streamed on Facebook Live.
Those lists and nominations often look at theatrical achievement on a show-by-show basis, rather than applauding a body of work in its entirety. And the same theatres come up again and again in these lists.
So here are the 10 London theatres that, in my view, produced (or hosted) the most consistently compelling work across the year. And it’s a particularly striking fact that the top half of this list are all in the London borough of Southwark – which pleases me no end, because it is also where I live.
It is also pivoting the axis of London theatre southwards – a trend only likely to continue as Nicks Hytner and Starr open the Bridge Theatre beside Tower Bridge in 2017. I was also personally delighted to see the Union Theatre relocate to a newly restored railway arch directly across the street from its original premises, even if it hasn’t had a big hit yet.
Rufus Norris’ NT has now become a bit like the Hytner one again: a place with a buzz about it. Four of the year’s best revivals originated here: Dominic Cooke‘s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Yael Farber’s of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Carrie Cracknell’s of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Michael Longhurst‘s of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. I’ve yet to see two more acclaimed shows: Ivo van Hove’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Sally Cookson’s production of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.
I also enjoyed Norris’ own production of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and Howard Davies and Jeremy Herrin’s of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. The NT also imported Annie Baker’s phenomenal Off-Broadway hit The Flick (one of the plays of the year) and provided a London home for Lee Hall’s Edinburgh hit, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour.
Among new original shows at the NT, Bryony Kimmings‘ The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer was a shape-shifting musical examination of our approaches to cancer, Robert Icke’s production of The Red Barn was one of the most brilliantly designed shows of the year, and Alexander Zeldin‘s Love was one of the most singularly upsetting and unsettling plays I’ve ever seen – I’ve already booked to see it again.
The independent producing theatre has had an astonishing year, culminating in a joyous revival of She Loves Me. The year has also included transfers to the West End for Funny Girl (about to head out on tour), Florian Zeller’s The Truth and David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom. In February, its revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties will follow them to the West End. On the other side of the Atlantic, its transfer of The Color Purple to Broadway won the Tony Award for best musical revival, with star Cynthia Erivo taking the Tony for leading actress in a musical. The Menier also imported the wonderful Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods from Off-Broadway. And though this is nothing to do with the Menier as such, a brand-new venue the Bunker has just opened directly below it, too.
David Lan’s Young Vic continues to be one of the most thrilling producing theatres in London, and this year offered at least four of the year’s highlights: the incredible Billie Piper in Simon Stone’s new version of Yerma was the year’s best acting performance, bar none; Matthew Xia’s production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange was one of the most gripping play revivals of the year; A Man of Good Hope was a brilliant South African musical; and Living With the Lights On was a brutally exposing and frank account of Mark Lockyer‘s bipolar illness and its effects on his personal and professional lives.
Matthew Warchus‘ Old Vic produced the year’s best original musical, Groundhog Day, reuniting the team behind Matilda, including composer Tim Minchin and Warchus himself as director. It also provided a home for Drew McOnie‘s terrific dance drama version of Jekyll and Hyde. There were also strong revivals of Ibsen’s The Master Builder (with Ralph Fiennes) and Pinter’s The Caretaker (with Timothy Spall). Glenda Jackson returned to the theatrical stage here after an absence of nearly 25 years to star as King Lear. And they’ve just ended the year with Warchus offering a 20th-anniversary revival of Yasmina Reza’s hit play Art, which he first directed in the West End.
Some great musicals, new and old, have really put Southwark Playhouse on the map, while productions that originally premiered there of In the Heights and Titanic also played at King’s Cross and Charing Cross respectively. This year I particularly loved the British premieres of two transfers from New York: Grey Gardens (with sublime performances from Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell as co-dependent mother and daughter) and Side Show (with another phenomenal pairing, Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, as two sisters who were more than co-dependent – they were conjoined twins, literally joined at the hip). Southwark also hosted the UK premiere, nearly 70 years after its Broadway opening, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro.
Leo Butler’s Boy – staged on an incredible travelator set – was one of the year’s best new plays; and Robert Icke’s version of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, with two great actresses Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams alternating in the title role and as Elizabeth I one of the best classics of the year. Also impressive was Ralph Fiennes as Richard III, in a production that featured Vanessa Redgrave. As well as this, Icke did impressive work with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya here. I was less taken by two new plays, Adam Brace’s They Drink It in the Congo and Ella Hickson’s Oil, though both impressively and ambitiously embraced subjects outside Britain.
The boutique Covent Garden theatre has spread its wings this year from Off-Broadway (with a transfer of James Graham’s Privacy to the Public Theater) and Broadway (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) to an off-site temporary theatre at King’s Cross where its trilogy of all-female Shakespeare’s recently closed, prior to The Tempest moving to Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse. It also offered a spellbinding revival of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.
Timothy Sheader‘s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, electrifyingly choreographed by Drew McOnie, was one of the musical revivals of the year (and will return there next summer). Also highly charged was Robert Hastie‘s wonderful production of Henry V, starring Michelle Terry in the title role.
A veritable tent village has sprung up behind King’s Cross station, turning this mainline railway terminus into a major theatrical destination too. As well as one tent housing the ongoing The Railway Children and In the Heights, two new tents were added this year to house the London premiere of David Bowie’s Lazarus and the Donmar trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays.
London’s beautiful art deco Savoy Theatre hosted three fantastic musicals, making it my favourite West End address of the year: the transfers of Chichester’s Guys and Dolls and the Menier’s Funny Girl, plus the London premiere of Dreamgirls. Elsewhere in the the West End, I should give honourable mentions to Wyndham’s. It’s the most perfect of all West End playhouses and the most prized of any theatre for plays in town, and this year has hosted transfers of the National’s People, Places and Things and the Menier’s The Truth, as well as hosting the London run for the McKellen/Stewart No Man’s Land, which originated on Broadway three years ago. Another worthy contender is the Garrick – home to the Branagh Theatre Company for most of the year – which has been gorgeously refurbished and is now home to the National‘s This House.
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