2016 was a huge year for theatre, I had been spanning the UK catching everything from UK tours, West End openings and scouring the Edinburgh Fringe to find the theatrical gems, it had been an impressive year for both revivals and fresh new innovative theatre. Particularly with Manchester’s brand new fringe venue the Hope Mill Theatre opening with an array of striking productions, the Birmingham Rep putting on some thought-provoking pieces of theatre, and of course the West End sparkling in musical theatre glory, last year I have been seriously impressed with the calibre of theatre.
Narrowing down all the triumphant theatre of the year, I’ve narrowed down the 125 shows that I reviewed this year down to 13. I’ve chosen the productions that warmed my heart and stimulated my soul – the theatre that lingered in my mind long after watching the performance.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
UK Tour – The Lowry
Adapted from the Bailey’s prize-winning novel by Eimear McBride, and direct from the Edinburgh Fringe, Aoife Duffin gave an immersive performance as she stood solo on the stage, and told the heartbreaking story of her life. It was a compelling piece about the loss of childhood, emotional discomfort and becoming a woman.
Before your eyes is the diminish of her childhood due to her abusive uncle as she grows up and experiences sexual abuse and a series of degrading sex. Duffin’s performance was comparable to no other I’d seen before. Her ability to transform into the different characters so instantly, and essentially have a conversation with herself is astounding.
In conjunction with Shakespeare 400, director Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Hamlet was a breath of fresh air, the vibrant production set in Africa brought bright colours and intensity to the classic Shakespeare play.
There was a constant pulse throughout the show, as the use of an African band not only set the tone, but built the tension – creating an electric ambience.
Paapa Essiedu’s interpretation of Hamlet brought new life to the character, his performance was utterly engaging and his connection to the character was prodigious – he was my stand-out performer of the year from an actor.
Half A Sixpence
Noel Coward Theatre
David Heneker’s glorious score has been ingeniously adapted by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, who brought immense flavour and oomph to the already spectacular songs in this triumphant production of Half a Sixpence.
Leading the cast, Charlie Stemp is an absolute star. He is the epitome of a triple threat musical theatre performer, as his movement was slick, his vocals were strong and his characterisation was effortless.
Supported by an exceptional ensemble with heaps of energy, Half a Sixpence was everything musical theatre should be and more.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre
UK Tour, The Lowry
Alvin Ailey American dance theatre are a company of unique and flawless dancers, interjected with culture, rhythm and blues. Performing a number of pieces, their expression through dance is like no other.
In the UK tour they performed a variety of dances, but their stand-out piece titled Cry was charged with emotion. Rachel McLaren’s soft and poetic movement told a story. It was a lyrical performance that conveyed the journey of a woman, as she broke free from her struggles to become empowered and strong. The sudden shift in dynamics switched from slow desperation to a rhythmic triumph. It was both a visually and emotionally stunning performance.
Life According to Saki
Written by acclaimed author Katherine Rundell, Life According To Saki was the finest example of storytelling at Edinburgh Fringe this year.
The production told the story of British writer Saki’s life, interwoven with his witty, bizarre and entertaining stories. Every single member of the ensemble provided a dedicated performance with their animated expressions and strong characterisation. They used themselves to become cars, horses and trains – the whole physicality of the production was triumphant and excellently polished.
The Hope Mill Theatre
Parade the musical tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man and superintendent of a pencil factory who was accused off abusing and killing his 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan.
Jason Robert Brown’s exceptionally crafted score is the emotional centre of the show, his music is mind-blowingly poignant and it was truly done justice by the phenomenal cast of Parade. Laura Harrison and Tom Lloyd’s tender connection was displayed beautifully in their touching duet All The Wasted Time.
Manchester’s newest fringe venue the Hope Mill Theatre was the perfect place to stage such an emotionally challenging show, the intimacy of the thrust staging allowed the audience to connect deeply with the characters and their stories and emotions.
UK Tour – The Birmingham Rep
The Father starring Kenneth Cranham was excellently staged and ripped my heart to shreds. It was a piece of theatre that showed the effect of Alzheimer’s on a person, and the people around them.
It was a well-crafted piece of theatre that distorted each scene in order to mirror the confusion inside André’s mind, which gave the audience a real insight into the disconcerting feeling André was constantly fighting
The dialogue in the play was witty, however the shock of the harrowing final scene moved me to tears. It’s not often a piece of theatre is so utterly heartbreaking that it is almost too painful to watch, but Kenneth Cranham provided a breathtaking performance that was outright convincing and entirely moving.
The Last Five Years
St James Theatre
Jason Robert Brown’s sumptuous score was finally brought to the West End stage with Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey, who brought charisma, humour and poignancy to their roles as Cathy and Jamie in the heart-rending love story.
The production was rooted with immense heart and passion in order to deliver the powerful story. However, Samantha Barks absolutely stole the show as she performed the role of Cathy so naturally. Everything about her portrayal was effortless, she conveyed Cathy with an authentic tone that was nothing short of perfection.
BRB Shakespeare Triple Bill
Birmingham Royal Ballet – The Birmingham Hippodrome
In commemoration of Shakespeare 400, Birmingham Royal Ballet spent the year exploring Shakespeare’s work from Romeo and Juliet, to The Taming of The Shrew and The Tempest. BRB created a triple bill innovatively choreographed by three outstanding choreographers that displayed Birmingham Royal Ballet’s phenomenal technique, skill and versatility.
In the final piece, Shakespeare Suite, David Bintley brought some of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters to life through pacy jazz. The orchestra complimented the piece with their combination of a big-bang style numbers integrated with subtle wind instruments, to heighten the sultry and passionate duets.
Things I Know To Be True
UK Tour – The Lowry
Andrew Bovell’s distressing play intricately unraveled the issues of a fractured family. With minimalistic staging and a simplistic approach, it was a raw performance that was enhanced by Frantic Assembly’s powerful physical theatre.
The language was poignant and poetic. Rich with layers, each character was highly complex and crafted with such precision, as their words were so connected to their emotion – completely immersing the audience into the family’s life.
For a simple narrative about the ups and downs of family life, it was an achingly tender production that was executed masterfully.
The Royal Exchange Theatre
Performed in the beautiful Northern venue, the Royal Exchange put on Sweet Charity for their Christmas show. Whilst the witty dialogue and engaging storyline remained, the staging in the round allowed the production to be seen in a new light.
The 60s musical disguises the story of vulnerable young Charity, who is constantly getting her heart broken, with powerful musical numbers. Infatuated with the idea of falling love, Kaisa Hammarlund approached the role of Charity with the perfect balance of intense vulnerability and heightened optimism. Every single member of the cast gave a stellar performance in this tight and altogether faultless production.
What I saw and heard in this particular Edinburgh Fringe performance was stuck in my mind for months. Performed in an actual nightclub, walking into the performance space I was hit with the damp stench of a club – creating a truly immersive performance.
Jessica Mabel Jones, sat in a toilet cubicle, shared some of her deepest emotions and regrets through a hard-hitting series of stories about her relationships with men, but most of all the relationship she has with herself. Described as part gig, part refracted and reflected stories, the audience were entirely divulged into her world.
It was a gripping and provocative show, Jessica’s performance was direct and raw, confronting what it is really like to be a woman.
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes
UK Tour – The Lowry
Matthew Bourne’s magical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Red Shoes had a timeless feel, and in my opinion, it was his best production to date.
It was enhanced by the sumptuous score arranged by Terry Davies, who used Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful music from the golden-age Hollywood era. Telling the story of a young ballerina, Victoria Page who joins an established ballet company and becomes the principal dancer in a new ballet titled The Red Shoes. It is a story of heartbreak, possession and love.
It was a grand performance that was created with stunning visuals and engaging emotion, all the theatrical elements are faultless and the multitude of complex styles created an utterly captivating performance.