It’s World Theatre Day, the best day of the year (unless you don’t like theatre, in which case you’re probably reading the wrong blog). Over the years I’ve seen some great theatre, and some not so great, but today I thought I’d celebrate some of the best plays and musicals I’ve been lucky enough to see – the shows which have left me laughing, sobbing, shaking uncontrollably or heading back to the box office to book to see them again. Here are ten of my top productions of recent years.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic
Gillian Anderson may currently be wowing audiences as Margo Channing in All About Eve, but it was her portrayal of tragic Southern belle Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire which impressed me most. The 2014 play, directed by Benedict Andrews, made excellent use of the Young Vic’s versatile space and was performed in the round, the speed of the rotating stage reflecting Blanche’s spiral into despair. Anderson put in a magnificent performance as Williams’ iconic leading lady, stealing every scene she was in and breaking the audiences’ hearts as she went. Meanwhile Ben Foster was brutal as Stanley, Blanche’s tormentor; and Vanessa Kirby vulnerable as Stella, who’s caught in the middle of the pair. A Streetcar Named Desire was compelling, haunting and heart-wrenching, and will stay with me for a long time.
A View from the Bridge, Young Vic/Wyndhams Theatre
Back in the day before Ivo van Hove personally offended me with Obsession (sadly even Jude Law couldn’t save it), he was busy wowing me with A View from the Bridge. His take on Arthur Miller’s play about Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice and her niece Catherine, whose lives are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Beatrice’s cousins from Sicily, is one of the best and most thrilling productions I’ve ever seen. The stage was stripped bare, allowing the action to speak for itself, and boy did it do that. Mark Strong was exceptional as the conflicted Eddie, thoroughly deserving of his Olivier win for Best Actor, and he was supported by a standout cast including the brilliant Nicola Walker as Beatrice and Phoebe Fox as Catherine. It was tense, gripping and the ending left me physically shaking – it was everything theatre should be.
Come From Away, Phoenix Theatre
Come From Away only landed on our shores a few months ago, but already it’s taken the West End by storm (unless you’re the Daily Mail). Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this brilliant musical is based on a remarkable yet true story of the small Newfoundland town of Gander. Its population almost doubled on September 2001 when 38 planes were ordered to land there after American airspace was closed following the terrorist attacks, and the residents opened their homes and their hearts to almost 7,000 strangers. Come From Away is a beautiful, heartwarming story of kindness and a reminder that even in times of darkness there is good in the world. In just 90 minutes I was completely wowed, my heart had tripled in size and my faith in humanity was restored. I am an islander, and I’m proud!
Fun Home, Young Vic
Based on American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home was a musical with a difference. It focused on three stages of Alison’s life: growing up in a funeral home (hence “fun home”), dealing with her sexuality as an awkward teen at college, and looking back on her father’s own sexuality as well as his subsequent suicide. The story was incredibly moving (it’s the first time I’ve ever cried at a musical), the cast, which featured the fabulous Jenna Russell, was outstanding and the soundtrack utterly brilliant. Fun Home was emotional, memorable and unmissable, and I’m crossing everything that one day it returns to the London stage.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Palace Theatre
Cocks in frocks on a rock — what more could you possibly want?! Based on the iconic film, which was released 25 years ago (how did I get so old?!), Priscilla was an outrageous, hilarious and hugely heartwarming musical which I loved instantly. It told the story of cross-dresser Anthony (Tick/Mitzi), who invites his two friends Adam (Felicia) and Bernadette on a road trip across the Australian desert on their tour bus, Priscilla. The musical was colourful, camp and utterly brilliant, and boasted one of the cheesiest soundtracks on record. Priscilla first opened in London with Jason Donovan at the helm, and he’s back on board as producer of the upcoming tour later this year. Everything about this musical was utterly fabulous, and I can’t wait to see it again soon!
Six, Arts Theatre
I love history, I love the story of the six wives of Henry VIII and I love musicals, so Six was made for me! This new musical, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, has taken the country – and soon to be world — by storm. A history lesson with a difference, Six focuses on the six wives themselves rather than Henry, and during a 75-minute pop concert musical extravaganza Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr take to the stage to tell their stories. The songs belong at the top of the music charts, the harmonies are pitch perfect and the musical is a true lesson in girl power. Six is clever, witty, empowering AND educational, and it deserves all of the hype!
Summer and Smoke, Almeida/Duke of York
The chances are if we’re friends, you’re likely sick of me talking about this play by now, but Summer and Smoke was one of my theatrical highlights of 2018. Again written by Tennessee Williams, though lesser known than Streetcar, Summer and Smoke was a tale of the unrequited love nervy Mississippi teenager Alma (played by the brilliant Patsy Ferran) has for bad-boy John (Matthew Needham). Expertly directed by Rebecca Frecknall, this stunning production had everything going for it – the music, innovative lighting and exquisite performances all combined to produce an utterly heartbreaking piece of theatre. Patsy was exceptional as the fragile Alma and blew me away with her standout performance, and her chemistry with Needham was off the chart. If she doesn’t win the Olivier for Best Actress I. Will. Actually. Riot.
The Inheritance, Young Vic/Noël Coward Theatre
One of the best, if not the best new plays of recent years, The Inheritance was an epic, life-changing tale of a group of post-Aids generation men living in New York City. Inspired by E.M Forster’s Howard’s End, it was a breathtakingly beautiful and clever piece of storytelling from start to finish, with unforgettable performances by the truly talented cast including the exceptional Kyle Soller, scene-stealing Andrew Burnap and the mesmerising Paul Hilton, who I will now pay to read the phone book. It was witty, it was hilarious and it was unbelievably heartbreaking, with the ending to Part 1 one of the most powerful moments in theatre I’ve ever had the joy to witness. The Inheritance was important and unforgettable and my highlight of 2018.
The Jungle, Young Vic/Playhouse Theatre
The Jungle was (for me anyway) one of the most shocking exclusions from the Olivier Award nominees, both this year and last, and is deserved of every award going. This life-changing play highlighted stories of the refugees seeking shelter in the Calais Jungle, humanising the people that the media make out to be monsters. Directed by Stephen Daldry (who had a brilliant year with The Inheritance too), it was a tough watch at times, but it was an essential story that needed to be shared with the world, and was one of the most shattering plays I’ve ever seen – I’m not sure I’ve ever cried that much in my life, let alone in the theatre. With strong, commendable performances from a brilliant ensemble cast and a compelling story, The Jungle was unbelievably moving, and actually broke me.
We Will Rock You, Dominion Theatre
I first saw We Will Rock You not long after it opened in London, and thus began a love affair which continues to this day. Written by Ben Elton and featuring songs from the iconic Queen, We Will Rock You was a barmy, brilliant and hilarious musical from start to finish. It told of a time in the future where live music is banned and the Globalsoft Corporation (run by the Killer Queen, obvs) feeds the population with synthesised pop. What I loved about the show, besides the top performances, was the hilarity of it all, not to mention the chance to hear some epic Queen songs performed to a new audience. And any show which can weave the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody into its script deserves a mention. We Will Rock You heads out on tour later this year, and I can’t wait to be reunited with one of my top musicals of all time!
Summer and Smoke Photo credit: Marc Brenner