Laurence Green reveals his top 10 theatre productions from 2017.
As 2017 draws to a close, it is worth recalling the highlights of the theatrical year. It was a good year for new plays but a great one – and certainly one of the best I can recall – for musicals. It is an unenviable task to select my top 10 shows of the year but here goes.
1 The Ferryman
In top spot is Sam Mendes superb production of the Jez Butterworth’s heartfelt and passionate new drama The Ferryman (formerly at the Royal Court Theatre and now at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End). This engrossing and powerful play, in which the private is intertwined with the political, emerges as a complex family portrait, set in 1981 on a 50-acre farm in County Armagh and played out against the backdrop of the Troubles, and showing that a violent past can be no more suppressed than the private passions we are afraid to articulate. Paddy Considine, in his stage debut, playing the brooding fiercely uncompromising protagonist, heads an impeccable cast. This is theatre of the very best!
2 An American in Paris
Christopher Weldon’s beguiling and brilliant reworking of George Gershwin’s classic An American in Paris (Dominion Theatre). The show is a perfect integration of dance romanticism and timeless Gershwin numbers, such as I’ve Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, The Man I Love and S’Wonderful. The latter an apt description for the musical itself. But it is the performances that make this show such an electric experience. Royal ballet principal Leanne Cope and Robert Fairchild, of New York City Ballet, as the central duo, prove to be both effortless singers and dazzling dancers. Pure theatrical gold!
Alexander Zeldin’s excellent documentary-style drama LOVE (National Theatre), which delves into the dark underbelly of contemporary life. In the run-up to Christmas, three families are forced into cramped temporary accommodation. Two refugees from Syria and Sudan flit through the action but the focus is primarily on two struggling British families: middle-aged Colin and his incontinent elderly mother Barbara, and unemployed Dean, who is desperate to find a permanent home for his pregnant partner Emma and their two school-age children. As we follow the adults being subjected to endless labyrinthine inconsistencies of the benefits system, we watch the last glimmers of hope evaporate. This is a play which gives a voice to a silent disadvantaged minority and is a work of such power, intensity, truth and ultimately, sadness that it remains firmly implanted in the mind.
4 Krapp’s Last Tape
Michael Colgan’s haunting production of Samuel Beckett’s brief one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape (the highlight of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival). An old man sits alone at a table, preparing for his annual ritual: to archive the past year of his weary life on tape, as he has done on his birthday ever since he was a young man. Listening in on an earlier recording, he is drawn into a chilling dialogue with his brasher, confident self – but are the memories he evokes better left unheard? This deeply personal drama provides a moving essay in loneliness, shot through the grim humour and enriched by a super performance from veteran Beckett interpreter Barry McGovern.
Dominic Cooke’s rich and rewarding production of Stephen Sondheim’s insightful, melancholic musical Follies (NT). This is a show that dispenses with plot in favour of a study in disillusionment, set in a lavish world of theatrical illusion. The action centres on a grand reunion of showgirls who were once members of Broadway’s glamorous Weismann Follies. As they gather in a crumbling theatre that will soon be demolished to make way for new offices, they recall past glories and survey fragments of the dreams they once cherished. Imelda Staunton, leading a first-rate cast is terrific as Sally, embroiled in a marital crisis, and is especially moving in the show’s most famous number, Losing My Mind, that indestructible ballad of shattered hopes and unrequited longing.
Bartlett Sher’s insightful and culturally diverse production of JT Rogers’ fact-based political drama Oslo (NT and now at the Harold Pinter Theatre), which asks the question: how far would you go to make peace with your enemies? In 1993, two maverick Norwegian diplomats hit upon an inspirational plan – to co-ordinate top-secret, high-level meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in a castle in the middle of a forest outside Oslo. Their quiet heroics, which resulted in the historic Oslo Accords, would lead them into the heart of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. This is a vivid, thoughtful, at times witty, and astonishingly lucid account of a major chapter in international politics. The all-too-human factor comes into play as the drama delves into the weary machinations of State, and Rogers has done a first-rate job of mapping the lively confusing intersection where private personalities cross with public roles.
7 42nd Street
The tap dancing musical triumph that is Mark Bramble’s production of 42nd Street (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin), which brings its lullaby of Broadway to London’s West End (Theatre Royal Drury Lane). There may be a superabundance of spectacle to revel in here as an impeccably-drilled cast of more than 50 tap up a continual storm to some very tuneful songs such as I Only Have Eyes For You, Lullaby of Broadway and the title number 42nd Street, but it is also intimate and involving with a strong vein of humour running right through it.
8 She Loves Me
Matthew White’s exquisite production of the 1963 romantic musical She Loves Me. This is a playful and delightful show staged with rare elegance and wit, while Jerry Bock’s score embraces everything from a Hungarian Czardas to a Ravel-like Bolero and Sheldon Harnick’s adroit lyrics weave their own spell. However, the show’s biggest asset is Scarlett Strallen, who brings the charm and charisma of a star from the golden days of the Hollywood musical in the role of the female lead. This may have been a forgotten musical but the Menier Theatre’s cherishable production resonates in the mind after the final curtain.
James Graham’s insightful and witty new play Ink, directed by Rupert Gould, about the rebirth of The Sun under Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. As with his previous play, This House, dealing with the hung Parliament of 1974, Graham proves he is a master of political intrigue, expertly dramatising the murky business of negotiation and compromise. But here, in dealing with journalistic ethics in an equally ruthless world as that of politics, Graham refuses to moralise, leaving us to draw our own conclusions. Superlative performances by Bertie Carrel as Murdoch and Richard Coyle as his bold and boyish editor Larry Lamb give this production its real snap, crackle and pop.
10 A Woman of No Importance
Dominic Dromgoole’s beautifully nuanced production of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play A Woman of No Importance (Vaudeville Theatre).
Eve Best stirs both the heart and the mind and brings a real emotional depth to the title role of a wronged and shunned mother in this lesser known Wilde work which exposes the double standards of Victorian society, whereby women are punished for indiscretion and men are allowed to do as they please without taking the consequences. Surprisingly, this witty and moving revival still feels fresh, as well as being fascinating more than a century after it was written.
Also commendable are my three runners-up: Half a Sixpence, Apologia and The Kite Runner.
Happy theatregoing 2018!