My 10 favourite shows of 2021

Just a little bit late… Here’s 10 of my favourite shows, both online and onstage but fully acknowledging that I saw a lot less than usual, I might actually have broken the back of this theatre obsession – it just took a global pandemic to do it…!

1. Anything Goes, Barbican
A joyous shot in the arm that felt like the perfect welcome back into the theatre this summer. Naturally, it is coming back next year to the Barbican and a UK tour but will it be led by the irrepressible Sutton Foster? You have to hope so as she was the epitome of Broadway class.

2. The Normal Heart, National Theatre
Almost unbearably moving, Larry Kramer’s 1985 loosely autobiographical play got a masterful revival from Dominic Cooke, making the most of the Olivier being in the round and blessed with a cast full of commitment and compassion.

3. Constellations, Vaudeville Theatre
Perhaps predictable for those that know me, but the four-way revival featuring Omari Douglas & Russell Tovey and Anna Maxwell Martin & Chris O’Dowd and Sheila Atim & Ivanno Jeremiah and Peter Capaldi & Zoë Wanamaker turned out to be a great way to revisit this play.

4. Cabaret, The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre
At least there’s a sense that they’re earning a bit of their hugely inflated ticket prices, as Rebecca Frecknall and Tom Scutt’s reinvention of the theatre is matched with a fearless reinterpretation of the classic musical which proves hauntingly effective.

5. What They Forgot To Tell Us (and other stories), BOLD Elephant
One of the more unexpected theatrical experiences of the year. I had no idea of what to expect and no real idea of why it moved me quite as much as it did. 

6. DJ Bazzer’s Year 6 Disco, Golden Goose Theatre
Gently immersive and quietly heartbreaking, this playful and powerful monologue really took me by surprise, totally captivating as Jack Sunderland’s emotionally broken Baz tries to chase the demons of both the past and present.

7. Still Life: Untold Stories of Nottingham Now
5 short stories of lockdown life in Nottingham turned out to be hugely affecting, featuring a wide range of the intimately human stories that make up a global pandemic and star performances from the likes of Frances De La Tour and Julie Hesmondhalgh.

8. Mum, Soho Theatre
Led by a scorching performance from Sophie Melville, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s new play took a sledgehammer to Insta-perfect narratives of new motherhood to offer up something of a nightmare of early parenthood. Absolutely exhilarating.

9. Gay Generations, White Bear Theatre
With a loose focus on older LGBT+ narratives, this double bill of new gay plays was quietly impressive and in the case of Michael McManus’ A Certain Term made me sob like a baby

10. Romeo and Juliet
The National led from the front in lockdown, able to parlay its resources into transforming its intended stage production of this teen tragedy into a deluxe filmed version with a delicious cast led by Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor.

My 10 favourite shows of 2019

I barely saw 250 shows this year, quiet by my standards! And as is the way of these things, here’s a rundown of some of the productions that moved me most…

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse
I haven’t lost it in a theatre as much as this in a good long while. I cry at all sorts but this superlative musical had me trying, and failing, to choke back huge, hacking sobs. And I can still sing some of the songs – it has to come back, surely. “It’s all just a matter of time…”

2. Call Me Fury, Hope Theatre
“This is the history we should be teaching, these are the stories we should be sharing”, this striking and soulful piece gave voice to so many whom history have ignored, and was bloody entertaining with it. 

3. West Side Story, Curve Leicester
A musical I love, in a production that I simply adored. Getting to see two WSSs in one year was a privilege and for me, it was the emotional heart of Nikolai Foster’s production that won out.

4. As You Like It, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
The second year of the Public Acts programme comes up trumps once again with this gorgeous musical version of the Shakespeare classic, community theatre at its finest.

5. Islander, Southwark Playhouse
The magic of musical theatre distilled into two voices and a loop pedal – a marvellously inventive and endlessly moving. 

6. Amélie the Musical, Watermill Theatre/UK Tour/The Other Palace
As sweet-sharp as a diabolo grenadine, something truly gorgeous emerges from this film adaptation that simply demands you come up with better words than quirky to describe it.

7. & Juliet, Shaftesbury Theatre
Tell me why… About as much fun as you can have in the West End right now, this is a particularly fine example of the jukebox model and I want it that way.

8. Sexy Lamp, VAULT
A standout piece in a standout festival, Katie Arnstein’s brutally honest monologue about navigating the patriarchy may be lightened with songs and sweets but is no less effective for it.

9. Karaoke Play, Bunker Theatre
Deeply confessional and subtly magical, Annie Jenkins’ inter-connected monologues combined to become so much more than the sum of their parts.

10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, National Theatre
A magical family tale, perfect for kids of all ages. Not even reading the exit poll as I left could ruin the feeling! 

Shows 11-25 under the cut

Continue reading “My 10 favourite shows of 2019”

My 10 favourite shows of 2018

And so here we are, at the end of another year where I broke the 300 show mark despite wanting to see less. (I had a very quiet December by my standards at least…) Now where’s the vodka stingers…?!

1 Pericles, National Theatre
Pretty much everything I want theatre to be, a rhapsodic, true celebration of community. From the joyous riffing on Shakespeare through song and dance to its over-riding spirit of bonhomie, it takes something this inclusive to show you how exclusive so much theatre can be.

2 Jellyfish, Bush Theatre
Sometimes, reviewing can’t help but be personal and Ben Weatherill’s minor-key masterpiece for the Bush touched me incredibly deeply, making me (re)consider so much of my own experiences. It has to come back, it just has to. 

Company, Gielgud Theatre
Marianne Elliott’s production was so much more than the gender-swap that led the headline, the smartness of her adaptation making the work speak to today in ways you might not have thought possible, and delivered by one of the best companies you could have hoped for. 

4 Sunshine on Leith, Leeds Playhouse
I was entirely seduced by the film so the opportunity to finally see the musical was one I wasn’t going to give up lightly, and the trip to Leeds was well worth it, I don’t think I cried in happiness this much at a finale in ages. I’d love for a tour to come back and visit more English venues.

5 The Inheritance, Young Vic/Noel Coward Theatre
It says something that I was willing to go back to what is probably one of the most emotional pulverising theatrical experiences of my life. And the Part 1 finale was possibly even better second time around, the highlight of an exceptional new landmark piece.

6 To Have To Shoot Irishmen, Omnibus Clapham
Coming completely out of left field, this play with songs was a devastatingly moving work that had me completely gripped. I won’t be missing any of Lizzie Nunnery’s shows in the future.

7 Bury the Hatchet, Hope Theatre
On a criminally scorching evening, Out of the Forest Theatre made me forget the heat for a hugely entertaining hour which I could have watched right again then and there.

8 Nine Night, National Theatre/Trafalgar Studios
Taking the Dorfman, and then the West End, by storm, Natasha Gordon’s passionate family drama was as educative as entertaining, as well as utterly enthralling by the relevatory final scenes.

9 Hadestown, National Theatre
I booked to see this a second time before I’d even gotten home from the first – it was that enjoyable. 

10 Sweat, Donmar Warehouse
Sneaking in at the last moment, this delivered the Christmas message you didn’t know you needed. Brutally affecting.

Shows 11-25 under the cut Continue reading “My 10 favourite shows of 2018”

My 10 favourite shows of 2017

Well we made it, just. 2017 passed by with just the 346 visits to the theatre, I don’t really know why I do it to myself! Out of those, 33 were return visits to shows I’d already seen and I got out of London for 32 shows, not too bad considering I don’t do Edinburgh and no-one is covering my travel expenses!
For the round-up, I’ve not included Roman Tragedies (which would have been very high indeed) as I’d seen it before and ranked it #1 that year. (Conversely, I didn’t include Hamilton when I saw that last year, which is why it is on this year’s list – my blog, my inconsistent rules!). And changing things up a little in reflection of what I want to the site to be, I’m not going to be doing a least-favourite list, nor a Leading Man feature – make of that what you will.
  1. The Revlon Girl, Park

    Getting to revisit this show after attending a reading a couple of years ago was an enormous privilege. And knowing in advance what it was going to do made it all the more achingly poignant in its study of life after Aberfan, I didn’t cry like that in another theatre all year long, I didn’t ovate like that either. One to watch out for should it ever return.

  2. A Little Night Music, Watermill

    Maybe I’m biased – this is where the blog gets its name from after all – but Paul Foster’s production at the gorgeous Watermill Theatre was masterly. Actor-musicianship at its best, Josefina Gabrielle elevating ‘Send in the Clowns’ to the gods, a sexy man in uniform…what more do you want from your Sondheim?!

  3. Barber Shop Chronicles, National

    A show that utterly transformed what it felt like to sit in the Dorfman. I could watched two hours of the pre-show entertainment in all honesty, it was so entertaining, but Inua Ellams’ study of black masculinity was a vital piece of writing  

  4. Hamilton, Victoria Palace

    If I hadn’t seen it on Broadway this would probably have been #1. As it is, the gap between this top 4 was infinitesimal and there’s no doubting that Hamilton is an extraordinary success that will hopefully live long at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace.

  5. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Crucible/Apollo

    Whilst I’m delighted it is doing so well in London, it felt important to see this show in Sheffield, its spiritual home as well as its literal setting, new musical theatre writing that is forward-thinking in so many ways, not least its presentation of diversity.

  6. An Octoroon, Orange Tree

    And speaking of diversity, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins made us all think a lot harder than we’re used to about race and how it is presented on our stages. A triumph for the Orange Tree and the deserved recipient of a NT transfer in the summer.

  7. Follies, National Theatre

    The head-dresses! The costumes! Every aspect of the design! 
    The Dee! The Quast! The Staunton!
    This may not be a perfect show but this was the perfect production of it.

  8. Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

    Emma Rice bade farewell to the Globe in the most Emma Rice-ish way possible, with a glorious new musical that brought sound, light and chocolate-making into the Sam Wanamaker like never before (and probably never again!).

  9. Hamlet, Almeida

    A thought-provoking, modern interpretation that showed Robert Icke (after last year’s Mary Stuart) really establishing his place as one of our most exciting, innovative directors. Andrew Scott wasn’t bad either…

  10. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾, Menier Chocolate Factory

    I really thought this warm-hearted British musical would have given the Menier another West End transfer but apparently it wasn’t to be. A real shame as it was really rather good.
    Shows 11-25 below the cut

  11. Yank! A WWII Love Story, Charing Cross
  12. Girl From The North Country, Old Vic
  13. a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun), Royal Court
  14. The Ferryman, Royal Court
  15. King Lear, Minerva
  16. Frankenstein, Brockley Jack
  17. Trestle, Southwark Playhouse
  18. Little Women the Musical, Hope Mill
  19. The Glass Menagerie, Duke of York’s
  20. Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange
  21. Beginning, National Theatre
  22. Caroline or Change, Minerva
  23. Network, National Theatre
  24. The Life, Southwark Playhouse
  25. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Wyndham’s

My 10 favourite shows of 2016

I started the year intending to see fewer shows than in 2015, when I made 304 visits to the theatre but somehow, I seem have crept up to 332 for 2016. The only consolation is that it is still some way off the high water mark of 2014…383. Anyway, here’s my selection of the shows that made me sit up and sometimes stand up this year, the ones that truly stood out in a crowded diary and on whom I look back most fondly. (For reasons best known to myself, I’ve decided not to include my NY trip on here, on which case Hamilton would have been in first place, second place, third place etc etc…).

1 Mary Stuart

I always feel slightly guilty about putting a play I’ve seen in December on this list but Robert Icke’s adaptation of Schiller’s queen-off was pretty much everything I want from theatre. A director influenced by van Hove but making his own mark too, two of the best actors in the country in Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, plus a company and creative team on fire. I went back the next week, got the same casting arrangement but still enjoyed it just as much, if not even more. If there’s tickets left, for love of God book now!

2 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A titanic production by Dominic Cooke of August Wilson’s classic, which set the tone for a superb year at the National Theatre, making a mockery of those who too easily decried the opening salvos of Rufus Norris’ reign. Startling performances from O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati kept the drama pinsharp, invaluable contributions from Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey herself kept it unpredictable, its racial commentary feels only too pertinent in the light of this tumultuous year. 

3 Minefield

Much of the LIFT 2016 programme was fascinating but Lola Arias’ examination of what we ask of our armed forces was unexpectedly enlightening and thoroughly unmissable. Working with veterans from both sides of the 1982 Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict, the melding of documentary theatre with something more, well, theatrical was piercingly strong and one of the most emotionally true things of the year.

4 Escaped Alone

So much of this production has etched itself onto my mind, I barely need to go and see it again when it returns to the Royal Court in January: “terrible rage”, Miriam Buether’s Jekyll and Hyde design, “terrible rage”, that amazing cast, “terrible rage”, Churchill’s vivid imagery, “terrible rage”.

5 A Raisin in the Sun

My first time seeing Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece in an interpretation from Sheffield-based Eclipse and what a powerhouse of a play it is. I spent the journey home googling the amazing casts who have previously performed it but to my mind, the slightly ramshackle nature of this touring production suited it down to the ground perfectly.

6 Pink Mist

I described this as “as much dramatic poem as pure drama, a deeply lyrical response to the war on terror” and I can’t think of any better way to reword it. A striking combination of powerful source materials, physical theatre, stunning design and a (if there’s any justice) star-making lead performance from Phil Dunster.

7 Steel Magnolias

I was a little nervous seeing this as the film is so beloved and the previous stage adaptation didn’t quite hit the mark but in the (literal) sweatbox intensity of the Hope in high summer, all the joy and tragedy of Robert Harling’s tale came vibrantly to life. And given the intimacy of the space, it was brilliantly almost an immersive production, the company’s laughter and tears at one with our own, it was all I could do not to embrace them and then get onstage for a shampoo and set.

8 The Grinning Man

This macabre Victor Hugo adaptation was a jewel in Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary celebrations and it must surely, surely, have future life whether in this theatre or another. Musically interesting, dramatically thrilling and altogether exhilarating, this was the kind of exciting musical theatre that makes me glad that I get myself out of London every now and then. 

9 Jess and Joe Forever

Achingly, delicately tender yet seriously committed to the sensitivities of its subject matter, Zoe Cooper’s coming-of-age two-hander just blew me away. Derek Bond’s nuanced direction of two deeply soulful performances from young actors Nicola Coughlan and Rhys Isaac-Jones made this a tear-soaked winner, I only wish I’d gone earlier in the run so I could have seen it again.

10 BU21

Another show returning in 2017, as it transfers to the Trafalgar Studios, and Stuart Slade’s adventurous writing is certainly deserving of the wider attention it will get, examining the ways in which society responds to times of crisis, both in terms of those directly affected and those who have to join in via social media,


And my least favourite shows…
Under new ownership, the St James will become The Other Palace next year as a home for new musical theatre and here’s hoping it avoids anything as cringeworthy as Miss Atomic Bomb
No amount of drugs could induce me to go back to The Painkiller, an embarrassing throwback that formed part of Kenneth Branagh’s residency at the Garrick 

A flawed take on Gatsby
Against the popular trend I know but I’ve never known as quickly that a comedy was not for me as The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
And last but by no means least, Bill Kenwright’s most shameful hour in hanging Sarah Harding out to dry in Ghost

My 10 favourite shows of 2015

So here we are, 304 plays later (nearly a hundred less than last year doncha know!) and it’s time to reflect and put them in some kind of order, because that’s what we do at this time of year. Overall, I think it was a good rather than exceptional year of theatre, there didn’t seem to be the same degree of breathtaking moments as in 2014. Which made ordering this list really hard, I could honestly say the top 10 were all of a standard and could easily have swapped places with each other…

Anyhoo, here’s my selection of my favourite productions of 2015 (small order of business – eligibility is based on when I saw the show first, so Gypsy and In the Heights both fall into last year’s cohort, and it’s pronounced fos-tîr’ē-ən ;-))
I saw this around the same time as the all-white, all-male American Buffalo and the difference could not have been more pronounced. Danai Gurira’s excoriatingly powerful writing bristled with truths barely-acknowledged in the wider world, the complex way in which wars (here the Second Liberian Civil War) are fought and ‘won’, ignoring the inconvenient reality of lives on the ground. For the women of this rebel army base, the consequences of their different choices were undeniably compelling and outstandingly performed by a cracking ensemble (Letitia Wright and T’Nia Miller particularly memorable), well directed by Caroline Byrne for the Gate, securing its reputation as one of the best places to go for new writing in the UK.

I don’t think anyone dared imagine that the #AlmeidaGreeks season would be this good but from the off, Robert Icke’s boldly contemporary adaptation of Aeschylus’ trio of tragedies had an incendiary quality that burned bright all season long. Key to Oresteia’s power was foregrounding Iphigenia’s sacrifice, making us watch a father kill his little girl reframed Klytemnestra’s rage and its consequential outpourings most effectively and in Lia Williams’ hands, devastatingly.
Not a million miles away from Eclipsed in subject matter, but an altogether different theatrical beast. Jude Christian’s production of Cordelia Lynn’s scorching new play thrust the audience into a dangerously playful environment (I’ll never look at candy floss in the same way again) and then kept us tumbling further into the darkness of the rabbit-hole. Unforgettable stuff.
One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to be unabashedly personal when the mood strikes, and so it was with this most beloved of shows from my childhood. Little Shop… was actually the Royal Exchange’s festive show from last year but I only made it up in January and boy, was I glad I did.
You can tell a lot about a person by their reaction to debbie tucker green’s choice of stylisation but no matter where you stand on capital letters, there’s no denying the power of hang. Taut, intelligent, slippery and challenging, and with an uncompromising Marianne Jean-Baptiste at its heart – powerful stuff
I’ve not always totally loved Philip Ridley’s writing but frequent director David Mercatali has become increasingly keenly attuned to its hypnotic rhythms, making it a more appealing prospect . And with this (slightly) more playful piece, which allowed acting tours-de-forces from Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey, nailed it for me.
Small but perfectly formed, this touring two-hander from Box of Tricks thoroughly broke my heart. You felt every twist of Ella Carmen Greenhill’s keenly observed writing and with the devastating power of Remmie Milner and Jamie Samuels’ acting, the show wielded an extraordinary power.
Martin McDonagh’s long-awaited return to the theatre didn’t disappoint, brilliantly mining a mordantly dark vein of tragicomedy (even if audiences do seem to be focusing exclusively on the latter part, in their determination to have a hilariously good time!)
Everybody say yeah, yeah! YEAH!
One of Daniel Evans’ many innovations during his time in Sheffield has been to turn it into a hotspot for some cracking regional premieres – shows like Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, Deborah Bruce’s The Distance and next year’s Contractions by Mike Bartlett have ensured exciting new writing doesn’t remain the province of London theatres and in the case of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, actually gave us an utterly gorgeous production that improved on the original.

And my least favourite shows…
The unthinking cultural insensitivity of Thoroughly Modern Millie
The baffling West End bow for The Mentalists
The well meaning but misguided cancer musical Happy Ending
The show that did exactly what it said on the tin, The Trial
and the best worst thing I saw, Flames, the show that made me laugh the most, though I really don’t think it was their intention

The 2014 fosterIAN award winners



My favourite shows of 2014 (worthy of a never-ending Capaldi gif)

1. A View from the Bridge, Young Vic
2. A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic
3. In The Heights, Southwark Playhouse
4. Here Lies Love, NT
5. Gypsy, CFT
6. Maria Stuart, Toneelgroep Amsterdam
7. Mr Burns, Almeida
8. Sweeney Todd, Tooting Arts Club
9. King Charles III, Almeida
10. The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney
11. Visitors, Arcola/Bush
12. Medea, Toneelgroep Amsterdam
13. Good People, Hampstead
14. Adler & Gibb, Royal Court
15. Free As Air, Finborough
16. No Barriers With Barriers
17. Dark Vanilla Jungle, Soho
18. Johnny Got His Gun, Southwark Playhouse
19. Made in Dagenham, Adelphi
20. Wet House, Soho
21. The James Plays, NT
22. Next Fall, Southwark Playhouse
23. My Night With Reg, Donmar
24. True West, Tricycle
25. The Silver Tassie, NT Continue reading “The 2014 fosterIAN award winners”

2011 Best New Play + Best New Musical

Best New Play

As the first full production in the Bush Theatre’s new premises, expectations for The Kitchen Sink were fairly substantial and in Tom Wells’ new play, they were met and then some. An intimate family drama, full of tender personal moments and a sense of humour that provided several laugh out loud moments. An interesting set design indicates just how interestingly flexible the new Bush space will be but it is writing of this calibre, performed by acting of top quality, that will ensure the Bush remains at the vanguard of new writing in London.

Honourable mention – For Once

Completely unexpected as I had no expectations or preconceptions about this play, the debut from Welsh playwright Tim Price. For Once displayed an excellent grasp of story-telling, interleaving three narratives in the aftermath of a shocking car crash to powerful, emotional effect. The Hampstead Theatre’s downstairs space has been a hotbed of new writing talent, the only downside to their ‘no critics’ policy is that these shows aren’t necessarily receiving the publicity they deserve.



Best New Musical

There’s hardly anything more I can say about Matilda, so read these three reviews – of the first time I saw the show, how I fell in love with the soundtrack and then revisiting the show once it had transferred into London – and follow how I completely and utterly tumbled for this musical which is surely destined to become a classic.

Honourable mention: London Road

So close for this one, I was even tempted to make it joint first, but the sheer joy of Matilda won out in the end. But London Road made its quite considerable mark by successfully carving out its own identity as something quite new and different, unique even, as a verbatim musical dramatising the experiences of a group of Ipswich residents dealing with the impacts of the serial killings of 5 prostitutes. Revisiting the show as the riots hit the country in the summer, I was struck at how powerful its message was, about how mutually beneficial coming together as a community can be, and how strong it is musically – indeed, the soundtrack is now available to buy and is definitely worth a punt.