As 2015 draws to a close it is worth recalling the highlights of what has been a golden year for the London theatre with musicals particularly strong. With so many excellent shows it has been a difficult job to select the ten best but here goes:
It is perhaps ironical that my play of the year, the RSC’s gripping production of Oppenheimer by Tim Morton Smith should coincide with the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This drama about the father of the atom bomb explores the wonder and horror of mankind’s journey to a brave new world of potential annihilation. Director Angus Jackson keeps the story moving at a brisk pace with the changes in mood cleverly orchestrated, while John Heffernan, leading a cast of 20, is outstanding as Oppenheimer, getting totally beneath the skin of the man, conveying both an unspoken, desperate tenderness and supressed horror at the monster unleashed.
2 Death of a Salesman
Gregory Duran’s superb RSC production of one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman which marked the centenary of Miller’s birth. What this production captures is the wrenching cycle of false hope and disappointment that powers the household of its protagonist, Willy Loman, for whom decades of graft and working on the road as a travelling salesman have failed to translate into wealth. This is the flip side to the American dream, brought memorably to life by a marvellous central performance by Anthony Sher, who makes the affable little man of misfortune and seller of tired dreams seem more heartbreakingly real than ever before.
3 The Father
Florian Zeller’s award-winning play The Father, translated by Christopher Hampton which takes us inside the mind of 80 year-old Alzheimer’s sufferer, Andre, brilliantly played by Kenneth Cranham, as he slips between moments of lucidity and bewilderment, while his daughter (Clare Skinner) has to balance the need to care for her father with the demands of her own life. James McDonald’s perfectly controlled production manages to find comedy in a situation that has its farcical moments, even as tragedy unfolds. This is a play that is both devastating and disorientating and constantly makes you question the truth and nature of reality.
Jonathan Kent’s dazzling musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of legendary burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. It tells the tale of Mamma Rose and her daughters baby June and Louise, trekking across America in the 1920s and 30s with their vaudeville act in an elusive pursuit of fame at a time when burlesque was beginning to displace vaudeville. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, this polished musical combines wit with a marvellous score that features such classics as Let Me Entertain You, Together Wherever We Go and of course Everything’s Coming Up Roses. The show itself is lit up by a knockout performance from Imelda Staunton as the resourceful, ruthless and ultimately vulnerable Mamma Rose.
5 The Golem
Theatre company 1927’s visually stunning production of The Golem which combines animation, entrancing music and live performance in a superb satire on our obsession with technology. Director and writer Suzanne Andrade and filmmaker, animator and designer Paul Barritt draw loosely on the Golem myth, the Jewish folklore that suggested it was possible to transform a mound of clay into an animate slave-man. This witty, thought-provoking show takes a direct swipe at the iPad generation and machines’ dominance over man in a society so heavily dependent on consumerism and mass technology, raising questions of freedom and individual choice, fashion, family and identity.
I will be brief listing the best of the rest:
6 Taken at Midnight
Jonathan Church’s gripping production of Taken at Midnight by Mark Hayhurst, with a standout performance by Penelope Wilton. This play, which deals with the terrible price paid by those who dared stand up to Hitler, left me both shaken and stirred.
7 The Oresteia
Robert Icke’s powerful reimagining of Aeschylus’s 2500 year-old epic The Oresteia, centring on an eminent family torn apart by jealousy and murder.
8 Husbands and Sons
Marianne Elliott’s production of Husbands and Sons (National Theatre) which interweaves three of DH Lawrence’s greatest dramas – A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law into an engrossing three-hour play that sheds an illuminating insight into a close knit, embattled mining community. This is a powerful, engaging drama that vividly evokes a now vanished world of manual labour and working class pride.
9 Jane Eyre
Sally Cookson’s imaginative reworking of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre (Bristol Old Vic./ National Theatre). Cookson does an admirable job of making the complex and lengthy stpry accessible to those not already familiar with it and remakes it as something fresh and exciting while capturing the spirit and essential heart of the novel.
10 City of Angels
Josie Rourke’s production of City of Angels, a witty and glorious celebration of 1940s film noir, with all the elements you expect to find in a classic movie of this genre – a hard boiled Los Angeles private eye, a femme fatale, a missing girl and a murder or two. As a musical Cy Coleman’s effervescent jazzy score with lyrics by David Zippel, perfectly captures the mood and atmosphere of the piece.
Finally five shows which also impressed but narrowly missed out on the top ten: Beautiful – the Carole King Musical; High Society; Mr Foote’s Other Leg; Farinelli and the King; and Three Days in the Country, the latter a National Theatre production. Happy theatregoing!Last modified: April 7, 2021