Features Published 19 December 2017

Exeunt’s Most Memorable Regional Theatre 2017

Serving as your annual reminder of all the brilliant theatre happening around the UK and Ireland, Exeunt's critics select their favourite productions from outside of London in 2017.
Exeunt Staff
The Darkest Corners at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of Transform 17.

The Darkest Corners at Transform 17.

The Darkest Corners at Transform Festival, Leeds
In its first full incarnation as an independent, international festival of performance, Transform gave brilliant theatre-making duo RashDash the opportunity to work on a larger canvas. I first saw snippets of The Darkest Corners, RashDash’s show about the experience of being a woman walking alone late at night, at last year’s Transform Trailblazer. Even in the cramped surroundings of Slung Low’s HUB, with minimal staging, it hit me square in the gut. Staged in a Leeds car park after dark, it was thrilling – a heady cocktail of exhilaration and anxiety. Through movement and song, RashDash both captured the cold dread of navigating night-time streets, keys clutched in fist, and asked what it might be like to be freed from that dread. And in the months since, as more and more women have said “me too” (and yes, of course, me too), my mind has been tugged back to that stretch of concrete, that crackle of fear, that brief glimpse of possibility. (Catherine Love)

Persuasion, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Johan Persson.

Persuasion, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Johan Persson.

Persuasion at Royal Exchange, Manchester
Jeff James’s take on the novel Persuasion was billed as Austen “without a bonnet in sight”. Instead, this was Austen with foam parties, dance routines and a Frank Ocean soundtrack. The anachronisms made a few sharp points about the class and gender politics in the novel, but mostly they were an opportunity for silliness and irreverence. Quite possibly the most fun I’ve had in a theatre all year. And this was just one highlight of several from the Royal Exchange, which has been in good form. Alongside some of the best of 2015’s Bruntwood plays, the gentle profundity of Our Town and the not-so-gentle anarchy of Chris Goode’s take on Jubilee made for a richly varied year. (Catherine Love)

Returning to Reims at HOME, Manchester
The theatre offering at this year’s Manchester International Festival – so promising on paper – was a series of bitter disappointments. The one exception was Returning to Reims, Thomas Ostermeier’s adaptation of the 2009 book by French sociologist Didier Eribon. Beguilingly delivered by Nina Hoss, Eribon’s observations about the rise of right-wing populism in his native Reims made a hauntingly apt commentary on the first year of Trump’s presidency. Reimagining the book as a video essay, with the action of the show set during the recording of the voiceover, Ostermeier’s light-touch adaptation presented and debated Eribon’s words rather than dramatizing them in any conventional way. The result was a cerebral but engaging evening of theatre, ending on a surprisingly optimistic note. (Catherine Love)

A House in Asia at Manipulate 2017, Glasgow
Agrupación Señor Serrano’s A House in Asia was a very bold piece of work that through a combination of stage performance, film projections, live editing, scale models and soundscapes immersed its audience in a decade of terror. Terrifying, loud, brash and endlessly self-referential, the work starts at the events of 9/11 and moves both forwards towards the assassination of Bin Laden, backwards through the longer history of Pakistan and laterally through a barrage of pop-culture references. Complicated yet considerate of its audience, this was a really exciting piece of theatre. (Andrew Edwards)

AquaSonic at Tramway, Glasgow as part of Sonica 2017. Photo: Jens Peter Engedal.

AquaSonic at Tramway, Glasgow as part of Sonica 2017. Photo: Jens Peter Engedal.

AquaSonic at SONICA 2017, Glasgow
Between Music’s AquaSonic was a concert and performance where five performers submerged themselves in glass tanks to play custom-made instruments and sing entirely underwater. Ethereal, spectacular, otherworldly. More than just a neat trick, this work was well-constructed, rigorous and able to shift between being very beautiful and very funny. Made over a nine-year research period – and surely costing a bob or two to stage – AquaSonic felt like an important reminder of what artists working with ample funding and resources are capable of. Extraordinary. (Andrew Edwards)

Tommy at the Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham
The annual Ramps on the Moon production, featuring large casts of d/Deaf and disabled actors and fully integrated accessibility, is shaping up to be one of the most important events on the national touring calendar. Tommy blew everything else out of the water for me this year. Deftly reimagining the story of the ‘deaf, dumb and blind boy’ as a contemporary parable about the fear and fascination society has with those who are exceptional, director Kerry Michael found a political urgency in the classic show, while simultaneously crafting one of the most jaw-droppingly choreographed and orchestrated musicals of the year. And the band fucking rocked. (Peter Kirwan)

The Seven Acts of Mercy at RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
Anders Lustgarten’s new play was sold on its exploration of Caravaggio, centred round a beautifully realised work-in-progress of the titular painting and Patrick O’Kane’s sweary, rebellious titular artist. But the surprise was in the interleaved story of Tom Georgeson’s terminally ill Leon, a Caravaggio lover in contemporary Bootle, battling a soulless welfare system and fighting to keep his home. Despite some dodgy Scouse accents, this was one of the most poignant and angry productions I saw this year, a theatrical I, Daniel Blake inspired by, and interrogating, high art. (Peter Kirwan)

Tommy at the Nottingham Playhouse.

Tommy at the Nottingham Playhouse.

The Gabriels at Brighton Festival, Brighton
Richard Nelson’s trilogy of plays – Hungry, What Did You Expect?, and Women of a Certain Age – was unlike anything I have ever seen on stage before. Like in Nelson’s earlier work, the Apple Family quartet, each real-time, 100-minute play simply watches the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York, prepare a meal at their battered kitchen table, following the gentle waves of their conversation as it migrates from topic to inane topic.

But here’s the thing: each play is set on a critical night of last year’s US election campaign: the first on March 4th, a few days after Super Tuesday, the second on September 16th, at the apotheosis of Trump and Clinton’s campaigns, the third on November 8th, when Donald took the White House. And in the utterly absorbing, uber-naturalistic ebb and flow of the Gabriel family’s pre-dinner chat, Nelson gradually unmasks the societal fractures of contemporary America.

It’s a totally unique, quietly shattering experience watching all three plays in one day. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. (Fergus Morgan)

My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance at IBT17, Bristol
It’s the complete lack of subtlety in this very short one-on-one performance that made it so strong. Rosana Cade’s performance was forward, confrontational, powerful and strangely moving. As she stripped, she made you feel both very welcome and utterly uncomfortable. I have never been more aware of where I was looking. She made the act of watching something incredibly weighty, a slight glance enough to pull you over. (Kate Wyver)

Team Viking at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
James Rowland’s overwhelmingly emotional one-man show scooped out my insides and left me weeping for a while after. I loved everything about it: the simplicity of the show, the hilarious twists and turns of the story and the performance of the wonderfully raggedy man onstage. Just remembering it all makes me glow. I would go and see it again in a heartbeat. (Kate Wyver)

The Conquest of the South Pole at the Everyman, Liverpool. Photo: Gary Calton.

The Conquest of the South Pole at the Everyman, Liverpool. Photo: Gary Calton.

The Earthworks and Myth at RSC, Stratford upon Avon
This evening of intimate and exploratory theatre at the RSC in May has lingered on my mind since. Tom Morton-Smith’s The Earthworks brings together a recently bereaved scientist and an existentially adrift journalist on the evening before the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider. This playlet probed the power of physics and the fragility of the human heart: it was a neat and touching piece, delicately performed.

My review of Myth, the second play of the evening, was ambivalent enough to provoke Kirsty Housley to tweet “I have no idea if this is a positive or negative review (perhaps both at the same time?)” Well, having had six months to mull it over, I can now give her my response: this is perhaps one of the most audacious and impactful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. This agit-prop drama about the effects of climate change begins, deliberately, as a piece of run-of-the-mill naturalism, but soon descends into chaos. As the set disintegrates and the real world breaks through into the performance, the actors begin to corpse and lose their lines, throwing the audience into a state of real uncertainty. Myth is a truly clever and innovative play. (Geoff Mills) 

Conquest of the South Pole at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre
This was the first show I got to see from the rep company and whilst it wasn’t perfect, it embodied so much of the philosophy of rep without trying to be a replica of the past. We have a tendency to romanticise rep but miss that, especially in regional, it aimed to challenge and to be political (you can’t get an audience more political than Liverpool) and suppose that it just means classic-and-a-local-done-a-bit-cheap. By doing Manfred Karge and making it utterly accessible and enjoyable, the Everyman showed how they are committed to being forward thinking with Bodinetz doing the shows she thinks will work in the face of what is often snotty London opinions. Plus it was one of the best uses of that stage I’ve ever seen – no one has truly utilised its verticals in a LONG time. The more I think about it, the more I loved it. (Francesca Peschier)

Julius Caesar at Sheffield Crucible
Robert Hastie’s debut production as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres felt like a real statement of intent – a powerful, exhilarating rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy that seems more prescient than ever. By the time that gun-toting soldiers were running through the stalls throwing smoke bombs onto the stage, you were breathless with excitement. (John Murphy)

Desire Under The Elms at Sheffield Crucible
Sam Yates dusted down the Eugene O’Neill classic and presented it with a set design that almost took the breath away. Matthew Kelly was the big star name, and excelled as curmudgeonly old Ephraim, but it was Aoife Duffin who made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with her powerful performance. The sort of production that makes you feel emotionally drained and in need of a long lie-down – in the best possible way. (John Murphy)

Desire Under The Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Desire Under The Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Prayer for the Abstract at ICE/C-DaRE Coventry University
Lilach Livne’s work typifies the Impulstanz-y wave of contemporary dance that draws equally from speculative body practice, hippy sexual freedom movements, valley girl social dynamics and densely philosophical thought. The seemingly teenager-y stupidity of her veil-wearing participatory performance leads to surprisingly powerful mutations in which anonymous eyes are repeatedly forced to encounter and re-consider anonymous eyes. Forgoing trite and easy gestures that plague relational aesthetics, Livne’s complex propositions permit us to (re)negotiate our understandings of painfully tense political realities. (Paul Hughes)

The Natural Order at Arboretum Park/Summer Lodge
Ben Judd’s unnerving and exquisite The Natural Order presented five adolescent gymnasts cartwheeling and contorting around a public park. With simple choreographies shifting between the collective and the individual, the Degas-like and problematic exposure of these young female bodies was undercut by the striking sense of their casual agency; both in the unhurried undertaking of the scores, and their responsibility of their (at times gut-clenching) own physical risk. To be gathered on a weekday afternoon, to watch these virtuosos search for grip and balance on the damp grass, felt dignified, complex and shockingly democratic. (Paul Hughes)

All The Little Lights by Jane Upton at The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth
My first pick is a play which jointly won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016, then toured nationally in 2017. It was produced by Nottingham-based company Fifth Word, but I caught Jane Upton’s All The Little Lights at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. It gently teased out a big, topical story of abuse through the uneasy friendships between three teenage girls. Both the writing and the performances were graceful and nuanced, and never moralistic or judgemental. It was totally unsettling and totally brilliant. (Emily Holyoake)

What If The Plane Falls Out Of The Sky? at The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter
Idiot Child’s What If The Plane Falls Out Of The Sky?, which I saw at The Bike Shed Theatre, also had an unsettling/brilliant vibe to it, but more in a ‘League of Gentlemen running a summer camp’ kind of way. Playful, dark, and strangely poignant, this was an anarchic romp through anxiety by way of dance routines, audience participation, and tinned mojitos. I was absolutely hypnotised throughout by the performers’ stage presence, loved the irreverent accuracy of the writing re: ridiculous things we panic about, and thoroughly enjoyed punching fear full in the face. (Emily Holyoake)

All The Little Lights at the Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Robert Day.

All The Little Lights. Photo: Robert Day.

Beyond My Control at Exeter Northcott Theatre
Exeter Northcott Theatre really picked up its producing game in 2017, but the piece which had the greatest impact on me was a one-night wonder called Beyond My Control. Developed with the University of Exeter, Beyond My Control combined broadly comic forum theatre with pre-recorded testimony of people with lived experience of epilepsy. It was an education in how much the majority of us don’t know or understand about the condition, and firmly made the case for how vital it is that we all learn a bit more. It also playfully subverted theatre-making itself by using a mathematical model of epilepsy to construct character dynamics and relationships – literally theatre by numbers.

I’m tempted to finish with a love letter to the varied, brave, and inspiring theatre-makers that populate my adopted home city of Exeter, but I won’t because it’ll make me too sad that I’m leaving for the Midlands in 2018. So please could the creatives of Devon try to make it ‘up North’ every now and then? I’ll be the one sitting in an aisle seat hoping for more shows which are far too compelling to leave. (Emily Holyoake)

With Force and Noise by Hannah Sullivan at The Wickham Theatre, Bristol
This was a piece whose greatest strengths of slowness and quietness might seem at odds with its topic, perhaps the loudest of emotions, anger. But it is the work’s unusual approach which makes this piece so beautiful. It is made up of distinct sections, each with a different form, ranging from contained movement to freewriting to a song constantly climbing up keys until it is almost painful to listen to. The show’s seeming simplicity comes from its absolute commitment to each approach, which can be seen as much in the costume – thoroughly and intricately embroidered – as in each painstakingly slow step Sullivan takes towards the audience in the opening. This show is anger in all its visceral moments and practical outcomes – both the anger that paralyses and that which spurs to action – and its beauty comes from the way it dissects anger, lays out all its organs for display, without offering any conclusions. (Lilith Wozniack)

O No! at Warwick Arts Centre
Jamie Wood’s one man show is a gentle and warm tribute to Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit; an instructional manual for tasks and artistic inspiration. Wood moves through a number of these instructions, involving the audience in a symphony of sharing and giggling. His manner is almost ethereal throughout the show, allowing us to laugh and hold hands. It’s a really special show. (Eve Allin) 

Wrecking Ball at Birmingham Rep
The idea is simple – a man takes a photo of a female celebrity over the course of an hour. Action Hero shifted us through realities in a seamless and innovative way. The language guided us through layers of visual truth – we don’t know what is real, who is real, whether anything we are being told is true. The best bit was when Gemma Paintin stuffed a pink mashed potato ice cream in her mouth. It was the perfect example of how a really simple idea can be stuffed into lots of different theoretical boxes and then squeezed out again in a different shape. (Eve Allin)

Hamnet at the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

Hamnet at the Abbey Theatre. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

The Welcome Party at Manchester Museum of Science and Industry
The stand out for me this year was definitely The Welcoming Party by Theatre Rites, a revolutionary piece of theatre that transported the children and adults from a warehouse in Manchester into a tapestry of wonders.

It brought back to me that intense quality and power that theatre can have over you as a child and conveyed some very weighty themes on the refugee crisis and what it feels like to leave your home forever. The use of puppetry, music and personal stories from the cast lingered in me for months afterwards. (Aniqah Choudhri)

Hamnet at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin
I’m all for youthful cynicism. Dead Centre’s new play Hamnet, co-produced by the Abbey, found Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son in limbo, searching for his famous father. Directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd’s production was rivetingly suspicious of the dramatist, a man powerful and far-reaching. It resonated in a year when children’s ears had to be shielded from Trump. (Chris McCormack)

What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside? at Galway Arts Festival
Actually, those questions of inheritance made for some of the best work I saw. Emma O’Grady’s What Good is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside? was a beguiling memoir about her grandfather, a civil servant who wrote plays in secret. It also delivered a subtle attack on a society that doesn’t value artistic expression. That really can’t be said enough. (Chris McCormack)

Medea at the Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Jack Offord.

Medea at the Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Jack Offord.

Owen and O’Riordan x 2: Killology and The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

Verbatim transcript:

Rosemary’s husband: So what do you think you’ll have on your ‘Best Of’ list this year?

Rosemary: Well I was thinking of Killolo….

Rosemary’s husband: WOW! You’ve only been going on about that for less than a year?

Rosemary: Yeah, it’s been pretty relentless, I know…

To give the man a break, he has had to listen to A LOT of (mainly one-sided) conversations about Killology this and Killology that. Gary Owen, in his creative partnership with Rachel O’Riordan haunts my home like the presence of the dead son in Owen’s radical reimagining of The Cherry Orchard, which also premiered at The Sherman Theatre this year. I couldn’t choose between them – one being a frenetically tense study of masculinity, fatherhood and violence, the other a devastating picture of a family disintegrating through grief and stubbornness – so I chose both (that’s what being the editor is really about: violating the rules). I went to see The Cherry Orchard when ill with a severe and disgusting kidney infection (thanks for sharing, Rosemary) and later fretted that perhaps it was the temperature and antibiotics that made me cry and cry and cry. But I’m fairly certain it wasn’t and this was simply theatre I’d drag my arse off my death bed to see. (Rosemary Waugh)

Death and the Maiden at The Other Room, Cardiff
“Put on a play! Put on a play and make it full of candy floss and bluebirds and pretty things to make the audience smile!” said no one at Cardiff’s The Other Room ever. Your average toilet block is bigger than this tiny pub theatre, but that doesn’t stop the venue from making some of the most ambitious and high quality programming decisions around. David Harrower, debbie tucker green and Lucy Prebble all have been or are about to be performed and, of the recent season, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden proved the highlight. The intimacy of the space plunged the audience into Dorfman’s superb narrative of revenge, justice and moving forward. It felt like the right play at the right time. (Rosemary Waugh)

Medea and The Caretaker at the Bristol Old Vic
Because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a festive shout of support for the Bristol Old Vic, here I go again with a 2-for-1 special offer on a regional venue’s 2017 output. My number one choice is Chino Odimba’s Medea, a fantastically enjoyable production using a hugely talented all-female cast that was kind of like [everyone winces when I say this to their faces] a rock opera. But IN A REALLY COOL WAY. THE BEST WAY. A rock opera celebrating the illuminating potential of reading Greek mythology and female friendship. The second is The Caretaker directed by Christopher Haydon. Confession: as a Pinter agnostic, I went to this expecting something of the “a solid performance” category of play and came away overjoyed at this nuanced and tender revisiting of a familiar text that made the whole thing feel brand new. My friend said later: ‘It was great – it didn’t seem like Pinter at all!” Well, quite. (Rosemary Waugh)

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