“How’s Devon?” my university flatmate used to ask when I returned to London from my home county of Somerset. I tried to explain that they were actually separate places, but he was already asking something about cider and Glastonbury, so the geography lesson was cut short. It’s a big world out there, as they say, and even the rest of our small group of islands can get sidelined by the cultural Beowulf of London. But when – according to the responses below – there’s so much to celebrate happening outside of the capital, who wouldn’t want to spend a few festive moments recapping the highlights of theatre from outside of London? Our writers from over yonder (where there may or may not be dragons) pick their personal favourites from 2016:
In a year when the West End mostly bored or enraged me (particularly its current toxic infatuation with gratuitous sexual violence) and little other theatre excited me, one highlight was an especially strong Brighton Fringe and Festival. While not always perfect – there were more than a few pieces that were racially tone deaf, if not actively problematic – it approached gender and sexuality in lots of smart and interesting ways.
My stand-out was Lucy Jane Parkinson’s barnstorming performance as a cross-dressing Joan of Arc in Milk Present’s Joan, which went on to be a hit in Edinburgh and was a gusty, funny show (and one of the few things I’ve seen this year that even attempted to address class, never mind doing so in such an engaging and unapologetic way).
Ira Brand also stepped into male drag in the Springsteen-inspired Break Yourself: undeniably slight, it was made memorable by some exquisite writing and Brand’s subtle, haunting performance. My drag king trifecta is completed by Emily Carding’s one-woman Richard III, a slick, sparse remedy to the overblown and over-rated Fiennes / Goold production. And rounding out my pics, I’ll stick with Shakespeare, and go for the most fun show of the year: Spymonkey and Tim Crouch’s riotous Complete Deaths.
One of the thrilling trends in the East Midlands this year was the return of large-scale touring theatre, taking on big ideas with big ensembles. The Government Inspector (Ramps on the Moon) at the Nottingham Playhouse did important political work in integrating disabled and non-disabled cast members, but its artistic achievement was to turn Gogol’s classic into an extraordinary indictment of institutional prejudice and exploitation, the authorities silencing protestors by shutting down technologies of interpretation.
Cramming an enormous cast into a studio, Utopia Theatre’s Iyalode of Eti transposed the plot of The Duchess of Malfi to West Africa in one of the boldest takes on a non-Shakespearean early modern play in years. The company told a story of gendered oppression, pagan magic and dignity in suffering that breathed fresh life into a much-staged play, and crucially found human motivations and pathos in all of its characters.
Finally, the 2016 revival of Rona Munro’s The James Plays for a UK and international tour was one of the year’s most important theatrical events. As Britain tried to work out what it was ahead of the EU referendum, the trilogy’s combative and exhilarating assertions of a physical, historically specific and independent Scottish identity were timelier than ever.
Whether it is Buzzcut’s Double Thrills bringing new and challenging work to the city or Only Skin’s emergence as a platform to support local artists, post-Arches Glasgow has continued to be an exciting place to live, make and see work. With so much seeming uncertain, so much has been up for grabs. With a new direction for NTS and the promise that we’ll all be taken somewhere both new and familiar come spring, there’s definitely a lot more to come.
Amidst all this change, all these possibilities, the voices of artists speaking about disability have made the most impact on me. Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s Purposeless Movements was unstoppable. These five guys with cerebral palsy made their argument with precision, cutting through the audience’s narrow expectations of how artists who identify as disabled should behave, and what disability arts can speak (and indeed lie) about. Purposeless Movements was a bold and very beautiful piece of dance theatre, a real force for change.
York Mystery Plays, York Minster
A favourite in terms of unexpected casting choices that just made so much sense, I have a massive fondness for the undeniable heartiness of God descending from on high with a strong Yorkshire accent. Writer Mike Poulton did an excellent job weaving in the poeticism of the original OE texts, whilst this production saw a step forward in terms of addressing lapsarian literature’s misogynistic undercurrents. Frailty becomes strength in this labour of love – and what a stunning stage/theatre the Minster made! Watch the planets floating among the Gothic architecture and you really do feel closer to Heaven.
Becoming Hattie, York Theatre Royal
It’s refreshing but frustrating that Becoming Hattie is the only play I saw this year with a plus size female lead not trying to change herself but instead trying to shift the society around her. Ashley Christmas’ performance was endearing, heartbreaking and totally necessary in creating a discussion around how we very rarely see larger women behind cameras without a cleaning bib on.
I’m not usually a huge champion of naturalism, but three of the best shows I’ve seen outside the capital this year gained their theatrical power from detailed, careful – and, yes, naturalistic – renderings of character-driven drama. The first, Tom Wells’ Folk at Birmingham Rep, was a gentle delight of a production. Built around an unlikely trio of amateur folk musicians, it was a slender yet profoundly moving piece, with a rousing soundtrack to boot.
Meanwhile one of the masters of naturalism, Ibsen, received a compelling contemporary makeover at HOME in Manchester, where Polly Findlay’s assured production of Ghosts slanted the play at an unsettling angle.
And finally, Wish List at the Royal Exchange – while flawed – was a promising debut from Bruntwood Prize-winner Katherine Soper. A portrait of lives usually hidden, it was a piece of real tenderness and heart: full of emotion, but never sentimental.
The Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary performances should have been 2016’s South West highlights but self-indulgence and populist under-ambition frequently reigned. A wobbly Jeremy Irons even let down A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a production whose strengths were otherwise cast into deep shadow by the radiance of Lesley Manville’s central performance.
With the possible exception of Emma Rice’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk the most exciting work at the Bristol Old Vic was not on the main stage but in the studio and basement spaces. Encouragingly, the emerging theatrical talent regularly ran rings around established names: Sally Cookson’s The Trojan Women adapted for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School showcased Hannah Bristow’s shattering and dignified Hecuba – certainly the strongest and most memorable performance of any show in Bristol this year. Kate Alhadeff was also consistently impressive across a range of productions. Expect these actors to be the linchpins of the 275th celebrations.
At odds with the prevailing climate, the Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Theatre’s revival of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind demonstrated how to explore race and gender without making a victim of its female lead. Its star, Tanya Moodie, was simply sublime. The fact that one of the most relevant works of the year was written in 1955 says far too much.
The Nap at the Sheffield Crucible.
The Crucible has become synonymous with snooker, so it only seems fair that Richard Bean’s gloriously smart comedy premiered at the home of the green baize. Directed by Richard Wilson, Bean’s script was peppered with some fantastic one-liners and featured a wonderful comic turn by Mark Addy. Jack O’Connell also displayed all his star power as the young snooker player dreaming of making it to the top, while all the nail-biting excitement of the sport was recreated when an actual frame was played on stage. One of those rare productions that appealed to theatregoers and snooker lovers alike.
Flowers For Mrs Harris at the Sheffield Crucible.
Daniel Evans’ swansong at Sheffield Crucible was an improbable tale about a char lady travelling to Paris to buy a dress. The plot may have been a bit slight, but it was a production with a tremendous amount of heart, beautifully portraying yearning and longing, whether it be for a dress or just for a better life. There were no big show-stopping numbers, but the dialogue was pretty much all sung. The rhythms took a while to click into place, but once they did, it was hard not to succumb to the play’s magic. The emotional finale was the perfect farewell to Evans as he left to start his new career in Chichester.
Eclipse Theatre’s powerful and timely revival of Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin In The Sun at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich reminded how epic the family unit can be. The production deftly re-created a political play; its messages completely clear with big performances of heart-breaking realness.
Pulse Festival at the New Wolsey included Annie Siddons’ autobiographical How Not To Live In Suburbia, whilst Shit Theatre’s Letters To Windsor House came to Latitude. Both presented compelling, hilarious and personal manifestos on the beauty and tragedy that is living in London. They also both loudly documented how the transient nature of relationships and loneliness are disempowering personally and politically.
SPILL Festival in Ipswich placed Vivian Chinasa Ezugha’s durational piece Because Of Hair outside the Town Hall. Concealing and revealing the body of a black female with masks of hair, her immovable presence in real time disturbed and fascinated onlookers. Some became supporters, some became angry and abusive. But there she stayed, refusing to be ignored.
Cuncrete by Rachael Clerke and the Great White Males was such a highlight for me I saw it twice: once at The Cube in Bristol and once at the Camden People’s Theatre. A drag king punk rock musical about masculinity and Brutalist architecture (I mean, I’m already in love with just that sentence) delivered the deliciously tongue in cheek kiss off to capitalism that we are so much in need of right now. The performance at The Cube was my favourite of the two, as it reminded me how much a venue can frame and change a performance. Seeing them play in the faded glory of what is also a cinema – and feels similar to a live music venue – was perfect for the show. Maybe seeing Clerke play on home territory also added an extra layer of excitement.
Along with Cuncrete, my greatest highlight of the year was seeing Hot Brown Honey at the Edinburgh fringe. It totally blew apart any ideas I had about cabaret and political art, managing to shake the audience up with its unabashed fierceness, celebrating people of colour in a really sexy, bold and entertaining way. It made me super proud to be a person of colour, feel totally empowered as a queer woman, and raised the bar of what I want and need from cabaret. I am pretty sure it even made some of my white friends wish they were black and some of my straight friends wish they were queer.
Both shows had in common being brilliant explorations of gender, something which appeared to be theme of a lot of the work I saw this year.
Aoibheann Greenan’s The Perfect Wagner Rite was easily the most rebellious thing at this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival. How better to reinvigorate a 19th century German opera, near-impossible to produce, than warping it into a fetish pageant with psychedelic live music and flooring costumes? If you agree with critic Bernard Shaw (who also appears) that Wagner’s opera is about the abuses of capitalism, then Greenan drew a thrilling line to an alienated sexual culture often looked on with suspicion.
In Druid’s absorbing production of Waiting for Godot, the pitter-patter of two suffering tramps waiting for a no-show felt philosophical, with Marty Rea and Aaron Monaghan’s spry performances going through routines of abuse and reconciliation, rejection and anticipation. Surprises were found at every turn of director Garry Hynes’s rigorous staging, with its flashes of comedy and the sad weakening of spirits at the tramps’ breaking point. Even the materials of Francis O’Connor’s modern stage design were unexpected. The greatest twist perhaps, in a production that’s mournful and tragic, is how it’s also crucially uplifting. Tragicomedy, both beautiful and bleak.
I’m a London girl through and through, but Bristol has been slowly stealing my heart in the decade since my family moved there. Much as I love them, this is due in no small part to Bristol’s amazing theatre scene. Mayfest this year offered gem after gem, including two of my favourite shows I saw anywhere: Chekhov’s First Play and Of Riders and Running Horses. The first was a glorious metatheatrical treat, featuring the best use of Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball. The second is quite simply the clearest distillation of joy in a show that I have ever seen. It may have just been dancing in a car park, but it was a strangely beautiful and moving thing.
Lastly, Bristol Old Vic’s The Grinning Man was my second-favourite new musical this year (the first was Groundhog Day, and In The Heights only didn’t win because I saw it last year). A macabre and magical show with a phenomenal lead, The Grinning Man was a triumph for BOV and deserves to be seen elsewhere asap.
Rachael Clerke and the Great White Males with Cuncrete, on at The Cube in Bristol and other venues, including Summerhall in Edinburgh.
Two of the best shows I saw this year were at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. More specifically, the Drum – its smaller, flexible space which houses exciting co-productions and new home-grown talent. I’ve only actually seen two shows there – The War Has Not Yet Started and The Man With the Hammer – but both were so blooming good, they deserve a mention.
TWHNYS is a show by Russian playwright Mikhail Durnenkov about conflict, violence and fear. I saw the show in May and, for everything that’s happened in the world since, I would deeply love to see it staged again (not least because it’s a very funny play and we could all do with a laugh.) Durnenkov’s aim was “to create a testament to everything which is happening to us today.” And that’s basically what he does.
The Man With the Hammer is a cleverly staged play by Phil Porter which examines – amongst other things – the themes of doping, heroes and sportsmanship (in this case, in the world of cycling.)
Both are examples of theatre that have not only retained their importance since first being staged, but have increased in importance throughout a chaotic, eventful year, and (I believe) will continue to be important for many years to come.
Saving and collecting tickets isn’t that uncommon among theatregoers. And thinking about the past year for me has involved a lot of rummaging through a small wooden box where I keep every single ticket for every show I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately (anyone as sad as me will understand this gripe) certain smaller theatres tend to favour reusable, laminated tickets which you don’t get to keep! Environmentally friendly and cost effective – this initiative is infuriating to both me and my box.
I will however forgive Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre for this practice two main reasons.
Firstly, instead of a ticket they give you an old Trivia Pursuits card. Which is adorable. Secondly, I don’t need to look through my box to be able to remember every single show I’ve seen at the Shed this year. Everything (whether I’ve liked it or not) has been striking and surprising and current, from the likes of Daniel Bye and The Wardrobe Ensemble to the comedy festival, scratch nights and the theatre’s (former) resident company In Bed With My Brother.
The best part is being able to watch these shows in a teeny intimate space with just fifty other people. Because of this place my life is fuller, even if my box isn’t.
A particular theatrical highlight for me this year was Alice Nutter’s historical, heart-wrenching new play Barnbow Canaries at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Centred around the female workers at Leeds’ Barnbow munitions factory during the First World War, the play boasted strong performances from its core and community casts, while being firmly buffeted by an immensely well-considered scenography and firm directorial concept.
Meanwhile over in York, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s chilling co-production of a brand new adaptation of E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops marvellously imprisoned audiences in the dark confines of the Theatre Royal’s Studio space. It offered both a dramaturgically well-informed retrospective look at the original novel as well as a sinister reminder of the narrative’s relevance to our current world.
Back over in Leeds, Kneehigh returned with their astonishing 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel, Kneehigh brought their signature storytelling style back to the Playhouse, telling an unforgettable story of courage and companionship. Drenched in playful theatricality and jam-packed with detailed nods to the power of atmosphere within theatre, this was a truly hilarious, heartbreaking theatrical triumph.
Walking home from The Grinning Man at the Bristol Old Vic, I couldn’t stop smiling. Though the story itself was desperately sad, the show was utterly packed full of joy. The melancholy songs soared around the theatre and it felt as though fairy dust had been thrown over the audience as the bizarre plot, energetic performances and pure magic drowned out the rest of the world, and showed us a story where good trumped evil.
My runners up would be Kate Tempest’s performance at the O2 Academy in Bristol, which will stick long in my memory. The passion in Tempest’s language and her raw emotion made the entire sold-out crowd of the O2 emotional.
The way the movement flowed alongside the words in Pink Mist, again at the Bristol Old Vic, undid the cynicism I had for the term ‘physical theatre’. The physicality illuminated this devastating war story, and I couldn’t help sobbing throughout.
Moving a little further away- Rosana Cade’s Walking: Holding in Stoke-on-Trent is another stand out show. I will never stop raving about this piece of experiential art. It is possibly the most beautiful, honest, joyful experience I have ever had at a performance.
Years ago I would go walking underneath the Severn Bridge, but this year I got to go across it (or through the Severn Tunnel) on a regular basis. The quality of theatre I saw in Cardiff was consistently high, particularly at the Sherman Theatre and The Other Room – possibly the most Mary Poppins’ carpet bag like of all pub theatres.
Bird by Katherine Chandler was so quietly and smartly devastating I had to hide the play text under a magazine to stop the sight of it randomly making me cry when it ended up in a pile next to the computer at home. Directed by Rachel O’Riordan, it was raw and humane, but never shrieking. Constellation Street at The Other Room achieved a similar aesthetic in parts.
Crossing back to the West Country, Forever Yours, Mary Lou at the Ustinov placed a hugely damaged family in the innocuous formation of a string quartet. And then delivered a hammer blow of a plot twist right at the end.
And finally, there was of course Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play at Bristol’s Mayfest. Will I ever love a play as much as that one? Now there’s a question for 2017…