Tempted as I am to place a certain musical at the top of this list again (I saw it several times at the beginning of the year, so that kind of makes it a 2014 show, right?), I’ve restrained myself. It’s probably not much of a surprise that no show this year quite lived up to the splendours of The Light Princess for me. (Here’s last year’s list, for the record.) For one, there was way too much historical Royalist stuff doing the rounds for my taste, from The James Plays through the Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies double to Mike Bartlett’s much-admired “future history” play King Charles III, a work in which apparent irreverence sadly gave way to sycophancy. There were also a number of shows that I was very sorry to miss, including The Wild Duck at the Barbican and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, to name but two. Still, the year yielded several productions that I loved, and so I humbly offer my Top 10, with some comments on each show, below.
Mr. Burns (Almeida)
“I do not know what next I’ll be/I’m running forward anyway…” I’ve never had an experience quite like this one in a theatre. Robert Icke’s production of Anne Washburn’s super-arch pop dystopia - a Simpsons-derived riff on adaptation, story-telling and solidarity - bored me in its first Act and annoyed me in its second. But boredom and annoyance seem central, somehow, to the overwhelming impact that the third Act had on me, as the show metamorphosed into a startling piece of musical performance art that won through to so much unexpected emotion, leaving me tear-stained, elated, and ovating like a maniac. Transcendent, truly, and I’d like to watch it again tonight. In the spirit of Bart: if you left during one of the intervals then you missed out, suckers.
Festival (Orange Tree)
A transitional year for the Orange Tree, with Paul Miller taking over as Artistic Director following Sam Walters’s 40 year reign at the venue, and the third production of the season, Alistair McDowall’s nervy Pomona, enticing many people to the theatre for the first time. I enjoyed a number of OT productions throughout the year – in particular, David Antrobus’s take on Stephen Sewell’s It Just Stopped and Miller’s inaugural The Widowing of Mrs.Holroyd. Still, my most memorable experience at the Orange Tree in 2014 was the full day I spent at the theatre in June watching the three Festival programmes, which were Waters’s generous final offering as Artistic Director. Veering from surreal comedies (Christopher Durang’s riotous “The Actor’s Nightmare”) to intimate two-handers (Caitlin Shannon’s moving “Non-Essential Personnel”), from cheeky devised dance pieces (Amy Hodge’s gorgeous “7 to 75”) through gripping political drama (Orlando Wells’s Snowden-focused “Four Days in Hong Kong”) with a side order of poetic puppetry (Wolf Erlbruch’s “Duck, Death and the Tulip”) and a terrifically funny and well-observed family dysfunction-fest (David Lewis’s “Skeleton”), the whole day was just exhilarating, a wonderful affirmation of all the things that theatre, even in a space so intimate, can do and be. Full review here.
This was special. Written by Angelina Weld Grimké in 1916 under commission for the NAACP, Rachel was the first play produced professionally by an African-American woman writer, and one of the first to feature an all Black cast, too. Alas, the play hadn't been performed since its initial productions, and only received its European premiere 100 years on, thanks to the ever-enterprising Finborough, who staged it as part of Black History Month. Director Ola Ince and a superb cast made a thoroughly compelling case for the piece as being much more than a mere historical document in this sobering, urgent and deeply felt production. Full review here.
Made in Dagenham (Adelphi)
The very few musicals that I made it to in 2014 were either disappointing (Here Lies Love) or downright dire (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) so it was a real pleasure to be so pleasantly surprised by Made in Dagenham. With Richards Thomas and Bean at their irreverent (yet affectionate) best, a strong, appealing score by David Arnold and winning performances from all the cast, the result was a big budget musical that revelled in its own Britishness and that charmed and amused and delighted throughout. Third viewing imminent; full review here.
My Night With Reg (Donmar)
East is East (Trafalgar Studios)
It’s hard to imagine seeing either of these 90s Brit classics better served than they were by these two revivals. At the Donmar, Robert Hastie’s take on Kevin Eloyt’s exploration of the loves, lusts and losses of a group of gay men oscillated beautifully between uproariousness, tenderness and desolation. Meanwhile, at the Trafalgar Studios, Sam Yates’s revival of Ayub Khan-Din’s autobiographical Salford family portrait was also perfectly pitched, and came with the added bonus of seeing the writer himself playing –bravely and very brilliantly – the role of the patriarch based closely on his own father. Full review here.
A View From the Bridge (Young Vic)
I wasn’t quite so fond of Ivo Van Hove’s production as many people were: some of its heavy touches – portentous classical music, slo-mo interludes – seemed pretentious and imposed, and not as successful in communicating the tragedy of the play as a less art-conscious and affected approach might have been. Still, this muscular, stripped-down production proved an arresting, singular experience, and was crowned by a terrific, intense performance from Mark Strong as Eddie.
The Merchant of Venice (Almeida)
Getting in under the wire, Rupert Goold’s Sin City updating of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays has just opened at the Almeida. (The production was first seen at the RSC in 2011.) Goold’s frenetic take may create as many problems as it “solves” in some ways. But it does so fascinatingly, absorbingly, scintillatingly, complete with Elvis numbers, Batman and Robin disguises, a Taylor Swift interlude, and much more besides. The production boasts amazing touches (the casket-choice-as-game-show is a stroke of genius) and a bold Luhrmann-meets-Legally-Blonde approach to the play’s comedy and its darkness. Plus, a stunning performance from Susannah Fielding as a protean Portia, and a turn of characteristic inventiveness and originality from Ian McDiarmid as Shylock. It’s a production that’s destined to be divisive but I thought it a thrill, and a fittingly fresh and ballsy end to an altogether exciting year at the Almeida. (A mention, too, for the brilliant Tom Scutt, design-genius of about half the productions included in this Top 10.)
The Boss of it All (Soho)
I wasn’t much of a fan of Lars von Trier’s film, which seemed to me dry and just not funny enough. But Jack McNamara’s witty, slyly inventive take on the movie for his New Perspectives company turned out to be a total delight, a masterclass in adaptation that dug out the movie’s themes of role-play, power and performance and made them work so much better in a theatrical context. Full review here.
Our Town (Almeida)
I’ve hoped to see Thornton Wilder's Our Town on the stage for many years, and if David Cromer’s take wasn’t quite the production of my dreams, it was still a most memorable account of this most humane of plays, brought beautifully together in a moving final Act. Full review here.