Today, Jan 1st 2018, marks our first birthday. We collectively managed to review 96 shows last year – spanning theatre, cabaret, circus and dance. I’m really bloody proud of that. Writing constructively (and with sensitivity) takes a load of time – especially alongside the multiple jobs that most of us are balancing – so I’m exceptionally grateful to the people who’ve helped grow Arthur’s Seat by getting out there and seeing as much as they can.
Personally, I was lucky enough to see 211 shows last year (list here). Clearly, I couldn’t review them all (though I’d have loved to). I think I managed 46. But as per last year, I thought I’d run out a list of my top 10 shows. Plus another 10 that *almost* made the cut (because otherwise it’s completely impossible) – and 10 that absolutely didn’t (because I honestly do think it’s important to call out bad work sometimes).
I’d love it if anyone wanted to let me know yours down the bottom.
My top 10 shows (no particular order – apart from #1)
#1: Gloria @ Hampstead Theatre. The Hampstead’s programming is as hit-and-miss as London theatres ever get, and I completely emphasise with mates who avoid going. The lack of work it produces by women, disabled artists and POCs needs to be addressed immediately – and I hope/assume the AC’s 14% grant cut has hammered this home. But nevertheless, I cannot begin to explain how extraordinary Gloria was. Sharp, laugh-out-loud but dark-as-hell, a change in direction mid-play that is as unexpected as anything I’ve seen – and uniformly excellent performances. I’ve heard rumblings ‘An Octoroon’ (same playwright) was even better. Based on my memory of Gloria, I can’t quite understand how that could be. Because it was the best thing I saw all you. But I really hope Octoroon comes back.
#2: Press Go @ various, in walking distance from Almeida. An incredible, free-to-participate-in interactive game – and a product of the Almeida’s Young Producers outreach scheme. Sent into Islington to investigate a murder, and equipped with a phone that’d eventually direct me into MEATliquor, Lucky Voice and other incredible partners, this was logistically and creatively brilliant. I had so much fun.
#3: The Jungle @ Young Vic. The sort of show that’s impossible to ever forget, I think. Exceptionally moving but never preachy. Crystal clear in its message, and extraordinarily effective in its production decisions. The definition of ‘remarkable theatre’, I thought.
#4: The Color Purple (Charity Gala Performance) @ Cadogan Hall. Last year, I convinced myself that I’d never hear vocals which surpassed those on display in Dreamgirls. This one-off charity performance perhaps proved me wrong. Borrowing (unsurprisingly, I suppose) a couple of original London Dreamgirls cast members (the sensation that is Marisha Wallace, and Tyrone Huntley) plus performers who’d soon start rehearsing for Hamilton, this was one of the very rare nights when time seems to literally stop, and you stumble out feeling the luckiest person in the world to have just witnessed something like that.
#5: £¥€$ (LIES) @ Summerhall. Boy, were Ontroerend Goed back on form with this one. My Edinburgh ’17 highlight, this was impossibly clever, slippery – and also downright addictive/enjoyable, which is of course the point. If I’m ever able to make something a 1/5th as intricate as this, I’ll die a happy man.
#6: Silent Meat @ Pleasance (Islington). My new writing highlight of 2017; a play about losing, finding and everything that comes between. The text, direction and performances were imbued with such stark, often piercing honesty that the experience of watching it felt genuinely quite remarkable; there were moments when I’ve never felt the audience around me fall quite so silent. But the humour (when it came, and it certainly came) was astute, on-the-money and exactly what was needed to ensure you didn’t feel like too much of an intruder in someone else’s lived experience. Necessary and exceptionally well-done.
#7: The Glass Menagerie @ Duke of York’s. I went in (embarrassingly) not knowing the text at all, and expecting the production to be traditional AF. Maybe I’m growing old – or maybe it was just f-ing electric in every respect (I’ll help you out – the latter’s correct). Kate O’Flynn was astonishing, the design was to die for and I had to see it again. Taking people with me. One of those shows which is so good that you’ve just got to find someone to share it with.
#8: Diane Chorley: Rhythm of Live @ Underbelly Cowgate. My cabaret highlight – and my Edinburgh dressing room buddy (though I promise that didn’t influence this placement. Diane is a genius.). Amidst stories of her Calpol addiction and Essex nightclub empire, the music on display here – because it is a real, bona fide gig that leaves everyone on their feet going for it by the end – is genuinely fantastic. And all original songs, as far as I’m aware. The character is an absurdly rich and imaginative creation, and the links and preposterous stories are howl-worthy (even if some of the naff 80’s references pass you by, I don’t think it really even matters). I laughed so much that I was worried I’d have no voice for my own show later in the evening. It really was that entertaining.
#9: 42nd Street @ Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Pure unadulterated class. And fun. An extraordinary spectacle, and surely some of the most impressive and ambitious choreo the West End has ever seen.
#10: Cirkopolis @ Pleasance at IACC. 2017 was a bloody good year for circus. And this was my highlight – Cirque Eloize’s somewhat understated Edinburgh offering inside a conference centre. Any show that could pull off any form of atmosphere in that environment would’ve been impressive – but this (despite some less favourable reviews, which left me baffled) was something else. Yes, the narrative clarity was hazy but I genuinely don’t believe anyone was there for that. The juggling sequence, below, was a work of art in its own right – and the show got the balance exactly right between beauty and chaos, risk and grace. Another one I had to return for a second viewing of.
10 that didn’t quite make my ‘top 10 shows’ but were bloody sensational too
- BMT and Friends @ The Albany – do scratch nights get any more electric than that? A load of people around my age with exceptional circus abilities, essentially messing around. It was amazing.
- Wish List @ Royal Court – my full review here, absolutely loved it https://arthursseat.net/wish-list-royal-court/
- Lorde (Glastonbury set) – you can try me this wasn’t a piece of theatre, but you are just so wrong. An incredible live spectacle that I couldn’t take my eyes off.
- Reuben Kaye @ Assembly Checkpoint – I think I first saw Reuben Kaye in 2011 in a guest spot at Madame JoJo’s. He’s absolutely one of a kind – political, impossibly quick-witted. If you want a masterclass in solo cabaret, this is that.
- Rotterdam @ Arts Theatre – The most respectful, and genuinely captivating and funny, presentation of a trans story I’ve ever seen on stage. Bold, tender and expertly written.
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Part One) – arrived sort of wanting to hate it but couldn’t. It’s fully deserving of all the praise and hype; astonishingly ambitious in its commitment to real stage wizardry, but more importantly a real celebration of just how ‘magic’ theatre (intrinsically) is.
- Transit @ Assembly Hall – a close second for circus highlight of the year. More child-friendly, eclectic and ‘loud’ than Cirkopolis – but with just as much skill underpinning it.
- Late Night Lip Service @ Rose Theatre, Gilded Balloon – I can’t imagine any other variety show in Edinburgh was met with as raucous an audience reaction as this one. Gingzilla is life.
- Beginning @ Dorfman, National Theatre – not an exceptional year for me and the Nash, as you can see above (and as you’ll see further down…). You’ll notice a lack of Angels in America here – which I saw and enjoyed and appreciated, but neither part rocked my world or really made me excited. Beginning, on the other hand, was shit-hot. Astute but unusual and unexpected and awesome.
- Toxic Avenger @ Arts Theatre – this certainly wins the prize for ‘show-I-thought-would-be-shite-but-actually-completely-took-me-by-surprise’. It was so impossibly entertaining. The sort of play that no one in the theatre community will believe you if you say it’s any good, until they’ve seen it and they just sort of understand.
10 that were not so great…
- Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead @ Old Vic – maybe I’m just not familiar enough with Hamlet to get this. Or maybe it was just excruciatingly dull and not very funny.
- Lost Without Words @ Dorfman, National Theatre – the worst thing I saw in 2017, and the worst improvisation I’ve ever seen. I feel like I almost can’t say that because the cast were elderly, but I can’t lie – excruciating doesn’t cover it. Full review (one of the sassiest of my year) here: https://arthursseat.net/lost-without-words-national-theatre-review/
- Obsession @ Barbican – it’s rare that an entire audience starts giggling at ludicrous / silly directorial decisions. Usually I think people just tend to be polite and cringe, or give the creative team the benefit of the doubt and try and look deeper into what the ‘intentions’ might be. But there was so much snickering when Jude got on the treadmill (and the noise that the thing was making did not help) that that remains my overarching memory of this very confused production
- Whisper House @ The Other Palace – another one I reviewed, https://arthursseat.net/whisper-house-palace-review/. I really am all for new British musicals, and love the Other Palace’s commitment to giving them trials. But this was just bizarre…
- Common @ Olivier, National Theatre – I don’t feel this one even needs justification
- Lists for the End of the World @ Summerhall – https://arthursseat.net/lists-for-the-end-of-the-world-summerhall-review/. If you promise your audience they’re going to get a Kinder Egg at the end, you better bloody stick to your promise.
- The First Hippo on the Moon @ Pleasance Courtyard – really, REALLY poor children’s theatre offering, written by David Walliams (I expect he spent about 2 hours on it). Three different children, belonging to different families, were eventually handed iPhones and iPads to play games on – so that they’d stop fidgeting. I thought the performers were engaging and did the best with the material they’d been given, the problem really just was the material.
- Knives in Hens @ Donmar – I had a really great sleep, and woke feeling super refreshed (during the bow). So my overall experience was actually pretty good. Maybe it’s harsh to put this here
- Young Marx @ Bridge Theatre – the only redeeming feature of this was the fact it had an interval (so I could slip away into the night). So admittedly I didn’t give it a full chance – and maybe that’s harsh to put it here – but I found the first half directionless and just very boring.
- Goats @ Royal Court – I’ll admit I only went for the goats. The goats came out. They were cool for about two minutes. Then I realised they were just going to kind of stand/sit there and I focused my attention back on the writing. Which unfortunately just wasn’t very good. Another one I admit I left at the interval of (along with most people, seemingly) – so I’m really very sorry if it suddenly got better.
As I said, please do tell me what your highlights (and lowlights, if you’re feeling equally catty) are. And whether you think I’m wrong about any of mine. Thanks for reading and hope you have a fantastic new year’s eve tonight.