I saw over 140 shows in 2017. Just over 80 of those were reviewed for either Musical Theatre Review or The Reviews Hub.
In composing an end of year list, I chose to abide only by a small set of rules:
- Only pick shows that I reviewed
- The star rating must be ★★★★ or higher
- Pick shows that offer a variety of styles, subject matter and venue sizes
- Don’t rigidly stick to an artificial count of 10
That does mean excluding shows I saw off my own bat, such as Ink and Angels in America, as well as others, such as Follies, which I liked but did not rate as highly as some people may have wished I did.
But here, presented chronologically in order of review date, are 13 shows that you would have benefitted from seeing. One or two near the end are still running, and others I hope will return.
1. January: Gaslight, touring (reviewed at Aylesbury Waterside)
It is [Kara] Tointon who throughout makes this production feel so wholeheartedly watchable. In a script in which Bella could seem like a weak, manipulated woman, we instead see someone who begins to fight against the abuse to which she has been subjected for years. There may not be quite the social message that is present in, say, An Inspector Calls – a play with which this production Gaslight shares a fair degree of atmospherics – but this Victorian-set drama, written in 1938, is thrillingly contemporary.
2. February: Dubailand, Finborough Theatre
Central is Jamie, a mid-level executive played by Nicholas Banks as a bumbling clot whose eyes begin to open as his journalist friend Clara (Mitzli Rose Neville) digs into a world of forced labour and cover up. While the breezy, fact-averse marketing speak of the executives in Nasr’s dialogue veers towards cliché, their blasé callousness following the apparent suicide of one worker – caught on a webcam Jamie had set up as part of a promotional scheme – brings echoes of slavery from other eras.
3. March: Incident at Vichy, Finborough Theatre
In Arthur Miller’s chillingly believable play, a group of men are in a police waiting room after being picked up to have their papers checked. It is apparent that they are all there because they are perceived as enemies of the Reich, either by ethnicity, political beliefs or any number of other reasons… Throughout, the growing sense of fear builds effectively, as the people waiting for their police interviews come to realise that having their papers in order may not be enough.
4. April: Audra McDonald, Leicester Square Theatre
There is a fiercely comedic vein throughout the evening, from exchanging a series of spot-on impressions of Liza Minnelli with [host and interviewer Seth] Rudetsky to the performance of Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, setting some of the internet’s weirdest personal ads to music… One can only hope that, once her West End role starts in June, Audra McDonald can find the time to perform similar events to this one – because there is not a theatregoer who should miss this.
5. May: The Color Purple in Concert, Cadogan Hall
Playing Celie, Marisha Wallace (currently the alternate Effie in Dreamgirls) is suitably cowed and disillusioned with life and God, as she is passed around from her abusive father (Hugh Maynard) to Cavin Cornwall’s equally brutal Mister. The childish joy she shares when playing singing games with her sister Nettie (the delightful Seyi Omooba) contrasts with the bullying she receives…
[Tyrone] Huntley’s voice [as Mister’s son Harpo] combines delicacy and power in ways that ensure that his Olivier nomination last year for his role as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar is unlikely to be his last.
6. June: 18-22, Attractive, Insecure, Courtyard Theatre
The fact that performers Bethan Leyshon and Elaine O’Dwyer are also the one-act play’s writers do help ensure that their piece revolves around two solidly believable, fleshed out characters. Carys and Maire are best friends, with all the conversational shortcuts and suppressed tensions that implies. Additional resentment bubbles away as Carys – who put herself through drama school and has an agent – tries not to be jealous of, or look down upon, Maire’s untrained, agent-less career.
7. July: Dorrance Dance – ETM: Double Down, Sadler’s Wells
Michelle Dorrance’s mission to reclaim tap dance from the clutches of Broadway nostalgia is an unmitigated success. ETM: Double Down demonstrates that not only does tap have the ability to sound and look modern, it is right there as the foundation for, and embedded in, everything we consider to be contemporary.
8. July: Mosquitoes, National Theatre Dorfman
Ostensibly about particle physics, [Mosquitoes] segues from the theoretical concepts of quantum theory to the practical experiment of family with ease. At a shade under three hours, it is both packed with ideas and full of enough breathing space to let them roam. But most of all, it has two of British theatre’s most vibrant performances. Colman and Williams bounce off each other with such energy that, if their collisions were to create a black hole and consume everything in sight, one would at least be happy to have been there to be part of it.
9. August: 13 – The Musical, Ambassadors Theatre
This production by British Theatre Academy’s youth section is a bright, bold, brash delight, performed by a team of young performers which really makes the show’s content shine… From Grease to Loserville, musicals have often sought to express the high school experience. Usually, they do so by appealing to adult nostalgia. And while Brown’s score for 13 often feels inspired by the former’s 1950s settings, this musical, unlike the others, feels like it captures the spirit of school in a believably teenage way. And as a West End show for the summer holidays, there aren’t many better.
10. October: Hair, The Vaults
Whether it is Liam Ross-Mills’ Woof rattling off a list of taboo sexual practices in ‘Sodomy’, or Hud (Jammy Kasongo) satirising the stereotype of African-American characters on stage in ‘Colored Spade’, the show begins to illustrate how it challenged theatrical norms five decades ago. And while the intervening years have seen theatre open up and shake off many of the shackles Hair was straining against, this anniversary production continues to makes those elements work.
11. October: Romantics Anonymous, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The key with chocolate, the play tells us frequently, is that there must be enough bitterness to counteract the sweetness. In a show that is not afraid to be self-aware, it’s apparent that Rice is also talking about theatre as much as she is about chocolate… Whether as metaphor for her own theatrical tastes, as metaphor for our own lives, or just as a romantically beautiful comedy about awkward chocolate makers, one thing is not in doubt: Romantics Anonymous is a simply astonishing new work, and has been crafted to perfection.
12. December: Dick Whittington, London Palladium
Another returnee from last year’s production, this year [Julian] Clary assumes the mantle of the Spirit of the Bells, always looking out for Dick and lending a helping hand when things get hard for him… If you don’t love Dick going in to the Palladium, you most certainly will by the end. Dick Whittington sets the standard by which all other pantomimes should be judged.
13. December: Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre
One of the overriding themes of the musical is that one cannot choose one’s own legacy, that it is always somebody else who must tell your story after you have gone. Alexander Hamilton’s story was on the verge of being forgotten. But thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and biographer Ron Chernow whose book on Hamilton inspired this project, America’s early history comes alive as never before.