2014: the good, the bad and the weird

With all the theatre award ceremonies taking place left and right, I thought now would be a good time to have a look through my list (yes, I have a list) of shows I saw over the past year and decide my own personal favourites. Not because I’m under the impression that a lot of people will care about that, but because occasionally it’s nice to look back and remind yourself of all the awesome stuff that you saw. Inevitably, there are always a few shows, actors, sets, etcetera, that stand out so much you’ll easily recall them a year on. Note that this might be for good and bad reasons both. But there are also shows, actors and sets that you somehow lose track of, even though they were really good. They get caught up in five-show-days at Edinburgh, or you somehow misplace them in that dark corner of your memory where you also store the name of that film you know that one actor from or where you put that pen you just had in your hand. And they too deserve to be remembered, hence the list. So, I’ve done a bit of digging and come up with my five favourite shows this year.

Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

All I’ll say about this one is that it was so good it’s made me afraid to re-watch the film for the twenty-something-eth time because I think Declan Donnelly might have ruined it for me.

Julius Caesar, The Globe

The greatest assassination of all time in all its stage-blood splattered glory, complete with a pre-show plot summary involving puppets and the best post-tragedy jig of the year.

Heist, Theatre Delicatessen

A group of strangers, an empty office building and a painting waiting to be stolen. This immersive theatre experience was perfect for everyone who’s ever wanted to have a go at their very own Mission Impossible. As it turned out there’s quite a group of would-be cat burglars and con artists in London, so hopefully there’ll be more of this happening in the future.

Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory

This was my first encounter with this particular Sondheim show, but it instantly became my favourite. In fact, I think the only way he’d top this one would be to write a musical about how good Aaron Tveit and Jamie Parker are together as John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Confirmation, Battersea Arts Centre

I never buy play texts. EVER. I bought this one. Most thought-provoking show I saw this year, and you can read more about me struggling with it here.

Thus far my top five, but . . . I’m very bad at picking, which is why I’ve decided to cheat a little bit. So I’m also including the Donmar Warehouse as my favourite theatre this year because a) that saves me a lot of places in my top five and b) ALL of their stuff was good. I literally mean all of it. I have seen every show this year so far and there wasn’t a single thing in there that made me think, ‘meh, that was just alright’. There was Coriolanus, which had the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in a long time. If you get me started on Tom Hiddleston we’re going to be here for quite a while, so let’s not go there. But there also were Mark Gatiss and Deborah Findlay, who both very deservedly were nominated for a WhatsOnStage Award recently. (As it happens, I don’t agree with the notion I’ve seen floating around on Twitter that it’s only Hiddleston’s popularity that got his cast members shortlisted.) Privacy came second in terms of thought-provokingness, after Confirmation, and Henry IV was just an absolutely cracking production all-round.  

Of course, there’s also the other side to the whole shortlisting-and-favourites-picking-business, and that’s the side we don’t usually talk about. Maybe it’s because we prefer remembering the good things. Maybe it’s because there’s a feeling of spitefulness about kicking someone in the face when they’ve already been steamrollered over by Theatre Critics United. Whatever the reason, at the end of the year we don’t generally talk about the disappointments that have been inflicted on us by our favourite creative geniuses, whether through misguidedness on their part or mismatched expectations on ours. I don’t have any qualms about revisiting this side of the equation as well however, so here are also my five least favourite shows of the year.

Hamlet, Riverside Studios

I’ve seen some pretty good reviews for this show, which I found absolutely staggering, because this is not just the worst production I saw this year: it has also made my top three of worst shows of all time. Poor Hamlet was dragged kicking and screaming (in a dubious Northern accent) from his metaphorical prison into a real one, which was somehow located in both Denmark and Liverpool at the same time. So for future reference: if bad Shakespeare makes you mad, don’t try your patience with bad Shakespeare that includes lots of gratuitous swearing and a ten-minute long solo kicking boxing scene by Rosencrantz.

Various shows, Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Leicester Square Theatre

I know, I know. . . These are not venues where one should be surprised to encounter shows of questionable quality. Still, they deserve a mention here because collectively they encompassed pretty much every conceivable theatre sin. Lecturing the audience. Blatantly biased ‘documentary theatre’. Having your tallest, broadest, muscliest actor play a seven-year-old. And please, check your sound system before you start the show. You know, in case it stops after five minutes and you’re forced to do the rest of your musical, including the dance routines, a cappella.

Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich, LIFT

Sometimes shows make the ‘least favourites’ list not because they’re bad but because they’re just really really weird. Like this Japanese story about three guys working in supermarket and the woman who sometimes comes in looking for the new ice cream flavour that will hopefully fill the hole in her neo-capitalist little heart. The term ‘story’ might be a bit of an overstatement though, since they mostly express themselves through interpretive dance.

The Cherry Orchard, Young Vic

Again, not a bad show, just one I found disappointing. Surely the great Katie Mitchell would do something amazingly sensational and farfetched with Chekhov’s classic? As it turned out, she did not, which resulted in a perfectly adequate and spectacularly unspectacular Cherry Orchard. Oh well.

The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk

Yes, technically speaking this was last year. However, since Punchdrunk has managed to piss me off so much with their pretentious, lazy game of ‘let’s make the audience pay through the nose and then have them do all the work’ that I was still having heated debates about it until a few weeks ago, I think it’s allowed on this list. Possibly on next year’s list as well, unless they come up with something equally snobbish and self-absorbed before December 2015.

So that’s my 2014 in theatre: the good, the bad and the really weird. I’m sure next year will have more of all those categories in store for us all.