2012 has been our biggest year for reviewing theatre. We have reviewed over 3,000 productions across the UK including West End shows, regional theatre, fringe, stand-up and live music. The end of the year saw us branch out with a team based in Ireland and we hope to continue to grow in other areas that we currently don’t cover on a regular basis. Here we present our long list of the shows that have most excited our team over the past twelve months. Our show of the year can be found at the very bottom of the page.Don’t forget to share your own thoughts with us in the comments boxes below! Wishing you all a fantastic New Year and an even bigger and better 2013.
SCOTLAND REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Amy Taylor
Without a doubt, my favourite piece of 2012 was the National Theatre of Scotland’s A Christmas Carol, directed by Graham McLaren. While this show was originally performed the year before, the classic tale of greed and redemption was just as strong, if not more so, in 2012. Brilliantly realised using actors and puppets, this show created real fear, suspense and awe at every turn – all while entertaining the audience. A fine example of the power of theatre and, perhaps most importantly of all, theatre funding, A Christmas Carol is a testament to the great minds working in the Scottish theatre industry today.
The Guid Sisters – The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
The Lyceum and the NTS’ production of The Guid Sisterswas also one of the great triumphs of the year. A Scottish adaptation of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs, The Guid Sisters brought together themes of family, shame, society, jealousy and womanhood, as the characters unite (or so it seems) to help one of their number collect a windfall by sticking a million green shield stamps in saver books. A beautiful mix of comedy, tragedy, musical and drama, The Guid Sisters, while still set in 1960s Canada, proved that while the decades and some of our views may have moved on, some of the more universal themes of Western society have not. Gripping, heartbreaking but simply beautiful, The Guid Sisters was unforgettable.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Director Matthew Lenton’s vision of Shakespeare’s classic tale of comedy, magic and fantasy was visually spectacular and showcased a real talent for satire. Bright, colourful, but with an air of sadness and escape, this adaptation brought together a strong cast to create an almost faultless piece that was not only engrossing but utterly hilarious to watch. Under Lenton’s direction, Shakespeare’s words had new resonance and his story had a hidden depth to it that became evident at the beginning and the end of this peice. As we all know, the play is ‘Bottom’s Dream’, and never has this plot point been so hauntingly and stunningly, realised.
SCOTLAND REVIEWER PICKS
The performance that stands out to me as my favourite in 2012 was at Edinburgh Fringe, by Molly Naylor and The Middle Ones, called My Robot Heart. A perfect blend of music and storytelling, it was the one I recomended all month to anyone who asked – families, couples, students – and they all said how much they enjoyed it. I even have the band’s CD and when the songs come on they take me right back to the summer.
Blink – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh: chosenby John Roberts
Nabokov’s enaging and dark anti-rom-com is the perfect tale for our generation. Rosie Wyatt and Harry McEntire delivered pitch perfect performances as the socially awkward Jonah and Sophie, proving that love can be found and lost in the most unlikely of circumstances. Director Joe Murphy grounded the production in a quirky and stylised manner that proved quite a theatrical pull.
Songs of Lear – Edinburgh Festival :chosenby Lizzie Kirkwood
Songs of Lear, by Polish theatre company Song of the Goat, premiered at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. The performance sees King Lear transfigured into a breathtaking choral song cycle. One particularly striking sequence has Cordelia passing through the stages of childhood, puberty, adolescence and adulthood, repeating the same piece of music, variously coming to terms with her relationship with her father and working towards a spectacular crescendo. With astonishingly raw and powerful vocal and physical performances, the piece was an exhaustingly moving distillation of a well-known play rendered afresh.
My favourite show of 2012 was the 25th anniversary tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. This production was unquestionably saturated with talent; John Owen-Jones in the rôle of the Phantom was absolutely breathtaking. The reinvention of the traditional set, the dazzling costumes and attention to detail made it like no other show that had graced the Edinburgh Playhouse’s stage.
The Monster in the Hall – Citizens Theatre, Glasgow:chosenby Lauren Humphreys
It’s such an unlikely premise for a musical play, this story of young teen Duck Macatarsney and her pizza-eating, spliff-smoking, bike-riding, heavy metal loving widower dad whose MS is gradually worsening. An impending visit from the social work department, the confusing attentions of a classmate and the worry of what her dad is actually doing on the computer for hours after she goes to bed all add to Duck’s loosening grip on her life. Unlikely, but it works. It’s a well-worked script that’s laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, infused with infectious charm and wit. It also manages to deliver a dose of healthy realism to a subject matter which could easily have been ruined by political correctness or over-sentimentality. A total delight from start to finish.
Born to Run – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh :chosenby Val Baskott
Topicality, breathless endeavour and a shining performance made Gary McNair’s Born To Run my top show of 2012. A reworking of a true story about one woman’s battle with epilepsy, it gave insights into obsession with exercise, personal control over illness and consequent family conflicts. An absorbing, mesmerising performance by Shauna Macdonald achieved while running on a treadmill.
NORTH EAST/YORKSHIRE REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Laura Stimpson
Kate Rusby is a Yorkshire-born folk singer and never failed to impress the audience with her warm voice and quirky takes on traditional Christmas songs. She is comfortable on stage, humorous and really knows how to get the audience involved. Her Christmas show was performed alongside her usual band as well as a brass ensemble, ‘the brass boys,’ which brought that added feeling of festive magic to the set. There are no grand gestures in this show, just one little lady with a beautiful voice and lots of personality; that is all you need.
The Diary of Anne Frank – Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
Anne’s diary has been recreated in many ways on both stage and screen over the years. This production was a thought provoking, fresh take on the story, extremely well executed and peppered with humour and sadness in equal measure.
Close the Coalhouse Door – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
Close the Coalhouse Door is unique. It’s like the Royale Family meets Horrible Histories meets Billy Elliot. This production was 2 hours 40 minutes of pure pleasure, empathy and belly laughs. I really didn’t want it to end and told everyone about it.
NORTH EAST/YORKSHIREREVIEWER PICKS
Straight – Crucible Theatre, Sheffield : chosen by Sheila Strafford
Straight, based on the motion picture Humpdaythen adapted and rewritten for stage by D C Moore, was the theatre highlight for me in 2012. I saw this play at the end of November at the Crucible Studio in Sheffield. It was a brilliant production directed by Richard Wilson.It was a true, unexpected delight. Yes, it made me laugh and squirm at times for the actors, but it was fun, yet sensitive and poignant. It was a thoroughly entertaining comedy play exploring homosexuality.Straightsubsequently moved on to the Bush Theatre in London.
Performed by the English Touring Theatre in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe, this was a beautiful show. Written by Howard Brenton and directed by John Dove, it jumped 70 years between the time of Anne Boleyn and James III and tells the sad story of Anne, of her love, her faith and her ultimate death and James’ attempts to unite England with his Bible. It was staged simply and acted sublimely.
Madame Butterfly – Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield : chosen by Ray Taylor
For me the best thing I saw this year was the NBT production of Madame Butterfly at the Lyceum in Sheffield. For sheer artistry, emotion, beauty, power, colour, choreography and music it could not be bettered. From start to finish one was captivated by the drama unfolding on stage and by the end was left numb with admiration. A tragic love story, yes, but one full of triumph for the all-round excellence of the aesthetic experience.
The Wind In The Willows – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds : chosen by Rosie Revell
West Yorkshire Playhouse yet again created a treat for adults and children alike. This version breathed new life into Kenneth Grahame’s much loved tale of woodland creatures. This show oozed charm and gentle humour as the audience were invited to follow Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr Toad on their adventures. A unique set, excellent costumes, attention to detail and wonderful performances set this show apart from many of the others seen this year and made it one of the highlights.
A musical that doesn’t last very long on Broadway and skips the West End to go straight on tour in the UK does not fill you with confidence. And yet the definite theatre highlight of my 2012 was seeing Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 at Sunderland Empire in October. A hit-and-miss score was more than made up for by a great script, interesting sets and costumes, vibrant choreography, direction and a uniformly excellent cast. Dolly herself belting out the title tune on a giant screen was worth the admission alone! A very pleasant surprise.
Loserville – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds :chosen by Robin Winters
James Bourne and Elliot Davis’ fresh and vibrant new musical proved quite the tonic in a theatrical landscape of jukebox musicals. With its cartoon/tech set design and savvy direction, Steven Dexter gets the best from his young and highly energetic cast. A shame that a show with so much going for it should have had such a relatively short shelf life. Hopefully it will not be the last we see of this production.
The definite 2012 highlight for me was Time Gentleman Please, produced by Damien Barber. On paper the show, which fused traditional folk dances such as sword, morris and clog dancing with hip-hop styles of B-boying, krumping and popping, really was not the sort of production I’d normally get excited about. I was definitely proved wrong and am delighted that I had the opportunity to see this outstanding production locally. If The Fighting Cocks, the Yorkshire pub setting for this show, was my local boozer you’d never get me out of there. The atmosphere was electric, the entertainment wildly eclectic, and there was never a dull moment. I utterly adored Time Gentleman Please.
The Three Phantoms – Newcastle : chosenby Holly Spanner
The Three Phantoms takes the audience on a luxurious musical voyage, in an evening of pure escapism. This spine-tingling production will soften the hardest of hearts and make even the grumpiest man chuckle. This celebration of musical theatre is peppered with anecdotes, jokes and hilarious tales of mishaps, with special guests for 2012 including Rebecca Caine and Shân Cothi. The Three Phantoms is a slick, sumptuous gala evening where every song is a highlight and, like a rare sweet, must be savoured.
Phoenix Dance Theatre: Crossing Points– Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield :chosen by Ruth Jepson
The highlight of my year was Crossing Points by Phoenix Dance Theatre at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. The company have a great reputation and it was amazing to finally see what everyone made such a fuss about. The level of talent from everyone involved was a privilege to experience – not just from the dancers themselves, but the choreographers, lighting, sound and costume crew too. Beautiful and evocative, with just the right mix of message and humour for both an inexperienced dance viewer like myself and an experienced connoisseur like my guest.
The Fantasist’s Waltzwas so special, not merely because it was fresh, exciting and original drama, but furthermore because it was a shining example of physical theatre. The whole concept behind the production was incredibly well thought out, exercising real dramatic force in terms of movement and sound. At times comic and at others deeply moving, there can be no doubt that Tongue Tied Theatre in collaboration with York Theatre Royal are capable of producing really fantastic theatre, and that future productions will be well worth watching out for.
My Fair Lady – Crucible, Sheffield :chosen by Ian Foster
Maintaining an excellent record of Christmas musicals that put parts of the West End to shame, Daniel Evans mounted an extraordinarily vibrant revival of this show which served as a timely reminder as to why it is considered a genuine classic. Led with huge charisma by Dominic West as Henry Higgins and a stunningly assured vocal from Carly Bawden as Eliza, wouldn’t it be loverly if this could have an extended life, perhaps in London?
NORTH WEST REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by John Roberts
A Life in the Theatre – Liverpool Actors Studio, Liverpool
Liverpool-based actor Stephen Fletcher placed his new theatre company firmly on the map with his production of David Mammet’s A Life in the Theatre. This hilarious tale of two actors who become friends in the unlikeliest of situations proved powerful in the hands of Fletcher and Andrew Schofield, making this fledging company as one to watch in 2013.
Frank McGuiness’ one-woman show proved to be the hottest ticket in Liverpool this year. The Matchbox delved deep into the inner turmoil of a heartbroken mother played with phenomenal commitment by Leanne Best. Director Lia Williams kept things simple, allowing this harrowing tale to really grip its audience.
Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Tour – Palace Theatre, Manchester
Laurence Connor brought Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic operetta to a new level, just as he managed to do with Les Miserables. A fresh new vision and a sensational cast, including the fantastic John Owen-Jones in the title rôle, proved that there really is life in this aging musical yet and this engaging and atmospheric production will bring with it a whole new generation of Phans.
NORTH WEST REVIEWER PICKS
Wonderful Town – The Lowry Theatre, Salford :chosen by Paul Downham
This 1953 musical was restaged by the Halle Orchestra, The Lowry and The Royal Exchange Theatre. The sets were simple but highly impressive and Connie Fisher stole the show as Ruth Sherwood, the elder of two sisters journeying to New York to seek their fortune. This show stood out for me due to the 65 piece Halle Orchestra which filled the extended orchestra pit and gave the show that extra-special ‘wow’ factor. A true feelgood production that would not be out of place in the West End.
This show incorporated two of my favourite theatrical elements; innovation and audience interaction. The two actors (Simon Carroll-Jones and Robert Macpherson) were excellent and managed to first put the audience at ease with some pre-show banter, then immediately crank up the tension once the action started. Held in an empty warehouse in a secret location in Salford, the whole experience was very different to every other show I saw this year – definitely a highlight.
American Idiot – The Palace Theatre, Manchester :chosen by Craig Hepworth
American Idiot was a breath of fresh air, raw and gritty with an incredible score by punk band Green Day by way of their critically acclaimed album of the same name. Heartbreaking, exhilarating, angry, passionate and giving a voice to a youthful generation, this Tony-winning musical was a pleasure from start to finish and the US cast were simply one of the best I have seen this year. Let’s hope more inventive and creative shows like this can be produced in the future. Outstanding.
Welsh National Opera: Cosi Fan Tutte – The Liverpool Empire:chosen by Jamie Gaskin
Although already a great Mozart fan, I had been appalled by an earlier Mozart by the same company several years ago. This restored not only my faith in the WNO but persuaded me that my prejudice that, in modern times, opera was best appreciated on radio was flawed. It was delightfully staged and filled with lots of fun and singing that cannot be faulted.
A flawless production: absurdly lavish sets, extravagant costumes, the best dance acting in the business (not to mention great dancing), a great orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score made the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake classical ballet heaven. I feel like the highlight of the year should have been something new but, although I saw some excellent contemporary dance, nothing quite ticked the boxes like Swan Lake.
Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster – The Royal Exchange, Manchester :chosen by David Cunningham
A harrowing story told with imagination. Simon Armitage’s lyrical elegy was enhanced by authentic true-life recollections. The safety of home contrasted with a hostile environment. A shabby municipal park ominously surrounded the cosy family front room. Rachel Austin performed, rather than recited, the poetry revelling in the descriptions of Sophie’s triumphs while Julie Hesmondalgh’s more naturalistic performance brought out both the aftermath of Sophie’s death and the pride of any parent.
Einstein’s Daughter – The Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester :chosen by Tracey Lowe
This dark, interesting and disturbing story was one of the most well-written pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. As characters reveal their true colours and relationships unravel it becomes impossible for the audience to look away. The play also had one of the most visually disturbing scenes I’ve ever witnessed on stage, and prompted gasps and yelps of horror. Einstein’s Daughter was clever, thought-provoking and absolutely engrossing, and proves once again that The Lass is one of the leading venues in hosting brave and innovative new writing.
The atmosphere, costumes and of course the cross-genre dancing made for an awesome spectacle. As a politically driven person I was moved by the class specific disciplines – both of which take many years of practice and dedication – mixing so well and I would most definitely watch it again.
The Matchbox – Liverpool Playhouse Theatre :chosen by Stephanie Rowe
The best play I saw this year was The Matchbox with Leanne Best. She had me transfixed from the start. I travelled the whole emotional rollercoaster with her. The energy and feeling she portrayed as this poor desolate mother left me washed out emotionally and physically and must have left Leanne in much the same state after each performance. The direction and simple set worked in favour of this phenomenal play.
Dreaming Under A Different Moon – The Edge, Manchester :chosen by Brian Gorman
Dreaming Under A Different Moon had absolutely everything, in a joyous, full-throttle, high octane, magnificent celebration of live theatre and the magic of art. This epic musical fantasy has something for everyone, telling the colourful tale of an Edwardian teenager who falls into a coma which magically transports her to the far-flung future where all artistic pursuits are banned. Imagine Alice In Wonderland crossed with Peter Pan with all the eye-boggling extravagant energy of a Dr Who Christmas special. Chorlton’s newly-opened arts centre, The Edge, set the bar ridiculously high with their inaugural in-house production from writer/director Janine Waters.
In the dark and dramatic revival of Tennessee Williams’s play, Imogen Stubbs gave an intense and vivid portrayal as Lady Torrance, a performance that seared itself into the memory. While she held the stage, a strong cast ensured Williams’s dialogue was brought to life in the most powerful of ways in a faultless production.
The Static – The Unity Theatre, Liverpool : chosenby David Noble
The Static, an eccentric and at times downright odd production, really grabbed my attention. It was genuinely innovative, yes even this weathered cynic had to applaud its topic and bold direction.The Static‘s crowning glory was in watching its mesmeric creation of an atmosphere of chaotic intensity, to the great physical exertions of the cast, be stripped down and beautifully dissembled into a moment of palpably fragile delicacy. A real theatrical achievement.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester :chosen by Helen Jones
This was quite simply an inspired version of one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. Irreverent, cheeky and full of innuendo it kept close enough to the original to not destroy it for those of us who love Shakespeare. However, its novel approach made it very accessible for the Shakespeare beginner. I took my nearly-twelve-year-old daughter with me. She had seen Dream before done by Shakespeare 4 Kids but thought this production not only funnier but more interesting. Getting young people into Shakespeare is important and Filter’s unconventional approach converted one more that night and that is worth more than rubies!
As a lover of dance and a Strictly Come Dancing fan it was real pleasure to see Flavia and Vincent take to the floor and dedicate a full dance to the style they are famed for; the Argentine tango. Supported by a number of other skilful dancers, the cast created a magical evening that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
The Boy Who Kicked Pigs – The Lowry Theatre, Salford :chosen by Laura Maley
Tom Baker’s story of horrible 13-year-old Robert Caligari is brought to life magnificently by theatre company Kill The Beast’s first production. Part of The Lowry Studio’s ‘Developed With’ series, providing support to emerging artists, this production is a perfect example of the fun, vitality and inventiveness that can make theatre magical. With highly stylised design, excellent musical numbers, a brilliant and versatile ensemble (who, with director Clem Garritty, devised the script), this grotesquely comic farce is like a macabre cartoon brought to life. Twisted, very clever and deliciously funny.
CENTRAL REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Selwyn Knight
We Love You City – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
The story of that iconic final was played out with passion, balletic grace and breathtaking physicality. However, a worthy nostalgic view of local history, it aint! The background to the times, including the recent riots and an atmosphere of casual racism, is also included, representing a time that seems almost impossibly distant nowadays. Of the vignettes of that day, Chris Chilton’s bereft and forlorn father was especially affecting. Also included is light relief in the form of a humorous treatment of pivotal moments in Coventry City’s history following its formation as Singers FC by employees of the cycle factory.
An Evening with Dementia is totally absorbing and unutterably moving because of the quality and depth of Trevor T Smith’s writing and performance. As we enter, he is seated, mouth hanging open, tongue lolling: the very picture of confusion. His memory is his enemy. Despite this, he is able to reminisce about his “acting career” and his desire to play King Lear which he “could do now, and mean it”. His descriptions of his days, including confusing visits from strangers whom we infer to be members of his family and which leave him completely discombobulated are extraordinarily poignant.
Fragile – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Geoff Thompson’s partly autobiographical play is hard-hitting, uncomfortable viewing. His writing is raw, direct and uncompromising, complemented by Nick Bagnall’s flawless direction: every detail plays an integral part in supporting the emotional development of the central character, a middle-aged man, played by Craig Conway, abused as a boy by a teacher he idolised. He tries to “talk it out” to a non-judgemental tape recorder, discussing the impact on his relationships with girls, his parents and himself. Although very dark and harrowing, there are moments of humour, reinforcing the damage and making the character three-dimensional. A memorable evening, if difficult to watch.
CENTRAL REVIEWER PICKS
Northern Ballet : Beauty and the Beast – Milton Keynes Theatre :chosen by Maggie Constable
Northern Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast at Milton Keynes Theatre was absolutely magical. Duncan Hayler’s magnificently gothic and ever-changing set deserved an encore. The white roses were just so beautiful. The contrasting dark and light perfectly enhanced the story and the battle of the forces. Martha Leebolt was light and lyrical as Beauty, radiating throughout. But it was Ashley Dixon’s brooding Beast that dominated. David Nixon managed to pull off charming choreography, sharp direction and wonderful costume design to produce a visually stunning production.
This is a very powerful play, not done very often professionally, written almost 100 years ago but about issues that were still very relevant up to a very few years back, certainly within living memory. I was particularly struck by the simplicity and flexibility of the design, reflecting the stark lives of the tenement dwellers and the quality of the performances – every person (and there were 16, a large cast for a play) brought something unique and individual to their character, even the smallest of parts with only a couple of lines. Exceptional direction and hugely talented cast combined to bring this level of performance.
Sunflowers and Sheds – Curve, Leicester :chosen by Linford Butler
Sunflowers and Sheds triumphed as a piece of theatre through its well-pitched educational message of inclusivity and harmonious cohabitation, made all the more potent when performed in one of the country’s most multicultural cities, Leicester. Funny, poignant performances and an important commentary on the importance of compromise combined with a lovely, simple set and design rationale, creating a simple yet effective short piece of theatre which stood out as perhaps one of the best pieces of performance for children this year.
Druid Murphy – Oxford Playhouse :chosen by Mary Tapper
Sometimes a production lives with you and the memory of it grows steadily so that it is only a few weeks down the line that you really get the full effect of a play. Druid Murphy was a real commitment, with 3 plays starting at 1pm and finishing at 10pm, but it showcased the poetry and brilliant writing of Tom Murphy and the excellent production values of the Irish Druid Theatre Company. Seeing actors reappear in vastly different characters, and following the theme of Irish emigration, we were immersed in and enthralled by these plays. The language was pure poetry and the overall effect was to explore the very psyche of a whole country. Simply stunning.
Spectacle is a word that is often overused in theatre, but for The Voyage no other word will do. This free outside dance performance helped open the London 2012 Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. It used every sense to tell a simple story of love and loss, companionship and adventure, from its beginning with suitcases floating towards the huge ship docked outside Birmingham Town Hall, to seeing lovers flying above beautiful, simple contemporary dance filling the ship’s cabins and balconies, to a terrifying storm sequence that saw it transformed with stunning projections and performers apparently flung from the set.
Radio Times – Royal &Derngate Theatre, Northampton :chosen by Sue Dixon
Radio Times had all the energy, style and polish that defines an excellent production. It had all the right ingredients for a night of escapism and complete entertainment; the thorough professionalism of a talented cast, led by the consummately talented Gary Wilmot, the unforgettable tunes of Noel Gay accompanied by a magnificent live band. Alongside, there was slick and fast-moving choreography, making a mesmerizing, toe-tapping experience. It must have put a smile on the audience’s face for days after.
LONDON REGIONAL EDITOR &FEATURES EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by London Editor Ian Foster
Constellations – Royal Court/Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Such is the strength of Nick Payne’s new play Constellations that it was equally as affecting in the intimacy of the Royal Court upstairs theatre, where it premiered, as in the West End’s Duke of York’s, to which it subsequently transferred. Writing that combined scientific theory with human relationships, astounding performances from Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall and one of the best designs of the year from Tom Scutt made it truly one of the hottest tickets of 2012.
Duncan MacMillan’s intimate two-hander traced the path of a relationship from beginning to end by compressing periods of time to devastating effect as we saw how the beliefs that this couple held affected the decisions that they made, and then saw the long term impact on their lives. In the intimacy of the specially constructed, in-the-round auditorium, Alistair Cope and particularly Kate O’Flynn were in sensational form as they smoothly negotiated the leaps in time yet always remaining utterly connected to the huge emotion of the story.
Chosen by Features Editor Lucy Thackray
NYMT’s 13 – The Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue
13, a brilliant, witty, silly, vocally explosive musical by Jason Robert Brown, Dan Elish and Robert Horn, was performed with such zest and energy by its cast of 13-16 year olds from the National Youth Music Theatre. Directed by Jason Robert Brown himself in a summer camp-style workshop of just a few weeks, the set at the Apollo Theatre was simple but effective and the oddball characters were given new twists by an astonishingly talented group of teens. Though we knew the score pretty well already, my sister and I cried with laughter throughout. Though fluffier than a lot of JRB’s other subject matter, 13 is spot on in taking all those things we thought were of paramount importance as teenagers and looks at them in a plot that is at turns hilarious, surreal, painful and uplifting. It’s not rocket science, but sometimes a great score and book is just enough.
Idina Menzel in concert – The Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue
This was the second time I’d seen Idina Menzel in concert (after her Royal Albert Hall triumph in 2011), and this concert was a lot more intimate, cheeky and emotive. Menzel is a natural entertainer and sat perched on the edge of the stage to chat, leapt around barefoot and even wove through the audience asking people to duet with her on her iconic RENT number Take Me or Leave Me. There were moving moments – a tribute to her late mentor Marvin Hamlisch for one – and glorious ones, such as her take on Joni Mitchell and some impressive solo material, plus all the crowd pleasers you could want from Wicked and RENT. A real treat for the West End.
I was a little late to the party on this one, attending in May of this year, but Matilda really matched (and exceeded) its hype. We were lucky enough to see Bertie Carvel in the rôle of Miss Trunchbull before he left, and the way the characters and score had been conceived were not only true to Roald Dahl’s book, but improved on it by adding a fantastical quality. We saw Jade Marner as Matilda, but the whole young cast were excellent and avoided being too stage-school slick. The set and staging were incredibly creative. The puppets and storytelling theme were inspired and Tim Minchin’s score not just funny but a wistful tribute to the highs and lows of being a child.
LONDON REVIEWER PICKS
Brand New Ancients – Battersea Arts Centre :chosen by Lettie McKie
A poetic story told against the backdrop of an amazing original score by Nell Catchpole. This was my favourite performance of the year because of its vitality, energy and raw power. The force of Kate Tempest’s writing combined with haunting music and a chilled but captivating performance style made this modern day epic stand out a mile!
Detroit – National Theatre :chosen by Andy Moseley
Excellent dialogue and sharp observation as respectable suburbanites Ben and Mary meet Kenny and Sharon, their new neighbours, over a series of barbecues and late night meetings. The play laments the destruction of the American suburbs and the way we don’t communicate with our neighbours anymore, while showing what can happen when we do dare to reach out to people. Audience perceptions of both couples are challenged by an intelligent script that is only let down by a final scene where the theme of the play is spelled out when it really doesn’t need to be.
This was the easiest 5 stars that I have ever given and it was one of the most beautiful shows I have ever seen. It is aimed at young children but the story of a man loooking for his lost love is a universal one and the piece was created in such loving detail that the whole audience were entranced. The mixture of puppets, multimedia and music blended perfectly together and gave the piece a cohesive feel. The lack of spoken language also added to the universal feel of the piece. The running time of 30 minutes, although short, did not make the audience feel cheated in any way and I can unashamedly say that it made me cry.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – National Theatre :chosen by Samuel Holmes
Mark Haddon’s novel was adapted for the National by Simon Stephens and Luke Treadaway’s performance was outstanding. By far one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, the production is transferring to the Apollo Theatre in 2013.
Sweeney Todd – Adelphi Theatre :chosen by Jonathan Baz
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball at London’s Adelphi was musical theatre excellence. A challenging piece, dependent upon performance rather than spectacle and unquestionably nailed by barber Ball and his partner in crime Mrs Lovett, with a performance from Imelda Staunton as Lovett that was to die for. Her interpretation of each of the tiniest nuances of Sondheim’s prose was spot on throughout the show and the two actors gave a masterclass in acting through song. Even now their A Little Priest still never fails to amuse. Peter Polycarpou, John Bowe and Lucy May Barker were also outstanding. Grim, grisly and grand!
The Young Vic’s production was the first ever stage version of Jung Chang’s family history, Wild Swans. It told the brutal and heartbreaking story of a Chinese family swept up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the consequences of the Great Famine. Beautifully and innovatively staged, the play was mesmerising and reminded me how vibrant and relevant theatre can be. This play shows how important it is to make space for new material in a time when theatre is still dominated by jukebox musicals, Shakespeare and tried and tested favourites.
Boy Meets Boy – Jermyn Street Theatre :chosen by Seb de Montmorency
Set in the ‘30s, written in the ‘70s and making its debut in the UK in 2012, this production of an off-Broadway show made a mockery of its obscurity with a delightful screwball sensibility to its humour, tuneful pastiches of the music of the era and a warmly romantic storyline that was beautifully acted. That the romantic leads were both men and that this wasn’t at all an issue was just the cherry on the cake.
You, Me, Bum Bum Train – Stratford :chosen by Michael Gray
It was the most immersive and ‘total’ theatre experience that I have ever had the pleasure of being involved in and one I will never forget. At no point was it predictable or boring. It is something to look out for in years to come as it is quickly becoming a cult-hit.
This musical revival was beautifully and creatively staged and had great pace and humour. The cast across the board was excellent, led by Anna Francolini and Richard Dempsey, and the show just left you feeling happy and very warm inside.
The Fear of Breathing – Finborough Theatre :chosenby Sarah Nutland
My play of the year is The Fear of Breathing at the Finborough Theatre. It gave a human perspective to all of the stories about Syria seen in the news. The verbatim accounts were performed superbly, making the harrowing tales come to life again. It’s the most emotive and thought provoking show I’ve seen all year.
Misterman – National Theatre : chosenby Lauren Kilgannon
Cillian Murphy gave an intense, powerful and unforgettable performance in this solo show which explores one man’s misguided religious fervour in a small Irish town. Cillian filled an expansive stage with deranged energy as Thomas Magill, aided by only a handful of cleverly utilised props and the audience, lost in the confusion of Magill’s warped thoughts, felt a mounting sense of dread. Utterly unshakeable, the final scenes cling to the memory like a dark fog.
An astonishingly well-conceived revival that made a clear case for this particular work, as not only one of Sondheim’s most engaging musicals, but also as one of the most perceptive explorations of the limitations and sadness of the American Dream in modern US culture.
The Effect – National Theatre : chosenby Michael Brown
A devastatingly effective exploration of love and depression and just how much science can ever tell us about the mysteries of the heart and mind. Lucy Prebble’s collaboration with Rupert Goold’s Headlong matched up the standard of Enron with a beautiful intelligence and profundity that stayed with me for days afterwards.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – National Theatre : chosenby Livia Brown
Brilliantly detailed performances, especially Luke Treadaway as Christopher, stunning choreography by Frantic Assembly and all executed with perfection by Marianne Elliott reminding us that she is still right up there as one of the top directors in the country – truly visionary, a masterful storyteller. And then of course with a script penned by Simon Stephens, it really was the ultimate theatrical power-combination! Looking forward to their next collaboration Port, opening later on this year.
Brilliant performances from David Suchet, Laurie Metcalf, Kyle Soller and Trevor White made Anthony Page’s production of one of the most personal and painful family plays ever written an incredible journey indeed.
Juno and the Paycock – National Theatre : chosenby Shelia Cornelius
A powerful revival of Sean O’Casey’s Irish classic play which completely tugged at the heart-strings. Although I’d seen it before, the final speech by Sinéad Cusack’s endlessly hard-working and long-suffering matriarch brought tears to my eyes as if hearing it for the first time.
The Bee – Soho Theatre : chosenby Jemma Bicknell
Incredibly dark yet unnervingly comical, this mix of Japanese culture and a 1970s setting with a definite Britishness became a surreal, brutal and time-bending fable of devastating effect.
A fantastic play spanning the lives of a couple from their first meeting in 1967 up to the present day. The cast of five give amazing performances, particularly Ben Miller and Victoria Hamilton as the central couple who age and evolve before our eyes. The script is so witty, and flips on you so that you are laughing hysterically and then you are disgusted with yourself for having enjoyed the company of these vile characters. Its a play for baby-boomers and their offspring everywhere.
SOUTH EAST REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Glen Pearce
Mudlarks – HighTide Festival, Halesworth
Debut plays can be tricky affairs. The pressure to get your play performed can sometimes get in the way of the production. Vickie Donoghue’s stunning first full length play Mudlarks though showcases a writer of immense skill. Capturing the despair of a tragic trio in an Essex dead-end town, Mudlarks proved to be the highlight of this year’s HighTide festival in a perfect marriage of writing, staging and acting.
Private Resistance – Eastern Angles on tour
East Anglia’s touring theatre company Eastern Angles have had something of a special year. Celebrating their 30th Anniversary, the company seem to be on something of a reneinsance. Their ‘what if’ play examining the impact of a German invasion succeeding during the Second World War explores the human impact of war on everyday families. A fitting tribute to a hidden part of our wartime heritage.
Shows catering for a family audience need to tread a careful line. To produce theatre that appeals to all ages is hard to achieve. The Children’s Touring Partnership’s adaptation of Swallows and Amazons manages the difficult task of keeping both children and adults totally enthralled. By the time the two boats sail out across the auditorium at the end of the show, the entire audience have been transported through the sheer magic of theatre.
SOUTH EAST REVIEWER PICKS
Swallows and Amazons – Marlowe Theatre : chosenby Nathanael Kent
Tom Morris’ production of the children’s classic was a continuous delight. It played with the imagination, conjuring parrots from feather dusters, and the sailing waters from a piece of mere blue ribbon. There was a freshness too, with songs by Neil Hannon (of The Divine Comedy) which made the piece feel more immediate, while still capturing the adventure and rôle-play of childhood; something we seem to be losing now, for gone are the days where children can sail lakes alone! It appealed to both young and old, and as well as being brilliant fun, it was also truly affecting. As the two ships – Swallow and Amazon – sailed across the waters that were the Marlowe auditorium, many did shed a tear.
Swallows and Amazons – Theatre Royal Norwich : chosenby Lu Greer
This was a show that I assumed would be great fun for children, and something that the adults in the audience could tolerate, and at best enjoy a few moments of. In reality though, as soon as the curtain goes up the adults become absorbed in a Neverland of make believe courtesy of the amazing players in blue who turned ribbons into water and feather dusters into parrots. The story isn’t necessarily the most complex, the jokes not always the funniest and the actors not the most remarkable. But for two hours children are in raptures, and the adult are right there with them. And that really is something remarkable.
Most shows of any genre are an unreal, fake world to be lost in.I Dreamed a Dream is a real, humane telling of a warm, down to earth lady who has beaten the odds and won the hearts of millions with her stunning voice and genuine pleasure in the love she receives from her audience. Revelling also in what she gives.The show is simply told and presented, yet the complicated aftermath of its ‘nothing fake’ story leaves one in awe. A magical biography. What better to offer those who believe?
Private Resistance – Eastern Angles on tour : chosenby Michael Gray
My pick of this year’s regional shows would have to be Eastern Angles’ Private Resistance, which I saw three times on its travels around East Anglia. A superb piece of writing, and excellent ensemble playing. And, of course, a strong local connection.
SOUTH WEST : REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Jacqui Onions
A Number – The Alma Theatre, Bristol
SanaRt Theatre’s production of A Number, hidden away in the small space above the Alma Tavern, was the perfect example of everything coming together to produce a mind-blowing piece of theatre. Caryl Churchill’s clever, thought provoking script in the hands of director Emel Yilmaz threw up themes and issues relevant to ordinary people, all set in the extraordinary situation of a man finding out that he is a clone, one of a number. Just two actors created a total of four very different characters and kept the audience engrossed throughout. An hour of theatre that will stay with me for a lifetime.
As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of Matthew Bourne’s dance company, New Adventures, the company returned to its roots performing the early works that helped to make Matthew Bourne the success he is today. The newly refurbished Sherman Theatre was one of the theatres chosen to present Early Adventures and seeing Bourne’s early work in this intimate venue has to be classed as a highlight of 2012. What made the pieces included in Early Adventures truly special was the insight that they gave into the ideas behind and development of his more famous work.
John Owen-Jones at The Grand Theatre, Swansea
The Grand Theatre, Swansea, played host to a unique evening in 2012, presenting John Owen-Jones’ first solo concert. His own excitement about the show was infectious and having his family in the audience made the night all the more intimate and personal. A superb mix of the songs that are a must from Owen-Jones’ repertoire and those that he had previously not performed live, special guests, and his own brand of humour, made this a night to remember.
SOUTH WEST : REVIEWER PICKS
The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Production – Bristol Hippodrome :chosen By Naomi Stevens
The Phantom of the Opera is a classic show which has been seen by thousands of people worldwide but in 2012 the show went on tour and a whole new production was born. Director Laurence Connor put a new spin on the musical and while the music maintained the same dramatic sound and was faithful to the original score, the set had a complete redesign to make it suitable for a travelling production. This version kept many of the elements which made the brilliant original so successful and with many of the actors appearing previously in the lead rôles the quality of the cast was plain to see.
The show that summed up 2012 for me came from humble beginnings. After opening at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, it went on to win an Olivier award after a run at the Soho. In 2012 it hit the road and came to Bristol. It made what has been called elitist, accessible. It was funny, sexy, and moving. It was based now, on our doorstep and it made full use of one of the best spaces UK theatre has to offer. My hit of 2012 was OperaUpClose’s production of La Boheme at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre.
Bike – Bierkeller Theatre, Bristol ; chosenBy Kath Hill
I found Katherine Mitchell’s Bike which played at the Bristol Bierkeller to be a most engaging drama. It was strong, simple and emotionally charged. It was a tough ask for a single handed performance but Jenny Johns coped admirably with portraying our focal character through the formative ages of her life and the emotional fallout. I enjoyed the simple pared down staging which let the actor and script do the work to great effect.
Welsh National Opera: Cosi Fan Tutte – Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff : chosenBy Barbara Michaels
For me, the best show of the year has to have been Welsh National Opera’s production of Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte. What made this Cosi so special is that director Benjamin Davis dared to go out on a limb with a witty take on the traditional modus operandi. Not only did he change the setting – late 1700s Italy became a sixties British seaside resort – but he threw in a Punch &Judy show, a man-size crocodile and much more. Some old school opera buffs turned up their noses – but I loved it.
The cast of Barbershopera provided an evening of astounding a cappella and rhythmic revelry in Barbershopera: The Three Musketeers. The masterful cast of four were highly accomplished physical and musical performers; they took on multiple rôles with ease and style, making the show a novel and tongue in cheek take on the classic tale by Alexandre Dumas. The traditional story was pulled apart and hilariously reconstructed in a cheeky, festive fashion, with some sharp satire thrown in for good measure.
The Mousetrap – New Theatre, Cardiff : chosenby Chris Williams
Classic murder-mystery – a black leather gloved-hand behind a door, lights go out and someone screams. The acting delivering highly polished performances. It seems the set is a replication of London’s long running production, as with the play itself – if it works why change it?
This Was Your Life – The Baptist Hall, Barnstaple: chosenby Joseph Leigh
This new comedy musical was a highly entertaining, tongue in cheek take off of the Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer style chat show, where audience participation was fostered and encouraged with superb skill and the cast of three swapping numerous rôles with effortless skill. The new writing by Thom Sellwood was hilarious from the off, and the performances of all three actors were utterly superb.
Six months on and I’m still thinking about this humble one man play. How often does this happen? A fable set in a world where tree climbing is the national sport, Coelacanth has the wisdom that can help a person, to advise and nurture them through allegory. An intricate tapestry of fantasy, science, emotion and words was woven together so beautifully with humanity, that images conjured themselves with little effort. Even now as I catch sight of a particularly impressive tree, I find myself thinking it must be one of the Eight Great Trees of England. From love to loneliness, and for everyone on a journey, go and see this play. You will not be disappointed.
SOUTH COAST REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Marina Spark
Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin – The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
In Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin, theatre company Maison Foo fascinatingly touched upon a decaying house that had ‘misplaced’ its elderly owner. The story told of a Wall, Chimney and Floor desperately searching for their missing owner, Mrs Benjamin. In plain terms however, the superbly executed storytelling took us through the life of Mrs Benjamin, and concluded with a very moving portrayal of her descent into dementia and eventual passing. It was a pleasure to see new theatre that had obviously been carefully researched and was executed with delicacy and understanding.
The Table – The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Blind Summit blew the audience away with some astonishing puppetry in The Table; a tale which revolved around a puppet endeavouring to tell the story of the last twelve hours of Moses’ life from a table top. What ensued from this was an unexpectedly amusing, exciting and poignant tale of clinging on to something that is no longer yours. The piece also doubled up as a fascinating lesson in puppetry, and took the narrative miles away from anything biblical. The Table was a great opportunity to see the pioneers of extreme puppetry at work and new life was breathed into a genre that is often misunderstood.
Fun, family-friendly and FABULOUS, Sister Act at The Mayflower, Southampton had the whole house boogying in their seats from start to finish. This nationally touring production directed by Jerry Zaks, with a original score from Alan Menken, kept the soul of the film while giving the musical a life of its own. It was full of laugh-out loud, heart warming and uplifting moments, had a fantastic score, a stylish set and a cast and orchestra that gave it one hundred percent.
SOUTH COAST REVIWER PICKS
The King’s Speech – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford : chosenby James Martin
The play was an outright success as proved by the standing ovation at the finale and even the most sceptical of film fans would have walked away from this performance with a positive feeling. The leading characters gave silky and charismatic performances, with the support cast providing strong cameo assistance. Adrian Noble’s direction proved that The King’s Speech on stage could in its own right be a masterpiece. David Seidler’s beautiful portrayal of a touching and historically significant story obviously had proven pedigree from its success at the Academy Awards, but showed on this evening that it had the potential to make an equally impressive impact on the smaller stage.
The Merry Wives of Windsor – Guildford Shakespeare Company, Guildford Castle Grounds : chosenby Jane Pink
This year I have been lucky enough to review some wonderful productions for the South Coast Region. One performance which stays with me particularly clearly is the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Guildford Castle Grounds. Chinks of sunlight through the leaves of an ancient oak; an energetic, engaging and hilarious cast; vintage costume and props; and discovering that a play I hardly knew was so very funny. It was an idyllic evening and a wonderful production. An example of how well outdoor theatre can work to create a real sense of connection between actors and their audience.
The Mayflower Theatre consistently puts on an excellent Christmas show, however, this year’s festive offering of Jack and the Beanstalk excelled all expectations; it was simply stunning. Although the Pantomime retained its traditional storyline it had been tweaked with the most amazing special effects and 3D technology that was incomparable to any other pantomime I have seen.
Stomp – The Mayflower, Southampton : chosenby Joseph Leigh
My pick of 2012 is Stomp at The Mayflower, Southampton in September. This show was a no holds barred, high energy acoustic triumph that left the audience stunned and spellbound.
Fawlty Towers Dining Experience : chosenby Steve Turner
An absolutely brilliant evening from start to finish, well thought out and brilliantly acted. Had the whole audience rolling with laughter throughout.
The incomparable Selena Cadell starred as the quirky tour guide Lettice Duffet, more than proving herself to be a worthy successor to Dame Maggie Smith, for whom the rôle was originally created. Cadell played the flamboyant and over-the-top character to perfection with much gesticulation, eye-rolling and voice modulation, cleverly reining in the histrionics so the play didn’t descend into plain farce. Absolutely delightful.
Three Men in a Boat – Connaught Theatre, Worthing : chosenby Bill Avenell
A highly refreshing take on the classic book! This production was very clever and inventive in transporting the much loved scenes from the Thames to the Connaught Stage. It made me wish I was reading the book again for the first time.
Bugle Boy – Connaught Theatre, Worthing : chosenby Linda Hutton
The production could not be faulted from the exuberant performances by Ian Knauer and Lisa Lynch to the superb musicians in the big band keeping smiles on every ones faces and their feet tapping. From the time you arrived to the final curtain there was not a moment that was not enjoyed by young and old alike. It was real family entertainment. The vast even went the extra mile by taking the time to talk to the audience as they left the auditorium and consequently this is the show that stands out above the rest.
IRELAND REGIONAL EDITOR PICKS
Chosen by Dan Sheehan
Cork native Pat Kinevane’s enthralling one man production has been greeted with thunderous applause from audiences across Ireland, Europe, and America, for over a year now; its timely and uncomfortable subject matter distilled through the engagingly mercurial creation of Valentino ‘Tino’ McGoldrig. His is the story behind the stained blanket, the chewed-up coffee cup, the wild or weary expression. Of how a man like any other, with all the complexity of thought, of feeling, of quiet personal ambition we ascribe to any other, can be reduced to no more than a spectral cipher in the eyes of the world. A deft and disquieting blend of darkness and light.
Quietly – The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
An Abbey debut from Northern Irish playwright Owen McCafferty, Quietly is the story of two Belfast men, reunited for the first time in decades, in the pub that saw one commit an horrendous act of sectarian violence against the father of the other. What follows is a study in the catharsis of emotional excavation. Each man has felt the weight of this teenage act erode him from within as the years passed and the city changed. What they crave now is the chance to give voice to their fury and sorrow. A powerful reminder of how potent the traditional, text-focused Irish pub play can be when executed properly.
Druid Murphy – The Gaiety Theatre, Dubiln
Undoubtedly the centrepiece of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, Druid and Garry Hynes’ ambitious staging of what has been loosely dubbed Tom Murphy’s ‘Emigration Trilogy’, was a resounding critical and commercial triumph. Performed over three nights, or as one day-long marathon with a revolving cast of some of the country’s finest stage actors, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Darkand Famineexamined the emotional and psychological ramifications of that most Irish of last resorts. Brutal, lyrical, and emotionally charged, Druid Murphy proved a high water mark in the artistic chronicling of the nation in 2012.
Swallows and Amazons – UK Tour
The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary Production – UK Tour