Exeunt Critics’ Picks of 2011

LOTS of fabulous picks here by some people who really know their stuff including some expected and not so expected pieces. Wish I could have mentioned London Road, wish I could have seen Mission Drift…

Originally published on Exeunt

Of course we are wary of the arbitrary nature of these things, the artificiality of seasons, the ordering of experiences into peaks, the hierarchal maps they reproduce, the dangers of placing Fabulous ones next to Those who have just broken a vase.  However at some point you have to be practical.  Our critics have valiantly seen a metric stage-tonne of theatre this year, so what better to relive with sufficient context their most notable moments? And from here it looks like they have produced a list unrivalled for its scope, depth and surprises.  So without further ado-ing, and in no particular order…

Lois Jeary

this is where we got to when you came in
Bush Theatre, London
Although Edinburgh brought the great pleasure of discovering the work of a number of exciting emerging companies – Analogue, FellSwoop and ONEOHONE being just some of my highlights – it was non zero one’s The Time Out at Forest Fringe that really made a lasting impression, and their farewell to the old Bush Theatre was equally mesmerising. It’s not often that a box of old documents proves more compelling than the voices of theatre’s great and good, but in letting bricks and mortar tell the stories of the Bush, through good times and bad, the piece captured the spirit of what makes theatre so special. Like so many people, I’m now grateful to always feel a connection with that unassuming door on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush Green.

One Man Two Guvnors
National Theatre
I first delighted in One Man Two Guvnors while sat watching the NT Live broadcast on a big screen under a summer’s evening on the South Bank. The expansion of NT Live continues to prove a huge asset to British audiences, and I shall be eternally grateful to this broadcast in particular for sparking discussion between my eighty year old grandmother (who had watched simultaneously from her hometown cinema) and I about how funny that charming James Corden is – not a conversation I ever expected to have, it must be said. Having survived a second viewing, the play is a constant, classic joy which reminds you how good it feels to laugh, how theatre can be at its best by not taking itself too seriously, and frankly, how most things are improved with a song.

Young Vic and by Schaubühne Berlin at the Barbican
Ian Rickson’s Hamlet messed with everything you thought you knew about Shakespeare’s play; then came Ostermeier’s version at the Barbican, and the Young Vic staging seemed positively classical in comparison. Madness was the name of both games and Michael Sheen’s mental fragility was powerfully portrayed, but where the concept occasionally jarred at the Young Vic, the text was all but violated by Ostermeier, trodden upon by a petulant Lars Eidinger and flung headfirst into the mire to see what sticks. Both thrilled in their own mildly sacrilegious ways, and as we embark on a year where the Bard’s work will be paraded in front of the world in all its finery, it’s nice to see it fucked (or played, if we’re being polite) with once in a while.

Tom Philips

Ustinov Theatre, Bath
You’d be hard-pressed to find some of Pinter’s bleakest hours done better than in this in-house Ustinov production directed by Chris Goode. Clive Mendus, Maggie Henderson and George Irving excelled in registering the huge, roiling personal tragedies lurking behind these seemingly random narrative fragments about feeding ducks in the park, going down the pub or waiting at a railway station. Theatre made out of almost nothing (and all the more beautiful and terrifying as a result), these were small masterpieces of fertile ambiguity and quiet devastation.

Going Dark
Bristol Old Vic Studio
Sound & Fury – they of the doubly immersive Kursk and in-the-dark outings Watery Part of the World and War Music – ventured into the cosmos with a crepuscular tale of a planetarium guide (played with subtle humanity by Jon McKay), whose physical debility echoes our growing knowledge/ignorance of seriously big questions about our place in the universe and the nature of reality. At the start, perhaps, there was a threat that it was going to turn into one of those hideous sitcoms about precocious kids – but then, no, it didn’t go anywhere near such territory at all.

The Guild of Cheesemakers
The Church of St Thomas The Martyr, Bristol
If the storyline turned out to be … well, a bit cheesy, the setting and staging of the Stand and Stare Collective’s contribution to this year’s Mayfest elevated a slice of sci-fi melodrama into something wholly unique. It’s not every day that theatre comes combined with a bona fide cheese, wine and bread tasting led by locally sourced experts, or that a gourmet event in grandiose ecclesiastical surroundings dissolves into an antic tale of betrayal and immortality. Mayfest offered a goodly crop of such boundary-querying pieces this year: Foster and Déchery’s Epic, Guy Dartnell’s Something or Nothing and Little Bulb’s Operation Greenfield were among other highlights.

Natasha Tripney

Mission Drift
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
This gloriously dense and layered piece by the US company TEAM, presented a skewed American myth of origins, a story of the growth of Las Vegas seen through the eyes of a pair of ageless Dutch immigrant teenagers who help raise a city, a ‘desert experiment’, from the sand and watch as it becomes monstrous and unstoppable.  Performed like a concert wrapped in a play wrapped in a concert, the whole production was charged with music, supplied by the honey-tongued Heather Christian; magnificently and sometimes messily inventive, for me it was one of the stand-out productions at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

The Quiet Volume
Bishopsgate Institute Library, London
This delicate piece of audio theatre, co-created by Rotozaza’s Ant Hampton and Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells to be performed in libraries, was memorable as much for the experience itself as for the way its participants were made to be more aware of the act of reading, the imaginative journey that occurs every time you open a book. Experienced in pairs while seated at a table in a working library, the piece had an intriguing intimacy; it made you listen – really listen – to your own ‘reading voice’ and lingered long in the mind.

Cambridge Theatre, London
It’s an obvious choice, but this RSC staging of Roald Dahl’s classic tale deserves all its considerable acclaim. Dennis Kelly’s book was faithful but not reverential, Tim Minchin’s songs were funny and charming, the set was truly striking and all the performances were spot on, particularly that of Bertie Carvell as the wonderfully menacing Miss Trunchbull. What was most appealing though was the way it allowed adults of a certain age to re-experience the delicious thrill of entering Dahl’s world at the same time as connecting with children very much on their own level. A genuinely joyful experience.

Daniel B Yates

London Road
National Theatre, London 
With London Road Alecky Blythe crested the recent fashion for verbatim theatre. And it was a triumph, not just for boosting from the curl into an entirely fresh vernacular form of musical theatre with its halting and beautiful recitative, but by exercising a powerful diegetic imagination with a delicate grasp on what Keats once called “negative capability” – rife with unresolved tensions, it fashioned the most revealing and contradictory portrait of suburban community I’ve seen in years.   Much more so than say the clunky mythmaking of the overhyped Jerusalem, here was the country’s guts heaved out onto the stage.  The twitching curtains; the limits of community; the folded Daily Mail; love and anxiety; all the shades of this green and pleasant land.

Every Rendition on a Broken Machine
Forest Fringe, Edinburgh
Edinburgh is not usually a place from which to draw top picks – critical acumen gets hungover, you spend most of your time in the gutter where any glimmer of decent work has you reaching for five stars. For me Ross Sutherland’s hosted documentary Every Rendition at the Forest Fringe came on the heels of some excellent solo-work from Sabrina Mahfouz, Chris Goode, Sandy Grierson and Josie Long.  And yet far from the on-the-fly bustle of the festival this felt like coming across a timeless piece of art. A showcase of ideas without commercial strategy, a revival of a long-term project, with themes that echoed through his previous work. It was mapped with precision, warmth and dazzling attempts on the legacy modernism. Like Adam Curtis crossed with a very nice and funny Ezra Pound, this was live documentary insinuated into performance, showing what is possible when you push at the limits of form and bring with you the sure results of years.

One Man Two Guvnors
Adelphi, London 
It doesn’t hurt to be obvious, particularly when you come across a theatrical event that transcends theatre as a practice for the jaded elites we know, love and in most cases are.  This is a choice less for Richard Bean’s sassy and acute reworking of Goldoni, James Corden’s industrial celebrity and the dedication and skill that came from under its weight as he beamingly bounced and shone on stage, and more for the fact of the experience of the West End this transfer created.  The last audience I recall with a similar make-up was Little Britain live, and yet instead of scurrilous idiot-gruel on stage, here was the broadest cross-section I’d ever seen at a theatre revelling in the well-honed traditions of this country’s stage. NT Live and West End transfers of clever plays (Pitman Painters at The Duchess was also magnificent) are producing a real popular buzz, maintaining the quality of work as they do so.

Tracey Sinclair

Much Ado About Nothing
Wyndham’s, London
Reuniting the Doctor and his Donna, Much Ado About Nothing was bound to be a commercial success and luckily Josie Rourke’s sharp direction (and playful decision to set the show in the 80s, with all the garish fun that allows) combined with David Tennant’s charisma and comic timing and his undeniable chemistry with a better-than-you’d-expect Catherine Tate to make this a sparkling and witty production. Some might have found fault with Tate’s less than expert handling of the language, and her over-reliance on comedy gurning (both justifiable criticisms) but that didn’t really matter – her sparring with an outstanding Tennant (who managed the tricky balance between broad physical humour and irresistible swagger and sexiness, all bundled up in an infectious enthusiasm that would have won over even the Doctor doubters) made them the couple you couldn’t help but root for, and turned this into one of the joys of the summer.

Cambridge Theatre, London
Arriving in London already laden with plaudits, Matilda had a lot to live up to: not least in the mind of this child-resistant cynic, who went fully prepared to dislike stage school show-offs being self-consciously cute. Instead, I was blown away by a talented and likeable child cast in a razor-sharp, funny and imaginatively and energetically staged take on this Dahl story that looks set to be a future classic. Bertie Carvel’s villainous Miss Trunchbull is one of the year’s best creations, managing to be both subtle and grotesque and looking like a Quentin Blake illustration come to life, and the whole thing is a delight from start to finish.

The Wild Bride
Hammersmith Lyric
Third place was a trickier choice, as many of my standout shows aren’t new: the return of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem turned out to be every bit as good as the hype, and the 10 year anniversary revival of the Red Shoes by Kneehigh was physical theatre at is best. Perhaps for that reason, the tie between my final two options is finally tipped in favour of Kneehigh’s The Wild Bride, just edging ahead of the utterly charming all-male Iolanthe at Wilton’s. Taking Kneehigh’s fascination with European Fairytales and filtering it through the bluegrass traditions of the American south proved inspired, as did adding a dash of panto to what could have been an unbearably dark tale of a girl sold to the devil who is unwilling to take captivity lying down. Director Emma Rice combined Kneehigh’s usual faultless physical theatre with evocative (and sometimes sly and very funny) music to great effect in this ultimately uplifting tale of love and struggle.

Neil Dowden

After years away making films, we’ve had a welcome double dose of Mike Leigh in the theatre in 2011. Whilst his new play Grief at the National received respectful rather than rave reviews, the first ever revival of his 1979 play Ecstasy at the start of the year inspired an ecstatic response from critics and audiences alike. Like the original production, directed by Leigh and designed by Alison Chitty at the Hampstead, this slice of life about lonely people meeting in a Kilburn bedsit, featuring sexual assault and binge drinking, sounds the ultimate in misery but somehow Leigh’s compassion and humour turn it into something special. The play may be over-long but the superb ensemble playing meant that you just didn’t want it to end. The show well deserved its transfer to the Duchess Theatre.

Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare’s Globe
There was a battle of Shakespeares as well as a battle of sexes going on in the summer with the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing going head to head with Josie Rourke’s ‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant/Catherine Tate production in the West End. While the latter’s 1980s staging was fun, most people agreed that classier version was the former, directed with a sure touch by the Royal Court’s Jeremy Herrin, best known for new writing. As a feisty Beatrice, Eve Best confirmed her status as the best stage actress of her generation, with Charles Edwards’s hilarious Benedick delighting the audience with his direct addresses, but it was the chemistry between these sparring partners that caused the sparks to fly. This sultry show tasted as full-blooded as the Sicilian oranges on stage.

Lyric Hammersmith
After years of shameful neglect, Edward Bond, one of our most significant post-war playwrights, has enjoyed a much-merited revival of interest in the last few years. His 1965 seminal Saved led to the abolition of censorship in the form of the Lord Chamberlain in 1968, as well as influencing in-yer-face playwrights like Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. The Lyric Hammersmith production, brilliantly directed by Sean Holmes, was a bit of an event because it was the first time that Bond had allowed his play to be staged since 1984. In this year of rioting and demonstrating, the disturbing depiction of disaffected young people (climaxing in the infamous stoning to death of a baby in a pram) proved this powerful play had not lost its relevance.

Julia Rank

Rosemary Branch Theatre, London
My favourite new play of the year; young playwright James Fritz’s dazzlingly clever and unexpectedly tear-jerking faux-verbatim play dealt with the repercussions of an imaginary verbatim play charting the death of Ian Tomlinson in which an actor is murdered by the police officer he played on stage. This extreme premise became eerily credible and what could have been quite a theoretical exercise played like a thriller and was performed with outstanding sensitivity by the cast of five (especially David Vale as the victim’s father). The questions that it raised about writerly and dramatic responsibility are still spinning around in my head.

Landor Theatre, London
My companion was very sceptical as to how this epic musical would work on such a small scale, but at the interval he was in tears and proclaimed, “It’s so much better than the West End production!” The whirling melting pot of turn-of-the-century America was superbly evoked in the Landor’s confines and the attention to detail meant that every single member of the cast of 22 left their own individual impression. Robert McWhir’s production could be the fringe musical production against which all others are measured and sets a very high benchmark for the Open Air Theatre’s production next year.

She Loves Me
Chichester Theatre Festival
Theatrical perfection is most elusive, and I was completely and utterly smitten by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s rendering of the much-loved The Shop Around The Corner story about sales clerks in picture-perfect Budapest who bicker by day but write each other love letters via a lonely hearts column by night. Stephen Mear is as accomplished a director as he is a choreographer. Every employee in Maraczek’s Parfumerie felt like an old friend and I immediately recognised Dianne Pilkington’s Amalia as a kindred spirit, whose love-hate relationship with Joe McFadden’s Georg was made all the more delightful by their shared love of literature, and Matthew Goodgame made the most charming cad I’ve ever seen. I still get a glow whenever I think about it.

Stewart Pringle

RSC, Stratford
The best start to a theatre-going year I can ever remember having. Matilda feels both impeccable and unpolished, there’s no smack of stage-school or cynical license plundering, despite the talent evident in every aspect it somehow still has grubby little hands and bruises on its knees. Tim Minchin is obviously the star of the show, and it was great to see someone who I’ve found increasingly irritating and smug create something so whole-hearted. The beginning of Act 2 brought tears, and it’s hard to think of anything as eloquent on the spirit of childhood since Dahl passed away 20 years ago.

The Seagull
Arcola, London
Al Weaver’s complex, brittle performance as Konstantin was only the most visible revelation in a production which exceeded all expectations and stands as the best production of The Seagull I’ve ever seen. Geraldine James brought the role of Irina so much to the forefront that her posing and crinoline threatened to blot out the rest of the company, just as it should be and just as it never has been before. The young and the old are equally stupid, equally doomed, and Joseph Blatchley’s production made this as clear as a raindrop.

The Village Bike
Royal Court, London
Of the new plays I’ve seen this year, it was Penelope Skinner’s Village Bike that I enjoyed the most, and also that had the biggest impact. I still don’t know where to place its sexual politics, which at times felt quietly conservative and at others deeply subversive, but in Becky, whose pregnancy sends her sex-drive rocketing, Skinner created an entirely new and fascinating character. The farcical moments were brilliantly awkward, like a sexed-up Vicar of Dibley, while the whole environment seemed to throb with something obscene and desperate. Very much looking forward to catching Skinner’s new piece (The Smell of Heavy Rain) at the nearest opportunity.

(Not sure if you want to know but the worst things I saw all year were Frankenstein at the NT and Yes, Prime Minister on the West End. Both utter, irredeemable bollocks I thought…)

Honour Bayes

Apollo, London 
So Jerusalem’s amazing! Who knew?! Oh wait, the rest of the world did. But if you, like me, have only just caught this outstanding show you’d be going nutty for it too. Mark Rylance has been rightly lauded for a towering performance as Rooster, a complex and compelling figure who could genuinely summon the Gods. Perhaps less gushed over was Jez Butterworth’s play itself which for me was one of the most lyrical and meaty of the 21st Century, and a genuine story for our generation. With Royal Court, West End and Broadway runs under its belt, Ian Rickson succeeded in keeping the energy up and the blood fresh, making every night feel like the first night.

She She Pop and Their Fathers: Testament
Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin
Experimental German theatre company She She Pop absolutely floored me with their take on King Lear at the Dublin Theatre Festival earlier this year. A deeply personal exploration of parent child relationships, they picked apart Shakespeare’s great tragedy with razor sharp insight. In a twist their fathers performed on stage with them, with both parent and child baring their souls warts and all whilst miraculously avoiding self indulgence at every turn. She She Pop and Their Fathers: Testament was a witty and intelligent deconstruction which made me look intensely not only at my own relationships but illuminated new parts of this classic tale in ways that the Royal Shakespeare Company could only dream of.

Stationary Excess
The Yard, London
Pop up theatre The Yard was one of the most exciting and bold ventures this year. Flying in the face of crippling arts cuts artistic director Jay Miller took a warehouse and converted it into an intimate amphitheatre. For companies there was no hire price, they took home over half the box office and no minimum performance time. Audiences meanwhile never paid more than £10. In a stonking opening weekend I was lucky enough to see Made In China’s effortlessly moving Stationary Excess. Stationary Excess sweetly and baldly showed us Superman as human. Jess sat on a bike madly pushing herself through faster and faster repetitions of peddling. Over the course of 20 minutes, she transformed in front of our eyes from a woman in a lumber jack shirt to a champagne drenched gangsters moll. She talked about her boyfriend and his ability to fly and about cat ladies and heartache. It was small and fragile and made no sense apart from the comic-con coat hanger it rested on, but somehow it dazzled in the simplicity of its emotional and physical exploration of change. A perfect example of The Yard’s brilliance in action and proof that perfect things can come in small packages.

Carmel Doohan

Clybourne Park
Tight, dense and immaculately acted, I loved this for its insight, ability to strip away our comforting liberal assumptions and that gloriously well placed joke about tampons and seeing you  next Tuesday.

Apollo, London
With the very worst seats imaginable, after two far too early hours of queuing that morning, even through the back pain I could see this was a play that would shift the shape of theatre history. Like King Lear in a trailer park this was epic and defied categorization.Nonsensical rants had a way of suddenly acquiring devastating significance and the determined ambiguity of every event left it looping through my mind for weeks afterwards.

Fanta Orange
Finborough, London
This investigated a similar area to Clydeborne Park and although flawed, the writing had moments of real originality, wit and biting truth. It wound terrifying hypocrisy and the making of our modern day mythologies into a scathing and powerful tale.


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