2014 in theatre

I really love going to the theatre (I took Theatre Studies as an A-Level), and the past year I resolved to try and attend as many shows and theatrical events as I could.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what I saw:

Jan 16th: Richard II. A Royal Shakespeare Company production, with David Tennant as its star, I can’t remember too much from it, other than that it was pretty good.

Feb 7th: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I booked tickets for this off the back of it being a production of the Handspring Puppet Company, who also worked on War Horse (which I missed). It was great – funny even though I’m familiar with the play and its jokes. The puppetry was sometimes clever, with the ‘Bottom’ donkey rig being a great gag, but some of the best puppeteering used the simplest of props: lumps of driftwood or umbrellas.

Feb 15th: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production, this took place in an old Royal Mail sorting office near Paddington. There are plenty of reviews and detailed descriptions of the production out there, so I won’t try and explain it. Instead, let me tell you what I thought: it was amazing. I went with Fiona, and we both loved it. There was so much there that it was impossible to follow every intricacy of the plot and the characters, but I felt under no pressure to: the thing that hits you instead is the overall oppressive feeling and mood of the seedy film studio world you’ve stepped into.

Feb 18th: Circa & Debussy String Quartet. This was a combo of a string quartet playing on stage at the Barbican Theatre with a troupe of exceptional acrobats, who jump, swing, hang and spin through the air. The astonishing thing was how well the moves reflected the music and vice versa. Sometimes you’d be watching the daring stunts intently, whilst at others you’d focus on the music and the acrobatics would become a kind of visualisation.

March 9th: The Grand Budapest Hotel. My first Secret Cinema experience, in this one the film wasn’t a secret, but you still didn’t know quite what to expect, other than to arrive in character and fancy dress. I had great fun here, despite missing many of the set pieces with the actors. The sheer scale of it was impressive – and the movie was wonderful too (as I’d hoped it would be).

March 28th: Grimm Tales. A promenade performance in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, this was simple in concept (fairytales adapted from the Brothers Grimm by Phillip Pullman), but fun, and atmospheric. It seemed to be pitched at a level that was suitable for children but enjoyable for adults too. A new, scaled-up production of this (at least in price), with different tales, is currently running at the Bargehouse.

April 14th: King Charles III. Performed at the Almeida Theatre, this was a comedy speculating on a future where Charles becomes King and causes a major crisis by refusing to stick to a ceremonial role. Whilst there were some good laughs, and the actors’ impersonations of royals and politicians were uncanny, for me it feel a bit flat from not really going far enough. What was billed as a provocative satire seemed to end up playing it safe and not really critiquing much.

May 17th: Secret Cinema 21. This was a secret cinema that was actually secret. Summoned to the stunning Hornsey Town Hall, again in character and costume, we had several hours of drama in a world of gangsters and speakeasies before watching the Miller’s Crossing. This was a step above our previous Secret Cinema experience, thanks to several clever mechanics. Firstly, each person in our group was given a separate entrance, and the name of a character to meet. Being split up from the get-go gave you more freedom to get into character, and carry out the different missions that you were given. Secondly, we were told to print out business cards for our character, and then several of the tasks involved swapping these with other participants (in my case, to inform on those who were drinking and gambling ‘illegally’). There were also lots of close encounters with actors, both friend and foe, and you could pick up on a story which went beyond even what was in the film. A great evening.

July 4th: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. Performed in the Hall at the Barbican, this was a story telling by Neil Gaiman, accompanied by projected illustrations and the Australian string quartet FourPlay. The whole thing was just lovely, and somewhat mesmorising. The music from FourPlay was so good that we’ve since bought their album, and I almost bought the comic book version of the story too.

July 5th: A Drowned Man. Returned to this, just before the end of the production. This time my group decided to split up, which definitely improves the experience, and I discovered a whole floor I’d missed the previous time, as well as seeing lots of different scenes.

August 3rd: Secret Cinema presents Back to the Future. This event became infamous for its delayed opening, but our show went ahead without any problems. I must admit, I’m not the hugest fan of the film, but the production was impressive in its scope, with plenty of scenes re-enacted beforehand, and several during the film itself. The whole thing was fun, but for me, the outdoors setting (in ful view of the Westfield shopping centre) removed the mystery and exploration that seemed so much a part of the previous events.

August 12th: A Bright Room Called Day. A small production of this 1985 play, which I’d not heard of before, at Southwark Playhouse. I enjoyed this a lot. It tells the story of a group of intellectual friends living in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party, with the tension rising steadily throughout. Well acted, and a good reminder of how engaging one set, one room plays can be.

August 27th: The Man Who Climbed Out Of His Face. A Shunt production at The Jetty (by the O2), this was a short, 45 min performance inside four shipping containers. It starts with you taking your shoes and socks off and placing them in a shoebox, which you then carry with you. They make the most of this twist, with several different textures and surfaces underfoot as you walk through a series of increasingly weird scenes. There was very little sense to be made of the whole thing, which felt like it was a bit a letdown, but you go in with such empty expectations that the few surprises there are make the whole thing worth it.

September 7th: To Kill A Mockingbird. Saw this at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (thankfully on a dry day). I’ve not read the book nor had I seen any adaptions before, so I really got into the story – and the end came as a surprise. I can see now of course why it’s such a famous text. The production was great, with chalked out sets bringing the acting to the fore – and seemed perfect for an outdoors staging too.

November 5th: Thorpe Park. You might not think of theme parks as overtly theatrical, but this was a Fright Night, and as such there were several ‘mazes’ to explore. We first walked through The Saw, based on the film, which I’ve not seen. It was definitely scary, but only really because it was dark and zombies kept surprising you. The downside is that once someone’s made you jump, your next instinct is to giggle, which made the whole thing a bit silly (and the trick got old by the end). We also walked through a maze based on The Cabin in the Woods, which was better, mainly because the paths kept forking, so you ended up in a small group, trying to escape the creepy clowns through some more varied rooms. Both had a huge number of actors, and seemed incredibly popular.

November 13th: Once. I booked this on a whim because it was cheap, mainly I think because Ronan Keating wasn’t yet in it. We went with no expectations and enjoyed it a lot – a simple but touching story with good music played live on stage by the actors.

Dec 5th & 8th: Henry IV part I & II. An RSC production at the Barbican, we saw both parts on consecutive days. A traditional presentation (period dress and a big wooden set), with just the one slightly odd contemporary reference to mobile phones at the start of the second play. Lots of great acting, and I realise now why Falstaff is such a famous character.

December 19th: Knight of the Burning Pestle. I booked this whilst watching it being plugged by Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) on Saturday Kitchen. It was performed at the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse theatre, which is indoors and candle-lit. Written by Francis Beaumont around the same time as Shakespeare, the whole thing’s a comic farce. Two of the actors sit in the audience the whole time (just a row in front of where I was sat), with their characters initiating an alternative play-within-a-play and constantly interrupting. The whole thing was very very funny, akin to Monty Python in its comic ridiculousness, and reminding me that theatre doesn’t need to be new to be interactive.

December 22nd: The Book of Mormon. I’m not really a fan of West End musicals, but I thought I’d give this a try after reading rave reviews. It was funny, but the jokes aren’t as frequent as I’d imagined. The songs were well sung and danced to, but seemed to slow the pace of it down a bit, which always feels like the flaw in musicals to me.

December 26th: Edward Scissorhands. This is a dance version of the Tim Burton film at Sadler’s Wells. I was expecting hard-to-interpret ballet, for some reason, but instead there seemed to be a mixture of dance styles (not that I know much about the form) and the story was well conveyed (I’d forgotten the film’s plot) despite the lack of dialogue – there were even several jokes. A delightful, and festive, end to my year of theatre.