Friday, December 26, 2014

London City Nights Best of 2014: Theatre

Whenever the big yearly theatre awards swing around I always a get a bit befuddled.  Half the plays nominated I've never even heard of, and the winners tend to be things I thought stunk up the place.  This is a symptom of living in a city with upwards of a hundred theatres, not just the big plastercast and chandelier glitz palaces of the West End, but the sweatboxes above pubs, tucked into the basements of shops and the very streets of London itself.  Once again I've seen an awful lot this year, but here's my favourites:


'The Picture of John Gray' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 8th August 2014

While watching The Picture of John Gray I assumed it was a revival of some unjustly forgotten classic. I was blown away when I later learned that this was the first staging of a new work by C.J. Willmann.  Emulating the cut and thrust conversations of late Victorian aesthetes is a tricky prospect, much less interweaving a genuinely touching love story and interrogation of hedonism versus Christianity.  That script, coupled with a confident cast and intelligent staging, made for a total triumph.  Best of it, it spurred me on to learn more about the people featured within, a gaggle of people with outstanding biographies.

'King Charles III' at the Wyndham's Theatre, 13th December 2014

That a play so virulently anti-monarchy can be released to wide acclaim in 2014 warms the cockles of my heart.  Merely voicing suspicions of the monarchy makes you feel like a social pariah, let alone advocating their safe, smooth but quick removal from power.  Their laminated, rubbery faces peer from the front of every magazine, every new familial development greeted with hushed deference from the media.  I shudder when I see the submissive masses furiously tugging their forelocks at the neverending cycle of weddings, jubilees and births. 

Yet in the midst of all this Mike Bartlett's King Charles III reminds us that a) these people are morons, b) they're a medieval anachronism and c) the Royal family are a potential political catastrophe.  I was all a-quiver with enjoyment from minute one until the curtain fell; a play that may as well have been made for me.

'Cans' at Theatre 503, 7th November 2014

One major advantage theatre has over other narrative forms is the intensification of emotions. Obviously it's possible to be moved by television and cinema, but when you have a living human being being put through the emotional wringer mere feet from you, their tears glistening under stage lights, it's so much more visceral.   This is further magnified when a playwright chooses to probe an open wound, in Cans' case the tendency of popular radio personalities to rape and abuse their way through their fans.

Stuart Slade even takes the difficult path through this subject, examining the limits of sympathy and empathy by showing us the impact of a destroyed reputation on the DJ's family members.  Both Jennifer Clement and Graham O'Mara knocked their roles out of the park.  A bold play that successfully picks its way through a figurative minefield.  My kinda stuff.


'Here Lies Love' at the National Theatre, 17th October 2014

Given my twin love of both Talking Heads and chunky dance beats, it is unsurprising that I dug Here Lies Love right down to its molten core.  This is a musical like few others, less a passive experience and more like you're attending the greatest party on earth.  The songs are upbeat, the costumes are dynamic and the performers simply sweat charisma.  The performance space roughly simulates being in a nightclub, the audience either looking down on the dancefloor or right in the midst of things being bumped by elbows and catching the eyes of the pretty person dancing next to you.  It's an intoxicating vibe.

Offsetting these good times is that Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos, an egomaniacal monster who exploited the peoples of the Philippines, living a life of luxury while the people starved.  But Byrne doesn't so much show us her life as try and seduce us into it, the show roughly emulating the amphetamine rush of living within a neverending party where anything flies.  It's equivalent to Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in condemning behaviour while showing it as enjoyable - but where Scorsese just lets us watch his wild parties, Byrne lets us dance, drink and lust away with Imelda.  It's ace and it's still on in the National.  If you dig cool theatre you've got to check it out!

23rd December: Gigs
24th December: Art
27th December: Shittiest films.
29th December: Best films

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