We asked our review team to nominate their 2017 theatre highlights. Mark Ludmon nominated his favourites.
An Octoroon, (Orange Tree Theatre)
This year saw the arrival in the UK of the work of acclaimed American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Hampstead Theatre presented his dark unsettling satire Gloria while the Orange Tree Theatre gave us his theatrically inventive play An Octoroon. Using Dion Boucicault’s once-popular 1858 melodrama The Octoroon as its starting point, this cleverly explored the black experience from the perspective of 19th-century slavery. With a strong cast directed by Ned Bennett, the production was bursting with ideas, laughs and energy, often breaking the fourth wall to great effect. Read my review.
Barber Shop Chronicles, (National Theatre)
The vibrancy of Inua Ellams’ new play Barber Shop Chronicles hits you from the moment you enter the foyer of the National’s Dorfman Theatre, decked out with signage from barbers around the world. To driving African beats, the audience dance on stage with the cast even before the show starts, and this engaging, intimate experience is kept up throughout. It re-creates the unique world of barber shops from Peckham in London to Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos and Accra. As well as looking at what makes these spaces so special, it examines African identity, masculinity and relationships between fathers and sons. It is no surprise that some people returned several times to see the show, especially when the National brought it back this winter.
The Ferryman, (Royal Court and Gielgud Theatre)
It is hard not to mention Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman in any round-up of 2017’s highlights. It has everything: a powerful story with almost mythic proportions, brilliant writing, an incredible cast of all ages, and live rabbits and a goose on stage. Set in the 1980s in County Armagh, the tension slowly builds throughout as the rural idyll of the Carney family is revealed to be built on insecure foundations, threatened by the conflict over the border in Northern Ireland. Directed by Sam Mendes, it is gripping, powerful and unforgettable. Book tickets to see The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre
Follies, (National Theatre)
Imelda Staunton appeared in two phenomenal revivals in London this year, first as Martha alongside Conleth Hill’s George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and then in the National’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. In the latter, she is superb as the touchingly deluded Sally but this time she is very much part of an ensemble of stand-out performances alongside Philip Quast, Janie Dee and Peter Forbes as the two couples remembering their youth as they face growing old, dissatisfied with how their lives turned out. Directed by Dominic Cooke, it grips with its splendour and sadness throughout a running time of two hours and 10 minutes without an interval. Sondheim’s bittersweet songs are cleverly and beautifully performed by the large cast, with stellar supporting performances from the likes of Di Botcher and Tracie Bennett.
Glorious!, (Frinton Summer Theatre)
This year saw the 78th season of the legendary Frinton Summer Theatre – the UK’s oldest surviving repertory theatre – in Frinton-on-Sea in Essex. Among the weekly-changing programme of plays and musicals was a revival of Peter Quilter’s comedy, Glorious!, which featured a cast of star names alongside some of this year’s repertory players. Directed by actor Amanda Root, it starred Stella Gonet as Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur soprano who, in 1940s New York, enjoyed a concert and recording career despite being a weak singer. With Simon Shepherd, Matilda Ziegler and Ben Stock joining the cast, it was delightful, full of feelgood humour and hilarious performances, giving Frinton’s tiny McGrigor Hall a production worthy of London’s West End. Read my review.