My Favourite Shows of 2016

Hasn't 2016 just flown by? And what a fabulously stagey year it's been! Personally, this year I visited New York for the first time ever and caught three Broadway shows (Allegiance, The Color Purple and Finding Neverland), put my German AS level to use in Austria while watching Anatevka (aka The Fiddler on The Roof) at the Volksoper Wien, and travelled up to Edinburgh to review new musicals as part of the Network of Independent Critics!


As always, with January just around the corner it's time for me to look back on the last year and pick out my top five favourite shows of the year. Last year I selected Matthew Bourne's The Car Man as my number 1. 

This year it's been so difficult for me to collate a personal top 5 list because I've seen such a wide range of shows ranging from million dollar Broadway productions to tiny productions in back rooms. However, after careful consideration I've finally managed to come to a decision, and so without further ado, here are my personal top 5 shows of 2016...

Amber Riley's performance as Effie White quite simply flawed me. The power behind her vocals literally brought me to tears and I can see many awards coming her way in 2017! The production itself was just gorgeous to look at, with so much sparkle courtesy of the Swarovski crystal embellished costumes and sets.West End musicals don't really get much bigger than this one.

A beautiful, sumptuous production of a really sweet if a little bit dated musical. Seeing it in December provided a wonderful bit of pre Christmas warmth to my theatregoing. Scarlett Strallen and Mark Umbers were hugely likable leads, and the supporting performances were totally first rate.  

Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible...Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible...

Despite receiving a number of less than favourable reviews from many critics, no show this year made me laugh, gasp and recoil quite as much as Hand To God did! Sure, there was a lot of gleeful violence, bad language, and some audacious themes, but underneath its irreverent exterior there was a lot of heart and some important messages. Plus the cast, led masterfully by Harry Melling, were uniformly excellent! It was a shame to see Hand To God close as I'd recommended it to so many people. Maybe one day we'll see the show back in the UK in some capacity. Fingers crossed!

Gut wrenching, tragic, uplifting, and triumphant all at once! Titanic and the Charing Cross Theatre is a show which I wish I'd seen again and again. A hugely talented cast worked incredibly well, switching between their main, supporting and ensemble characters seamlessly in order to make the Charing Cross Theatre's tiny stage appear to bustle with life. I still think back to this incredible, heartbreaking show from time to time, and it never fails to make my heart flutter! Without a doubt, Titanic was my favourite show of 2016.

So there we go! I've loved looking back over my theatregoing year, and reminiscing about all the excellent shows I've seen, because there have been so many. I still find myself humming the title song from Paper Hearts, a new musical which I reviewed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Legally Blonde at the Leicester Curve was always going to impress me as the musical itself is one of my all time favourites, and undoubtedly Lazarus at the King's Cross Theatre has been my most discussed musical of 2016. I saw it twice and I'm still not 100% sure I understand what was going on during it, but it was certainly a spectacle, and one which almost everyone is eager to compare theories about! 

All in all 2016 has been a great year for theatre, and next year is already shaping up to be just as good, with shows like 42nd Street, An American In Paris, oh and a little old musical named Hamilton all due to open. No doubt there'll be tons of surprises in store for theatre fans up and down the country! 

Review - Peter and the Starcatcher (Royal and Derngate, Northampton)

Rick Elice's kooky Tony Award winning Peter Pan prequel, set in the Victorian era, introduces Pan fans to Molly Aster, a 13 year old apprentice Starcatcher who runs into a trio of mischievous but lovable orphans on board a ship called The Neverland. When pirates attack and Molly's father is kidnapped, Molly and the boys gang up and embark on a fantastically outlandish adventure together! 
The company of Peter and the Starcatcher
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Although it does take a little while to find its feet, Peter and the Starcatcher is ultimately a fun piece of theatre. Elice's script is full of wit and peppered with references to J.M Barrie's classic text, and the cast really savour each of the multiple characters they are required to play throughout the show. Greg Haiste's dastardly Black Stache is a total scene stealer who chews the scenery like nobody's business and stops the show multiple times with his hilarious and gleefully malevolent line delivery. Evelyn Hoskins' intrepid Molly Aster is tenacious and likable, while Peter is played with great depth by Michael Shea, especially in act two when the character really comes into his own. The rest of the cast is fantastic, and portray a multitude of delightful characters with precision and clarity. 

The world which the characters inhabit is brought to life on a fairly empty stage, with ropes hanging from the ceiling and a large loading door at the back. Scenery is creatively formed out of random objects, such as green umbrellas which represent a forest, and an assortment of doors, frames and ropes which come together to create the belly of a ship. Additionally, the iconic Neverland crocodile's jaws are made out of a step ladder, while birds are fashioned out of feather dusters. David Woodhead's set design is resourceful and its playfulness echoes the themes of childhood and freedom which the play touches heavily on. Meanwhile, evocative lighting design by Howard Hudson gives the piece a magical, mystical feel. 

While the production feels deliberately rough around the edges, Luke Sheppard's direction is slick, ensuring that despite the constant multirolling, somewhat dense dialogue, and inventive use of props which often require imagination to reach their fullest effect, the plot is almost never muddied or unfocused. The whole play feels fluid and inevitable, thanks to sharp and clever scene transitions involving lots of physical theatre. As such, the audience is swept along with the story as if they are a part of it. 

At times though Peter and the Starcatcher does seem to lose steam a little, thanks in no small part to a number of innuendos which seem too blatant and shameless for parents to enjoy, and which fly over the head of younger audience members. The piece shines brightest when it is at its broadest, with over the top double act scenes between Black Stache and his first mate Smee, and a particularly bizarre musical number at the top of act two which features a gaggle of serenading mermaids. 

In the season where pantomimes dominate family theatre outings, Peter and the Starcatcher is a quirky alternative. It's a zany, offbeat escapade which feels fresh and revels in its outlandishness before delivering a poignant and sentimental conclusion. Family theatre doesn't get much more magical!

Review - Puss In Boots (Drayton Arms Theatre)

It's Christmastime! Tis the season for demolishing mince pies 24/7, last minute Christmas panic buying, and fraught family outings to the local theatre to take in a panto. Be it Cinderella, Mother Goose,  Aladdin or some other classic panto tale, there's no doubt that a family pantomime trip spent observing a sea of primary colour tights and dodging projectile Quality Streets for an hour or three is a pretty unmissable part of the holiday festivities. However, while the average pantomime may be touted as fun for all ages, for those who like their pantos with a little bit of extra filth, Rat Rascal Theatre's audacious adult take on Puss In Boots is the perfect solution. 


Just as any panto worth its salt features a couple of cheesy, jazz hand embellished musical numbers, Puss In Boots features a number of witty original songs, with hummable music and hilarious lyrics by James Ringer-Beck and Robyn Grant. 

Grant also narrates the piece, about a hapless young boy peasant named Colin who hears a mysterious voice urging him to put a pair of boots on his cat's feet in order to achieve greatness. Her bawdy yet affable narrator ensures that the audience is on board with the panto's crude comedy even before the show has begun, chatting to audience members and even making up impromptu ditties about some of them. A select number of audience members even find themselves inserted into the piece in some way or another, thanks to an improv game which is woven into the plot cleverly and involves a lot of audience participation. 

The cast as a whole are very likable, with each actor bringing energy and humour to a myriad of characters. Puss, the grungy titular anthropomorphic cat, is brought to life boisterously by Rosie Raven, while Allie Munro plays Puss' dopey owner Colin and Phoebe Batteson-Brown is delightful as Princess Fififi, a character who really comes into her own in act 2! 

Of course, all pantos need a good villain, and Fat Rascal Theatre's Puss In Boots has perhaps the most entertaining yet repulsive villain of all, the obnoxious King George. Father of Princess Fififi and master of James Ringer-Beck's long suffering squire Busby, King George is a detestable villain, who fills both the other characters and the audience with abhorrence. King George is a very blatant parody of one of 2016's most controversial figures. From the navy suit and red tie,  down to to an obsession with 'tweeting' (via a small toy bird), the parallels to Donald Trump are innumerable, and somewhat worryingly accurate. In fact, many of his jokes are comprised solely of actual Trump quotes, which naturally gives many punchlines an uneasy undertone. Nevertheless, the character is the source of many laughs and is played excellently by Katie Wells. 

The panto itself is totally uninhibited entertainment (a lot of mileage is gotten out of 'pussy' jokes!) but with a surprisingly sincere finale! Featuring many references to this year's most talked about topics, the script is full of razor sharp observational humour which results in a lot of shared laughs and knowing looks between audience members. 

A riotous laugh-a-minute adult panto, filled with clever twists and turns, brilliantly catchy songs and excellent comedic performances, Fat Rascal Theatre's Puss In Boots is unmissable Christmas entertainment!

Visit www.fatrascaltheatre.com for more information and to buy tickets

Review - A Christmas Carol in Concert (Lyceum Theatre)

Just when it seemed like London couldn't get any more Christmassy, London Musical Theatre Orchestra's jubilant one night only concert production of A Christmas Carol lights up the Lyceum Theatre like a glorious dusting of snow on a winter morning. 

Robert Lindsay as Ebenezer Scrooge
Photo credit - Jamie Scott-Smith
Based on Charles Dickens' famous novel, A Christmas Carol features music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent. 

The famous story takes place on Christmas eve. Old miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of an old friend, who warns him that if he doesn't stop his selfish ways he'll end up doomed. The sceptical scrooge is then called on by three other spirits, who show him his unfortunate past, the miserable present he has created for his overworked and underpaid employees, and the harrowing future he has in store unless he changes his ways. The story itself is a classic, having been told in many different forms over the years, but there's no doubt that transporting the story into musical form works brilliantly. Filled with jovial group numbers, lively instrumentals and gorgeous choral sections, the score more than justifies the existence of a musical adaptation of such a well known story. 

The orchestra itself, conducted by musical director Freddie Tapner, is absolutely first rate. The rich, sumptuous sound produced by the musicians, notable right from the overture, is extremely satisfying. Especially when they are playing with a such an impressive cast of singers, both principal and ensemble. 

The star casting of London Musical Theatre Orchestra's A Christmas Carol was no doubt a key factor in the show's sold out status. Robert Lindsay brings a smile to the face as Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite seemingly having a few timing issues throughout the show, his snide scrooge has a comedic vein and is impossible to hate entirely, despite his miserly ways. Meanwhile Alex Gaumond's gangly Bob Cratchit instantly endears, and a suitably unnerving and impressively voiced Norman Bowman as Jacob Marley elevates the music even further. Additionally, as the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, Madalena Alberto, Hugh Maynard and Carrie Hope Fletcher are well cast, with Maynard in particular bringing infectious enthusiasm to his role. 

Despite being presented in concert form, London Musical Theatre Orchestra's A Christmas Carol has just enough theatricality to make it an engaging performance to watch as well as listen too. With a stage bookended by two dazzling Christmas trees, and wreaths adorning the music stands too, while Mike Robertson's lighting design gives the whole piece a warm, intimate feel. 

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra is an exciting addition to the London theatre community. Unbelievably, A Christmas Carol is only their second public concert, but with a new season already in the works, they're undoubtedly going to be an exciting addition to theatregoing in 2017!

Find out more about the London Musical Theatre Orchestra at www.lmto.org

Review - Dreamgirls (Savoy Theatre)

35 years after it first opened on Broadway, Dreamgirls has finally shimmied onto the West End. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw helms a slick and polished production with all the makings of a dazzling theatrical success. 

Featuring songs such as One Night Only, Family, and of course And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, Dreamgirls' strength undoubtedly lies within its music. The musical, which follows an up and coming trio of female singers called The Dreams who experience the highs and lows of show business in the 1960s, is fairly compelling despite some slightly clunky dialogue, but is to some extent a victim of its own strengths. The songs of Dreamgirls crackle with such dynamism and are performed to such a show stoppingly high quality that at several points the characters' spoken exchanges feel almost superfluous. Although notably the frank portrayal of racial prejudice within the music industry does form the basis for a plot line which gives the musical a more gritty and grounded undertone. 

Any arguably weak points within the book do very little to hinder the ultimately moving narrative which Dreamgirls tells.

Ibinabo Jack, Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls
Photo credit - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg 
The glitz and mystique of the showbiz world in which The Dreams move is perfectly portrayed on stage thanks to Hugh Vanstone's impeccable lighting design and Gregg Barnes' glorious, glamorous costumes, which are adorned with hundreds of thousands of Swarovski crystals, giving each gown an elegant sparkle. The production design really is heavenly, with a particularly noticeable serene azure permeating the dazzling showbiz numbers! 

Equally divine is American import Amber Riley, who is a force of nature in the iconic role of Effie White. The Glee star takes on the role with all the fierce power and calculated poise of a musical star in the making. Given her Glee character's penchant for iconic show tunes, it's easy to forget that Dreamgirls is not only Amber Riley's West End debut, but also only her second ever professional theatre credit. She is joined on stage by Liisi LaFontaine as the beautiful and sweet voiced Deena Jones, and Ibinabo Jack whose impeccable comedic timing as giddy Lorrell Robinson gets her plenty of laughs. Meanwhile Lily Frazer's Michelle Morris is a great final addition to The Dreams. The cast which has been assembled for this production of Dreamgirls showcases some of the best talent the West End has to offer, with supporting performances by Tyrone Huntley as Effie's songwriting brother C.C and Joe Aaron Reid as The Dreams' conniving manager Curtis Taylor Jr. both delivering superb performances, while Adam J Bernard is electrifying as zany R&B star Jimmy Early.

In a year which has seen many exciting musicals hit London, Dreamgirls is a striking example of just how extravagant the West End can be. Visually stunning and filled with unmissable performances, Dreamgirls is a lavish musical which deserves to keep sparkling at the Savoy for the foreseeable future!  

Don't miss Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Visit www.dreamgirlswestend.com to buy tickets. 

Review - Muted (The Bunker Theatre)

Muted is the third show in The Bunker Theatre's inaugural season. The venue, converted from a disused carpark into an intimate 110 seat theatre, is effortlessly atmospheric, and the perfect home for Muted, an edgy yet surprisingly subdued new musical. 

Directed by Jamie Jackson, Muted tells the story of Michael, an exceptional young musician whose band was on the brink of stardom, until his mother was suddenly killed in a hit and run accident, after which he stopped talking altogether. Muted features a book by Sarah Henley and music and lyrics by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin, with the latter also co starring.

Tori Allen-Martin and David Leopold in Muted
Photo credit - Savannah Photography
Despite a slightly slow start, Muted is not short on surprising twists and heartstopping, lump-in-throat moments, as well as some genuinely uncomfortable scenes which tease at darker themes. However, paramount to the success of Muted is the strength of the cast. David Leopold gives an incredibly moving performance as Michael, delivering intensity and vulnerability without uttering a single word. Equally affecting is Tori Allen-Martin as down to earth Lauren, who feels so real and relatable that she's impossible not to love. Meanwhile Jos Slovick has some menacing moments as Jake, Michael's old bandmate and Lauren's boyfriend. The cast is completed by Mark Hawkins as Michael's flippant uncle Will, who was left to care for Michael after his mother's death, and in flashback form Helen Hobson gives a frighteningly raw performance as Michael's mother, while Edd Campbell Bird is charmingly winsome as young Michael.

As is to be expected from a musical about music itself, the pop and rock inspired songs of Muted are moving at times, featuring some haunting lyrics and gorgeous harmonies. The cast tackle each song with ease, and are accompanied by a wonderful little band, whose skillful and enthusiastic playing further emphasises the extent to which music is an integral part of the story. 

Another of Muted's more striking elements is Sarah Beaton's production design. A moat of water surrounds Michael's bedroom , which is represented by a small platform in the middle. Suspended from the ceiling behind it is a wooden swing. The use of water and the island-like platform in the middle are both interesting elements which are clearly symbolic of the isolation Michael feels, meanwhile the swing is used as a representation of Michael's youth and his relationship with his mother. The use of these set pieces is perhaps a little overzealous at times, but the splashing of water and soaring of swings create some undeniably striking images throughout the show.

Despite a sometimes meandering plot, Muted is a promising new musical. Impeccably cast and meticulously directed, it delivers a punchy and satisfying finale which will leave audiences breathless. 

Buy tickets at www.bunkertheatre.com

Review - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Having charmed audiences since it premiered on Broadway in 1963, She Loves Me is an irresistible a gem of a show which centres around Amalia Balash, a young woman who is hired as a clerk at Maraczek's parfumerie, much the the dismay of fellow clerk Georg Nowack. The pair can't seem to see eye to eye on anything at work, however, unbeknownst to them, they are actually both writing to each other as anonymous pen pals.
Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen in She Loves Me
Photo credit - Alastair Muir
Those familiar with the Menier Chocolate Factory have come to expect the highest quality productions, with a top notch creative team and starring the cream of the musical theatre crop, and in that respect She Loves Me does not disappoint. Matthew White directs the show, led by Scarlett Strallen as Amalia and Mark Umbers as Georg. The two leads are a perfect match for each other, both exuding an endearing nervous energy. They are joined by a fantastic supporting cast, featuring Katherine Kingsley who steals the show as Ilona Ritter, a ditzy sales clerk whose supposedly secret relationship with sleazy co worker Steven Kodaly (Dominic Tighe) results in an entertaining subplot. 

It's impossible not to be charmed by She Loves Me. The music and lyrics of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick exude glorious warmth and lyricism, with numbers like Tonight At Eight and Vanilla Ice Cream being especially good examples of this. Young star Callum Howells as enthusiastic delivery boy Arpad Laszlo also brings boundless energy to the already frantic and fast paced act 2 opening number Try Me, a song which exemplifies just how irrefutably charming and joyful the music of She Loves Me is.

Despite the Menier Chocolate Factory's somewhat tiny stage, this production feels rather grand and lavish. Designer Paul Farnsworth has created an absolutely gorgeous set which fully encapsulates the sumptuousness of the dreamlike 1930s Budapest in which She Loves Me takes place. Similarly, Choreographer Rebecca Howell makes good use of the intimate venue, especially during standout ensemble number A Romantic Atmosphere, in which the patrons of a discrete rendezvous cafe cut loose to hilarious and thrilling effect! 

She Loves Me is a warm hug of a show, filled with glorious musical numbers, a delightfully fluffy plot and lashings of good natured humour. It's impossible to resist such a downright delectable musical, and with a wintry finale which makes the whole piece feel particularly fun and festive, She Loves Me is the perfect show for Christmastime! 

Visit www.menierchocolatefactory.com to buy tickets.

Interview - Jamie Jackson (Director of Muted at The Bunker theatre)

New British musical Muted is coming to the The Bunker theatre from December 7th to January 7th. An earlier version of the musical received rave reviews and garnered several award nominations, with The Stage critic Mark Shenton even going so far as to call it 'the British equivalent to Rent'. 

Muted tells the story of Michael Brookman, an exceptional young musician whose band was on the brink of stardom, until his mother was suddenly killed in a hit and run accident, after which he stopped talking altogether. With a book by Sarah Henley and music and lyrics by Tim Prottey Jones and Tori Allen-Martin, as well as an exciting and talented cast, Muted looks is definitely one to watch. 

With the show opening soon director Jamie Jackson took some time to answer a few questions about Muted and why, despite the seemingly upsetting subject matter, it's the perfect show to see this Christmas!

Muted is premiering at The Bunker as part of its inaugural season. It’s exciting to see a wealth of new writing being staged on the London Fringe. Do you think audiences are becoming more adventurous and taking more risks with the theatre they see and the venues they attend nowadays?
Ultimately I think audiences want to be told brilliant stories. They'll go wherever those are being produced. The Bunker is a wonderful space - in a great location. Their first two shows have been terrific, so it's a real honour to be a part of the inaugural season. So I'm not sure it's all that much of a risk to come to the Bunker when the work so far has been this exceptional! Tonight with Donny Stixx is one of my favourite shows I've seen this year. 

Muted is playing at The Bunker during the Christmas period. What can audiences expect from the story?
An emotional roller-coaster. It's hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. I think it's the first time we've seen a completely mute character in a musical too. So that's a first! The songs are fantastic, and the story has a number of twists and turns. At the centre is a powerful love story, which feels perfect for Christmas.

What was it that attracted you to the project to begin with?
I've worked with Sarah Henley (playwright) before so it was an exciting opportunity to reunite with her. I've long been a fan of Interval Production's work so I was really keen to work with them plus Tim's (Prottey-Jones, music and lyrics) music is stunning. Musicals were what first got me into theatre and I've always wanted to direct one. I couldn't think of a better show or theatre to be directing my musical debut in!

The production is being funded in part by a Kickstarter. What has that been like?
It's been wonderful to see just how much support and anticipation there is for Muted. I know Interval have had continued support from fans of the show for nearly seven years - so it's a real privilege to be involved and to be making a show with them in mind. 

The workshop version of Muted received several award nominations including a Broadway World nomination for Best Fringe or Regional Musical and a Whatonstage nomination for Best New Musical. By the sounds of it, the show is poised for success. How much reworking has gone on since its initial run?
This production has a new cast and creative team so we're all interpreting and interrogating the show as if it were the first production. There's some additional songs for this run, and Sarah's made some changes to the story too. Our ambition is to build on the fantastic success of the last production - to take their brilliant work and make it even better. Our hope is that this a version of Muted the old fans will love, as well as bringing a brand new audience to the show. 

Are there any plans for the show after its month-long run this Christmas? 
At the moment, I'm just focused on making the best production possible for the Bunker. It's such a wonderful space, and we've had incredible support from Joshua (McTaggart – Artistic Director) and Joel (Fisher – Executive Director) at the theatre in helping realise the show to this point. I'm privileged enough to be working with a fantastic cast and creative team so at the moment I'm enjoying that too much to think about the future! 

Many thanks to Jamie Jackson for answering these questions. 

If Muted has caught your attention then visit www.bunkertheatre.com to buy tickets!