My Favourite Shows of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and with 2018 just around the corner, it's time for me to look back and reflect on what a great year 2017 has been. 

This year was a pretty exciting year for my blog. In June I was awarded Silver in the Kent Digital Awards, in the Entertainment Blog category, and then later in the year I was a finalist in the Favourite Blog category of the Theatre Community Awards. I'm forever amazed by the fact that people read my blog and value my opinions, and being nominated in two different awards in 2017 felt really lovely. 

In more personal news, I graduated from the University of Kent this year, with a degree in Drama and English & American Literature, and started a career in the arts, which was a dream come true. I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon for work, and so obviously I saw everything that the RSC had to offer during my time there, and visited loads of other great theatres in Warwickshire and the West Midlands too. I even wrote a few blog posts about the RSC's The Other Place, which can be found alongside some other brilliant blogs on the RSC Website. 

But enough about my personal life! I've seen some totally wonderful theatre this year and so with that in mind, here is a list of the 5 shows which had the biggest impact on me in 2017. 

5) LMTO's Honeymoon in Vegas

I thought long and hard about which show I should put at number 5 on my list. I've seen loads of great plays, musicals, ballets and operas this year, and really they all deserve to be shouted about. That being said, when I was looking back over the reviews I wrote in 2017, one kept jumping out at me, and that was my review of London Musical Theatre Orchestra's concert production of Honeymoon in Vegas. I have admired LMTO for a while now, and I really enjoy the way they take lesser known or lesser performed musicals, and bring them to life, even if it's only for a night or two. As a fan of Jason Robert Brown, I loved hearing the brilliant Honeymoon in Vegas score being brought to life by such a talented orchestra, and in the lead roles of Betsy and Jack, Samantha Barks and Arthur Darvill were a perfect pair. It seems like LMTO gets bigger and better every year, and I can't wait to see which musicals they will tackle next.  

In 2017 no show surprised me more than this one. On the surface, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was a riotous no holds barred adventure, following a bunch of unruly ELO spouting youngster, let loose on Edinburgh during a school choir competition. It certainly had its fair share of rather outrageous content, but at its core it was something much more profound. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was a raw and real portrayal of 6 very different teenage girls, all trying to navigate their way to adulthood in different ways. It earnestly explored some sensitive themes, such as teenage pregnancy and terminal illness, from a very realistic perspective, and it was cathartic to see such realistic depictions of young women on stage. 

The enormous hype which surrounded this show since it first opened in America was impossible to ignore, and therefore expectations were high when a London transfer was announced. Fans and sceptics alike wondered weather the fundamentally American story would resonate with audiences in Britain. Thankfully, the excitement which followed Hamilton wherever it went was more than warranted. I was struck by the extent to which Hamilton felt like a new frontier, worlds away from the usually great, but increasingly predictable mainstream musical theatre. The London production was impeccably cast, showcasing some of the most talented performers working today, and heightening the musical's already formidable songs and raps. It seems very likely that Hamilton will experience a long run on the West End, and rightly so! 

For all the talk I talk about wanting to see fresh, groundbreaking theatre, for me very little compares to a big, glitzy musical. And this year no musical was glitzier than 42nd Street. With its gloriously bright and colourful design, and incredibly talented cast, whose megawatt smiles radiated from start to finish, 42nd Street was completely irresistible. It felt like a couple of hours of pure distraction from the outside world, and I left the theatre humming and tapping my toes. Sure, it's relatively safe, and quite old fashioned, with some rather outdated aspects, but it's also unapologetically fun, and isn't that exactly what we needed in 2017?

I was completely bowled over by John Tiffany's production of The Glass Menagerie, which transferred to the West End after a run in Edinburgh during the EIF in 2016. Tennessee Williams' semi-autobiographical play offered a fascinating look into a tumultuous family trying to thrive in 1930s St Louis, Missouri. Kate O'Flynn gave a spectacular performance as the fragile young Laura Wingfield, opposite Brian J. Smith's charismatic Gentleman Caller. Not only was the story immensely touching and complex, but the production itself was gorgeously designed, and complemented the play's dreamlike quality. When it was over and the actors had left the stage, all I could do was shake my head in awe! Whilst The Glass Menagerie is certainly not a groundbreaking play by today's terms, Tiffany's production felt totally fresh and unpredictable, and made a huge impact on me. Even now, it's hard for me to put into words just how much I enjoyed The Glass Menagerie, which I ended up seeing 3 times in London. From the first time I saw it I knew it'd end up on my end of year list, and looking back on 2017 I can safely say that no show this year left an impression like this one did. 

Of course, a top 5 list is quite restrictive and although they didn't make my list I should probably mention a few more outstanding shows from 2017. I thought that Blanche McIntyre's production of Titus Andronicus at the RSC was really very emotional without being excessively gory, The Ferryman was a simmering play which bubbled over in the final act to horrific effect, and in contrast I really enjoyed the unabashedly silly The Wedding Singer which left me with a big grin on my face. 

There's no denying that 2017 has been a brilliant year for theatre, and I can't wait to see how 2018 compares. I'm particularly excited about the transfers of Strictly Ballroom, Fun Home and The King And I, all of which have been received really well elsewhere. No doubt loads of unexpectedly great pieces of theatre will crop up throughout the year too, and I'm really excited to see what's in store.

Review - Hamilton: An American Musical (Victoria Palace Theatre)

Since it opened off-Broadway in 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical has been gaining plaudits exponentially. Having been nominated for a record breaking 16 Tony Awards in 2016, and winning 11, as well as the Pulitzer prize for Drama and countless other decorations, the buzz around this particular musical theatre phenomenon has been almost impossible to ignore. 

Jamael Westman and the London cast of Hamilton
Photo credit Matthew Murphy
With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is a sung and rapped through musical which tells the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, whose face can be found on the ten dollar bill. Told mostly through the eyes of Hamilton's jealous political opponent Aaron Burr, Hamilton covers the period of time between the American Revolutionary War of 1776 and Hamilton's death in 1804. It addresses many of Hamilton's biggest successes such as becoming the first secretary of the treasurer under George Washington, and his most notable failures, such as his part in America's first sex scandal, whereby he engaged in a highly publicized affair with married woman, Maria Reynolds. Although several embellishments are made to the historical events featured, Hamilton still manages to include a great deal of enlightening information about the titular character and those who surrounded him at a pivotal time in American history.

Despite its massive success on Broadway, there was no guarantee that Hamilton would have such a resonance across the Atlantic. After all, our ten pound note has the faces of Queen Elizabeth II and Jane Austen emblazoned across it, and the war for American Independence is just one of many wars which Britain fought in the 18th century, and therefore its significance carries a lot less weight over here. However, whilst the content is arguably less significant in Britain, the themes are incredibly familiar. It could be said that the unrest America faced in its infancy is not dissimilar to Britain today: torn apart by arguments about money and sovereignty in the face of Brexit, which has been a mainstay in British news since the results of the 2016 referendum. After all, the American revolutionaries' cries of "no taxation without representation" bear a striking similarity to the Brexiteers' campaign slogan that the £350 million sent to the EU each week would be better off being spent on the NHS (a slogan which has since been retracted). Similarly, the colour conscious casting of Hamilton, which highlights the diversity of both America and Britain today, feels particularly politically charged. When Caribbean born immigrant Alexander Hamilton and French military officer Lafayette high five and proclaim "immigrants, we get the job done" it's impossible not to be reminded of the Xenophobia which at least partially fuelled Britain's own brexit shaped 'revolution'. 

Regardless of how educational or reflective of the current British political climate Hamilton is, first and foremost it is a piece of mainstream musical theatre, and therefore it'd be nothing without some killer tunes and clever lyrics. A rap musical about the American founding fathers may have sounded unthinkable a few years ago, but of course the now astronomically famous Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose songwriting credits include In The Heights and Disney's Moana, has managed the seemingly impossible, and Hamilton is a triumph. 

The titular character, which the casting breakdown accurately describes as Eminem meets Sweeney Todd, sings and raps wittily, with some extremely clever and intricate rhymes showcasing both Alexander Hamilton's much lauded intelligence, and also the immensely talented lyrical skills of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Meanwhile, Hamilton's Schuyler Sisters, comprising of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, and the lesser featured Peggy Schuyler, give off an R&B girl band vibe as they dazzle the audience with gorgeous harmonies and irresistible earworms, whilst looking for "a mind at work!" 

Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Christine Allado as The Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton
Photo credit - Matthew Murphy
The London cast is filled with some of the most talented musical theatre performers working today, with Giles Terera giving a spine tingling performance as the spurned Aaron Burr, and Jason Pennycooke adding humour to the proceedings in his dual role as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. The Schuyler Sisters are a particularly enjoyable trio, with Rachelle Ann Go exuding sweetness and excitability as the lovestruck Eliza, and Rachel John commanding the stage with immense power as Angelica, the oldest sister. Christine Allado does what she can with the relatively small role of youngest sister Peggy, but shines in act two as sultry Maria Reynolds. Most notably though, the titular role of "young scrappy and hungry" Alexander Hamilton is taken on by newcomer Jamael Westman. The RADA graduate is the perfect fit, as although he seems at first to be less cocky and confident than his reputation suggests, Westman's Hamilton has an easy swagger and coolness which perfectly antithesis his intensely cerebral personality and at times fiery temper. 

Hamilton is not only a skillfully written and performed piece of musical theatre, it is also impressively designed and slickly directed. Paul Tazewell's costume design is simple yet beautiful, and merges the 18th century and present day very cleverly. In particular, the ensemble's somewhat androgynous costumes feel modern and quirky, whilst also harking back to the waistcoats, breeches and stockings popular in the 1700s. The quirkiness found in the design of the production is also seen in Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, which mirrors the hip hop stylings in the music, whilst at times giving a nod to the balls which took place in the 18th century.

From start to finish Hamilton buzzes and crackles with a bustling energy, and director Thomas Kail keeps everything moving along slickly and succinctly, despite the fact that just like Alexander Hamilton himself, the musical's pace rarely slows down. With smart and snappy lyrics, a fascinating storyline, and an energetic cast which elevates the already sublime production, Hamilton is a new musical which will be admired for years to come. 

Review - Cinderella (Birmingham Hippodrome)

Ah, 'tis the season for families to gather at their local theatre and take part in one of Britain's most iconic festive traditions - a pantomime.

This year, Birmingham Hippodrome has really gone all out with its production of family favourite Cinderella. Produced by Olivier-nominated pantomime producer Qdos Entertainment and directed by Michael Harrison, who is also directing the famous London Palladium pantomime this year, Cinderella boasts an all star cast. Pop and television star Suzanne Shaw takes on the title role, and Birmingham panto favourite Matt Slack plays Buttons, Cinders' best friend and the narrator of the piece. It's Slack's fifth year appearing in Birmingham Hippodrome's panto, and his appreciation for the city is evident in his good hearted ribbing.

The rest of the star studded cast is equally impressive. Amongst them, Wolverhampton born superstar Beverley Knight shines from the moment she opens the show, displaying her core shakingly powerful vocals as she flies above the audience as the glam fairy godmother. Starring alongside Knight, Hollyoaks actor and 2016 Strictly Come Dancing finalist Danny Mac pleases the crowd with some slick moves straight from the Strictly dance floor. This panto definitely plays to the strengths of its cast, with characters breaking the fourth wall to fawn over their talented co-stars (Matt Slack's Buttons seems particularly starstruck by Beverley Knight at one point) and it's great fun seeing so many talented individuals gracing the Hippodrome Stage and seemingly having such a great time doing so.

There's plenty of fun content to pad out the all too familiar tale of Cinderella, the scullery maid plagued by her two evil stepsisters, who transforms into a princess and attends the local prince's ball with a little help from her fairy godmother. There are more subplots than you could shake a magic wand at, and loads of hilarious skits such as a magical karaoke session which sees Beverley Knight and James Brandon of The Grumbleweeds switching voices during a rendition of Joe Cocker's Up Where We Belong. 

Loads of brilliant parody songs also feature, and provide lots of entertainment. One particular standout number is Gonna Be A Prince Like You, a parody of Ed Sheeran's Shape Of You which takes place when the Prince persuades his servant Dandini to pretend to be him so he can walk around his kingdom without being recognised. There are also the usual pop culture references typical of pantos, and plenty of references to Birmingham and the surrounding area to keep the audience happy. 

This year's Cinderella seems bigger and better than all of its panto predecessors and should definitely not be left out of any family's festive celebrations. For anyone aged 5 to 105, Birmingham Hippodrome's spectacular pantomime will undoubtedly be a truly magical experience.

Interview - Simon Lipkin (Nativity! The Musical)

'They say never work with children or animals, and we’ve got 27 kids and a dog, so we really went there. We really took on all the challenges'. 

I'm chatting to Simon Lipkin, who is currently touring the UK as Mr Poppy in a brand new musical adaptation of the popular 2009 christmas film Nativity! which tells the story of a school teacher who tries to persuade his Hollywood producer ex-girlfriend to come and see his class's Nativity. With an enviable list of acting credits in popular musical comedies such as Nicky/Trekkie Monster in the original London cast of Avenue Q, Lonnie in the original London cast of Rock of Ages, and more recently Rat in the West End transfer of Stiles and Drewe's The Wind in The Willows, the role of the fun loving teaching assistant Mr Poppy, who Lipkin describes as 'sort of Peter Pan-ish' and 'one of the kids' is a natural fit.

Having first become involved with Nativity! The Musical during workshops 4 years ago, Simon Lipkin's enthusiasm for the show is extremely palpable. Having previously seen the film and loved it, he explains that 'some things translate really well to the stage and then other things not as well, but this one was so right to be turned into a stage show' adding that 'it’s so joyous and brilliant, and the songs in it are brilliant, and they’ve embedded in a bunch of new songs that kind of work just as well. Some of them are my new favourites'. 

In recent years the number of films being adapted on stage has seemingly grown rapidly, so it's great to hear that Nativity! lends itself so perfectly to the stage. Critics and audiences have been very positive about the show, and Simon Lipkin even remarks during our interview that they have been receiving standing ovations. I query whether taking on a role in the musical adaptation of such a popular film is daunting in any way, to which Simon Lipkin replies that '[Mr Poppy] is such a well known character from the films, and Mark Wooten who plays him in the film does it so brilliantly, so it was slightly daunting.' However, Lipkin adds, 'I’ve tried to give it my twist, so it honours what he’s created, and what people love about him in the movies, but I’ve sort of put another twist on it.' In the films Mr Poppy is a very likable and very funny character. I ask if Lipkin relates to his character in any way and he answers that '[Mr Poppy is] an adult and he’s lived his life, but he’s kind of a big kid who’s held onto his imagination and likes to play, and likes to be silly. Well, not always, but a lot of the time I’m just like that'.

Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy and Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens with the company of Nativity! The Musical
Photo credit - Richard Davenport
Having been brought up on comedians such as Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Tommy Cooper, Lipkin is naturally a comedy lover, and as we chat he praises the comedic aspects of Nativity! the Musical. He enthuses that 'it’s a very very funny show, it’s a true family show and there are beautiful heartfelt moments, but most of the time you’re laughing a lot.' As we chat I notice that not only is Simon Lipkin very humble and down to earth, he is also extremely appreciative of his co-stars and the creatives working on Nativity! The Musical too. 'We’ve got 27 kids in the cast, 18 performing every night, and they are brilliant! They’re like comedy gold! And the best thing is that they don’t know it'. He also praises Debbie Isitt, the writer and director of both the film and the musical, saying 'our director loves to find just normal kids who are very very funny'.

I query whether there are any challenging aspects involved with playing to a younger audience and working with such young co-stars (the actors portraying the children in the show range from 8 to 12 years old) and Lipkin is quick to explain that although it was a little daunting to begin with, once they got into rehearsals they knew that everything was going to be alright. In fact, he has nothing but good things to say about his young co-stars, remarking that 'when we were little we could play for hours and pretend that we were in a spaceship or a castle or a pirate ship, and we would believe it. Their imaginations are so intact when they get onstage and they’re in a scene. They believe it. They’re playing. They’re having so much fun that it’s infectious'.

The Company of Nativity! The Musical
Photo credit - Richard Davenport
Another brilliant thing about Nativity! The Musical is that, similarly to the film, it is very much a story based in Coventry, and that reflects in the young cast, which all come from the Midlands. When discussing this, Simon Lipkin tells me that Birmingham born writer and director Debbie Isitt is very proud of the story's Coventry setting. Lipkin shares this feeling, explaining that 'I think it’s what made the first movie so special. It was made with love and it really was home-grown. It was shot in and around Coventry and Debbie was pretty adamant that it stayed that way'. 

Now Christmas is upon us and audiences are flocking to the theatre to get a dose of festivity, I'm curious as to whether Simon Lipkin has any festive traditions of his own. He explains 'I never did a Nativity, largely because I’m Jewish and it would have been weird to do a Nativity in a Jewish Primary School, but we did lots of school plays and stuff.' He goes on to say that 'in terms of traditions, I like all of the normal stuff. Pre-Christmas is my favourite. The run up when there’s fairy lights everywhere and everyone’s a bit festive, it’s a bit cold outside, and there’s Christmas music playing.' It really is a wonderful time of year, and Lipkin summarises that 'sitting down, eating lots, having fun, and watching awful Christmas film, that pretty much sums up Christmas for me'.