Archive for January, 2012

Review – Pitchfork Disney – Arcola Theatre

January 26, 2012

I’ll admit going into this show knowing little other than what the flyer looked like and the name of the theatre – I’d made a mistake booking tickets, thought I was all set up for She Stoops to Conquer, and inadvertently found myself with a free night. Ian “Ought to be Clowns” to the rescue! I had a brief check of the Arcola’s website, and once I’d made sure this show didn’t have anything to do with the Walt Disney company or its properties, I figured I’d just go for it, although I was a bit nervous how I would hold up given my shortage of sleep the night before. But when I got to the theatre, it looked like I’d hit the jackpot – a 1:45 running time! WOO HOO! I was going to make it home before midnight!

In retrospect, falling asleep was really not a problem for this show, possibly thanks to some help from the glasses of Turkish tea I had beforehand at the Tukra baklava shop (yum!). Wanting to leave the theatre due to disengagement was much more of a problem; as it turned out, my “gift” of an early night wasn’t nearly the deal I thought it was. Pitchfork Disney was one of the most unrewarding shows I’ve ever seen, managing to make its two hours seem impossibly drawn out, like I was running through the hallway in Poltergeist, never able to reach the exit. What odd new twist would be introduced, what fantasy scenario would play out, who would knock at the door? (Not buying a program makes the possibility of new characters appearing a much more suspenseful question – nothing like finding out a show was actual a FOUR hander in the last five minutes.) Did the author have another idea for a gross out moment? Oh, goody, I couldn’t wait to find out. I mean, I could, and I did, and I sat through it all, but I hated not even being able to look at my non-existent watch to find out when the warden was going to set us free from this torturous show.

Part of the reason why I did manage to stay was that the writing was so good at times: truly powerful when the siblings Presley (Chris New) and Hailey (Mariah Gale) were telling each other stories. However, the two of them were not really interesting in their relationship with themselves (or anyone else): I spent some time unravelling their relationship, wound up never understanding how they got to where they were, eventually decided they weren’t really worth knowing. And the acting was very strong: both managed to seem like people with very solid pasts, and both wholly held the stage when they were in story-telling mode.

But. But but but but. This piece of miserabilist theatre (along with Ecstacy and Haunted Child) seemed have no idea where it was going. It struggled with its Grand Guignol leanings (ooh! Gross out horror moment one! Sadomasochism reference! More gross outs!) and lost, the audience laughing more than they should have, the play lacking the self-awareness that would have allowed it to recover gracefully. It had some hopes of being either a really interesting post-apocalyptic terror play (I think I’ve only seen this in movies, it would have been a good path) or a deep, deep plunge into the human psyche, but after a few steps down this path it turns back and gets lost in some more story telling. We don’t end up knowing much more about Presley and Hailey (or their missing parents, or how they got to be where they are in their lives) at the end than we did in the beginning; the character Disney fails to achieve the Woman in Black status he seemed to be aiming for when he first appeared. The play is a flop, a damp squib, a failure, another horrible example of talent wasted due to a critical failure on the part of the writer to create good material. But this play is hardly new; and as the Arcola fails to find an audience for this show, they will have to think hard about just what process they are using to screen scripts for production.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 25th, 2012. It continues through March 17th, 2012. If you change your mind right before you go in, don’t worry, there are lots of delicious Turkish restaurants in the area that will make you feel much less like you’ve completely wasted your trip to Dalston. God knows if it hadn’t been for 19 Numara Bos Cirrik I would have been much more bitter about my evening.)

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Review – Draft Works in the Linbury – Royal Ballet and guests (downstairs at the Royal Opera House)

January 25, 2012

Seeing shows in the Linbury is a treat: it’s a nice, intimate space where you get much closer to the performers. And something like “Draft Works” is an even more special treat, a chance to see dance works – and new choreographers – as they develop.

There’s not much on the ROH website about the show, so here’s the list of choreographers and the names of their dances:

At the River Styx – Robert Binet
Feathers in your Head – Ludovic Ondivela
Gallardo – Fernando Montano
Overtone – Declan Whitaker
Lonesome Gun – Kristen McNally
Within the Hours – Erico Montes
i lean and bob – Thomas Whitehead
Grace – Simon Rice
Into the Woods – Tamara Rojo
Brandenburg Divertissement – Valentino Zucchetti

We started with a lovely, very classical piece by Robert Binet, who is woring as a choreographic apprentice at the Royal Ballet this season. The music was the Biber violin sonata that is based on (to my ears) the old round song “Rose” (“Rose, rose, rose rose/Will I ever see the wed” etc.), lending a melancholy air to the dance; but given that the theme was Orpheus’ ascent from the underworld with Eurydice, when he is unable to turn and look at her, I found it wholly appropriate. Yuhui Choe twined and arced and hovered around Ricardo Cervera, she showing her confusion and fear, he closing his eyes as she passed in front of him and yet somehow managing all sorts of lifts and other partnering that seemed not in keeping with the “don’t look at her or she’ll go back to the underworld” dictum. Cervera pulled of some amazingly fast turns, but the piece overall still felt a bit unsettled – if promising.

Next up was dancer Ludovic Ondivela’s “Feathers in your Head,” performed by Lauren Cuthbertson and Bennett Gartside. I thought Lauren was a great choice to play someone laid low by Alzheimers – she seemed fragile, constantly searching but always lost. I particularly liked the starting motion of typing fingers on her shoulder, a reminder of a more ordered past. Bennet was a good partner, mirroring her moves, protective, but somehow not reaching her.

This was followed by Fernando Montano’s self-danced “Gallardo,” done to Piazolla. Montano was swift footed with his tango moves, seemingly attempting to seduce the audience as he glided and strutted (although I think his hip waggle needed a bit more shimmy). I think the two women he was supposed to have in the piece missed out on a great chance to improve their style of dancing, but then again, perhaps they would have only sat in the chairs. Still, it was a lively and enjoyable piece, if weak in the standard ballet choreography.

Next up was Declan Whitaker’s as dancer/choreographer for “Overtone.” I missed the program note about it being glacier-themed, but I did find it slow and not very interesting. There was a loud buzzing noise over the speakers, some slow poses and twitching, all very serious. I found myself wondering what a dance piece based on “There’s Something About Kevin” would look like. And then it was over.

Soloist Kristen McNally wrapped up the first half with the lighthearted “Lonesome Gun,” six dancers in plastic cowboy hats performing to music as diverse as Nick Cave and Ennio Morricone (and we have been long overdue for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to be used as dance music!). I laughed as the blondest woman mouthed “What are you lookin’ at?” before hawking and (mime) spitting. She described it as a skeleton of a dance, and it seemed to be hitting a lot of the cowboy points – gambling, fighting, some male/female rescue drama. It seemed to need more flesh on it but as what it was, a sketch done for a one-off, it was a breath of fresh air. (I can’t imagine she’ll really finish it, nobody does comic one act any more.)

After the interval, we had the high point of the night: Erico Montes’ “Within the Hours,” performed to original (being debuted) music by Oliver Davies (Three Waltzes for Cello and Piano, Helen Leek on piano and Ivan McCready on cello). The whole piece seemed a meditation on the fragile nature of life and our essential loneliness, performed by (in my eyes) very young dancers. Montes seemed to really know how to handle ensemble movement, with a yearning in their togetherness, and elements of unexpected as they came apart. The music was echoed and emphasized in the dance while never seeming to dictate what happened next. I found myself thinking of “Serenade.” Thank you, Mr. Davies, for this lovely work, and pass a thank you on to your dancers and musicians for helping make it happen.

“i lean and bob” was a very short piece, another comic one that I think won’t be seen outside of this small room despite the fact it was so fun. It started in the stalls, with Ryoichi Hirano slapping his hands on the stage as “Kringle” by Analogik started to play. He was watched closely by Sian Murphy, who then dashed past the front row patrons trying to catch up to him as he ran onto the stage. They then danced together, he ignoring her at times, then lifting her up awkwardly (and to her surprise), both of them bouncing, Ryoichi grooving, Sian disappointed at being ignored. It all ended with a kiss, a little burst of excitement and passion to wrap up Thomas Whitehead’s engaging first attempt at choreography.

This was followed by “Grace,” a modern dance piece choreographed by Simon Rice and danced by his own troupe. The dancers moved so differently from the ballerinas that I had to regear my brain substantially, but in the end, the language of half turns, bending forward, rolling across each other’s bodies, et cetera, seemed so old to me, like being in Seattle in 2000 and watching Pat Grainey. Modern dance has moved forward a lot and what I was shown did not engage me at all.

Next to last was Tamara Rojo’s “Into the Woods,” danced by Camille Bracher and Jose Martin. The set up was a man on a chair to which a sylph-like woman is tied by the ankle. As the man conveyed his adoration (and occasionally lust) for the woman – lifting her up while she struggled to get away, running his hands over her body – I saw in it echoes of other myths, such as The Firebird (and even Diana and Actaeon, but without the happy ending). But as it became clearer she was his prisoner, I started having flashbacks to Silence of the Lambs and wondering if he was going to tell her to “rub the lotion on its skin” (“or else it gets the hose again”).

Then Bracher’s character had what seemed to me to be a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” moment as she decides she is attracted to the man, and the dance ends with her laying the rope around him (as he sits) and then curling at his feet on the floor. I was hoping for some rope around the neck and a violent escape, but … well, this did give me rather a lot to think about with only a simple story, so I think it must be considered a success.

Finally we had Valentino Zucchetti’s “Brandenburg Divertissement,” which was described as being architectural and Baroque, with a little passion. With a cast of eight, there was a lot of room for artistic creation, but ultimately I think its success was as a showcase for the up and coming dancers of the company (Yasmine Naghdi, who looked to me like the perfect Balanchine ballerina, and Claudia Dean, whom I was happy to see again after her promotion into the company, and all of the young men but especially Kevin Emerton). The choreography was unfortunately quite mechanical, a real contrast with the depth of “Within the Hours.” Perhaps it is the fault of Bach, or perhaps Zucchetti was just too literal in his interpretation.

Overall this was an enjoyable evening, a good introduction to both many dancers I did not know well and to many choreographers of all shades of experience. And at £11 a ticket, it was a good deal, with a special bonus: Ed Watson smiled at me during the interval *swoon* from about two feet away.

(This work is for a performance that took place on January 24th, 2012. Draft Works in the Linbury continues through January 26th, so just for two more nights. For more information please see Judith Flanders’ writeup for The Arts Desk or Clement Crisp’s shorter yet as always God-like review. Apologies for the many misspellings as trying to do this in 10 minute snatches during the workday is not conducive to cross checking what I’ve written with a program.)

Mini-review – Collaborators – National Theatre

January 22, 2012

As ever, I’m a big fan of new plays, so when the National announced a new play about Mikhail Bulgakov was going to be in their fall/winter season, I was all over it. I mean, hell, a play about the author of The Master and Margarita (which I’d just read the previous year)? Yes please! I was slightly put off by it being more about the suffering of creative types during the Stalinist purges – I had some fears it would become miserabilist but decided I’d be hopeful and bought tickets anyway, for very early in the run.

Then something unforeseen happened: a one night only event came up that was so exciting I decided to postpone seeing the play. And somehow, it had become very popular, very fast, and the next time I could get two tickets for a show I had been planning to see in November … was January! Ah well. So this is my review, rather late, of a show that nobody is bothering to look for reviews of anymore.

To my surprise – it was great, a perfect marriage of a fine script and excellent acting, with the National for once restraining itself and not putting in an overdesigned set that stifled the imagination. Instead, Bob Crowley created a simple-seeming zig zag through the center of the Cottlesloe, with a little walkway around the near end of it and little Constructivist extrusions that hinted at walls and windows, and small changes of decor to indicate the center table was now a dining room/ a doctor’s office/ a desk in a writer’s workshop.

The play started off with an absurdist note, as Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) is having a dream in which a Elmer Fudd-like Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) is chasing him around his apartment with a typewriter. Real life, however, is just as ridiculous, as the Bulgakovs wake up to discover a new tenant is now living in their wardrobe (he falls out of it). They are dealing with the privations of daily life by living a little bit of a fantasy world, pretending to pour coffee for breakfast and then bragging about the wonderful hot baths they have taken.

With this warping of reality, the conceit of the play – that Bulgakov is “asked” to write a play about Stalin, then meets with Stalin regularly in a secret bunker where Joe types it up while Bulgakov takes care of business of being a dictator – just plain works. Beale keeps the big man wavering on either side of sanity, while Jennings manages to make Bulgakov’s evolution from underdog to willing servant of an ugly machine seem completely logical. But the genius of the play is that this interaction takes on the hyperreality of a fairy tale in which a deal is struck with the devil (or with fairies), and every wish you make is warped in front of you – handfuls of gold coins turn into rotting leaves, the gift of eternal life is twinned with eternal aging, a beautiful house is revealed to be roofless and full of cobwebs. Every step Bulgakov makes, whether it’s to work with or undermine Stalin, is twisted around so that he becomes an object of hatred to all of his friends, a person who actively undermines other artists, and, finally, a writer who is so compromised he has completely lost sight of his own authorial integrity.

From reading the program notes, it’s clear that none of this ever happened, and that the play is a fantasia on the real life of Bulgakov. But its grounding in reality means hits deeper truths that a more factual play would have been less universal (while I was given enough of a teaser to become interested in reading what really happened at the time). Overall, this was a brilliant work, wonderfully presented, and while I’m glad to hear it’s transferring to the Olivier, I think there will be something lost in taking away the intimacy (and the additional strangeness caused by the audience being dropped in lumps around the corners of the set) of the Cottlesloe. See it there if you can, but do see it even if you have to wait; a new work this good is truly a reason to celebrate.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012. It is booking through Sunday, May 13th, 2012.)

Cinema or theater?

January 17, 2012

Before I moved to London, I was a hard core movie fan. Living in Seattle, I had the benefit of the Northwest Film Forum, the Grand Illusion, and the Seven Gables chain to feed my love of intelligent films. For several years, I saw nearly a movie a week (while managing to skip nearly everything Hollywood was putting out).

I saw nearly everything available in the theater in Seattle, but when I moved to London, my theater going exploded. I went from forty or fifty shows a year to over a hundred … in fact, 136 last year (and that was less than in 2010). And my movie going has fallen precipitously, to barely a movie a month (usually at the BFI).

So tonight I went to the Odeon Panton, and what did I get? 20 minutes of ads for everything from clothes washers to banks, and a movie that was shown with visible pixels, like I was watching a giant TV set. And for that I paid more than I do for many plays. Now, Margaret was an awesome movie, but do I feel like going to see a movie in a cinema again any time soon? No, I do not. If I’m going to watch a bunch of stupid dots dancing around on a screen, I can sit at home and watch it on my little computer and SKIP the 20 minutes worth of ads. Odeon cinemas, you are DOING IT WRONG.

Note: one of the ads was about the great experience of seeing a movie in the cinema. This made me laugh. But at least the audience – all five of us – was fairly quiet.

Mini-review – Dick Whittington (with Dame Edna) – New Wimbledon Theater

January 14, 2012

Once again, it’s very late in the day to be writing a review of the New Wimbledon Theater’s presentation of Dick Whittington, given that there are at the moment I am writing this a grand total of four performances left for this show, one of which is due to start in four minutes (and thus after I actually get this posted). However, I had such a good time, I’d be remiss not giving the last few of you who might be able to attend a heads up about what a fun show this is – and with only slightly limited view tickets available for 17 quid, I consider it a good value.

RIGHT! So, Dick Whittington is my least favorite panto – really lacking in the fairytale elements I enjoy so much – and I’ve generally speaking found the New Wimbledon’s pantos both flat and overpriced. And Dame Edna – I’d heard the name before but really had no idea who she was. HOWEVER …the Twitter buzz was very good for this show, so I decided to ignore all my preconceptions, especially when I saw stall seats were available for under twenty quid, and actually go to a very far out of panto season show.

The result was great on a number of levels. We had the political jokes I enjoy, the kind of brilliant ad libbing you only get from a crew that has been working together for a very long time (I think this was the 53rd or so performance), hysterical dame costumes for Sarah the Cook and snappy performances from a tight crew (Kev Orkian as “Idle Jack” was really working it). Oddly Dame Edna was NOT the “dame” per se but a “fairy,” meaning not nearly as good costumes as the Cook but much more time to mooch around on stage doing her schtick. Which, apparently, is talking about how famous and wonderful and nice she is, and making fun of other people. I was actually completely willing to go for her extended mockery of the people in the second balcony (“Clap with one hand and hold on with the other, dears”) given that I was finally on the main floor, but grateful that when she pulled an overweight and casually dressed American woman on stage, she actually restrained what could have been a really devastating scene in favor of more gentle teasing (and less energy but I was okay with it, sometimes these things just don’t hit it).

Among the many things I can praise about this show is the inspired use of a “man of small stature” (Ben Goffe) – who breakdances – to play the captain of the ship Dick takes to go off to make his fortune, meaning we were set up for a lot of comedy moments involving Cook Sarah’s bosom height, skirt height, and many other things (all thankfully not done in a mean fashion). This show also had the best singalong ever, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which should have been awful and dull (as the song is) but thanks to some, er, lassoing action actually took the thing to an inspired height of ridiculousness I feel I may never see again. And the audience was totally ramped up, with a man in one of the box seats near the stage lifting his shirt up for extra squirts of water during a water gun sequence. Yeah, the (other) songs were mostly filler, I wasn’t able to focus on the 3D sequence in the second act … but did I walk out feeling giddy and wanting more? Oh yes I did. And here it is 2:30 PM on a Saturday, and there are now only three more shows left, and I’m afraid you may just be very close to saying you missed out on a really zippy night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 10th, 2012. The final performance will be 5:30 PM on January 15th – tomorrow.)

Mini-review – Guys and Dolls – Upstairs at the Gatehouse

January 12, 2012

It’s a bit late in the run to be doing a review of Upstairs at the Gatehouse’s Guys and Dolls as the show’s been open for a month and is pretty much sold out for the rest of its run. However, I was fortunate enough to get tickets (before Christmas) to last Friday’s performance, thanks to a hot tip from Ought To Be Clown’s Twitter feed (basically, “Amazeballs”). (And they’ve added a Saturday January 28th matinee so maybe you can get in on that.)

ALERT! ALERT! This show has been extended and is now running: Tuesday 31st January through Friday 3rd February with four 7.30pm shows! Don’t miss it!

We’re off to a good start with the fabulous Frank Loesser score, full of hummable tunes (“Luck Be a Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “A Bushel and a Peck”) and songs with hilarious lyrics (“Rocking the Boat,” “Adelaide’s Lament”). The set is minimal but extremely flexible – with a newspaper stand, it’s a city street; add some tables with candles on them, and you’ve got Adele’s club; a few colorful lampshades and suddenly we’re in Cuba. I had no problem completely suspending disbelief as the cast carefully pushed walls around and dropped burning objects into their pockets – and at one point handed out hats to the audience so we could fill out Jet’s “marker” for 12 sinners (when only 6 cast members were available).

So what it comes down to is talent, and the Gatehouse did a damned good job with a Jet (Jamie Sampson) who completely surpassed Brando with his sexiness and smooth voice. Thanks to him, I enjoyed this production far more than the film (all I’d ever seen before), because instead of watching Brando be Brando (and Sinatra be Sinatra), instead I got actors who were trying to be their characters. Rebecca Sutherland as Adele definitely had the feeling of a shop-worn girlfriend (and was a big presence on stage), but was unfortunately her level was not matched by Amy Bailey (as missionary Sarah Brown). Sarah isn’t as fun as a role, given that she’s a bit of a prig, but she has a chance to shine through her singing – and Bailey just didn’t have the pipes to do the songs justice. She managed to do enough for the small theater, but with such strong people beside her, she looked weak.

But this is an ensemble piece, and boy! With the dancing and singing, these gangsters sure did shine! They flew through the air, they spun, they blew my mind in the crap game sequence, they proved to me once again that there is NOTHING like seeing a fantastic show with the cast practically in your lap, especially with the energetic choreography this show had. I was left making small complaints about Adele’s fellow Hotboxers having period inappropriate short shorts on. And, really, that just wasn’t too horrible as the legs they revealed were very toned.

So even though I can’t add much to the shouts of approval in the blogosphere for Guys and Dolls, I had to say, for those of you who CAN fit it in … it’s a damned good night out and well worth the ticket cost.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 6th, 2012. The show continues through … why look, longer than it was when I started writing this review … February 3rd!)

Mini-review – Howl’s Moving Castle – Southwark Playhouse

January 8, 2012

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get just tiny reviews of shows written, five sentences if no more, rather than leaving so many shows completely unreviewed as I did last year. Unfortunately I’m still having a problem with being very busy, thus this review of Howl’s Moving Castle at Southwark Playhouse is being done after the play has closed. It doesn’t matter much, though, as it was already sold out for the rest of the run by the time I saw it, so this review wouldn’t have influenced you to have gone one way or another. Anyway …

I was told my some that this show was overly ambitious and by others that it was just terrible; let it be said that my expectations were incredibly low. However, expecting a zero or one star show, I got something that was probably a one and a half star event; not abysmal, though still long at 70 minutes. I found it suffered from incoherence, which I tried to ascribe to my micro-napping through key plot points; however (I asked my companions), in fact just too much had been cut from the novel for key points to make sense, i.e. how did Sophie (Susan Sheridan) get to Howl’s Castle in the first place, and just what was the nature of her “strong magic” that was so intense it caused the Witch of the Waste (Kristin McGuire) to put her under a curse.

However, there were other problems that irritated me to the point of distraction; the acting was naff at a panto level of naffness (cape swirling is not actually a way of expressing emotion, even though Daniel Ings was giant piles of yum while doing so); characters are never convincingly done by tape recordings, and this show had TWO of them (James Wilkes as Calcifer and Stephen Fry as the house); and while projections can create a magical atmosphere (as 1927 Theatre Company proves), too often they’re a excuse for doing a show on the cheap instead of using imagination and a bit of shiny cloth and making a bit more effort. I found the projections got in the way of my stongly-honed ability to follow the lead of a good designer and “believe” in the world that was being created; instead, I was shown a vision that far undershot my own and left me disappointed.

At any rate, for once it wasn’t me apologizing for having mis-sold a production to my friends, but rather my friends muttering to each other about “maybe as good as a Dr Who Christmas special” and me feeling cheery that I’d made it out for so little money and such a small investment in time while still being modestly entertained. And now it’s closed. Hurray!

(This review is for a show seen on Wednesday, January 4th, 2011. It closed on January 7th.)

2011 Theater Review Revue

January 1, 2012

While for most people who do reviews, picking the best shows is as easy as going to your five (or four) star list and then culling from there, it’s a more difficult matter for me. First, I don’t really “star” reviews – certainly not on my blog. For me, the issue is enjoyment, and my enjoyment of a show is tied to the entertainment value crossed with the amount of money I had to pay for the ticket. Did I fork out sixty quid? Wow me, baby. Did I pay ten? I’m hoping for an evening that chases my troubles away, not one that knocks my socks off. Too frequently, though, I find the expectations set with less expensive tickets means I’m much easier to make happy in less extravagant shows.

Best comedy of the year seems like a shoe-in for the very popular One Man Two Guv’nors, which I certainly enjoyed, but it just had too much of a whiff of Benny Hill and bad panto for me to get behind it. Instead, I vote for Royal Court’s Jumpy, as a play that addressed modern concerns as well as age-old problems AND had a great scene with a disco-dancing, pony girl dominatrix. What did that have to do with mother/daughter relationships? Who cares? All I know is that I went to the theater desperately needing to have my blues chased away and this Jumpy had me laughing so hard I cried.

The best Shakespeare production and second best show overall (and the only full priced one I can get fully behind – thirty quid well spent) was Propeller Theater’s Richard III, a show I gave up paid tickets to another event just for the off-chance there might be a return ticket available. There was. I was blown out of my seat by this freakish combination of Edward Gorey and Neil Gaiman sensibilities. Every now and then you see a Shakespearean performance that sets the standards by which other performances will be judged: this was that play for me. It left all the other Shakespearean performances I saw in the dust – the Tate/Tennant Much Ado, the weird Donmar Richard II, the National’s Comedy of Errors. That said: the most magical show of the year (and also a bargain) was the wonderful Tempest done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Little Angel Puppet Theater – I don’t feel like it should be in with the other Shakespeares as it was edited quite a bit and some of the actors were, um, puppets, but it made a script I’d previously found stuffy positively sing. And at 10 quid a ticket, it was an incredible deal – the kind of show that makes me feel lucky to live in London.

This leads me to the Best Theater Tip Generator of the year: and the winner is … Twitter. There’s a pile of theater tweeters out there who in addition to talking about work and (occasionally) TV talent shows also will on a nightly basis let you know if what they saw was good, great, or a trainwreck. When I hear two or three of these people say a show is a knockout, I will do what it takes to make sure I get a ticket before it sells out – or decide to stand in line, hoping against hope for returns. They haven’t led me wrong – and they’re saying that this year I need to go see Sweeney Todd since I didn’t make it to Chichester. (I got the memo!) I’m a member of that community, and if you want a short summary, may I suggest you add @140thtr to your followed tweeters? It will expose you to a variety of writers and help you decide if you want to follow any of them directly.

Most misconceived revival/debut has got to go to the interminable Emperor and Galilean, an Ibsen play which was making its debut at the National some 150 years after it was originally written. Per the notes, it wasn’t MEANT to be staged at all; based on what I saw, tradition should have been maintained. It’s about enough to make me think that really, forgotten plays are forgotten for a reason, but then I saw The Belle’s Strategem at Southwark Playhouse and I was proven wrong. I think it might be a bit much to call it best revival of the year, but insofar as it was head to head in the same category as Emperor and Galilean, Red Handed Theater’s joyous Belle knocked it out of the ballpark.

It was a great year for musicals in London, and I took full advantage of this. We had a glorious crop of new ones – Betty Blue Eyes, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Ghost, Top Hat, Love Story – well, Top Hat was only new to the stage and Love Story was more sonorous than glorious – but I was able to revel in my joy of watching people sing (and frequently dance) on stage again and again. Matilda is the one everyone is cooing over, but I got my happy on at Crazy for You (tears in my eyes – tears!) and the warped revival of Salad Days. Sadly, I don’t think any of the songs from the new shows are destined to become standards – though if there was a show I think should be revived quickly, it would be the clever production of Betwixt I saw at Trafalgar Studios. Perfectly suited to a theater geek’s sensibilities, I found myself carefully listening to the lyrics – and laughing a lot. Thanks to all of the people who worked so hard (and put so much money!) into making these shows happen – I realize you may not have had your aspirations met, but as a Londoner, I felt spoiled.

For best dance of the year, it’s the companies that came to London that gave me the big thrills. Merce Cunningham’s troupe left me heartbroken at never seeing them but accepting the closure; the Sadlers Wells Flamenco festival was good but didn’t blow me away. Instead – well, it was the damned Mariinsky with their Balanchine/Robbins program that left me with that spooky, goosebumpy feeling you get when something just perfect has happened while you were in the room. As a bizarre bonus, this was the only program of their generally astoundingly expensive series where any kind of discount could be found; I got stalls seats at half price thanks to Last Minute. All I can say is that going to Russia is now seeming like a reasonable thing to do to get my dance fix going, especially now that Vasiliev and Osipova have left the Bolshoi for the big M.

Biggest non-story of the years: bloggers should not review previews. How many times have people in the traditional media brought this up? How many times have people involved in shows gotten defensive because your poor review is for their preview? (Note this doesn’t happen for positive reviews, which they see as “building word of mouth” before opening night.) For all of you bloggers out there, can we just stop being baited by people who have nothing better to write about than this dull topic? Part of the reason theater blogs are great is because we can get “in print” so quickly that folks who are debating buying tickets can get an early insight into whether or not a particular show is worth forking out for – and my blogging friends have saved me a lot of grief (not to mention intrigued me in Pippin despite the pans). And bloggers ARE fans who like to see shows as soon as possible – it’s rough when you’ve been waiting a year to see the new Mike Bartlett show and it’s RIGHT THERE for sale! Now! – and we pay for the privilege. We see, we pay, we write, and most of us say if it was a preview (or mention the date of the show that was reviewed). Otherwise – this isn’t a story and the theater blogging community should unify in refusing to “feed the trolls.” If theaters don’t want shows written about – then they shouldn’t be selling tickets for them yet.

Given my love for bargains, it’s probably unsurprising, then, that my happiest evening of the year was spent watching Get Santa at the Royal Court.  Not only did I only spend 5 pounds for my ticket, I found the whole evening hopelessly surreal and completely original. I am still laughing about the bacon tree. Why was no script published for this genius piece? I’d be doing it in my house for the holidays every year. Overall, every time I saw another show this year that was great, I’d ask, “But did I like it as much as Get Santa?” And the answer was always no. Thus, for best play of the year, and best night at the theater for me personally, Get Santa takes the prize.

In summary: it was a very good year for me – 136 performances, large chunks of disposable income recycled into the city’s arts coffers, only three walkouts (The Veil, Juno and the Paycock, and Haunted Child) and just a handful of interval-free shows I might have left. I can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring!