2011 Theater Review Revue

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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!

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One Response to “2011 Theater Review Revue”

  1. Ellie Says:

    I’ve been seeing a lot of theatre this year and totally agree Propeller got Shakespeare of the year for me too, I loved Richard III so much I went back and saw it again! Seen a few Propeller productions over the years and they are always great but that really was something special.

    Sad you didn’t enjoy Emperor and Galilean though, I found it genuinely very grand and awe-inspiring.

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