2017: A Theatrical Year in Review

A lot of ink has been spilt on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the year passed. Reflections, personal and political, attempt to turn events into a narrative and to weigh its significance in the broader arc of history. It’s tempting to attempt to do the same. After the traumas of 2016, last year was perhaps inevitably going to feel less seismic. It isn’t immediately obvious that, in historical terms, 2017 will be remembered for much beyond a slow unfurling of the consequences of 2016’s ruptures.

Unusually I am not going to dwell on the unholy trinity of Trump, Brexit and Theresa May. Documenting their malign influence is neither interesting nor novel. I also did plenty of moaning about that here, and here and here.

Instead, looking back on the year, I’ve noticed I spent a significant portion of it sat in London’s theatres. Perhaps that is something to do with some much needed escapism.

I’ve decided therefore to reflect on 2017 by remembering the plays and performances I’ve enjoyed. All told I saw fifteen. This included five from the Bard, a host of famous faces giving the stage a whirl, far too much time trying to find somewhere to eat on Haymarket, and one evening in the company of the scarily talented Joe Morpurgo.

A year in posters

Given that most of these plays have now run their course it doesn’t seem particularly useful to review each in turn. I’ve let the professionals do that at the bottom. Instead here are a few of my highlights from the year:

Favourite Play

Winner: The Ferryman (Jez Butterworth)
Jez Butterworth’s new play was the most hotly anticipated of the many tickets I had for 2017. I still regularly think about his previous hit Jerusalem. The Ferryman is a worthy follow-up. Without giving too much away (its run has been extended to May so there is still plenty of chance to see it) it centres on an Irish farmhouse in the depths of the Troubles. This rather mundane setting belies the power of Butterworth’s writing. The audience is quickly, seemingly effortlessly, transported into the emotional depths of both the family and wider Irish society. The play is by turns hilarious and heartfelt, mythical and majestic, tragic and terrifying. Nothing short of a tour-de-force.

Runner-Up: Labour of Love (James Graham)
A brilliantly executed comedy that charts the fate of a Labour MP from the mid-80s to the present day.

Favourite Performance

Winner: Tamsin Grieg in Labour of Love
This was probably the most difficult category to decide. In another year it could easily have been Andrew Scott’s gloriously hesitant Hamlet or Ruth Wilson’s beguiling Hedda. I didn’t even see Andrew Garfield’s much praised turn in Angels of America. But for me the standout performance was Tamsin Grieg as Jean Whittaker (in Labour of Love). The play is essentially a two-man show with Grieg playing the constituency office manager to Martin Freeman’s rather hapless MP for Mansfield. The action goes back and forth from the mid-80s to the snap election of 2017. For a card-carrying politico that plot line is enough. Thankfully, for everyone else, it is backed up by Graham’s writing and the consummate skill of the two leads. It was Grieg however who carried it for me. She was instantly believable, and likeable, as the fierce and principled Jean. Moments of high farce and low viciousness were mixed with an arresting vulnerability. I only hope that Graham’s play, and Grieg performance, have more opportunities to shine.

Runner-Up: Jack O’Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
An outstanding portrayal of the broken Brick, replete with unbearable physical and emotional tension.

Most Surprising

Winner: Nice Fish (Mark Rylance)
There is something magical about turning up to the theatre and not knowing what is about to happen. This year the purest version of that feeling I experienced was Mark Rylance’s play Nice Fish. It’s very difficult to summarise what Nice Fish is and why it works. The plot (if you can call it that) involves Rylance and his companion sat on a frozen lake ice fishing. The play, however, has very little to do with fishing and everything to do with friendship, escapism and poetry. It helps that Rylance is by some distance the best stage actor of his generation - even watching him studiously do nothing is a privilege.

Runner-Up: Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
It is nigh on impossible to make Hamlet a surprise, but the precociously talented director Robert Icke managed exactly that. He, and Andrew Scott, gave the Prince of Denmark a melancholic uncertainty that enlivened Shakespeare’s immortal lines. Jessica Brown Findlay finally made Ophelia make sense. It was about an hour too long but nevertheless brilliant.

Best Writing

Winner: The Ferryman (Jez Butterworth)
I can’t say The Ferryman was my play of the year and then not choose it for best new writing. It’s all about the writing. Butterworth is to playwrights as Sorkin is to screenwriters. They share a virtuosic ability to write dialogue that makes you wonder why anyone else bothers. Both have moments of clarity you’ll remember for weeks afterwards. Butterworth manages to combine this with a sense for storytelling that makes his work feel like the continuation of an ancient, noble tradition.

The Ferryman stands out but it was just one of seven new works I saw. All were excellent. I’ve already mentioned Graham’s Labour of Love and Rylance’s Nice Fish. In addition, I was lucky enough to catch Red Barn by David Hare, Kiss Me by Richard Bean, Joe Morpurgo’s one man show Hammerhead, and Stuart Slade’s BU21.

Runner-Up: Kiss Me (Richard Bean)
A small but beautifully formed portrayal of love and loss in post-WWI London.

Looking back, it’s been an outstanding year. It is sometimes easy to take for granted living in a city so overrun with cultural talent and opportunity. Here’s hoping 2018 provides plenty more chances to enjoy it.

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