Critics' Roundup: The Best London Theatre Of 2015

By Londonist Last edited 20 months ago
Critics' Roundup: The Best London Theatre Of 2015

With the theatrical year now deep into panto season (oh yes it is), the Londonist Theatre Crew™ decided to put our collective feet up and take a look back at the highlights of 2015. There have been a lot of plays in the capital — from thoughtful fringe fare to brassy West End extravaganze — and we’ve seen most of them. So here are our critics’ picks of the last 12 months:

Joshua Silver and Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Photo by Johann Perrson.
Joshua Silver and Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Photo by Johan Perrson.

“The colourful, eccentric interpretation of Pedro Almodovar's Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown at the Playhouse Theatre with the fantastic Tamsin Greig was a musical production that swept the audience back to 80s Madrid. Then Nicole Kidman was impressive in Photograph 51 at the Noël Coward Theatre playing the tragic genetic research pioneer, Doctor Rosalind Franklin. She was methodical, aloof and strong and deserves all the praise she's got. More recently, Wonder.land at the National Theatre took the audience to another dimension of pure fantasy, though it also made us question our relationship with the technological world we live in.” [Silvia Baretta]

“French playwright Florian Zeller's The Father at the Tricycle Theatre (which later transferred to Wyndham's) was a devastating depiction of dementia that really made you feel what it's like to be inside the mind of someone losing their sense of identity. Martin McDonagh's 60s-set black comedy about capital punishment, Hangmen (starting at the Royal Court then also transferring to Wyndham's) was a great comeback after more than a decade since his last play in London. The revival of the full version of George Bernard Shaw's epic metaphysical comedy Man And Superman at the National Theatre was another highlight with Ralph Fiennes on great form. As was the RSC's production of Arthur Miller's masterpiece about the American dream gone wrong Death Of A Salesman at the Noel Coward Theatre, showing in the centenary year of the playwright’s birth.” [Neil Dowden]

Oresteia at Trafalgar Studios was a furiously intense bloodbath of a show that left audiences with their hearts in their mouths and their jaws on the floor. If Tarantino ever decided to adapt a Greek tragedy, it could well end up something like this. At the other end of the scale, Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre was a masterclass in how to adapt an existing catalogue of songs for the stage: inventive, poignant and bloody exciting. We can also say that You Me Bum Bum Train continues to set the standard for immersive theatre — though we can't tell you much more than that.” [Dan Frost]

Oresteia. Photo by Johan Persson

"And Then Come The Night Jars at Theatre 503 was the story of an odd couple surviving through the odds — quintessentially English in the least pretentious way. Flowering Cherry at the Finborough was a little-known early play from Robert Bolt, one of the greatest playwrights of recent years. The theatre has an amazing knack for reviving hidden gems and this play about an ordinary family man brought down by his own obstinacy hit the nail on the head. Each His Own Wilderness at The Orange Tree focussed on a son's troubled relationship with his wild mother. It wasn't cheery but then writer and feminist icon Doris Lessing was hardly known for her optimism. Uncomfortable to watch and heartbreaking, it was nevertheless a stand-out production of an extremely insightful and beautifully written drama." [Lettie McKie]

The Sting at Wilton's Music Hall saw a really scrappy, sleazy gangland Chicago perfectly conjured up in the newly-restored but still delightfully rustic East End venue — funny performances and smoky jazz combined nicely. Shock Treatment at the King's Head Theatre was a bit of history in the making: the Rocky Horror “sequel" receiving its world premiere in an Islington pub. The play didn’t quite win the plaudits of its predecessor, yet this performance had the same satirical, camp exuberance. The revival of My Night With Reg at the Apollo Theatre — a 1994 play tackling the tough topic of AIDS — still managed to seem daring and relevant in 2015 thanks to the edginess of the repartee bounced around by a versatile and well-assembled cast.” [James FitzGerald]

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre was one of the London musical theatre highlights of the year and if you want to see for yourself how good Imelda Staunton was, just tune into BBC4 on 27 December when this production enjoys an airing on the box. The Royal Opera House's production of La bohème by John Copley, which started life in 1974, enjoyed its very final revival this year, but boy did it go out in style with some stunning singing from Joseph Calleja and Anna Netrebko. It was also a great year for the Royal Ballet with high quality revivals of Swan Lake, La fille mal gardée and The Two Pigeons, the latter of which had not been seen for 30 years and which can be enjoyed again in January 2016 (as well as in a live cinema broadcast on 26 January 2016). More recently, Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta gave his final performances on the main stage of the Royal Opera House before his retirement. You can catch his own choreographed version of Carmen on BBC4 on Christmas Day." [Sam Smith]

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (see below). Photo by Johan Persson.

"Rotterdam at Theatre 503 was an unexpected hit. Never thought there could be a riotous comedy about lesbian transgenderism but by scripting such a hilarious piece Jon Brittain shone so much light and understanding on an unusual topic. As for best musical — the book, music and lyrics of Xanadu are all terrible, and the plot ‘Greek nymph builds a roller disco’ way beyond ludicrous, but the talent, wit and energy of the Southwark Playhouse production made every night a party in the audience.[Johnny Fox]

Lippy at the Young Vic by Bush Moukarzel documents the true story of four women's decision to commit suicide by starving themselves. Powerful, shocking and dynamic, your heart was in your mouth for most of the performance, and you couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. The Mikvah Project at the Yard, a debut play from Josh Azouz, tells of the meeting of two Jewish men in a Mikvah — a holy bath in which you immerse yourself in order to be cleansed. Merging beautiful vocals and a highly original play structure, this play felt like an immersion itself; something transformative and sacred.” [Savannah Whalley]

"Rough Haired Pointer's enthusiastic adaptation of the classic London novel The Diary Of A Nobody at the King's Head Theatre Pub was especially memorable for the sheer force of its young cast and 24 year old director Mary Franklin — but also for the superb set design by Carin Nakanishi, which perfectly captured the book's original illustrations. Puddles' pre-Edinburgh Soho Theatre appearances were all too brief, but few will forget being in the presence of a 6' 8" singing clown. He's so much more than just the spectacle of his stature wrapped in Pierrot togs, making something as pop as Dancing Queen become vulnerable and pensive through his unique baritone vocals. Yet everyone leaves feeling uplifted and the best show was Kim Noble: You're Not Alone at the Soho Theatre, which has just come back again: go now, but expect covert surveillance, honey-traps and an unofficial job at B&Q in a show that is ethically questionable and obscene, but also a tender study of the human connection.” [Ben Venables]

"Seeing the stage of the Lyttleton Theatre transformed into a giant dining table, which was then tilled and planted by diggers with spades and hoes, was one of the key moments of 2015. Lyndsey Turner's wonderful revival of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by the still-underrated Caryl Churchill was ensemble work of the highest quality." [Tom Bolton]

"King Lear with Sheep at the Courtyard Theatre was a unique spin on Shakespeare's yarn starring woolly ones in crowns and ruffs — brilliantly mad. Hula House at the Camden People's Theatre: a sexy, searing and cerebral blow-by-blow account of life as a UK sex worker. Dry Land at the Jermyn Street Theatre saw Damsel Productions revisit teenage friendships with excruciating, beautiful accuracy." [Rosalind Stone]

"From dance to theatre, the diversity of London’s stage scene amazed this year. Especially enchanting was Russian dance star Irina Kolesnikova (who is also miraculously mother to a one-year-old daughter), whose pristine pirouettes and lithe back arches took centre stage in a rendition of Swan Lake at the ENO. Benedict Cumberbatch also struck a chord as he waxed lyrical in the stunning Art Deco landmark Freemason’s Hall as part of Letters Live. The swashbuckling group of Aussie entertainers, the Briefs Boys at London Wonderground's Spiegeltent, had our sides hurting from laughter. And finally, the National Youth Theatre took us by surprise with their superb production of Consensual that saw an ensemble cast unabashedly dance, sing and act its way around the hot topic of sexual consent. Jim Broadbent in A Christmas Carol deserves a mention too." [Tiffany Pritchard]

Elsewhere other highlights we saw included Mr Foote's Other Leg at the Hamsptead Theatre (which is still on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket) “all-round exhilarating experience full of wit, beautiful costumes, fast-paced story-telling and a brilliant cast including Simon Rusell Beale. [Alice Grahame]

Another particular stand out was L'Ormindo at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a sparkling operatic romp with some truly beautiful moments. The Nether which moved from the Royal Court to the Duke of York's Theatre was also an impressive investigation into the dark side of the web. [Nicolas Chinardet]

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet (see below). Photo by Johan Persson.

"The classics came roaring back with a scorching season of Greek tragedy at the Almeida culminating in Robert Icke's blood-curdling take on Oresteia. While over at the Barbican, Benedict Cumberbatch was a terrific Hamlet, despite what the naysayers said. And at Trafalgar Studios, Jamie Lloyd gave us an eerie and inventive take on Harold Pinter's nasty domestic drama The Homecoming. The two best fringe shows saw comedy and mental breakdown get into bed and molest each other — Kim Noble's You're Not Alone and Waiting For Gaddot, both on at Soho Theatre, both directed by Gary Reich. Another small but perfectly formed show from a rapidly rising star was Wink at Theatre 503 written by Phoebe Eclair-Powell. [Stuart Black]

Last Updated 22 December 2015