Friday 12 December 2014

The Gizzle Review's Top Theatre of 2014

10. Memphis

Memphis Musical

Why it made the top 10:
To be perfectly honest, Memphis is worth seeing alone for Beverley Knight’s vocal.  After an underappreciated pop career, she’s finally found a new home on the West End stage with a hugely powerful voice of soulful tones and impressive riffing.  Add in a superb supporting cast, some energetic choreography and a heavy dose of fun, and it more than makes up for the sometimes lacklustre score and important, if overdone, narrative of racial integration.

“In short Beverley Knight is a sensation.

9. King Charles III

King Charles III

Why it made the top 10:
Mike Bartlett’s reimagining of our modern day Royal Family as a Shakespearean history play is an incredibly clever piece of satire.  Grand stately drama is juxtaposed with witty modernisms, whilst the performances are biting without resorting to impersonation.  The play’s ending could have pushed the boundaries further, but this remains a gripping indication of the imminent future of our monarchy.

“This is no dramatic flight of fancy – instead it offers both intelligent comment on the current state of Britain and a tightly-woven family drama.

8. The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys

Why it made the top 10:
Musicals are a frequent platform for issues of racism, but few are as daring as Kander and Ebb’s ironic minstrel show.  Its contrast of dark comedy with social message is hilarious and provocative in equal measure, the show full of powerful imagery and storytelling.  The score doesn’t quite match the duo’s best, but the direction, choreography and performances of this production ensure the show is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The Scottsboro Boys may not be the strongest show in the Kander and Ebb canon, but this production still packs an emotional punch with its earnest social agenda.” 

7. Once

Once Musical

Why it made the top 10:
One simple reason really – I cried.  For a cold hearted bastard like me, that says a lot.  Why so emotional?  Really it’s the show’s sense of honesty.  The characters are touchingly human, the production is subtle and intimate, and the music impresses for its yearning melodies, sublime harmonies and authentic onstage performances.  Recent cast changes may have altered the tone of the piece (I haven’t witnessed Ronan Keating myself, though Zrinka Cvitešić and Declan Bennett were outstanding at the start of the year), but few shows offer such an emotional night at the theatre.

“By the end, the opening notes alone of Falling Slowly were enough to set me off.  I think I’ve found my kryptonite.”

6. In The Heights

In The Heights

Why it made the top 10:
Yes the story of this Tony Award winning Broadway hit is the usual trite about young love, but the show’s UK premiere at the start of the summer proved that sometimes plot can be outweighed by a superb production.  Latin fire pairs with American hip-hop in both the contemporary score and sizzling choreography and whilst the hugely talented young cast performed with boundless and infectious energy, they also mastered effortless cool.

“ In The Heights is all of the best ‘s’ words: sassy yet sensual, sweaty, smouldering and simply superb.

5. The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon

Why it made the top 10:
Mormon has proven to be a phenomenal West End hit and with high ticket prices and limited availability, it took me until this year to finally see it.  And it was worth the hype.  As you’d expect from the creators of South Park, it’s rude, crude and obscenely hilarious – certainly one of the most extreme shows out there.  Yet beneath it all is a slick, polished and well-constructed musical.  The score cleverly parodies other shows whilst maintaining its own adult charms; the book is crammed with biting wit in its portrayal of modern religion; and the cartoon performances are exceptional.  There really is nothing else like it currently running on the West End.

“It is breathtakingly funny and silly, but it’s got the music, comedic book and talented cast to back it up.”

4. Matilda The Musical

Matilda The Musical

Why it made the top 10:
Another show that took me until this year to see, Matilda was definitely worth the wait.  Far from a revolting children’s show, the mischievous humour and gruesome violence is more than “a little bit naughty”, providing enough entertainment for all the family.  Wonderful directorial touches bring the show to life into the audience, whilst Miss Trunchball is one of the greatest stage villains of recent years.  At its core though is the heart-warming relationship between the plucky Matilda and the meek Miss Honey, the source of much of the show’s boundless charm.

Matilda The Musical is the very definition of feel-good theatre that will have you grinning from ear to ear and wishing you never have to grow up…” 

3. American Psycho

American Psycho Musical

Why it made the top 10:
Rupert Goold’s production of this new musical, based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, received a short run at the turn of the year that made a lasting impression.  By downplaying the novel’s brutal violence, the narrative took on a more psychological tone in its dark satire of capitalism and the superficial, hedonistic lifestyle of 1980s Wall Street.  Some complained about Duncan Sheik’s vacuous electronic pop score, but that was somewhat the point.  Everything about the show was cold, clinical and artificial – from the use of autotuned vocals, to the stunning set design and the vibrant fashion of the costumes.  The flat, awkward performance from Matt Smith in the central role of Patrick Bateman was a perfect fit in what was one of the year’s sexiest yet most disturbing shows.  A West End transfer still needs to happen.

“No other musical since Sweeney Todd has revelled in psychotic, villainous behaviour quite like this.”

2. Let The Right One In

Let The Right One In play

Why it made the top 10:
Let The Right One In brought some Nordic noir flair to the West End this year, based on the Swedish film of the same name but reimagined in the dark, snowy highlands of Scotland.  At its heart, the story is a simple coming-of-age tale twisted into a surprisingly tender story of vampires and bullying that celebrates the outsider.  Here, its painfully sad story unfolded at a glacial pace through sombre atmosphere, beautiful set design and melancholic music, punctuated by horrifying stage effects.  The sympathetic performances only added to the chilling nature of this unnerving romance.

“Its stunning production elevates this twisted tale of the outsider into something strangely and tragically beautiful.

1.  Assassins

Assassins Musical

Why it made the top 10:
By now you’ve probably noticed my taste for dark, twisted theatre and 2014 saved the best until last.  And of course it took a Sondheim show to make it happen.  His humanising of America’s most notorious killers is wickedly unhinged, satirising the American Dream in a slightly convoluted plot that blurs reality with a fictional circus game (“you wanna shoot a President?”).  The cast of characters are truly psychotic yet curiously sympathetic, singing in a variety of styles that mock traditional American music.  In Jamie Lloyd’s production (still running at the Menier Chocolate Factory) the circus setting is grimly realised with monologues delivered from dodgem cars, an oversized clown head dominating the stage, ‘hit’ and ‘miss’ signs lighting up after each gunshot, and stunning use of blood red confetti.  The cast, too, are exceptional  - some hilarious, some mournful, all of them weirdly engaging.  Assassins is a show that revels in darkness and gleefully subverts our expectations.

“There’s plenty of humour in this dark satire, yet for all its psychotic performances and cleverly fantastical directorial touches from Jamie Lloyd, there is a frightening realism bristling beneath the surface.