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2014 theatre highlights

With Christmas edging closer I think we're all beginning to reflect on the past year. The next few weeks are looking pretty manic and I don't think I'll be fitting in any more theatre, so I thought it might be time to have a think about my theatre highlights!

I saw a lot this year, and some really exciting work - pushing boundaries, raising important issues and also just giving people a bloody good time. It was nice to remember it all, and I've condensed it down to my top ten shows.

So, in no particular order...

Once 

This is the most gorgeous musical I've seen in the West End. I feel so grateful to have seen Zrinka Cvitešić and David Hunter in the lead roles - they both gave such stunning, heartfelt performances. I'm hearing great things about Ronan Keating but I just think to have a star name in this off-beat piece would feel distracting.

It's romantic and it's rowdy and I'm sad that it's closing!

Finding Joy 

We were lucky enough to have Vamos Theatre's Finding Joy come to The Marlowe Studio in Canterbury. In full mask, the company tell the story of Joy: an elderly lady dealing with dementia with the help of her rebellious yet caring grandson.

Before seeing this, I knew you could do all kinds of things physically onstage but this was something else. It was so moving but also so tenderly written, and even without words - it is written. For anyone who's known dementia, personally or professionally, it would have hit home.

And that it certainly did. We held a post-show Q&A and it was really touching hearing people's reactions to the show, reflecting on their own personal experiences. Entertainment is always important, sure, but in that moment my job felt worthy. It's an important, brilliant show.

I'm looking forward to them coming back in the new year with Nursing Lives.

Bitch Boxer 

When this one-woman show began, I wondered if the energy might prove a bit much. It was so full-on. But then it calmed down, and picked up, and calmed down again. And I was drawn in and amazed by it.

Holly Augustine played a young woman competing for the first time in the 2012 Olympics while grieving for her father, and she was just outstanding. She portrayed strength and vulnerability both physically and emotionally with total commitment, and both as strong as the other.

An incredible solo performance and also so much more uplifting than I expected.

The Drowned Man 

I got home from my trip to Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man and booked straight away for a second visit, just weeks later. That says something.

This immersive, epic production was like nothing I've experienced before and I sometimes get sad that it's not all still going on, and that I can't go back for a third time. It was like being in a dream.

I wrote a full blogpost on this here.

Every Brilliant Thing  

I smile just to think of this one-man play. Yet it's all about depression, and it talks about suicide. That seems like an unlikely reaction but it was hopeful, charming, but also just very honest - which was refreshing. The audience participation is disarming - it feels playful, even when the subject matter could be heavy, and yet it packs a punch too.

Beached 

Being the first play produced by The Marlowe, this could feel disingenuous, but it's not. Even coming out of the dress rehearsal, I knew it was one of the top three things I'd seen in our Studio.

James Dryden as the 67-stone 18-year-old was just brilliant. Sat atop a mountain of food-based detritus through much of the play, he acts his heart out - as the frustrated teen but also as the romantic, adventurous hero he dreams of being.

Melissa Bubnic's writing is real funny but the cast (under the direction of Justin Audibert) brought this out more than I could have imagined, while also treating the subject matter with the care and emotion needed.

When It Rains 

I love work that plays with what theatre can be, and this definitely did that. In and of itself it was a brilliant play, but its integration of technology to give a "graphic novel brought to life" effect was magical - with simple little tricks that you'd be laughing at, how no one had thought of it before. Yet it wasn't gimmicky: it was a good play with great actors.

While dark, it also didn't take itself too seriously. One memorable moment, or rather scene, involved a character giving his all to a rendition of Ne Me Quitte Pas. It was unexpected and wonderful, and that's how I'd describe the production as a whole too.

The James Plays: The Key Will Keep The Lock

I went along to this with no expectations really. It was the National, it looked big, and I knew it'd be quality but I didn't know how much I'd enjoy it. Turns out, I really, really did.

These are classic plays with a modern vernacular, penned by the brilliant Rona Munro. The moment I remember most is the newlyweds sitting and praying, conversing awkwardly - as if on a first date. I don't know, there was something so charming about it, and something really exciting about these two worlds meeting.

I also didn't expect to love how epic it was. I never see theatre that big.

Tomorrow's Parties

This was a quiet little gem but one which, maybe for that reason, stands out for me. I've seen a lot of Forced Entertainment's work, mostly via video at university but some live too. Most of their work is so chaotic, so loud, with these little tender moments - a list, types of silence, whatever: but it would take you by surprise and draw you in, and I would love it.

Tomorrow's Parties honed in on that idea and let it be enough. It was just the two performers and they would contemplate "in the future..." - wondering what it would all be like, from the mundane to the ridiculous. Then they'd conclude it'd maybe be just the same. And so it would go on. And it was lovely (and very funny).

Forced Entertainment don't get enough credit for the beauty of the language in their pieces. It's contemporary theatre but it's so well written.

Lungs

Paines Plough's production of Duncan Macmillan's Lungs is just one of the most perfect pieces of theatre I've seen. Performed by Sian-Reese Williams and Abdul Salis, this play deserves all the hype it's received and so much more. Sian especially for me was a revelation.

It's this tiny two-hander which gives you the intimate details and claustrophobia of an everyday relationship, springboarding from a conversation about having a child, but then taking you on an unexpected, lifelong journey.

It's just so very real. You're not thinking about how well it's written because you're just there, with them, and you laugh and your heart breaks and you just wish everyone could see this piece of theatre.

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