CORMAC RICHARDS – REVIEW OF THE THEATRE YEAR 2023 – PART ONE

As ever, this review takes in all the plays/shows reviewed and makes mention of those that have been watched without the reviewing hat on – though all may be eligible for the Cormac Richards Theatre Awards! Along the way I am sure I will make mention of this and that and t’other!

 

JANUARY

Always one starts the year with expectations, with anticipation. We know some of what lie in store, but we can never know what might jump out at us and catch us by surprise, and what will be revealed from under wraps throughout the year.

I always like visiting a new venue and the year started with two. Firstly to London to the Park Theatre at Finsbury Park. A super theatre with two auditoria. THE ELEPHANT SONG by Nicolas Billon was having its UK premiere, directed by Jason Moore. A real tour-de-force; a powerful and witty play covering a welter of tough subject matters with a central issue of mental health and suicide bubbling under and above the surface. Crisply directed and with a standout performance from Gwithian Evans, it was a great start to the year.

Mental health issues are very much to the fore in Harold Pinter’s, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. Kate-Lynn Hocking’s excellent production found a home amongst the shelves of Exeter Library which proved a wonderfully unique venue. The searing play was given all due respect and vigour by the whole cast with a specifically mesmerising performance from Mark Shorto as McCann. A first production by a new company – the Exe Ensemble – in a brilliant space.

Baz Lurmann’s wonderful film STRICTLY BALLROOM was a huge hit; full of charm, comedy and romance. Though the stage show (seen at Theatre Royal Plymouth) retains many elements of the original movie, it never hits the same heights. Not helped by under par central performances from Kevin Clifton and Maisie Smith, the show is saved by some excellent dance numbers, but the songs add little and the show is dragged out far too long. Disappointing.

 

FEBRUARY

The Northcott Theatre in Exeter has a strong tradition of presenting dance productions. JAMES WILTON DANCE – THE FOUR SEASONS is just 55 minutes in length. Max Richter’s modern-day take on Vivaldi’s work of the same name provides the soundtrack for this tour-de-force for two performers. The lighting was effective, though a contrast could have provided some variation in the mood. The performers were, however, most impressive.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman as adapted by Joel Horwood has been a theatrical phenomenon. An extraordinary story presented – at the Theatre Royal Plymouth – in the most exciting and dynamic style – one of the most astonishing theatre experiences I have ever had. Viually and aurally stunning. Design, sound and lighting reaches levels I have not seen before and those, along with some visual effects make you sit back and gasp. So well performed and presented in every way. Keir Ogilvy stands out in the cast as the central ‘Boy’ character – he is exceptional. An outstanding production.

Robert Daws provides enormous warmth and humour in William Humble’s one-man play, WODEHOUSE IN WONDERLAND – an affectionate and rather wonderful piece on the life of WG Wodehouse. Daws is an utter delight throughout and engages the audience in word and song in a light and infectious fashion. An unexpectedly very enjoyable experience at the Northcott Theatre Exeter.

MARCH

Stephen Daldry’s famous production of J B Priestley’s AN INSPECTOR CALLS has been on tour for many years – I last saw it at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2020, just before the first Covid lockdown. It remains an amazing production and, notwithstanding a few concerns over performances, this remains a huge achievement and I don’t tire of watching it. It has become a piece of theatrical history.

It is always good to see a new adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story and the Blackeyed Theatre version of THE VALLEY OF FEAR – at Northcott Theatre Exeter – presented an excellent Holmes and Watson and a simple presentation which worked well. With just five performers presenting over 20 characters and a plot which is very involved and switches back and forth in time, confusion overshadowed the production. It was very difficult to follow and once lost, was difficult to get reacquainted. Sadly a bit disappointing.

Birmingham Royal Ballet tend not to disappoint. Sir Peter Wright and Galina Samsova’s version of Tchaikovsky’s version of SWAN LAKE was a complete triumph. Dancing of such beauty and precision is not commonplace and the whole company are to be applauded. The work of Mathias Dingman and Momoko Hirata is outstanding. A brilliant musical accompaniment and splendid lighting and sets help make this a real stand out production.

As with An Inspector Calls, Agatha Christie’s THE MOUSETRAP is a theatrical legend – nay, more than that, it is an institution. It is only in recent years it has toured while the London production still packs them in. It is not Agatha Christie’s greatest work but it is involved and intriguing and staged extremely well. It is a great piece of theatre. Elliot Clay is the stand out as Christopher Wren – he gets every reaction from the audience he can possibly get. Don’t underestimate it. Huge fun!

The perils of the modern actor and the inability to make themselves heard by lack of projection or mumbling I am afraid, was a feature of Tilted Wig Productions’ version of AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS at the Northcott Theatre Exeter. An interesting and colourful circus setting provided a good backdrop for the story which was made more complex by deviating from the Verne classic to make some kind of point. It lead to longeurs which left the audience cold. An excellent Phileas Fogg was left to drown in a misguided and failed production.

 

APRIL

The dark humour and engaging characters made HEATHERS one of the nice surprises of the year. Performed with such engagement and enthusiasm at the Theatre Royal Plymouth it was slick, sassy and fun and performed with pizazz – I could completely understand why it was so successful in London and elsewhere. A very nice surprise of a show, despite its dark undertones and a cast who were up to entertain.

CAKE:THE MARIE ANTOINETTE PLAYLIST at the Drum Theatre Plymouth could have been really good. This show wasn’t sure what it was. Dance? Musical? Something in between? A great subject matter but a woeful script and ordinary choreography and music which drowns out vocals – not much to recommend it. If this was a try-out then the audience should be told. It was the kind of vacuous nonsense that the theatre could well do without.

Another new reviewing venue was the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter to see KINDLE a well-meaning play promoting renewable energy set against a story of a disfunctioning family. It was all very earnest but rather on one level and let down by mumbling and low volume of vocals – again – there is no excuse for this – it is lazy! A worthy piece of work, but lacking theatrical punch.

THE WAY OLD FRIENDS DO by Ian Hallard has a nice premise and it was executed pretty well at Northcott Theatre Exeter. Pretty camp; well two Abba-loving gay men would suggest as much – it had pithy wit and some fun plot twists. Not for everyone I am willing to admit, but it caught my funny bone and the (very) camp performance by James Bradshaw had me in stitches. A fun show, not to be taken at all seriously though elements do touch a nerve.

Although I didn’t review this Exeter Musical Theatre’s production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC – also at the Northcott – was very much a full-blooded affair and with a chorus of nuns which would blow your wimple off! Impressive all round.

 

MAY

A quiet month but lit up by a quite wonderful production of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS by Wellington Operatic Society – not a production I reviewed, but I saw with a great deal of pleasure. Clever staging ideas by director Colin Marshall and some really standout performances, in particular from Chris Williamson as Seymour Krelbourn – a really, really special piece of work. Not forgetting a cracking band under the direction of Robert Spurway. Outstanding work.

 

JUNE

Having seen the original London production of CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY I was looking forward to seeing it again on tour at Theatre Royal Plymouth. But this woke, knee-bending, unmagical and aggressive piece of work was awful. Disappointed? I should say. It was so badly directed I wanted to scream and it had absolutely no charm. The decision to cast most of the ‘children’ with adults was a disaster and the box ticking exercise just degraded theatre to a cipher – I am amazed I gave it as many as two stars.

Sometimes, the least expected show makes an indelible mark on you. I hadn’t planned to see WHAT SONGS MAY DO at the Drum Theatre Plymouth, but was asked to go along specifically. I would not have wanted to miss this exquisite, beautiful and incredibly moving portrayal of a relationship performed by two amazing dancers. Matthieu Geffré’s stunning choreography set against a soundtrack of Nina Simone singing was simply overwhelming from the off. A small, quiet show and one of the productions of the year.

Another delight was THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO – a wonderfully understated play about huge, global issues based on a book of the same name. On every level this worked as a wonderful piece of theatre and a lesson in the perils of migration – a work of such topicality. Sensitively played on a well realised set this was a production with a message which was offered up rather than shoved down your throat. Spot on!

The end of the month brought back the Sidmouth Summer Play Festival and I felt thrilled to be asked to return to review the whole season. A Season favourite, Francis Durbridge has never really worked for me on stage and although THE SMALL HOURS turned out to be better than some it still didn’t quite hit the mark. That said, the largely experienced cast made a great fist of it and certainly pleased to punters and set the ball rolling for a great season in the making.

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A real raft of shows and ones crossing genres and quality. Highlights, lowlights and all that falls between – what will the next 6 months bring!

 

Cormac Richards

November 2023

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