I have decided to do a best of 2015 list… Here’s some theatre (and other things) I liked, in no particular order:
People, Places and Things
This is in literally every top list I have seen so I really doubt anyone wants to hear me shite on about it, but honestly it was just fucking incredible. It hurt, watching it. It was like being kicked in the ribs under strobe lights or having your teeth ripped out. Denise Gough is on fucking fire, burning holes in your soul, and there’s an ensemble cast who support her but still hold her up, kind of nudging you and saying ‘Just watch this, though.’ It is a beautiful, sharp show that will make you suffer while it unfolds, writhing uncomfortably as you will the her to power through, to make it out. I spent most of the bus journey home trying to suppress a panic attack because I felt winded after watching it.
Early Days of a Better Nation
This was supposed to be at BAC, but was relocated to the back room of a pub following the fire. It worked great, because it felt like a secret meeting place. Early Days, made by Coney, imagines a nation has fallen apart. A selection of the people of the nation must come together – from various different areas within – and try to start again. There are options, each leading to different outcomes, votes, or shouting matches. As the nation crumbles, you decide where to allocate resources. When I saw it, we opted to function as a sort of commune, making all decisions together, with no leader. When the map with the resources was revealed, someone from the group stepped in and stole the resources, running around holding a tiny plastic pylon until some others tackled him down in mutiny. This moment is why this show sits on this list, for the pure joy of watching something go as no one expected and yet everyone just running with it. Plus, Angela Clerkin is the very best ringleader – able to tease out arguments and start fiery discussions without ever dominating or seeming like a planted performer.
How to Win Against History
This was a work in progress at Ovalhouse. I went on a whim because that Seiriol Davis was lovely in Mess when I saw it a few years back. And what a whim it was. This was like being the best kind of drunk, full of warmth and silliness. There’s an undercurrent of something serious – of people who don’t quite adhere to what society wants being written out of history – but there’s a strong overcurrent of just having a really good time and doing some fun songs in some brilliant costumes. There’s no one trying to beat you over the head with messages about how bad society is, instead there’s someone putting a hand out and inviting you to laugh and to sing and to dance with them, leaving the message with you as a whisper at the end. This is maybe the most I have ever enjoyed – proper, laugh out loud, cheeks hurt enjoyed – a piece of theatre.
A VERY SPECIAL MENTION: Seiriol Davies
I did really think about putting Islands at The Bush in this list, because anything that puts giant glittery testicles on Caroline Horton is obviously worthwhile. It was agressive and disgusting with a badass set, and even though it kind of didn’t completely work it stormed along on this tidal wave of anger and wit and filth that pushed a fair chunk of the audience to walk out when I watched it. It was such a flawed thing, but so full of bravado and so actually daring – like none of this pussy daring, where it’s maybe got interesting effects or is encouraging an already left-wing audience to agree with something pretty left – because it really wants you to dislike it, and to feel this actual shitstorm of inequality we live in. Basically it wasn’t great, but it was so fucking brilliant at the same time. It doesn’t make my arbitrary list because I don’t look back on watching it with the fondness I do for everything else in this list (which is my very stringent criteria, obvs), but it was exciting, and it’s exciting-ness rested with the performers throwing themselves glittery-balls-and-all into this fantastical world of shit, and Seiriol Davies, strutting around lustfully in heels and perfect hair, was balls deep.
Seiriol was also in The Conker Group’s Five Tins and a Matter of Time during Now at The Yard, which wasn’t included because unlike How To Win it feels very much in development, still new and not yet in need of whatever I might think about it. But it’s got potential to be lovely, and it was the thing that really makes Seiriol stick in my mind. He’s somewhere between a red coat – someone who knows how to make everyone sing along and have a good time – and an angry protestor. I wanted to do a special mention, because if I was doing a set of recommendations for 2016, it would read ‘see what Seiriol’s doing’.
Some People Talk About Violence
There’s been a lot written about Barrel Organ, the bright shining big emerging company of the last year or two. They are brilliant, full of ideas and anger, but the best thing is that they are also really playful. I think a lot of the time, especially when a show has been on for a bit and I’ve only just got round to seeing it, it can feel a bit like everyone is going through the motions on stage. Do it, get out, grab a pint, come back tomorrow for the same thing. But Barrel Organ, in the last nights of their run at Camden People’s Theatre, were still fizzing. Even though this show was about hopelessness and feeling lost, there was this electricity running through them, because Barrel Organ know how to keep the fire burning. It’s all improv games and swapping characters and slightly grotesque stunts (a bit like Gym Party, I thought), interwoven with a slow burning story that’s mostly about someone watching The Big Bang Theory. To be honest, I wasn’t wholly crazy about the actual show, but I was so sold on *them*. It seemed like they were having fun and they really wanted to share this thing they have made with you – which sounds like pure wank, but I was totally eating out of their hands.
A View From The Birdge (in the cinema)
There’s a lot that’s weird about seeing theatre live in a cinema: does this camera angle reflect what the director intended? Is the acting different for stage than it would be for screen? This is a close up, what is everyone else doing right now? Should I clap at the end? It is a weird thing, but even with a few miles and a few cameras in between me and the actual stage, the tension and power from this show was crushing. I felt rammed up against the cinema seat by Mark Strong’s glare. Proper good.
Ok, this isn’t theatre, but fuck it. I LOVED this.
There were 4 or 5 days when this first when up for streaming that I lived and breathed Hell’s Kitchen. It sometimes makes me think a bit of John by DV8 at the National. John was a trick. It seemed like this show about a complicated man’s life, but was actually largely set in a gay sauna, exploring an underground scene of a time gone by. It invited people – some posh, middle class people ready to sympathise with the underclasses before going to a post-theatre dinner – to see one thing, then made them confront their prejudices in a pretty brazen manner. To be honest I didn’t really enjoy John very much, thought it sort of plodded through whatever it was doing, but I thought it was awesome that it was sold as one thing but secretly someone waiting to slap you in the face with a dick (I wish I could find the article which originally made this point). Jessica Jones was a bit like that, billed as a gritty crime drama about an ex-superhero made by a blockbuster franchise, but then actually about a friendship between two women and someone recovering from rape. Also there are fights.
I loved (love) Jessica Jones because it broke what Marvel had been doing – putting women in lycra and shoehorning them into shitty, unlikely romances, or writing intelligent women who stop their career to stare at abs, because mmmm abs. It had a cast of women who were strong, and flawed, and full fleshed out, diverse characters. It is in this list because I loved it, probably more than any theatre I saw in 2015, but also because it is doing what I want theatre to strive to do – depict women well. Even now, in theatre, women get less parts and shitty plot points. Gypsy was included in so many ‘Tops Shows’ lists and, sure, Imelda Staunton was a fucking powerhouse but actually in that show her daughters think they will solve their mother’s problems if they marry her off. Sexism’s cool if it’s in a classic, right? (See also, this from Natasha Tripney on sexist pantos). The one that really annoys me is when you just knock a character up, because that’s the only complication worth writing for women (see: rock, paper, scissors at The Brockley Jack). Theatre is trying, and it’s getting there, but I want it to keep trying and also maybe include some pretty mad fights. Think: WWJD?
Ponyboy Curtis At The Yard
I wrote about Ponyboy Curtis before, you can read it here. See that for full thoughts, but in short know that it made me feel like I was the person I want to be at all the parties I will never be invited to.
Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel
I think about this show a lot, probably more than any other theatre I saw last year, and that’s why it gets a spot. This is also the case with I Wish I Was Lonely and Am I Dead Yet? They are shows about day to day things – buying stuff, phones – or things I think about daily – death – and so my mind will scurry back to them as it takes on these topics. Everything I Bought… is not necessarily a perfect show, but I do think about it. As I buy something, I think about how I feel, or how I will feel later. I thought about it a lot over Christmas, whether I was buying gifts because I needed to buy gifts or because I wanted a person to have this thing… and how I would feel about that later, how I would feel when I knew it would be put on a shelf and never touched again, and whether this is all worth it. Harry Giles breaks down when performing Everything I Bought.., and I loved it because I could feel that weight on my own shoulders that was crushing him, and I love something that can unashamedly conclude it doesn’t matter anyway. Also, Harry Giles is lovely, and just following him on Twitter has made me really question some stuff this year, too.
We Want You To Watch
A bit like Islands, this is one that got full on mega panned. But I’m including it, as an act of solidarity as much as an act of appreciation. We Want You To Watch was this visually awesome show about porn (mainly violent porn) and how that affects women. It was the theatrical equivalent of a poorly fragranced lush bath bomb that leaves your pubic hair full of glitter for a few days – people didn’t really like it, it caused irritation but eventually everything around it washed away. While I was watching it I didn’t like it, as I will always hate an old man waving a banana-cum-pretend-dick in my face (incidentally I also hate bath bombs), but afterwards I kind of loved it. Because what RashDash were saying wasn’t really all that radical (getting off to women being hurt = probably bad), but it is full on worth getting a bit raging about, and yet they were criticised for not presenting solutions to the problem of violent porn. Do we expect any artist making political work to run to be an MP and change that shit? No. But somehow RashDash needed to put together a proposal as to how we might police the creation and watching of pornographic material. Sod that, they made a cool, fun, kind of shitty show that I am including in this list because actually let’s talk and think about porn. In the way Everything I Bought… makes me think as I buy, perhaps We Want You To Watch made someone check their consumption, made them think before they wanked, and, out there, somewhere, has decreased the demand for violent porn by making someone think about what that actually means. Also, RashDash are great. I like their style, and it’s exciting to see them bringing other artists into their process. (I did a longer version is this rant here)
Look, it’s not theatre, but imagine if it was. Imagine if children’s theatre made you feel like Inside Out did. That would be amazing, right? So it’s in here, because it’s a beauty.
And that’s that.