Summing up 2014 – the theatre

Thursday, 8 January 2015

I’ve covered films, now the theatrical highlights of the year from Melbourne, London and New York:

Britain: politics & the royal familyHandbagged was kind of Audience.2, ie the weekly meetings between the Queen and her Prime Minister, but just the one PM, Maggie Thatcher. Two Queens (younger and older) and two Thatchers (ditto) are on stage almost the whole play. Two other actors play all the male parts, particularly Ronald Reagan and Dennis Thatcher. Well one of them also drags up to play Nancy Reagan. It’s very funny at times – the Queens disagreeing with each other, ditto the Thatchers – but not as good as Audience which I saw in 2013.

And again – Nor was Handbagged as good as Charles III, my London theatrical highlight for the year which speculates on a very short and very disastrous reign for poor old Charles. The Queen dies, Philip has already gone, Charles immediately gets into a dispute with the Labour government and decides he’s going to dissolve parliament and act like a real king. There are protests and riots, angry crowds outside Buckingham Palace and eventually William (with considerable push from the much more forceful Kate) deposes him and takes over. Meanwhile Harry faffs around, Camilla isn’t very nice, Charles is as silly as some people fear he might be and Di wafts through as a ghost.

IMG_0061 - Naked Cowboy, New York - 540▲ Nothing to do with anything I saw, but it is New York City, it is Broadway, it is the Naked Cowboy.

Old plays revived – most of which were OK rather than wonderful. In London the old Ibsen play Ghosts was way too overwrought. The Dream, from the Bell Shakespeare Company in Melbourne, was a very successful attempt at yet another interpretation of Bill’s ever popular midsummer night fantasy. Blithe Spirit, in London, was fine although Noel Coward can seem rather dated at times. Stephen Fry sitting in front of us my diary notes. A Taste of Honey revived a movie rather than a play and for me the movie is always going to be Rita Tushingham, although I can scarcely remember anything else about it. The back story – its very young author, Shelagh Delaney, and so on is quite a story and it’s a reminder of just how old I am, how much things have changed in my lifetime. Another fairly recent revival, Skylight from 18 years ago and starring Bill Nighy, just as it did first time round. An excellent little play, absolutely as spot on now as it was back then and a virtuoso performance from just three actors, Bill Nighy the big attraction of course although Carey Mulligan is just as impressive.

Theatre or Circus? – who cares if it’s great to watch, Complexity of Belonging  followed the very next night by Cirkopolis, both in Melbourne.

Other interesting plays – In London Birdland, rock star excess, he’s a total asshole, rude, thoughtless, cruel to everybody he meets, who gets his comeuppance when a groupie turns out to be 14 years old. Grounded , a solo performance at Melbourne’s tiny Red Stitch theatre, as a female drone pilot begins to realise that what she’s up to is not a very nice activity. Only just before curtain up, in the London West End, did I realise I’d already seen Good People and also at Red Stitch in Melbourne. A much bigger production in London, but still an interesting play which raises all sorts of questions about rights and wrongs, fate and destiny, work and luck. I’ll Eat You Last, missed it in New York in 2013 with Bette Midler, but still a great performance in Melbourne.

The year’s theatrical overload – seeing the Hilary Mantell Booker-Prize-winners-become-plays Wolf Hall and Bring out the Bodies as a matinee-evening performance double-header.

One absolute highlight – Australian but in London and in a riverside Spiegeltent, but not Melbourne’s ‘famous Spiegeltent,’ although clearly a close relation. Meow Meow – Feline Intimate features Meow Meow (Melissa Madden Gray) doing her Weimar cabaret-comic-chanteuse schtick to perfection, the audience participation is perfect too (we’re all wrapped around her claws) and there’s a great comic finale when she crowd surfs over the audience from the stage and then crowd surfs back again, balancing a glass of whisky for the return trip. And then another torch song, Patty Griffin’s All the Girls/Be Careful, which I’ve never heard before, but instantly fall in love with. We’re all in love with Meow Meow.

And the other highlight –  All the Way – traces LBJ’s November 1963 to November 1964 battles to push through the civil rights legislation, launch his Great Society war on poverty, start to get entangled in Vietnam and at the same time to get re-elected. It’s an incredibly moving piece of theatre, I’m brushing away tears at several points. Hoover (and Wallace) are both pieces of work. Martin Luther King is good, Humphrey does his best, lots of other characters are good or bad. For pure theatre it was the year’s highlight and I went straight from Broadway curtain fall to JFK airport to fly back to London.

And the year’s lowlightCalpurnia Descending in Melbourne, which lots of people loved and it did absolutely nothing for me!