2017 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of Theatre

2017 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of Theatre

In 2017, I reviewed 101 shows for BroadwayWorld UK, and here are the best of the best...

Even in my ninth year with this gig, the breadth of London's theatre continues to amaze me, as does the quality of the talent on show. And, for all that austerity bites (motorcycling home, I see many pubs and restaurants near empty on weekday nights) fringe venues continue to thrive - or, at least, survive - pulling off the remarkable feat of providing bold programming and commercial sustainability. Whatever struggles go on backstage (and it would be naive to deny them), once the curtain rises, the magic is as potent as ever.

The dark days of January were brightened by two sparkling new comedies. Birthday Suit at the Red Lion Theatre was both contemporary and funny, with the added bonus of Emily Stride's super-sexy turn as a psychotic girlfriend. Raising Martha at the Park Theatre was an old school farce updated for 21st-century tastes and probably generated more laughs per minute than anything seen in the 11 months that followed.

Us/Them at the National Theatre told its story of desperation in the horror of the Beslan school siege of 2004 with a mix of dance, performance art and acting, the movement on stage a stark counterpoint to the cruel stasis imposed on the children by the terrorists. Its message was strangely, beautifully, life-affirmingly uplifting.

If theatre is writing in the air, the Union Theatre continued its mission to find neglected or forgotten musicals and breathe life back into them. Anyone Can Whistle was as bonkers as its director claimed in the programme, but in a year in which American politics seems so mad that no shark is unjumpable, this 60s Sondheim political satire was wonderfully on trend - and great fun.

Though much better known and a much safer choice, three hurrah rah rahs for the Union's revival of Salad Days which, for all that it can be the softest of targets for culture war crusaders, remains an absolute delight - in theatre heaven, I'd probably watch it every Wednesday afternoon, Pimms in hand.

The Sorrows of Satan at the Tristan Bates Theatre was gorgeously written, staged and performed, the best of example of a chamber musical I've seen in years - oh so smart too, with a wit of which Coward would be proud.

Anton Chekhov divides opinion - but I can't get enough of his subtle, deep dark comedies, and The Cherry Orchard at the Arcola Theatre demonstrated his genius again. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov's insights into the human condition come at you searingly fresh, every time the lights go down - it's never a bad choice to spend an evening in the presence of genius.

Twice in the past 12 months, I have left a Shakespeare production feeling like I understood the play much better than before (though not fully of course - who does?). Andrew Scott was every bit as good as a chummy Hamlet as the awards season suggests, the play fully deserving of its West End transfer from the Almeida.

The other revelatory Shakespeare was the Mad Max-influenced Macbeth at the Bussey Building, overflowing with gore and told at a terrific pace with a clarity of storytelling often absent from the Bard's work. Maybe it's just that Macbeth feels less and less like a supernatural tale from a misty Scottish past and more and more like a documentary from the White House or the Palace of Westminster.

It was a very strong year for ol' Shakey, with Toneelgroep's Roman Tragedies at the Barbican an extraordinary tour-de-force that'll have me jumping online for tickets if it returns to London for a third visit.

With us hoi polloi cast as the er... hoi polloi (see photo), Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra were performed amongst us with screens showing footage from wars at home and abroad. Hans Kesting's electrifying funeral speech ("Friends. Romans. Countrymen") was the single most spine-tingling moment I had in the stalls in 2017 - hell, let's be honest, ever!

Inevitably paling a little in comparison, but no less laudable, was the RSC's Julius Caesar at the same venue. Played pretty much traditionally in Carry On-ish togas, every word resonated with contemporary relevance humming into the present day - the man from Stratford-upon-Avon really did look into the soul of humanity and divined a way to tell us what he saw.

Honourable mentions too, to Greg Hicks's oily Richard III at the Arcola and a punchy Othello at Wilton's Music Hall.

In the very tricky spaces of The Vaults, Daisy Evans delivered a splendid Vixen, music and singing all on headphones which one simply forgot about after five minutes. Its power lay in its updating for 2017 and its honest appraisal of the challenges of Generation Rent - visible all around us the moment we left the venue. A perfect example of bringing what might be seen as an inaccessible opera into the right here, right now.

If there's a gap in London's theatre scene, it might be in productions of plays written in other languages (betting without Chekhov and maybe Strindberg too). So what a delight it was to see a hotly committed production of Federico Garcia Lorca's mighty The House of Bernarda Alba at the Cervantes Theatre, a venue dedicated to Spanish productions.

Alternating shows in Spanish and English, and using a largely bilingual and all-female cast, it was another reminder of what a loss it was to the world when Lorca was murdered in the Spanish Civil War. The play was a fine monument to his flickering genius.

There were plenty more excellent shows (and some - in my not so humble opinion - duds too, most of which were nevertheless much praised by other reviewers!), so I'm sorry if your favourite has been missed in my highly subjective round-up.

I look forward to another exciting year of surprises, entertainment and food for thought in 2018, and leave 2017 with my thanks to my editor, Marianka Swain, and, especially, every single person, on stage, backstage or labouring in the PR mines, who made these past 12 months possible. You make a sometimes grim and frightening world an infinitely better place.

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From This Author Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief reviewer for westend.broadwayworld.com and feels privileged to see so much of London's theatre. He writes about cricket at for 99.94 (nestaquin.wordpress.com) (read more...)

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