2019 has been quite an eventful year for theatre in Manchester. It has been a year of new beginnings, with Sarah Frankcom stepping down as the Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange, paving the way for Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan to put their own stamp on the theatre. This year also saw 53two forced to shut its doors under the arches of Deansgate Locks. Thankfully, it has new premises, set to open in Spring 2020.
On a personal note, in 2019, I have achieved more with my humble blog than I ever thought possible, thanks to the GM Critics Scheme, which has quite literally transformed my life. Because of the brilliant theatres and press officers that support the scheme, I have been able to watch more theatre than ever before.
Over the year, I have seen 136 theatre shows, predominantly in Manchester, and have written 109 reviews. I unlocked a new-found love of opera, warmed to musical theatre, and even got myself banned from Twitter for reviewing Skank; a play with a name so offensive, Twitter’s algorithms think it incites hatred.
Trying to compile a list of the best theatre I watched has been no mean feat, but here are the top 10 theatre shows I saw in 2019:-
Taran Knight‘s phenomenal one-man show about growing up in Salford received critical acclaim, and was nominated for several awards at 2019’s GM Fringe Festival. Annoyed that I had missed Our Kid at the GM Fringe, I was delighted when it returned to the King’s Arms in a slightly extended format.
Our Kid is a masterclass in storytelling, underpinned by an astounding performance by Knight. He displays extraordinary versatility as a performer, switching from relative calm to flights of intense rage and violence, which are frankly terrifying in such a small venue.
The play is also brilliantly written. I particularly love the way Knight uses events in Manchester United’s history as a time frame for his narrative, creating a piece that feels autobiographical, despite it being centred around fictional characters.
Our Kid is a show that literally pulled no punches, brutally depicting the perpetual nature of gang violence, and its tragic effect on those impacted by it. It demonstrates how talented Taran Knight is as a writer and performer. He is an emerging talent worthy of the multiple award nominations he has received.
It is no exaggeration to say that Rags changed my entire thinking about musical theatre. A year ago, I was someone who ‘doesn’t do musicals’. I always found it odd when characters spontaneously burst into song, and I could never really lose myself in one. Rags is the first musical that actually made me emotionally invest in its characters, gripping me with both its story and Charles Strouse‘s score.
This is the first time I ever saw actor/musicians on stage, which helps ensure that the songs are integrated within the show, so they never feel out of place. They also add an authenticity and intimacy to the music that I had never felt before. The whole production was flawlessly performed.
Rags’ story of Jewish migrants facing persecution is startlingly relevant in a society where antisemitism is on the increase. Schwartz‘s lyrics tragically combine the community’s hopeful songs of dreams, with those of racist realism. It is a truly heart-breaking musical that has a rousing finale in the stunning song ‘Children of the Wind‘ which gives me goosebumps, evoking a strong sense of resilience and community.
It is fantastic to see that this production of Rags has been transferred to the West End in 2020, running at the Park Theatre in January.
Danny Clifford‘s Unbreakable was one of my personal highlights of the GM Fringe festival, which proves that sometimes you can find the best theatre down at your local pub, for a fraction of the cost of mainstream productions.
As well as writing the show, Clifford also starred in it. Inspired by events in his own life, Unbreakable tells the story of a boxer and his fiancée, Kath, as they start planning their future together. However, when Kath becomes addicted to drugs, their lives spiral out of control.
Unbreakable‘s cast all gave excellent performances, and the small stage was effectively used. But it is the shocking level of violence in this play that had the most impact on me. That it looked so convincing deserves a lot of credit.
This is a tense, violent play that realistically shows the horrific results of drug addiction. I hope it gets a revival in 2020, because I would love to see it again.
Set in South Africa during Apartheid, Athol Fugard‘s play provided me a history lesson that I will never forget. The political, and racial, tensions of Apartheid are perfectly realised in Playland‘s two opposing characters. Martinus Zoeloe is a night watchman of a fairground. Gideon Le Roux is an ex-soldier who suffers from PTSD.
Zoeloe and Le Roux are exquisitely depicted by Faz Singhateh and Danny Solomon, who slowly reveal the darker secrets behind their characters’ shrouded histories. You can cut the tension between the pair with a knife, as Solomon’s soldier goads Singhateh’s character, who simmers with brooding anger.
Playland is a gripping road to redemption which shows how Elysium Theatre Company have become a force to be reckoned with. They have built a reputation for producing complex plays that are profound, provocative, and deliberately uncomfortable to watch. Elysium are on the forefront of making high quality theatre for northern audiences.
When I sat down to watch 1927 Productions‘ The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, I didn’t know what to expect. The stage was blank, with only three large screens. What happened next blew my mind.
Paul Barritt‘s sublime animations were projected onto the screens and the three performers interacted with the animations to tell a story about a fictional tenement that has a problem with unruly children. I became transported into a Fritz-Langian dystopia, a unique blend of surrealism and expressionism.
In true 1927 fashion, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets is a delightfully dark and sinister story, told by combining traditional performance with animations and live piano music, harking back to an era of silent film. It is visually spectacular and technically flawless
Nathaniel Hall‘s First Time was one of the best shows I watched in 2018. After its resounding success at Sale Waterside Arts, Nathaniel received funding to tour the show. I watched it again in the summer, as part of Waterside’s Refract festival. Delivering a powerful message that tackles the stigma surrounding HIV, Hall’s show thoroughly deserves its space in my top shows, two years running.
Nathaniel Hall contracted HIV the first time he had sex, aged 16. In his remarkable one-man show, Hall dramatises the events of his life, showing how he coped after his diagnosis and how it took him fourteen years to open up to his family. First Time explains how being HIV+ is no longer a death sentence. It encourages you to remain resilient, no matter what life throws at you.
Deeply personal and surprisingly funny, First Time made me laugh and cry. Most importantly, it taught me the invaluable lesson that Undetectable = Untransmittable.
After First Time received rave reviews on tour and at the Edinburgh Fringe, Hall has worked relentlessly as a HIV activist, making appearances on MTV and BBC Breakfast. Words honestly fall short to describe what an inspirational, incredibly talented person he is.
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True came as a recommendation from my fellow theatre bloggers who had previously seen the show at Edinburgh Fringe. And boy, what a recommendation!
Breach Theatre‘s astonishing play left me shell-shocked and quite literally speechless. It is the only play in my top 10 that I haven’t written a review for. It is so profoundly powerful, gut-wrenching, and hard-hitting, I honestly couldn’t find the words to do justice to the piece, nor its subject matter.
Based on surviving court transcripts, It’s True, It’s True, It’s True tells the true, harrowing story of a rape trial in 1612. When baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi accused her tutor, Agostino Tassi of sexual assault, she was shockingly tortured under oath to prove she was telling the truth. It is an appalling miscarriage of justice that shook me to the core.
Ellice Stevens, Sophie Steer, and Kathryn Bond deserve the utmost credit for their performances. It mustn’t have been easy to return to that place every night.
Here is my fellow blogger, Live Art Live’s review of the show.
My absolute highlight of the GM Fringe festival, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea was revived for a short run at Hope Mill Theatre. It is a fascinating character study of the unspoken depths of humanity. It brutally explores the violence, insanity, love and hatred that can occur between two people.
Danny is a trucker who people call ‘The Beast’. He thinks he just murdered a guy in a fight. Roberta is a troubled young mother with a teenage son. Both deplorable individuals, it is captivating to watch how these two loathsome people warm towards one other. Without being sentimental, the abhorrent violence of each character disturbingly compliments the weaknesses of the other.
The characters are perfectly rendered by Hannah Ellis-Ryan and Danny Solomon, and their performances are astonishing. It is, without doubt, the highest level of acting I have seen all year. Their central performances are so astounding, I am watching the play for the third time in January. They were both rightfully nominated for Best Actor in the GM Fringe Awards.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea will be at the King’s Arms in Salford in January. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Tickets are available here.
In 2018, I would never have considered watching an opera. I had many misconceptions about the art form that were proven entirely wrong by Opera North‘s Tosca. Openly admitting that I was blinded by prejudice for 32 years, I quickly became an opera convert with an awful lot of catching up to do. In 2019, I watched six operas.
Bohuslav Martinů‘s The Greek Passion is rarely performed, yet is the most moving opera I have seen. It delivers a powerful message that is more pertinent today than it has ever been.
The opera depicts the plight of refugees in an intolerant society, where they are shunned by the residents of a village. Priest Fotis, who travels with the group, makes a desperate plea for compassion and tolerance, as the refugees are left to starve upon the mountainside. As he implores the villagers to give whatever they can spare, John Savournin‘s compassionate priest pierced my heart and left me with tears streaming down my face.
The climactic ending to act two, Kyrie Eleison is the most visually striking, spectacularly breathtaking thing I have seen in the theatre this year. Although I watched this opera months ago, I still think about its message all the time. I even made the mistake of listening to it again on BBC Sounds and found myself weeping whilst sat in traffic on the M56.
Based on the novel by Melvyn Bragg, and with a superb score from Howard Goodall, The Hired Man is the best musical that I have seen. It turned me into an emotional wreck.
As a newly married couple come to the Cumbrian farming community of Crossbridge, they hope to build a new life, tending the land. Their marriage is tested to the limits, as John undertakes backbreaking work, and Emily is pursued by an admirer. The outbreak of the First World War soon interrupts their rural lifestyle, as the local men enlist into the army. Idyllic country customs are set in stark contrast to the trenches on the Western Front.
Performed by an incredible ensemble of actor-musicians, The Hired Man is an epic tale of love, betrayal and loyalty. It is a musical that deals an emotional blow in its second half, which left me unashamedly sobbing throughout it.
I have never been so profoundly moved by a musical before, which is the strongest testament I can give to everybody involved in this production. I watched The Hired Man twice, and was emotionally devastated both times. It is a show that hit me right in the emotions!
Finally, I want to give a huge thanks to my readers and all those who support the blog by sharing my reviews. I genuinely appreciate it.
I wish you all the best for 2020!