2017 has been a bittersweet theatre year for me. Bitter because I haven’t seen nearly as much as I would have liked, sweet because some of what I did see was absolutely splendid!
With reckless disregard for convention I’m going to start with my winner, because there’s really no contest. Dinner at the Smiths was Marianne Badrichani’s immersive Ionesco mash-up, staged in a Bayswater guest house. From the moment of entering the dining room I felt I was through the looking glass; everything was unexpected, off-kilter, borderline manic and totally exhilarating.
I have only one regret about Dinner at the Smiths, and that is that I saw it on Press Night, when some of my fellow dinner guests were scratching at their notepads throughout the meal. It’s one thing to make notes in the dark of a theatre, but this was an intimate show and we were not audience but participants. No doubt Ionesco, who described himself as a sort of bemused spectator of human interaction, would have had some sympathy with the anxious scribblers, but it is all credit to Badrichani and her brilliant cast that the rest of us were able to remain sealed in this delightfully hatstand hour-long bubble.
Sharing second place we have Honk! at the Union Theatre and Extravaganza Macabre. Honk! really surprised me; I expected a show for young children, but what I found was a really warm-hearted and sophisticated show. It had great songs performed by wonderful musicians and actor-musicians, lots of verbal and visual wit, with clever puppetry and choreography. It delighted me and, though she makes it a point of principle never to tell me so, made quite an impression on my young guest. Extravaganza Macabre, like Dinner at the Smiths, won me over with atmosphere, as much as anything else. It was my first visit to the perfectly formed courtyard theatre at Battersea Arts Centre, and the evening was shorts-and-tshirt warm. The show delighted with its ingenuity and use of the courtyard space. It was clever, funny and affectionate, and the combination of winning theatre with balmy summer night instilled a deep sense of wellbeing. (It was cold and drizzly on my repeat visit, with the family, but we all still loved the show.)
In third place was Radieuse Vermine, the French adaptation of Philip Ridley’s black comedy which I didn’t get to see in the original version when it made waves at The Soho Theatre a couple of years ago. The play’s conceit is just brilliant, and Ridley’s characters respond to their dilemma/opportunity in ways which have a hideous sort of logic. Yes, I laughed, but yes, I also felt the finger of blame pointing at me and my desperate longing for a loft conversion. Whilst the dark humour and obsession with property ownership were unmistakeably English, the bright, shiny, quickfire delivery felt authentically French. I was delighted to see that it was well-received at the Avignon Festival later in the year, and took comfort in the fact that whatever else David Davis and Liam Fox manage to wreck, they can’t take that away from us.
Finally, some honourable mentions. Exchange Theatre again brought Molière to the Drayton Arms Theatre in the summer, and though their production of Le Misanthrope had its flaws I found it impossible not to love the energy, creativity and soundtrack. Also at the Drayton Arms, America’s No.1 Detective Agency was a curious little film noir pastiche with music. The plot and I parted ways some time before the end, but that didn’t detract from some great comedy, excellent timing and strong performances from Fleur de Wit and Iain Gibbons. With a little fine-tuning, I thought this show could go from good to great.
Here’s hoping that 2018 comes with a little more quantity but no less quality.