Carefully looking back on 2015 in the UK reveals more theatrical richness than readily spring to mind when idly contemplating the theatrical year just gone. By contrast, 2015 on Broadway was a sizzling smorgasbord of terrific work, both dramatic and musical, new works and revivals, all of which fight for your attention as you look back on the year.

In part, the problem for 2015 in the UK was that, aside from The Kenneth Branagh Company’s The Winter’s Tale, the “big name” productions (HamletPhotograph 51Death of a SalesmanThe Importance of being EarnestAmerican Buffalo) simply did not deliver the expected heights of acting excellence or theatrical genius.

At the same time, the National Theatre struggled under its new leadership and both the Old Vic and the Young Vic failed to light any theatrical fires. Things were even more dire at the Royal Court for much of the year and the Donmar kept up the inconsistency of vision and execution which has come to define Josie Rourke’s tenure there. Of the major producing houses in London, only the Almeida, under Rupert Goold, delivered consistently provocative, compelling theatre, even though not all, inevitably, was to everyone’s taste.

Where the real strength, innovation and sheer energy of the theatrical form found its best voice was in the smaller, hardworking non-Theatreland venues and the Regions where, consistently, high calibre and intriguing work was regularly on display, at a fraction of the cost of a West End outing but often with thrice the resonance. From Southwark Playhouse, to Chichester, Manchester and Sheffield, and at venues like The Landor, The Union, The Tricycle, The Old Red Lion Theatre, The King’s Head and many more, audiences were enthralled and delighted, more easily and more regularly than in West End venues.

With the very sensible decision to appoint Daniel Evans as Artistic Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Board there has ensured that Chichester, now easily the brightest producing light on the UK theatrical scene, has a solid chance of continuing to shine. The Jamie Lloyd and Kenneth Branagh companies have this year produced superb work in London, work which is easily the better or equal of the best the National or RSC has produced this year. More is expected from them next year: a range of thrilling possibilities for great theatre. Hopefully the RSC will also improve, relying less on the faded rose that is Anthony Sher and more on dazzling, appropriate and innovative actors and directors.

Who will now lead the Sheffield team remains to be seen. And there is big change ahead for the Globe as Emma Rice takes the reins following Dominic Dromgoole’s long and uneven stewardship. Michael Grandage has been partly responsible for the recent production of The Dazzle at new venue Found 111 and the London Theatre Workshop continues to champion new work and new directors.

So, while 2015 was by no means a good or vintage year for UK theatre as a whole, naturally, there were real highs. Broadway, on the other hand, had a vintage year, it’s first for a while.

2016 provides a fresh chance for the UK to dazzle as it ought, and with shows like Grey Gardens, The Mother, Five Finger Exercise, The Master Builder, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Battlefield, Iphigenia in Splott, Rabbit Hole, Uncle Vanya, The Maids and A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing all scheduled in the first two months, it has every chance of so dazzling.  

What follows is a very personal list of 2015 favourites. Inevitably, it is based on what I managed to see – so some omissions may arise because of my inability to see something. I didn’t, for instance, get to see Medea at either the Almeida or the Gate, the Royal Court’s hit Hangmen, Manchester’s revival of The Shriker, Sheffield’s Camelot: The Shining City, Above The Stag’s The Sum Of Us  or Southwark Playhouse’s In The Heights – to name just a few.

So, these are the theatrical triumphs which left footprints on my consciousness in 2015.

Best new play

Without resorting to my diary, these are the new plays I think most about from 2015:

Carmen Disruption, Casa Valentina, Fanny and Stella, Forget Me Not, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Oppenheimer, The Father, Through The Mill.

Each has much to recommend it and, in some cases, better productions may have allowed the writing to soar. Some – especially Through The Mill and Fanny and Stella – would be well served by productions in bigger, better resourced houses.

Carmen Disruption was a remarkable achievement, a fusion of opera, verbatim theatre and the surreal. Forget Me Not and The Father both took unusual, and fascinating, looks at the father/daughter relationship, its rusty, spiky edges and its marshmallow centre, showed it unravelling and holding fast – in desperate and absorbing ways.

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is both deliciously funny and historically seductive, a treat both in the writing and the presentation. That fault line between hilarity and tragedy has scarcely felt so tangible as it does in this play. 

Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s gay non-gay play about transvestite men in the Catskills in the 1960’s is the best play he has ever written – a glorious dissection of identity, love and fear that pulsates with humanity and wit.

But, for me, Oppenheimer was a step ahead of the others. It took an important part of recent history, one that still has powerful resonance today, and shone a particular, personal light on it. Masterfully explaining difficult scientific concepts against a backdrop of personal, sometimes painful, stories, Tom Morton-Smith’s marvellous script vibrated with passion, perspective and pizazz. A marvellous, near faultless, cast gave the script all the power it required.

Oppenheimer was the new drama of 2015.

Best new musical

These are the shows which come readily to mind:

Beautiful, Bend It Like Beckham, Damsel in Distress, Duncton Wood, Elf, Mrs Henderson Presents, Showstopper! The Musical and The Clockmaster’s Daughter.

Damsel in Distress was genuinely terrific old-fashioned musical fun. It deserves a run in the West End. Both The Clockmaster’s Daughter and Duncton Wood are excellent musicals simply needing big house productions. Duncton Wood has since had a run in New York, happily.

Elf is a terrific family Christmas stocking show, stuffed with great songs, dazzling dances and good-hearted, schmaltzy fun. Showstopper! The Musical was a triumph of inventive musical ingenuity and provided every audience with a fresh piece of improvised joy.

Beautiful is a perfect juke-box musical and Bend It Like Beckham is an imperfect, but genial and damned good fun new multi-cultural musical. Beautiful has the edge easily, but both are worthy additions to the canon.

But, on any view of it, the new musical of the year was the Terry Johnson/George Fenton adaptation of the film Mrs Henderson Presents. Thoroughly British, thoroughly engaging and thoroughly entertaining – it is deservedly heading to the West End in 2016. It will, without doubt, make a stellar name for the glorious Emma Williams.

Best revival: play

Little Eyolf, For Services Rendered, Man And Superman, The Bakkhai, The One Day Of The Year, The Ruling Class, The View From The Bridge and To Kill A Mockingbird.

Each of these productions still reverberates, in some cases months after closing. They represent a diverse range of styles and approaches, from the intensity and intimacy of Little Eyolf and The One Day Of The Year, to the experimental but deeply affecting presentations of The Bakkhai and To Kill A Mockingbird. For Services Rendered was an achingly beautiful production of a scandalously overlooked masterwork, full of delicious and memorable characters.

While both The Ruling Class and Man And Superman were vibrant, thrilling productions featuring superlative acting, the piece of theatre I cannot stop thinking about is Ivo Van Hove’s electrifying A View From The Bridge, which is now, with a slight cast change, wowing the critics on Broadway. This powerful, lean, and compelling revival redefined the play, making it seem as if Miller wrote it yesterday. A true triumph for the history books.

Best revival: musical

Carrie, Gypsy, Show Boat, Sweeney Todd, The Grand Tour, The Spitfire Grill, Tommy, Xanadu. 

Unquestionably, until Daniel Evans’ spectacular Show Boat at Sheffield, the revival of 2015 was Gypsy. The BBC4 telecast confirms its astonishing power. Imelda Staunton’s Mama Rose provided a new benchmark for one of the greatest roles in musical theatre in a constantly engaging production.

In any other year, any one of the other listed productions might have been a serious contender for this accolade for different reasons. Both Carrie and Xanadu were unsuccessful on their first Broadway outings, but these productions brought them vividly and innovatively to light with few resources but dedication, talent and skill in spades. The Grand Tour came into a fresh life at the Finborough in a production that fizzed with clever ideas and sweet, true performances.

Sweeney Todd in a small pie shop was a true revelation, an altogether sexier and sinister take on the Sondheim favourite. It could play anywhere in that form with that cast.

The production of Tommy at Greenwich, the first time I have ever enjoyed that musical, was terrific and original, and deserves a further, extensive life in the West End. As does the Union Theatre’s magical enlivening of The Spitfire Grill, a heart-warming but difficult American tale of redemption and fortitude, blessed with a breakout performance from Belinda Wollaston.

But….

The Sheffield Show Boat reinvents what many consider as the “first” Broadway musical and makes it shine, bustle and explode with musical power. Superbly cast, immaculately sung, boasting an innovative and inviting design, and orchestrations that support the score and the singers, this Show Boat does not shy away from any of the horrors it exposes. It resonates with energy and timeliness, as well as timelessness. A heart-breaking and heart-warming joy from start to finish, glorious storytelling and captivating singing and dancing – it is everything a musical could and should be.

Show Boat was the revival of 2015.

Best performance by a leading female actor in a play

Thinking back over the year, three superb performances come immediately to mind:

Tamsin Carroll in Casa Valentina; Lydia Leonard in Little Eyolf; Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight.

Despite much argument with myself, I can’t pick one over the other two, so I am going to declare a tie.

Each of these three actors made something very special of their role. Wilton was her usual extraordinary self, a fearsome blend of determination and fading hope. She was commanding, but very moving, very affecting. Leonard took the Ibsen role by the throat and really kicked seething life into the part of the broken mother; her casual disrobing in front of her estranged husband was cold and withering, but inviting too. A complex and thoroughly real performance.

Carroll breathed such life into her role as the wife of the man who holds parties for transsexuals like himself, that Casa Valentina became an altogether more moving and important play in its London incarnation. With grace and style, she examined the pain and confusion love can bring and bind and the audience ached for her character’s impossible situation.

Three terrific actors.

Best performance by a leading male actor in a play

I have no qualms about this category: Mark Strong in A View From The Bridge.

At the Wyndhams Theatre, Strong had grown in the role since I first saw the production at the Young Vic. He was utterly mesmerising, completely focussed and capable of moments of incendiary toxicity and obsession, as well as unfathoming grief and bewilderment. He was Eddie. His performance grew in stature and richness as he augmented his already keenly felt and inspired performance. Magnificent and memorable.

But there were other genius turns from superb actors. Kenneth Cranham was quite remarkable as a dementia victim in The Father. In a very difficult role, from a technical point of view, Cranham expertly charted his character’s illness and difficulty, allowing the audience to be personally lost in the fog of his memory while, at the same tine, coming to terms with the intricacies of his life and relationships.

In Man and Superman at the National, Ralph Fiennes gave a blistering tour de force in one of Shaw’s wordiest plays. The energy Fiennes displayed, in articulation, enunciation and comprehension, was dazzling.

James McArdle, following on from his outstanding work in The James Plays last year, proved a sensational, attention-grabbing Platonov and a fierce, tightly-coiled, darkened soul Doctor in Ivanov, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov season. McArdle showed the extremes of his range as a classical actor here, and confirmed his star as one to watch – closely – in the future.

And Kenneth Branagh brought the full force of his experience to create a memorable Leontes in TheWinter’s Tale and and especially funny and vulgar bad actor in Harlequinade.

Best performance by a leading female actor in a musical

I have no qualms about this either: Imelda Staunton in Gypsy.

But Katie Brayben in Beautiful certainly gave Staunton a run for her money. The emotional journey of Carole King is tough and intense and Brayben took the role with joyful completeness: this was a comprehensible, talented woman, gifted and short-sighted, who when let fly, finally soared in the Sun. In any other year, Brayben might have been the obvious choice.

Only Staunton’s monumental achievement in redefining the role of Mama Rose could eclipse Brayben’s bright and brilliant turn.

But there were other great performances too: Emma Williams’ brave, ebullient and quite naked star turn in Mrs Henderson Presents, Jennifer Harding’s marvellous Constance in The Clockmaster’s Daughter,both Evelyn Hoskins and Kim Criswell in arresting form in Carrie, Gina Beck’s beautiful Magnolia in Show Boat, and Clare Foster’s serene, but spirited, Sarah in Guys and Dolls. 

Best performance by a leading male actor in a musical 

Another tie.

Both Peter Davison in Gypsy and Jeremy Secomb in Sweeney Todd did exceptional work.

Davison really helped Staunton’s Rose; he was pitch-perfect in every way as Herbie, established a very clear subplot about his relationship with Louise and, while no slouch in the comedy department, got under the skin of the character so comprehensively that when he said he was “sick to his stomach” you felt the pain.

Secomb was a tautly strung, ferociously sung Todd, easily believable as both casual murderer and devoted father. There was an infectious joy about his goggle-eyed mania and you could almost smell the blood on his breath as he barked at you in close quarters.  One of the very best Todds I have ever seen.

A whisker behind these two were Michael Xavier’s astonishingly sung rougish Ravenal in Show Boat,  Ashley Day for his cheeky, cheerful Curly in Oklahoma, Alex Bourne ‘s dignified Daddy Warbucks inAnnie, Jamie Parker’s magnetic Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Ben Forster’s bravura turn as the titularElf, and Killian Donnelly’s full voiced turn in Kinky Boots.

Best performance by a supporting female actor in a play 

No contest here.

Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale provided a masterclass in acting and speaking. A glorious, faultless, and inspiring performance. One could do nothing but cry with delight when she delivered her speech as Time.

Magnificent.

But other performances to remember and savour from the year include: Zoë Wanamaker’s dipsomaniac diva in Harlequinade, Susannah Fielding’s corporate cow in Bull, Jenny Galloway’s formidable stage manager in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Sheila Reid’s narrator in Pericles, Gemma Chan’s elusive seductress inThe Homecoming, Patricia Clarkson, exquisite and sublime, in The Elephant Man, Catherine Steadman’s erotic and damaged Jean Tatlock in Oppenheimer, Jenna Russell’s  galvanising turn as Rose in Di and Viv And Rose and Justine Mitchell, Yolanda Kettle and Jo Herbert as three very different sisters in For Services Rendered.  Wonderful performances all.

Best performance by a supporting male actor in a play

Many actors delivered the goods in supporting roles in 2015.

The ones that spring chiefly to mind include Tim McMullen’s delicious devil in Man and Superman,Gerard McArthur and Hubert Burton in Waste, Brendan O’Hea in Cymbeline, John Light’s seductive but frightening Nazi in Taken at Midnight, Lewis Reeves’ beguiling turn in My Night With Reg, Luke Norris’ magnetic Rodolpho in A View From The Bridge, Tom Hansen’s louche but loveable larrikin in French With Tears, Alex Waldmann’s impressive Bastard in King John, Joseph Millson’s suave Garrick in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and Jack Holden’s loyal scientist in Oppenheimer.

Impressive and memorable performances, each and every one.

But the performance which keeps resonating, which keeps replaying in my mind, is that given by Ashley Robinson as the feisty, fearless Gloria in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. Beautifully complex, etched in understanding and pain, but robustly alive and truthful, Robinson made the part soar: his demolition of the antagonist, Charlotte, in the drama was a sensational moment of theatre. In a production studded with excellence, Robinson stood out clearly. A tremendous performance.

Best performance by a supporting female actor in a musical

Another tie here.

Amy Lennox was superb in Kinky Boots, easily the very best thing about the production. She positively glowed with talent, made every comic nuance a winner and sang like a dream. Lennox is the real deal in every respect, a star on the ascendant.

In Closer to Heaven, Katie Mellor was sensational – a riot of sensual dexterity, raw gratification and hedonistic faux-glamour. She provided the pulsating and vigorous earthy underbelly which centred the narrative perfectly.

Two startlingly impressive turns from different ends of the performance spectrum – but both fundamentally extraordinary.

Honourable (very) mention must go to Rebecca Trehearn’s gorgeous and utterly wretched Julie LaVerne in Show Boat: a stunning performance and exemplary singing.

Best performance by a supporting male actor in a musical

There are two stand-out performances in 2015: Samuel Holmes’s cheeky turn in Mrs Henderson Presentsand Richard Dempsey’s spirited and pitch-perfect dotty turn as Reggie in Damsel in Distress.

Another tie.

Both men gave their all and delivered exceptional performances which gave real lustre and charm to their productions. Both sang and danced exceptionally well and each played characters that were original and thoroughly complete. Holmes took off his clothes with panache and Dempsey lost himself in goofball silliness: each was a complete delight.

Very honourable mentions too, for both Danny Collins and Emmanuel Kojo, Schultz and Joe respectively, for their marvellous work in Show Boat. Spirited and truly wonderful performances.

Best understudy performance.

John Hastings in The Homecoming demonstrated precisely why the most talented actors are given understudy duties. He stepped in for an indisposed John Simm and gave a performance of menacing vitality which was ferociously memorable.

Best Ensemble

The casts of Oppenheimer, Xanadu, A View From The Bridge, My Night With Reg, Mrs Henderson Presents, For Services Rendered, the Young Chekhov Season, Show Boat and Love For Love are all strong contenders here.

But, for me, the trio of strippers in Gypsy, were the ensemble act of 2015. Louise Gold, Anita Louise Combe and Julie Le Grande worked seamlessly together, each enriching and supporting the performance of the others, together resting a solid and interlocking whole. They were joyous, spiteful and decadent, a triumph of hilarity and humanity: three brave, exposed performances that combined to create a magical, thrilling whole in You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick.

A trio of magnificent women to die for.

Best director of a play

Although Richard Eyre, Jamie Lloyd and Jonathan Kent have all had exceptional years, the most impressive director this year was Angus Jackson, whose production of Tom Morton-Smith’s exceptional play, Oppenheimer, was innovative and intoxicating. Complex ideas and characters were conveyed in easily understandable scenes and the sense of history and drama was perfectly intertwined.  It is surprising indeed that the RSC has not sought to take this remarkable production to the world.

Best director of a musical

Daniel Evans for Show Boat.

No question.

Best musical direction of a musical

This is, in some ways, the most difficult category. It requires a consideration of many things, including resources available, orchestrations used and the sense of the music permitted to be conveyed by the budget and the artistry of the orchestra/band.

Large productions, Gypsy and Show Boat included, suffer by a failure to honour the necessity for full string sections.

One small production, however, really made the most of limited resources and ensured that the musical support, as well as the execution of the music by the band and cast, was outstanding. For that reason, Simon Holt is my choice for his outstanding work on Spitfire Grill at the Union Theatre. 

Best choreography.

In the end, 2015 threw three choreographers into the spotlight: Stephen Mear for Gypsy and Mack and Mabel, Nathan Wright for High Society and Xanadu, and Mark Smith for Tommy.

Mear is endlessly inventive and always finds the right steps for the cast and the narrative. This was especially true in Gypsy, but also in Mack and Mabel. He creates a dancing form which suits the style of the show and the abilities of the performers, and he is not one to cast only Vogue models as dancers. In every way, Mear is innovative and inclusive.

Wright gave us the most thrilling fifteen minutes of dancing in any musical in 2015 with the opening to Act Two of High Society. His work in Xanadu was truly exceptional, funny and vibrant, creating life where there could so easily have been tacky repetition (as there was on Broadway). He has a clever, detailed eye which textures everything he does.

But, for me, the most superlative choreography came from Mark Smith in his extraordinary dance language for the revival of Tommy at Greenwich. Smith’s work was truly remarkable. As I said in my original review:

In the programme, Strassen says:

“I wanted to stage a world where we see the inner workings of Tommy and not just a harrowing stare. Choreographer Mark Smith was a vital choice in my vision.”

Smith achieves Strassen’s aim – viscerally, intuitively, and gracefully. You don’t realise it at the start, but eventually the penny drops. You are watching Tommy’s version of events, from his point of view, raw, unfiltered, grim and unforgiving. As a way of harnessing the potential of this material, it is difficult to think of a more effective and triumphant approach.

 

Smith is my choice for choreographer of 2015.

Best Design

The work of three designers stands out in 2015.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ costumes and set for Oppenheimer were remarkable. Simplicity was the key, but from that simplicity came complex and resonating emotions and support for the narrative. The sequence where the bomb was tested was particularly remarkable.

At the Southwark Playhouse, Justin Nardella provided a set which encapsulated precisely the themes ofCasa Valentina. Artful use of period lampshades and dressing tables provided a clear insight into a world where truths were hidden and yet where things could be dressed up to blend in. Even now, some months this later, the idea behind the design still reverberates and brings the messages of the play to mind.

Sheffield’s Show Boat, though, gets the gong here. Lez Brotherston’s set design and dazzling, beautiful costumes are as much of the fabric of Evans’ production as Kern’s score and Hammerstein’s lyrics. This is a masterful piece of design and one that illustrates how, when the design perfectly matches the vision of the director, theatrical magic can occur.

Best newcomer.

Another tie. 2015 is definitely the year of the tie!

Ashley Birchall who played the title role in Tommy gave an extraordinary performance. Utterlycompelling, beautifully sung, and intelligently and thoughtfully conveyed, Birchall made Tommy utterly accessible, totally fascinating and beguilingly believable. Masterful and impressive.

As Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest and in the title role in Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Emily Barber burst onto the West End stages like a supernova. She was winning, winsome and witty in the Wilde, a total focus of attention, and sublime as the heroine pushed well past endurance in the Shakespeare. Beautiful, in form and in voice, Barber is that most enchanting of emerging stars – one with everything within their grasp.

Both Birchall and Barber give real hope for the future.

Theatrical event of the year :

The Young Chekhov season at Chichester was, unquestionably, the triumphant theatrical experience of 2015.

Superb leads, David Hare’s clever and vibrant adaptations and Jonathan Kent’s clear vision provided Chekhov at his best. Funny, wry and deeply felt, this was a trilogy of tremendous power, a true theatrical treat.

Roll on 2016 – in the words of The Producers: “You can do it!”

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.