2016: Top Ten Plays – Off West End

Off West End venues have continued to provide a diverse range of challenging and interesting plays in 2016. Variety has been the name of the game in venues all over London.

2016: Top Ten Plays - Off West End

The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond has had a particularly good year, with programming of much greater interest than that shown at the National or either the Young or Old Vic Theatres. German Skerries and Sheppey were just two of the works that played there which dazzled.

Southwark Playhouse, The Finborough and The King’s Head all had seasons that provided great theatre and Above The Stag, always impressively catering for its loyal audiences, had justifiably sold out seasons all year.

This list is a personal one, and features only productions I saw myself, but as I compiled it I was reminded how many terrific productions of plays 2016 had provided off West End. Honourable mentions go to Pink Mist, Five Finger Exercise, I Loved Lucy, Four Play, The Brink, Skin A Cat, All My Sons, Fool for Love and The Book Club.

As with musicals, productions of plays were better in 2016 away from the West End. In venues off West End, creativity and the striving for ideal casting, as opposed to tactical casting, continues to reap the rewards.

10.    The Sins of Jack Saul

Jack Saul

Eloquent, incisive, funny and musical, The Sins of Jack Saul, a play with music, based on real events, was thought-provoking and entertaining. It was a different kind of play for the resourceful Above The Stag Theatre and creatives and cast embraced the occasion – with the result that the play spoke clearly to a wider range of audiences. The Sins Of Jack Saul was the dramatic true story of a call boy, trying to make the best of a bad hand, battling to justify every major turn in his difficult life. Like all history, it had much to say about today.

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9.      Blue Heart

Caryl Churchill really does not get enough credit. She is a master wordsmith and her imaginative interest in form ensures that her plays fascinate as well as entertain. Her double bill dramatic evening, Blue Heart, was terrifically funny as well as insightful and wonderfully, blissfully strange. Smart script, smart performances, smart direction. And a Cassowary. Theatre that was absurd and touching. Unique.

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8.     In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel

Tokyo Hotel

Can art survive without love? Can love survive without art? How can an artist develop new styles when the old ways keep demanding the old paths, the settled routines? These seemed to be the issues at stake in In The Bar Of A Tokyo Hotel. They are potent and pertinent themes for today, an age where regurgitating success seems more important than stepping boldly into the void. Linda Marlowe was moving and horrific all at once; her final moment an extraordinary, unexpected and, at first, jarring one. But, like the haiku, it permitted you to provide your own ending to her tale.

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7.     Strangers in Between

Tommy Murphy’s Strangers In Between is one of the most beautifully written, achingly honest, and devastating insights into the life of a person growing up in a world that refuses to understand who that person truly is. Full of hope, raucous ribaldry, and sweet, tender moments of connection between disparate souls who eventually form a family, it was the perfect play to see in the aftermath of the divisive UK referendum and the homophobic attack in Orlando. A production wrapped in love, acceptance and understanding.

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6.     The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Given that it signified the end of an era at the inventive, resourceful and indomitable Union Theatre, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice was an inspired choice. Funny and sad and thrilling, it turned on music – just as the Union Theatre itself always did in that space. It was grubby, real and affecting – well worth a final visit to a theatrical space of endless ingenuity.

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5.     Cosi

Louis Nowra’s Cosi is a masterpiece and the kind of play The National Theatre should be championing well ahead of other material currently being pursued by it. Written by an Australian and set in Australia, nevertheless its themes are universal and centre squarely on humanity and human relationships. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny play but also one which pulls you up and makes you think – and feel the pain and pleasure of people who, mostly, are never thought about. ia life-affirming play about the human spirit, the joy that comes from ensemble co-operation, and the healing and therapeutic powers of live theatre as a form.

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4.     F*cking Men

Charles Spencer famously declared that David Hare’s adaptation of La Ronde was “pure theatrical viagra”. Whether that was down to Nicole Kidman or Hare’s language is a matter for speculation. Joe Dipietro’s gay version of La Ronde was likely to have much the same effect – a sensuous and involving dramatic achievement, bold, brave, tender and insightful. It was also very funny. And with that asterisk, F*cking Men was a trifle coy – perhaps rather than theatrical viagra, this was theatrical ecstasy: everyone was relaxed and had a damn good time.

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3.     Jess and Joe Forever

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2.     Kenny Morgan

Economical writing, carefully drawn characters, complicated romantic entanglements and issues, a painstakingly domestic canvas and skilful unveiling of differing societal views: Mike Poulton’s finely written and, ultimately, devastating play is an indictment about intolerance which, despite its period setting and trappings, is vital and revelatory about this century’s views about love, lust and understanding. This production put the National’s version of The Deep Blue Sea to shame: Paul Keating’s devastating performance was a real triumph, full of love and pain. Extraordinary. It’s second outing was even better than it’s first.

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1.     Travesties

Shakespeare and Stoppard – two theatrical geniuses who used/use language, character and complex narrative to shape works of art which shook the world when first written and still shake it now. Travesties was the kind of masterpiece which some people find too taxing; and it’s true that attention must be paid. But if it was, glorious, wonderful and fairly undiluted joy was the reward. And with Patrick Marber at the helm, it dazzled and danced like it never has before. Very close to perfection in theatrical endeavour. Tom Hollander and Clare Foster gave the best comic performances of the year on any U.K. stage.

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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.