Simon Smith's Adventures In Theatreland 2016

Broadway Baby's Senior Critic Simon Smith looks back over 2016, a year in which we took what we've learned for more than a decade as the biggest reviewer on the Fringe and turned our attention on the West End.

It's only parents at a nativity that can be proud those on stage are simply up there

It's been a busy old year for London theatre, welcoming a number of new shows and big old musical showstoppers from Disney, Lloyd Webber and Mr Mackintosh himself. There's also been some extraordinary performances that have drawn people in to non-star vehicles – though Billie Piper managed to surprisingly be both a 'name' and a star.

I've only managed to see around one show a week (PRs can be tough and damn me for getting a day job again!) and whilst I'm aware that my expectations may be higher than some other (dare I say, "more popular") mainstream critics, I've stood my ground and my opinion stands (Lazarus springs to mind as possibly one of the most over blown pieces of pretension I've ever enjoyed).

With the price of a night at the theatre rocketing all the time, I don't think it's good enough just to be good – it's only parents at a nativity that can be proud those on stage are simply up there – but occasionally all the planets collide when people take risks and remind me why I love the genre. Using theatre not just as a place to put on a film – but to embrace everything the medium offers to make you truly understand what a unique experience it offers. It happens rarely – but possibly that makes it all the better for when it does.

Within a sea of mediocrity, these were my Top Five that made me realise how lucky I am to get the chance to share my opinions with you. I will leave mere headlines here but please do read the whole reviews if you'd like to know why they ignited my passion, and made me 'moist' for the theatrical form. And if you can track them down and see them yourself, please go...

Yen - Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs

This tiny gem of a piece had an all too short run and is now set to treat the US.

"Anyone who has any interest in theatre needs to see this play."

The Father - Duke of Yorks

A true example of how every element of the experience made this as challenging as it was exciting.

"A mind-blowing literal theatrical demonstration of how it may feel when one's mind actually seems to have been blown."

People, Places and Things - Wyndhams

So much has been said about Denise Gough's explosive performance that I feel I can add little more - except how excited I am to see her next year in the NT's revival of Angels in America.

"You're not being bashed around the head here, rather being coddled with enjoyment so that the painful reality of the characters' issues simply seeps through."

Amadeus - National Theatre

It's the very talented musicians being part of the story rather than simply underscoring it that makes this an absorbing watch - even if this Amadeus is part Rik Mayall.

"There's no tricks to what is going on here - classic theatre done subtly and cleverly. A truly fitting Requiem."

Half A Sixpence - Noel Coward Theatre

Probably the biggest shock for me as I didn't expect to like such an old fashioned cheese fest of a traditional musical. But it's just all done far too well to be able to hate!

"If you think this sort of theatre is too old-fashioned for you then you risk missing out on what must be the most exhilarating and uplifting show in the West End right now."

I wouldn't do a 'worst' because that seems petulant – but I would touch on my most disappointing. Having been a life long fan of Caryl Churchill, my first visit as a reviewer to the Royal Court was to see her newest (much plaudited) play, Escaped Alone. My verdict upset myself to write – "it may satiate our desire to feel clever but doesn't make for welcoming or informative entertainment."

So next year? There's lots ahead but my bets for the Big Three

-Angels in America at the National Theatre. There's a risk that this may well be dated now but it's still a magical play and with a cast that is close to die for

-Hamilton at the (going to be) newly reopened Victoria Palace Theatre. If you've heard any of the music from this then you know it's something different, exciting and also damn fun. My guess is that getting tickets for Harry Potter may be easier

-The Ferryman at The Royal Court. Jez Butterworth.... Sam Mendes.... Sold out already.... 'Nuff said

So on the assumption that the majority of West End PRs haven't yet blacklisted me for:

a) taking a swipe at assuming we should applaud children on stage just cos they're young (School of Rock)

"I may be controversial here but I think there's a fine line between "stage school tits and teeth" performing and actual acting and reacting."

b) entering into a debate on stereotypes versus (being challenged on my own) racism (The Plough and the Stars)

"The result is little more than clichés and possible stereotype in a piece that feels dated and unloved. I'm not sure whether the initial muted applause at the end was due to some being moved or possibly because of our unbelievability in the unbelievability of the last two and half hours."

c) questioning one comedy legend's take on another comedy legend (Jeepers Creepers)

"The only tragedy here is that anyone thought that a script that seems to have been written with little knowledge of the form of the spoken word, and directed without light or shade, tone or pathos - or even an awareness of the basics of sight lines - should have a place in a theatre in London's West End."

....then I hope to back to share my very own take on high expectations – and particular way with words – in 2017

(Ticket sales allowing of course!)

Related Listings

Escaped Alone

Escaped Alone

Caryl Churchill rarely does interviews and never discusses the meanings behind her plays (even her stage directions are scant) - so I would be building myself up for a fall if I were to try and interpret Escaped Alone in a way that wouldn't, inevitably, cause arguments... 

People, Places and Things

People, Places and Things

Addiction and theatre may seem good bedfellows as they have often made for a spectacular combination. From Long Day's Journey Into Night in the 50s, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in the 60s to the 90s' Trainspotting (amongst numerous others), many have been awarded both literally and with a place in theatrical history that has inspired companies today... 

The Father

The Father

I'm lucky that I've had no first hand experience of the impact of the disease looked at in The Father so my knowledge is only general rather than personal. However, I hope it's fair to say that I think Alzheimer's affects not only the one suffering but also – as the world around them gets more confused, frustrating and seems to slowly break down into a jumble of jigsaw pieces rather than the whole picture it once was – rolls into the day to day existence of those who surround them... 



When your life is borne of problems, pain and lies, the longer you don't – or can't – do anything to improve it, the more you may take an almost masochistic solace (from the outside point of view) in accepting that at least your world is yours alone and then only share it with other players involved in the same pain; as often seen in the behaviour of addicts, criminals and the generally dispossessed... 

Half a Sixpence

Half a Sixpence

Whilst this latest in a long line of Chichester transfers may be a new reworking of the classic Tommy Steele vehicle – with new songs, music and deeper characterisation added – it remains a pure, unadulterated, unchallenging, cheese slice of musical theatre... 



"Why is Opera important? Because it's real-er than any play". So says the wildly frenetic Mozart early in Peter Shaffer's "play with music" (and famed 1984 film) Amadeus. And that could well sum up this production at the Olivier - a truly cinematic, energetic and passion filled piece that intertwines the music and musicians as backdrop, set and settings in tableaux that create a theatrical bubble to envelop you with visual simplicity and audible beauty by the (mostly) on stage orchestra... 

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