Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2017…
Cultural highlights of 2017
I know my opinions aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s but I find it a useful exercise to recap my year and, if I’m going to do that, I might as well post it in this journal. So here’s my subjective list of the cultural events that thrilled me in 2017…
The Blue Aeroplanes – O2 Academy, Islington
2017 began with an attempt to recapture my youth. I was in Islington to see the art-rocking beatniks with altitude, The Blue Aeroplanes. Still as frenetic and fantastic as when I’d seen them in the late ’80s. I’ve written a review and a bit of history elsewhere in this journal.
Hamlet – Almeida Theatre
The always brilliant Andrew Scott gave a career-defining performance as Hamlet in a new production directed by Robert Icke. It was great to see it in the intimate Almeida Theatre before the transfer to the West End. I loved all four hours (apart from the 2nd interval) and wrote a review elsewhere in this journal.
1984 – Andrew Wiles building, Oxford
Oxford University’s newly opened Andrew Wiles maths building made the perfect site-specific setting for this brutal reworking of George Orwell’s dystopian vision. Less than a month after the US presidential inauguration, the play brought forward all sorts of modern resonances. A great reworking from Jonathan Holloway.
The Kid Stays in the Picture – Royal Court
A delayed opening meant I was at the first ever full run-though of this technically complex new production from Theatre Complicité. It felt like we were all part of a great (if a little messy) theatrical experiment. This tale of Robert Evans, an all-powerful Hollywood producer, felt all too prescient later in the year.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead – The Old Vic
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire delivered Tom Stoppard’s lines with accomplished comic timing but it was David Haig’s interpretation of The Player that really had me captivated. Half a century after the play was first on the Old Vic stage (then home to National Theatre) it still feels fresh and just the right side of smart-arse.
The Ferryman – Royal Court
I’d booked mainly to witness Sam Mendes’s return to theatrical directing but, as everyone will tell you, it is Jez Butterworth’s writing that makes The Ferryman one of the most talked about plays of the year. Paddy Considine was the magnetic central character of a magnificent ensemble cast.
Dirty Work (The Late Shift) – Battersea Arts Centre
“A fourth wall is built, it is criticised, it is demolished”. Forced Entertainment were back with another deconstruction of theatrical form. I wrote a review at the time. It seemed to perfectly encapsulate the pathos and absurdity of the year. I’ve not been able to get it out of my head ever since.
Demon Dayz – Dreamland, Margate
I saw Gorillaz four times in 2017. A last-minute, ‘secret’ gig in Brixton was probably the most thrilling but their seaside performance, headlining their own festival on an idyllic summer’s day, was the most memorable. With a huge supporting cast of guest vocalists, Damon Albarn’s cartoon collective has evolved into an admirably eclectic musical experiment. I wrote a full review about the day at the time.
Songs for Disaster Relief – Venice Biennale
I spent a few days in Venice at the overwhelming Arte Biennale in July. I‘ve written previously about the many, many wonderful things I saw and experienced. Samson Young’s Songs for Disaster Relief is the stand-out show that has haunted me since the summer. In particular, the whispered choral rendition of We Are the World – humorous, chilling, thought-provoking stuff.
Something Other Than Everything – Roundhouse
Daniel Kitson took various spotlights and weaved intricate tales about humanity, kindness, isolation and the addictive pleasures of Lindor balls. A three-week residency at the Roundhouse seemed ambitious but the place was packed. A brilliantly accomplished performance.
Yerma – Young Vic
Better late than never, a year since the original run, I managed to get a single ticket for Billie Piper’s return to her shattering performance as a woman whose life is destroyed by the pursuit of a child she cannot conceive. Staging, writing, directing and acting all at the top of their game.
The Lost Palace – Banqueting House
The Lost Palace is an interactive audio tour, bringing to life 200 years of history in and around Whitehall Palace, once Europe’s largest palatial building. Headphones on ears, ‘wooden’ block in hand the tour reveals layers of history in a fascinating way. Hats off to the Historic Royal Palaces team, they’ve done an amazing job.
Hofesh Shechter: Grand Finale – Sadler’s Wells
Entrapment, isolation, trafficking, genocide… this ironically titled new show tackled the big themes of our times. I knew I was onto a good thing when I read the warning notices, in the foyer, about ‘uncomfortably loud’ music. The image I still carry in my head is of a waltz of death – men dragging around and dancing with the entirely limp bodies of rag-doll-like women. Powerful stuff.
LCD Soundsystem – Alexandra Palace
I’ve always regretted not seeing LCD Soundsystem before. So despite the venue (Alexandra Palace is the kind of huge hanger I usually steer well clear of) I scrabbled for tickets in fear that they might retire again before I got to see them. I’m so pleased I did. I suspect it wasn’t one of their most engaging live performances but I loved the mixed set of old and new songs and danced through every minute of it. Another tick off my bucket-list.
Blade Runner 2049
I saw 11 wonderful films in October, ten were part of the BFI London Film Festival. I’ve written a review elsewhere about my festival experience, including Lady Bird, The Killing of a Sacred Dear, The Shape of Water, and Funny Cow. But it was an off-Festival trip to see Blade Runner 2049 in IMAX that became my cinematic experience of the year – such an incredible piece of film-making with such a terribly disappointing commercial-release poster.
Folkestone Triennial 2017
I was back on the Kentish coastline, on the last sunny day of the season, for the fourth Folkestone Triennial. I saw and wrote about the mish-mash of large-scale art installations. But it was the festival-long experiment by Bob & Roberta Smith that most interested me. Folkestone is an Art School was plastered throughout the town, and the man himself was there on many days to encourage everyone to question and create.
Godspeed You Black Emperor – Troxy
Canadian post-rockers dispense with all that stage-craft nonsense. One by one they wandered onto the stage in near darkness, picked up their instruments and began to build layer upon layer of suffocating noise, occasionally coalescing into a melody. It was the loudest gig I’ve ever been to and I loved it, even with the two days of ear ringing that followed.
Kabeiroi – Punchdrunk
Kabeiroi was an immersive performance that ran the spectrum of my emotions (from boredom to terror) and spanned three London underground zones across five and a half hours. And I invested at least as much time again struggling to get tickets in the first place. It was a far from perfect experience but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I wrote about it elsewhere in this journal.
Forced Entertainment – Real Magic
Theatrical deconstructionists, Forced Entertainment took their new show on a UK tour this year. I experienced Real Magic in an unforgettable performance at Platform Theatre in London’s King’s Cross. What began as an end-of-the-pier mind-reading act very quickly descended through circles of repetitive, hellish madness; at the show I was at, the audience was reduced to hysteria. I wrote about it at the time.
Wild Bore – Soho Theatre
Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott almost literally talk out of their arses in this hilarious attack on critics, the patriarchy and themselves. It’s a show perfectly pitched at its audience – at times knowingly high-brow, at others decidedly low-brow; serious, surrealist, challenging, disgusting and very funny.
The Unthanks – Royal Festival Hall
Sisters, Rachel and Becky Unthank each has a distinct voice that I could listen to for hours, and when they sing together I get proper goose-pimples. For this concert, their ensemble was further enhanced by Charles Hazelwood’s Army of Generals orchestra. A memorable evening. The highlight for me was Adrian McNally’s composition, I think called ‘Let Them All In’ because, as he said, we should let them all in. And there was clog-dancing.
Amongst the outstanding shows were a fair few other great events…
Fisayo Akinade and Gemma Arterton were both great in Josie Rourke’s reworking of St Joan at Donmar Warehouse; Angels in America was a monumental 8hr undertaking in the huge Lyttleton Theatre at National Theatre and Mosquitos was enjoyable if uneven in the smaller Dorfman Theatre next door; I really enjoyed Robert Lepage’s autobiographical 887 show at Barbican; and I saw other great stuff at Soho Theatre, including, Touch from Vicky Jones; the excellent Natasha Marshall in her self-penned Half Breed; and Richard Gadd’s surprisingly confessional and hard-hitting Monkey See, Monkey Do.
It was an exceptional year for film: Mother! jumped into my list of best films ever and Baby Driver is probably in there somewhere too; Fences was extremely moving; IT was terrifying; Dunkirk was astonishing in IMAX; Alien Covenant was great; and of course the Lego Batman Movie ticked all the boxes.
Other musical highlights included Matthew Herbert’s Brexit Big Band which was great fun at Barbican, and a beautifully gentle evening with Divine Comedy at London Palladium.
And the year ended particularly well with a couple of unusual Xmas shows, Daniel Kitson revived his A Show for Christmas in Margate to a much smaller audience than his huge Roundhouse run, and I saw Antic Disposition’s excellent (if a little too musical for me) production of A Christmas Carol in Middle Temple Hall, site of the first ever performance of Twelfth Night.
Nothing’s perfect and there were a few events that I was disappointed by…
For the second year running, Anne-Marie Duff (who I think is brilliant, by the way) starred in a play that confused me: I wasn’t alone in being flummoxed by Common but I did return after the interval, unlike many of the audience at National Theatre; I was really looking forward to Twilight Zone at Almeida Theatre but the matinee showing I saw was unconvincing; having been at a screening of his clever and funny iPlayer film, Carnage, earlier in the year, I was disappointed and a little disturbed by Simon Amstell’s stand up show What Is This? But my most disappointing event was St Vincent who, having produced one of the best albums of the year, raised my expectations but gave a vapid live performance at Brixton Academy.