Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2023…
I write an introduction like this every year. I guess it’s important as you’ll be coming to it fresh and you won’t have binge-read your way through past episodic posts…
During each Christmas break, one of my great pleasures is gathering my thoughts and memories of the year’s cultural outings. I love doing it and I find it invaluable as an archive of memories.
I know you needn’t care what I think; I’ve written this for current and future me. I find it interesting to do, maybe you’ll find it interesting to read.
Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – St. John’s, Waterloo
30 years ago, I worked on the promotional leaflets when the (Mercury-nominated) re-release of this seminal 1970s work was performed by The Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH). It was just another job for me then. I had no idea how significant it was.
Three decades later, I was thrilled to be sitting 10 feet from Bryars (now 80) as he introduced the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance in this newly refurbished Waterloo church. 100 yards from the QEH.
The staging was hugely atmospheric on a cold damp January evening. A circle of musicians lit from low level plus individual lectern, surrounded by raised speakers.
As the recorded lone voice of a homeless man, long lost to the world, began to sing, each hair stood in reverence on my neck. The sound looped as instruments joined and fell away and waves of emotion washed over me. Just beautiful.
But it is maddening to think that this church now has to provide sanctuary and sustenance to a whole new generation of homeless and vulnerable people, many living in the Waterloo underpasses in ways that we haven’t seen for decades.
Vault Festival – Waterloo Vaults
I have such mixed feelings about Vault Festival. But I do I know I will miss it now it’s no longer going to occupy the first three months of my cultural calendar. A few months into 2023, they announced that they’d lost their sprawling, dank venue, in the arches at Waterloo (although its organisers have announced that they are building a venue, ready to open this Autumn).
I’ve been each year to see at least a handful of acts. It can be a real mixed-bag and it does feel uncomfortable, being so old amongst what is a largely student-filled audience who often seem to be friends or classmates of the performers.
But there are always some gems in the mix. In 2023 I saw a couple of exceptional shows.
I was lucky to be at what I guess will be the final performance of Liv Ello’s exceptional show, Swarm, directed by Frankie Thompson. The pair featured again and again throughout my year.
Dressed as a fly, Ello mixed character comedy and juxtapositions with hard-hitting video projections to tackle big topics around asylum seekers and the use of deliberately inflammatory language such as David Cameron’s ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’.
Ugly Bucket’s show, Good Grief was an impeccable mix of slapstick and mime, as a group of clowns celebrated the life of a departed friend by staging a mimed show at his funeral. It was somehow incredibly funny and unbearably sad, comically pathetic and majestically profound.
So long Vault Festival. Thanks for the memories and the Theremins.
Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre
I tell people that I don’t like musicals but I think the truth is: I don’t (usually) like the spectacle West End ‘shows’.
But I bloody loved Guys & Dolls at Bridge Theatre. We chose to sit, rather than join in the ‘immersive’ action of being herded around the stage by American cops. It wasn’t cheap but is was great value; actually, I’d pay that money again just to see them perform Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.
Romeo and Julie – Dorfman Theatre
I was also lucky to be invited to see Romeo and Julie when it came to the National Theatre (thanks Sherman Theatre team).
The theme of ‘clever working class lad is torn by the prospect of going to university’ is well worn one; I saw three shows on that topic at Edinburgh Fringe this year alone.
But Gary Owen’s script turns that trope on its head. Romeo is a single dad, making it work in Splott (south Cardiff) when local ‘posh’ girl Julie falls for him before setting off for Cambridge.
How do we define a worthwhile life? Are we obliged to fulfil our academic potential or the privilege our parents have fought so hard to allow us? When are we old enough to make our own mistakes? Are we pre-programmed to repeat those mistakes generation after generation? Are they mistakes?
I very much enjoyed the chance to consider the topics, made easier through excellent acting (especially Callum Scott Howells as Romeo), and direction from Rachel O’Riordan (currently Artistic Director at Lyric Hammersmith).
NDT trio – Sadlers Wells
The ever-original NDT presented a trio of otherworldly performances.
I was originally attracted by Simon McBurney’s involvement – he’s always interesting. His pieces, in collaboration with Crystal Pite, Figures in Extinction [1.0] was a kind of foreshadowing of lots of the ecocide topics and presentation techniques that kept cropping up through my cultural year, including a slide show of the recent mammal extinctions.
Jiří Kylián’s Gods and Dogs was all very controlled and sophisticated. I think it might have been too sophisticated for my dance palette.
But Gabriela Carrizo’s exceptional piece, La Ruta is still playing out in my head like half-remembered fragments of a fever dream. I really can’t do justice to it in words – people contorted fell face-first into the path of an oncoming vehicle. They crumpled, boneless to the floor and somehow popped back to life, like those limp limbed toys where you press the base to loosen string held animals. And the staging somehow captured the atmosphere of wide-screen, art-house cinema. It was like all the best bits of a Punchdrunk show, squished together into half an hour.
The Flaming Lips – The Troxy
My family and I also had a wonderful evening at the Troxy, seeing The Flaming Lips perform their seminal album – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
The evening was enhanced by us occupying a ‘booth’ in the wonderful art-deco venue.
We looked down on the huge LCD screen, pumping out the lyrics in huge type, flanked by occasionally inflating giant pink robots. In the centre, the remarkably youthful (61 year-old) frontman Wayne Coyne, occasionally occupying his zorb (but never quite riding the waves of the crowd), firing confetti-cannons and launching inflatables.
He told us we were his favourite crowd, ever. I bet he says that to all the boys and girls.
Frankie Thompson’s CAttS (not the musical) – Soho Theatre
Frankie Thompson’s lip-sync of the excruciating cat calendar scene from The Apprentice might be the purest piece of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed.
The whole CAttS show, directed by Liv Ello, was just perfect (and yes, I have avoided that pun deliberately, I’m not a monster).
Spiky, sparky, clever and knowing but never smart-arse; I feel very lucky to have caught it, and somehow embarrassed but delighted that she spotted me taking this photo and posed for it (after the show, of course).
The Second Woman – Young Vic
So… Ruth Wilson is doing the same 20 minute scene over and over again with different, often amateur actors who she hasn’t met or rehearsed with. She’s going to respond to their lead each time and she’s going to do that 100 times in 24hrs… anyone else want a ticket?
I struggled to find anyone else to come with me. But I knew I really had to be there.
I bought a 24hr ticket and assumed I’d be able to dip in and out. The idea was that those of us with 24hr tickets would be there at the start. Then a certain number of people had timed tickets, every two hours, and others could queue and fill the spaces as people left. Surely it would be mostly empty overnight.
It was hypnotic. The set was contained within a gauze-sided square so presumably Wilson didn’t see beyond those four walls throughout. To the side, a huge screen cut between close-ups from hand-held cameras and fixed, hidden lenses in the space.
Soon we all knew more than each new male participant. We learnt the lexicon and waited for the in-jokes and call backs. Wilson ate the noodles and drank the drinks over and over again. We watched her tidy the room on her hands and knees between each repeated scene. We marvelled at each arched eyebrow and at every unique delivery.
I stayed for eight hours, travelled home, slept for 4hrs and drove back to do it again. But it wasn’t that easy. Overnight, #TheQueue had become a phenomenon. I rejoined at 7.30am but people just weren’t leaving so each new 2hr slot of people took almost 2hrs to filter in, by which time the next group had formed a new queue.
It took me 7hrs to get back in. It was worth every second. I was determined to be there for the end. A few famous faces turned up. Toby Jones was brilliant; Andrew Scott’s interactions seemed to revitalise Wilson as we passed the 22hr point; and Idris Elba’s appearance blew the roof off.
We’d been told not to applaud between each scene. At first people furtively clapped when Wilson took a 10 minute comfort break each two hours. But as we got to 90+ performances, those rules were ignored, the theatre was crackling with anticipation.
Most of us weren’t keeping count but we could all sense the end was coming. As the 100th scene ended we almost held our breath as Wilson picked up the noodles, replaced the drinks and packed up the room for the final time.
As she left the stage the place erupted.
What an event; what a performance; what a privilege to have been there.
Thanks to LIFT and Young Vic for putting it on.
Musics from Summerisle – Barbican
This concert marked the 50th anniversary of The Wicker Man so I was surprised when I learned that they wouldn’t be playing along to a screening of the film.
The concert was great without it. A collective of British musicians (drawn from prog-and folk-rock bands) played songs from the film’s soundtrack, mixed in samples of dialogue, and introduced the original ‘Daisy’ (Lesley Mackie) as guest vocalist. It was lots of fun.
But the main excitement for me was that the ‘support act’ had somehow been promoted to close the show. Gazelle Twin & NYX’s live performance of their Deep England collaboration was one of my live highlights of recent years. It was such a treat to get to bear witness again.
Staged like a spiritual experience, an arc of all female musicians, their heads wrapped in gauze, played keyboards and samplers in near darkness.
They began with their haunting reworking of Jerusalem.
The people in the front row (just in front of me) did not ‘get it’; they scoffed and fidgeted and, a couple of songs later, they ostentatiously got up to leave. As they did so, the vocals kicked in for the brilliant ‘Better in my day‘. The title was repeated with vitriolic anger, over and over again, as they shuffled down the aisle. It was a perfect moment.
Laura Cantrell – Union Chapel
I can’t pin down why I love Laura Cantrell so much but I really do. It’s something about the timbre of her voice or the quality of her delivery, or the chord progressions and guitar strumming. It’s all of those, combined, isn’t it?
She has all the patter of a proper professional with the pedigree of a regular at the Grand Ole Opry. ‘As Dolly used to say: play the song that’s gotten you here’, Cantrell said before launching into Not The Trembling Kind. She, and her band of amazing musicians, actually played all the hits and much more.
Perhaps my most culturally influential outing of the year was to Wild Ken Hill’s rewilding project in Norfolk, in July. I found it so inspiring to see people trying to actively reverse the ravages of modern mega farming. Let me know if you ever want me to bore you about the need for apex predators (other than humans) and grazing herds. But that doesn’t feel like the kind of artsy stuff I should be writing about.
pEARMAN then pALAMIDES
Back at Soho Theatre, I saw a (literal and metaphorical) car-crash of a work in progress show with Pearman then Palamides. Awkward, under-rehearsed, clumsy, distressing, disturbing… it was all of the things.
Pearman hilariously wore a two-metre-wide reflector on her head throughout the first half, as if she were the moon, while she encouraged audiences members to wear planet hats. Billed as ’25 minutes each, probably’, she overran by 15 minutes.
‘Don’t worry’, said Palamides, ‘I can do this in 20 minutes’, before launching into a complex 45 minute story where she played the dual parts of drunken lovers, one of whom meets a tragic end (via a car crash, a stag horn and litres of fake blood) while the other nurses them by recreating a favourite memory of running from a sauna into the snow (which she demonstrated by chugging baking soda and spitting it into the air).
He/she took a long time to ‘die’ and so, as we left (long after the published end time), we had to walk around Palamides, half topless, mopping blood, spit and powder from the floor. Incredible stuff.
My August was overwhelmed by a week at the Edinburgh Fringe (plus a bit of the Festival). I saw some incredible shows, including these highlights…
Dark Noon was an ambitious production with black South African actors in white-face, telling the story of the American West. It mostly reminded us how awful men are, which was definitely a recurring theme in my cultural year.
Rob Auton‘s eponymous tenth show was genuinely moving and heartfelt. I booked on a whim and was so pleased I had.
The Body Show felt like a huge artistic step for my favourite duo of the year, Liv Ello and Frankie Thompson. I loved the show so much that I saw it again in London where I even got to play a small part… holding the table-cloth aloft in a Last Supper / Come Dine With Me mash up – ‘What a sad little life, Jane’.
And the dance performance, Mass Effect left me literally speechless.
I’ve written a full review of the whole trip, in Cog’s journal…
The Unthanks all dayer – Barbican
I first saw The Unthanks at the Barbican (supporting Billy Bragg). I was mesmerised by each of their voices individually and transfixed when they combined them… and I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing when they started clog-dancing.
I was back in the same hall in September, to see them performing that same early work, plus the subsequent two albums (across lunchtime and evening shows). There were also singing workshops and Q&As for the die hards. That stuff’s not for me but I loved the nostalgia of hearing those early albums performed again. And they brought their clogs.
A Mirror – Almeida Theatre
The publicity for A Mirror was intriguing.
‘This poster is a lie’ reads the poster.
‘You are invited to a wedding’ reads the ticket.
When we arrived at the Almeida, there were 1984-style surveillance notices on the walls of the bar and foyer. As we entered the theatre space it was indeed laid out like a wedding. My partner and I were handed an order of service and took our place in the groom’s side of the aisle.
Of course it was a lie, a ruse to confuse the ministry so that the characters could gather to perform a play, a play about a culture ministry that prevents playing, they stage a play within the lie within the play.
I do love all that meta stuff.
Side note… the theatre was incredibly warm and Johnny Lee Miller’s character has to wear fitted gloves and a suit throughout. He must have lost several pints of liquid during that wedding.
Side note two… Jude Law was in the audience, directly in the sight-line of his friend and business partner, Miller. He must have found that distracting, most of the rest of us did.
Death of England: Closing Time – National Theatre
Closing Time was the fourth and final, heartbreaking, episodic instalment of Client Dyer and Roy Williams’ painfully realistic and nuanced drama series about changing cultural frictions in modern East London.
In the first play, Rafe Spall played a working class lad, dealing with the death of his superficially two-dimensional racist patriarchal dad. I sat on a stool, at eye level to the stage, which had been laid out like a George Cross for the show. The wall behind me opened and I found myself uncomfortably close as Michael committed his father to the flames of the crematorium.
Michael Balogun was excellent as Michael’s aspirational best friend Delroy, in the second episode, forced online by the second Covid lockdown – the only live performance, on opening/closing night, having been hastily filmed for that purpose.
In the third episode we saw Michael and Delroy Face to Face, this time played by Neil Maskell and Giles Terera, in a filmic, lock-down instalment that got dark and realistically violent.
In Closing Time we meet the women: Delroy’s mum Denise (played by Jo Martin when I saw it) and Michael’s sister, who’s also Delroy’s girlfriend, Carly (played by Hayley Squires).
They are closing up their business and waiting for the estate agent to take the keys.
I fidgeted uncomfortably in the same seat again.
This time I was excruciatingly close when a drunken Carly played up to a hen party of friends with top tips on how to hold on to your black lover – the contents of which were filmed and shared, and became at least one reason for a boycott that fatally damaged their business, and nearly destroyed their relationship.
This series has been amazing to see play out on stage and screen. And this was a very fitting final act.
Mahabharata – Barbican Theatre
Canadian company, Why Not Theatre, staged a ‘once-in-a-generation theatrical experience’ in a stunning retelling of this Sanskrit epic, across 5hrs (in two parts).
Karma (Part 1) was staged in a storytelling circle, backed by tabla, bansuri and evocatively sung raags. We’re told not to worry about following every detail of their intricate story – the Sanskrit source material is 75,000 verses long – but instead to consider its meaning.
We learned of a centuries-long family feud, stemming from a game of dice, that led to the death of millions via vengeful wars and revenge-fuelled slaughter. We meet Shiva the destroyer who dances in a frenetic Kathak style, kicking red powder as they spin and swirl in a whirlwind across the stage.
Dharma (Part 2) opened in a much more modern setting with cameras and live projections within palatial rooms. An operatic rendition of the Bhagavad Gita brought life to Vishnu as we read along with the words we remember quoted in Oppenheimer earlier in the year – ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.
It really was an epic undertaking. Congrats to everyone involved.
I experienced two very special immersive shows from ZU-UK in November.
In Radio Ghost I took part in a three person game, played out across a busy shopping centre. For Within Touching Distance I got to experience the caring touch of a palliative care nurse in my final hours.
I enjoyed them both so much that I have written a full review of each.
Macbeth – Donmar
Getting a ticket to see David Tennant as Macbeth in this tiny theatre was no small accomplishment, but I found one the day before Christmas Eve and I am so pleased I did.
The ‘cleverness’ of this production (directed by Max Webster) is the use of headphones and binaural sound to put the actors’ voices (plus ominous soundscape, including many crows) right inside your head. At first I found it quite off-putting but I discovered a happy medium by moving them slightly off my ears so I could connect with the actors on the stage as well as through the headphones.
Tennant really is incredible. He delivers lines in such a natural, throwaway manner or with such intensity that it’s hard not to believe he could turn from happy victor to regicidal power grabbing within a few minutes, whispering soliloquies into our ears.
Cush Jumbo is also wonderful of course. Here playing a quickly regretful Lady Macbeth who, in this production, makes the trip to warn her friend Lady Macduff to protect her family from the murderous Macbeth.
Hopefully they’ll film this production and share it with a wider audience than they can squeeze into the Donmar.
Amongst the outstanding shows above were a fair few other great events…
The London Film Festival was odd this year. Firstly because the actors and writers’ strike meant there were very few celebrities on the red carpet, but mostly (from my selfish perspective) because I tested positive for COVID three days in and missed much of it.
I did get to see opening film, Saltburn which was beautifully uncomfortable. But it did feel a bit like posh people having lots of in-jokes about how awful posh people are, whilst having the influence and privilege to be able to produce a feature film.
I thought David Fincher’s The Killer was astonishingly well directed and would have felt even better if someone hadn’t made Drive a few years before, as they had a very similar feel and visual palette. The Royal Hotel was a terrifying reminder of how awful men are, as if we need such a thing. By then I was running a fever.
Nine days later I did catch the closing gala, The Kitchen which was a dystopian vision of where London’s housing developers could take us. It’s a vision brought to us by Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares. Kano was a brilliant central character, but it really was Ian Wright who stole the show as Lord Kitchener.
I don’t go to the cinema very often outside of the festival but I did see Barbie and Oppenheimer, of course. Both brilliant in their own ways. It was so lovely to see the screens full of people dressed in pink and being empowered by Greta Gerwig’s film, even if the Rochester Cineworld crowd did talk, take selfies and even film the screen all the way through. The IMAX crowd were a lot more respectful of Christopher Nolan’s epic.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was impressive for all sorts of reasons, not least because of Tom Cruise’s tenacity in getting it made – but I’d struggle to tell you what happened. I feel similarly about John Wick: Chapter 4 which I think I remember enjoying in an ultra violence, ultra exhaustion kind of way. I also saw The Flash, apparently, but I can’t remember that at all.
I thought that people were unduly harsh about Tár which I enjoyed very much at the cinema and have watched again on the telly. And I didn’t understand why nobody liked A Haunting in Venice which I thought was lots of fun.
Asteroid City might be the last Wes Anderson film I pay to see. I feel like I could have bought the book and flicked through the gorgeous set-piece images instead. I guess he’ll keep sticking to what feels to me like style over substance, because the actors seem to love being in them. The accompanying exhibition of props and models, at 180 The Strand, was stunning.
I really enjoyed Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario with a wonderfully unflattering performance from Nicolas Cage. Although I am constantly amazed by the lack of imagination that so many Amercian books and films centre around a tenured professor. And in a similarly weird vein, Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid was disturbingly brilliant with Joaquin Phoenix being wonderfully deadpan (often like a Wes Anderson character, I suppose).
And Phoenix was back as I returned to the IMAX to see the stunning Napoleon. Ridley Scott might not be great at love stories (the relationship with Josephine was clumsily handled in this film) but he does shoot magnificent fights. The Battle of Austerlitz was one of the greatest cinematic battle scenes I’ve ever seen.
As well as cinema trips, this year, I’ve also been trying to note the films I watch on the small screen: As a family, we started the year as we’d ended last year, counting down films by release date. We saw: 1925 Phantom of the Opera / 1924 He who gets slapped / 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame / 1922 Nosferatu / 1921 The Kid / 1920 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari / 1919 Sir Arne’s Treasure / 1918 The Blue Bird.
And then we started back again: 2022 All Quiet on the Western Front / 2021 Dead Pigs and Lucky Grandma / 2020 Nomadland / 2019 The Wandering Earth / 2018 The Meg / 2017 Prevenge / 2016 Sin Godzilla (during which I fell asleep so maybe that doesn’t count) / 2015 Annamolisa.
I also saw, from random years, in no order: The Worst Person in the World / Home Alone / Convenience / The Croupier / Bank of Dave / You Are Not My Mother / The Trick / Ali & Ava / Hypnotic / The Long Good Friday / The Strays / The Young Offenders / An Unsuitable Job For a Woman / Man Up / Brian & Charles / The Independent / The Hitman’s Apprentice / Run Fatboy Run / Three Day Millionaire / I used to be famous / Elvis / Carrie Pilby / Boston Strangler / Operation Mincemeat / Emily the Criminal / The Scapegoat / The Souvenir / Tetris / Babylon / Luther: The Fallen Sun / Don’t Worry Darling / Deerskin / Focus / Submarine / Bromley Boys / The International / 65 / Licorice Pizza / Quiz Lady / Gosford Park / Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse / Crimes of the Future / Aftersun / Clue / Apocalypse Clown / Brief Encounter / Back to the Future / Back to the Future Part II / Back to the Future Part III / Muppets Christmas Carol and Die Hard for Christmas, of course.
And my favourite small screen film of the year Leave the World Behind which was everything that White Noise wanted to be, but wasn’t (with its tenured professors).
I also saw a few documentary films: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck / Ian Cognito: A Life and a Death on Stage / Made You Look / Last Stop Larrimah and some music films and documentaries: Beastie Boys Story / Distant Sky – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, live in Copenhagen, 2017 / Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: Otway the Movie / WHAM! / Taylor Swift The Reputation Stadium Tour.
I also tried to write down some of the significant TV stuff that I watched (much of which I’d seen before and was revisiting):
Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled Series 1, 5, 6, 7 / The Conners Series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 / Our Flag Means Death Series 1 / Fleabag Series 2 / Silicon Valley Series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 / Modern Family Season 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11 / The Change / Only Murders in the Building Seasons 2 and 3 / Fisk Series 1, 2 / Extraordinary Series 1 / Shrinking / Unstable Series 1 / Tommy Tiernan: Under the Influence /
Happy Valley Series 1, 2, 3 & 4 / You Series 1 / Slow Horses Series 1 &2 / Pieces of Her / Succession Series 1, 2, 3 & 4 / Black Mirror Series 6 & 7/ Annika Series 1 & 2 / The Good Fight Series 1, 2, 3 & 4 (again) / Sherlock (BBC) Series 1, 2, 3 & 4, plus Victorian special / Cobra Series 3 / Dreamland / Billions Series 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7 / Breeders Series 4 / Six Four / Hijack / The Crown Series 6 / The Newsroom Seasons 1, 2 & 3.
Rise and Fall / Traitors / Race Across the World / Taskmaster / Gogglebox / The Great Pottery Throw Down / Survivor / Great British Bake Off / University Challenge / Only Connect / Gardeners’ World / Blown Away / Sue Perkins: Perfectly Legal / Squid Game – The Challenge / Welcome to Wrexham / Sewing Bee / Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker
I saw surprisingly little live music this year. A third bout of COVID cancelled a couple of shows and I chose to skip my usual trip to End of the Road Festival.
But there were some highlights…
As part of the London Jazz Festival, Clod Ensemble and Nu Civilisation Orchestra presented their take on the classic Charles Mingus album ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’. The big band, led by Peter Edwards and featuring Gary Crosby on bass, was outstanding. And Shoreditch Town Hall provided a magnificent setting and the perfect glamorous backdrop for some exceptional solo and collaborative dancing.
I somehow saw three female Japanese acts in the Autumn, perhaps inspired by my sons visiting Japan this year. Hiromi jumped between sublime classical piano with her quintet to some pretty noodly electronica with her Sonicwonder band. Tricot were typically brilliant at what must be their biggest UK gig to date, playing to a packed crowd at Heaven. And Chai were bonkers in their headline Pitchfork Festival gig at Village Underground; they came on dressed as some kind of shellfish and gradually stripped through layers to look the part as a sensational pop act.
Surprisingly playing in the foyer at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Lets Eat Grandma did not disappoint with their side-swiping lyrics and charmingly inept dance routines.
HMLTD were very intense at the ICA. They played through their latest release which seems to be a concept album about a worm that conquers society. It felt like a musical resignation letter from a band who were recently hailed as the next big thing. But it felt special to be there so it makes my list.
Finally a special mention to Oxford band, Suspire who played a brilliant set and got me to the George Tavern for the first time.
The Peter Kay comeback tour was astonishing. The comedy felt pretty clumsy at times but you couldn’t help but admire the showmanship.
Tim Minchin was also back. His one man show at Lyric Theatre was billed as ‘unfunny’ but of course it had moments of comedic magic between the songs and serious anecdotes. He was there to promote his (excellent) Groundhog Day musical but seemed to enjoy this one-man show so much that he took it on tour.
I’d seen Stewart Lee‘s return to form, Basic Lee at the end of 2022. I saw it again at the Royal Festival Hall in June this year and loved it all the more. I also caught a cut-down version in Edinburgh which was even shorter after Lee refused to do his closing routine (having previously warned that he’d do so if anyone made a clatter, leaving during that section). Everyone loved him better because of that.
At Barbican Theatre, as part of the Mime Festival, Belgium’s Peeping Tom presented a hugely atmospheric Triptych (The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor) of shows featuring a horrorscape of seemingly boneless bodies and miss jointed protagonists in a hotel room, a flame filled ship and a descent into the flooded floors of an abandoned restaurant. It would have been one of my top choices if I hadn’t also seen its co-creators NDT1 in their own show in the same month.
Akram Khan’s Jungle Book was lots of fun at Sadler’s Wells, an environmental reimagining with a mix of human dancers, projections and a snake made from cardboard boxes trying to find dry land in a flooded planet.
Although I loved the idea of Danny Boyle leading a team of super-creatives in a reworking of The Matrix, Free Your Mind was a bit of a scattergun of ideas. Individually, The Matrix theme, the anti-consumerism message or the celebration of Manchester were great – combined into a long dance performance across two huge spaces, I was less convinced. But the long awaited (and recently renamed) Aviva Studios was hugely impressive and the show showed it off very well.
With her retrospective finally opening at the Royal Academy (having been postponed by the lock-down), Marina Abramovic was everywhere. In October I had tickets to the RA show (carefully timed so she’d be in residence at the time) and to her backstage takeover of the Southbank Centre. I missed both because of COVID.
But I did get to see her in the operatic juke-box that was The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas at the London Coliseum. In it she laid dying in bed as seven sopranos each performed one of opera’s most popular arias. And then she rose to mime to Maria Callas singing Casta Diva from Norma. She was every bit the diva.
I did also catch the RA show two days before it closed. She wasn’t there but I did see some other people performing her works, in an excellent retrospective.
And I’d previously made my annual trip to RA for their eclectic and always fun Summer Exhibition.
I also enjoyed a trip to Liverpool where I sampled Liverpool Biennial, ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’. My favourite work was Guadalupe Maravilla’s ‘Disease Thrower’ series. And I had a great couple of days in Manchester, visiting museums and galleries, including my first visit to The Whitworth, where I saw their Traces of Displacement show, featuring Cornelia Parker among many others.
I also saw some of Parker’s work in the excellent Bright Sparks: Photography and the Talbot Archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
I can’t remember visiting any of the big London galleries other than a brief immersion into the Infinity Mirror Rooms of Yayoi Kusama (another event, long delayed by COVID) at Tate Modern.
I got to see Punchdrunk’s Burnt City for second time just before it closed. I loved it all the more this time although I’m not sure I understood it any more clearly. I have nothing but admiration for their singular visions and lack of compromise. But I do wish they’d find a way to create face masks that properly fit over my glasses.
Celebrating LGBT+ History Month (in February), Mzz Kimberley (Kim Tatuma) hosted Queer Lives, an after-hours tour of the Tower of London, featuring key moments of queer British aristocratic history. Actually, it was a bit of a struggle to find many very specific stories (and maybe that’s telling in itself) but it was a real treat to be in the deserted Tower after hours, and Mzz Kimberley was fabulous, dressed as a raven.
I saw a lot of theatre in 2023.
In West London I was at The Bush for Lenny Henry’s self-penned, Windrush generation drama, August In England. At one point I was within the spotlight with Lenny as he enthusiastically ‘interacted’ with a pillar next to me. Awkward.
I was back there for Playlist for a Revolution, a kind of love story that marks diverging paths of two Hong Kong residents, one who moves to the UK, the other who stays at home to take up the fight against Chinese oppression.
Just down the road, in Hammersmith, it was great to see Frantic Assembly bring their Othello back to the Lyric and it was wonderful to see the theatre packed with young people who could relate to the modern retelling, set in a London pub.
Also at Lyric, The Good Person of Szechwan had a hugely impressive stage, a lot of humour and a lot of smoking. While God of Carnage, directed by Nicholai La Barrie, focused on a slowly turning circular set and the gentle unravelling of polite manners.
La Barrie also directed the excellent production of Romeo and Juliet that I saw at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
I saw some epic works at National Theatre: Janet McTeer was mesmerising as the politician at the heart of Phaedra. The first half was incredible with its fast paced overlapping dialogue but I got a little lost in the metaphorical mists and classical allusions of the second.
Dancing at Lughnasa filled the Olivier stage with Irish mysticism and lots of countryside. Brian Friel’s dialogue was impeccably delivered by the ensemble cast that included two Derry Girls and Ardal O’Hanlon.
That story of five sisters resonated later in the year when I was back there to see The House of Bernarda Alba, directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Harriet Walter took the titular role of Lorca’s play, maintaining order over another five sisters also trapped by societal rules and the generational trauma of male abuse. Powerful stuff.
In the Lyttelton theatre, I really enjoyed the staging of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, directed by Jamie Lloyd. Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell were excellent in the leads, on a stunning set by Soutra Gilmour.
At the Barbican Theatre, the central conceit of A Play for Living, staging a carbon neutral show, was an interesting one (with volunteers on stage generating electricity from static bikes) although the play got a bit lost and too preachy for me.
On the same stage, Complicité’s telling of Olga Tokarczuk’s, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead came at the ecocide topic from a more obtuse angle. Kathryn Hunter was stand-out brilliant in it.
And in Barbican’s Pit Theatre Home X, by Kakilang, was kind of dancey and immersive look at eco themes. We sat in a 270 degree projected world, and watched two VR-wearing performers, in London and Hong Kong, move together through a digital landscape. Music was provided by a keyboardist in London and a Soprano singer in Hong Kong.
Back in the Barbican Theatre, King Stakh’s Wild Hunt was a bonkers show from Belarus Free Theatre, featuring Belarusian and Ukranian performers in what is apparently a well-known east European folk tale that might have involved people pretending to be three ghosts to scare someone out of their inheritance… maybe.
In a similarly monumental and culturally significant way, I was amongst probably less than a dozen non Spanish speakers in a packed and very excitable crowd in the Barbican Theatre for the excellent Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) from Cheek by Jowl.
In Intervention 01, Artistic Director David Byrne (now in place at Royal Court) took the bold step of closing New Diorama to public performances for a while, giving artists time to rethink and regroup. When they did reopen, I very much enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the Katie Mitchell directed adaptation of Little Scratch. In Beckett-esque style, multiple people voiced the fractured inner monologue of a woman’s day, from mundane chores to the harrowing memories of abuse.
The new Nica Burns venue, @SohoPlace is a gorgeous theatre with a terrible name. I saw their production of Medea, directed by Dominic Cooke. Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels were both brilliant in it.
Park Theatre opened a decade ago. I’ve no idea why it’s taken so long to get there. It was great to have that as an excuse to see the funny, apocalyptic It’s Headed Straight Towards Us, written by Adrian Edmondson with Nigel Planer, with Samuel West and Rufus Hound in the lead roles.
Milton Court, the stunning venue within Guildhall School Music, was built around the same time. I was delighted to get to visit to see a new production of Roy Williams’ Iraq War drama, Days of Significance, directed by Monique Touko. It was all the more hard hitting because the actors were so appropriately young.
It seems to have taken me 70 years to get round to seeing The Mousetrap. The play was OK but I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to visit St Martin’s Theatre. What a lovely venue.
In the similarly beautiful Criterion Theatre, I caught Bleak Expectations in its final week (of a much curtailed run). I was lucky to see Stephen Fry as the narrator. He’s a trustee at the Criterion and seemed to be having the time of his life.
Also new to me but more than a century old. I enjoyed visiting the tiny Bridewell Theatre. I was there to see the excellent Cuckoo, written and performed by Jaha Koo. He succinctly talked us through 20 years of Korean conflict and American imperialism using three rice cookers. It was part of LIFT in the City, their off-festival programme.
I really welcomed the chance to see the Artsadmin show that was part if LIFT 2022: The Making of Pinocchio again, back for a run at Battersea Arts Centre. It is a really thoughtful and often very funny look at the lives of an artist couple, one of whom is working through gender reassignment. Their story is told through the metaphor of the Pinocchio story, with touching dialogue, models, projections and smart use of perspective shifts.
Also at BAC, I enjoyed the artistry of The Talent, with Gemma Paintin, contained throughout in an illuminated sound-booth, recording announcements and voice-overs. Is she recording the human voice for some kind of post apocalyptic world that is unfolding outside that cosy booth?
I’d been waiting a long time to see Martin McDonagh’s chilling Pillowman, Directed Matthew Dunster. It was another COVID victim, originally Lily Allen played a little too detached for me. Steve Pemberton was great and Paul Kaye was psychotically scary. There were some interesting parallels to The Mirror at The Almeida, later in the year.
I saw lots of great stuff at Soho Theatre:
Shorty was a fascinating and sometimes uncomfortable show from artist Hester Stefan Chillingworth, looking at the world through the eyes of a trans child.
Ben Target talked about his lockdown experience, living with an irascible, octogenarian family friend, Lorenzo. The show included live carpentry, a welcoming coffee and a finale involving a Wagon Wheel.
If I’m honest I struggled to enjoy Boy Parts. There’s only so much entertainment I can get from someone fantasising about torture and murder.
There isn’t much humour to be squeezed from the political scandals surrounding COVID, but Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber found the sweet spot with faux Elizabethan dialogue and Adidas pantaloons in their Pandemonium.
At the Young Vic I really enjoyed Kimber Lee’s untitled f**k m*ss s**gon. It made me think hard about the generation damage of cultural stereotypes but the play was never po-faced or one-dimensional, and was mostly very funny.
Over the road at the Old Vic it was wonderful to get to see Groundhog Day again (sadly without the complex revolving stage this time). I really don’t understand why that show failed to excite US audiences. That’s one of many good reasons why I’d be a terrible Producer.
Nothing’s perfect and there were a couple of events that missed the mark, in my opinion…
The communications team have obviously struggled with Derren Brown’s Unbelievable. The idea behind it is that Derren can train multi-talented performers to become accomplished illusionists – the publicity image shows those performers being controlled by a hidden puppet-master. But the result is a pretty average, end of the pier magic show with a lot of razzamatazz and a genuinely brilliant pay-off for one audience member. Plus big disclaimers on every piece of communication: please note: Derren Brown does not appear on stage in this production (of Derren Brown’s Unbelievable).
I’d booked very early for The Enfield Haunting at Ambassadors Theatre. I was excited to see Catherine Tate and David Threlfall, both of whom are brilliant, and working very hard in this production. But the show really wasn’t sure what it wanted to be – a jump scare horror, an intriguing whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. I’m not sure what but something went wrong somewhere in the production process. My evening wasn’t helped by an unbelievably badly behaved audience who shouted out and interacted with the dialogue; a particular low-light being the woman behind me who called my (thankfully adult) son a ‘c*nt’ for shushing her. Delightful.
Plans for 2024…
There’s already lots to look forward to in 2024. I’ve already booked for: The Homecoming, Young Vic / Cowbois, Royal Court / Natalie Palamides, Soho Theatre / Kin (Gecko Theatre), National Theatre / Ambergris: Les Anlicasts, Barbican Pit Theatre / Till The Stars Come Down, National Theatre / Julia Masli: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, Soho Theatre / King Lear, Almeida Theatre / Hadestown, Lyric Theatre / Macbeth, Canada Water / Nye, National Theatre / Castle of Joy (Det Ferösche Compagnie), National Theatre / The Human Body, Donmar / Faith Healer, Lyric Hammersmith / Don’t Make Tea, Soho Theatre / Boys on the Verge of Tears, Soho Theatre / Mitski, Eventim Apollo / Mary Said What She Said, Barbican Theatre / The Cherry Orchard, Donmar / A Chorus Line, Sadlers Wells