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FEATURE: Five favourites

One of the many Les Miserables casts
One of the many Les Miserables casts

In several decades as a theatre reviewer I’ve seen many shows that remain vivid in my mind (and some awful ones likewise...).

In no particular order, here are five favourites from a lifetime of theatregoing. Remember them?

They are also a reminder that there was magnificent theatre in the UK before Covid-19 and there will be again, providing our government tries to understand its value.

We would love to hear your favourite five too. Drop us an email or comment on our social media posts.

Over the years the Royal Exchange, Manchester has produced some truly remarkable spectacles, but two stand out, both directed by Manchester-born Exchange associate Nicholas Hytner. You might have heard of him...

The pair of favourites are from a couple of seasons in the 1980s, when Hytner was working youthful wonders alongside a couple of actors, relative newcomer Michael Grandage, and Ian McDiarmid, an actor capable of astonishing range and edgy excitement.

Hytner’s Exchange tenure (1985-89) came at the end of his twenties, when he was already an experienced theatre and opera director – but his best was still very much to come, as he proved in his home town.

He started with a lithe As You Like It, added Grandage to the Mobil Prize-winning Mumbo Jumbo, then teamed up with Grandage, McDiarmid and designer Tom Cairns with the first of my favourites, Edward II, in October 1986.

Ian McDiarmid and Michael Grandage in Edward II
Ian McDiarmid and Michael Grandage in Edward II

Marlowe’s dense history play should not have been so thrilling, but a perfect cast (which also included Iain Glen) and extraordinary set remain a standout. The theatre had never looked so richly evocative of the play’s themes, from regal excess to murderous shadows, brilliantly lit by Mark Henderson. McDiarmid walked a line between good-time monarch and petulant monster in a dazzling performance, while Grandage was a greatly watchable Gaveston, the king’s lover.

The show’s high-energy approach was fired to greater heights by its set, a mix of dirt-floored, dank prison (in which rich robes trailed and mud was kicked over the front rows after some indoor rain), and courtly richness, overhung by a huge half-globe from which starry lights shone and rain fell. The Exchange’s closeness to the audience put everyone into the charged atmosphere, and the result was electric, Hytner doing what he does best – whipping up energy and timing the play’s ebbs and flows to perfection.

The director’s mix of the 16th Century setting and a modernist, homo-erotic lustfulness was simply unlike anything else the Exchange had done before. The result lives on vividly in the mind, 35 years later.

Just under a year later, after a production of Wycherly’s The Country Wife with Gary Oldman, Cheryl Campbell and McDiarmid, Hytner, McDiarmid and Grandage reconvened for the second favourite on my list – a play that couldn’t have been more different than the earlier triumph.

Exchange acting favourite James Maxwell had produced a new translation of Schiller’s great Don Carlos – better known as Verdi’s great opera – and it fell to Hytner to produce the austere, courtly drama.

Virginia Greig and Ian McDiarmid in Don Carlos
Virginia Greig and Ian McDiarmid in Don Carlos

The story is one of high political intrigue: Don Carlos (Grandage), son of Philip II of Spain (McDiarmid), once had a passion for his stepmother, Elizabeth. A lady-in-waiting shows the king his son's youthful letters to the queen (from before her marriage), and the king is less than pleased. It’s all mixed up with political manoeuvres between Spain and the Netherlands – another point of contention between father and son – and results in some astonishing dialogue between the two.

It’s a vivid memory partly because of McDiarmid’s performance: the technically brilliant actor specialises in portraying tragic, aloof figures, never better than here, cutting through dialogue like a scalpel; vividly conjuring a man trying to overcome a lifetime of mistrust, double-dealing and loneliness after apparent betrayal by family and friends.

Another attraction was Richard Hudson’s set, notable for its sparseness. Basically a darkly-lit stage with little in the way of furniture, regal robes adorned the actors and gave a sense of opulence, with a large steel grating set into the centre of the floor. The stage was lit as a long corridor from one side of the theatre to the other, offering opportunities for stately processions and ominous silence.

Hytner pushed the tension to epic levels and had a wonderful coup de theatre to break that tension late in the evening, when the Grand Inquisitor (played by Maxwell) made an appearance, preceded by a huge sheet of flame firing up through the grating, the heat from it causing the entire audience to shrink backwards in the presence of the “right hand” of God. Magnificent.

As Nicholas Hytner was having the time of his life at the Exchange, audiences flocked to the Palace Theatre in Manchester for a month from mid-April 1986 to see a truly epic production and the third of my favourites, the RSC’s eight-and-a-half-hour Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Michael Siberry as Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby in 1986
Michael Siberry as Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby in 1986

Originally seen from 1980, with Roger Rees and David Threlfall as Nicholas and Smike, the show was revived for a four-date tour to Newcastle, Manchester, Los Angeles and New York with Michael Siberry as Nicholas, John Lynch as Smike and John Carlisle as Ralph Nickleby within the huge cast. The huge Palace auditorium was extensively reworked and David Edgar’s script crackled with the social injustice, comedy and melodrama we know from Dickens’ original.

Viewers who had seen it on TV (in four weekly parts in 1982) were denied the scale and exuberance of the live work, broken into only two parts and performed either on consecutive nights or on one day, with a long break. Praise has been lavished on Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s production which, despite its length, was a beacon of brevity, pace and interest without a single minute of boredom. (Nunn and Caird, the latter once an associate at Manchester’s Contact Theatre, return in my final choice).

Those who commit to the hours of Nickleby enter a world of injustice, hope, laughter, drama and love such as has rarely been seen on stage in a single work before, into which the directors loaded tricks they had learned or devised over the years to make the experience a thoroughly immersive, fast-moving masterpiece.

The whole event was a brilliant mix of narration and vignette; each member of the cast adding a line here, a phrase there as Dickens’ prose moved us between key scenes. John Napier’s clever set mixed timbers and generic elements, with new scenes and props conjured from tables, chairs, boxes piled up, used and returned to the set’s detritus, waiting to be built and rebuilt again. Every element was charged with Dickens’ sentimentality for the poor, making the event a wonderful experience in which the viewer’s emotions rose and fell with the story, culminating in Nicholas’s sweeping up of another young waif to end the story as it began. An unforgettable experience.

Fourth on my list is master composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s most approachably vicious musical, Sweeney Todd.

David Birrell as Todd & Don Gallagher as the Judge in Sweeney Todd in 2013. Picture by Jonathan Keenan
David Birrell as Todd & Don Gallagher as the Judge in Sweeney Todd in 2013. Picture by Jonathan Keenan

I missed the Manchester Library Theatre’s much-acclaimed production, but greatly enjoyed Opera North’s spectacularly operatic version a couple of times, Watermill Theatre’s sparse, ensemble version with musician-actors instead of a full band, the Manchester Royal Exchange’s updated version, set in modern times, and even an amateur production that was remarkably good. They were all very different but had one thing in common: the extraordinary power of a master at work, Sondheim having produced material capable of wide interpretation but never losing its rich and satisfying darkness and lush score.

Sondheim’s wonderful music is lyrical, brooding and occasionally very funny, sweeping from the darkness of My Friends (Todd’s love song to his razors) to the brilliant, ghastly A Little Priest – the best song of its kind since Gilbert and Sullivan, and certainly the foremost, funniest song about the flavours of murder victims...

In between there is gorgeous lyricism in the likes of Johanna, the almost perfect Pretty Women and a simple, heartfelt melody in Tobias’s sweet (but menace-laced) Not While I’m Around. All this mixed up in a Grand Guignol tale about revenge, madness and cold-hearted, profit-driven serial murder. Wonderful.

And top of the list? I’ve left out so many – West Side Story, Brad Fraser’s generally brilliant transatlantic plays at the Exchange, Willy Russell’s marvellous Blood Brothers, anything by Martin McDonagh (and particularly The Pillowman), and the extraordinary Angel Meadow, performed in a derelict pub, among them.

But foremost among my (and many other people’s) favourites is a musical: Les Miserables.

I’ve enjoyed the majesty of Cameron Mackintosh’s original production (courtesy again of Trevor Nunn and John Caird) and his strong and technically-revised version (Laurence Connor and James Powell); a staggering production of the “junior” version – the same as the full original show but limited to performers under 19 years old, (which seemed cruel, until I saw it), and finally Tom Hooper’s terrific movie version, with Anne Hathaway breaking hearts.

Les Miserables remains pretty much what it was in London in 1985 and on the first night of its provincial tour, at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, in February 1992: the most phenomenal musical yet presented, a massive global hit. Nunn and Caird made it spectacular, emotional, manipulative and thrilling; it grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go. Critics often dismissed it as maudlin, but the paying customers really rather liked it, and I’m with them.

On top of its sprawling Hugo story, the original London production was an ocean of sentiment, love, heartbreak and other emotions, all enhanced by a superb, lush score of beautifully quiet lullabies, soaring melodies, stirring anthems and huge choruses.

It had a vast set too, with towering backdrops, a massive revolve, a bridge, unruly (at least at the 1992 Manchester first night) barricade, striking lighting and stirring stage pictures, resulting in a show that demanded attention and happily received it. Mackintosh certainly knows where to spend his money...

The revision in more recent times has resulted in a less-imposing spectacle – the sets are smaller, the cast thinner, the orchestrations slimmed, the giant revolve gone, the bridge dismantled and the barricade no longer a ton and a half of hydraulically-operated trucks. Nunn has been less than complimentary about it, but the show remains one long, rushing arc from first to last, enhanced by video projections and other modern technology, and thrilling in a different way. It doesn’t have quite the epic scale it had, but the show still lasts not far short of three hours, and still flies by in a few minutes.

The point about Les Mis, The Glums – whatever you want to call it – is that there is no weak link. Revel at every performance in the lush orchestrations, the brilliant lighting, the magnificent set, the melodramatic characters and set-pieces and ultimately, in the sight of over 30 performers belting their hearts out to the point of exhaustion.

It’s an emotional roller coaster like no other.


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