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South West year in review 2014

A round up of some of the South West highlights in 2014.

Ustinov Studio- venue of the year in the South West

2014 saw a number of great productions grace the area. With theatre to cover all ranges and taste from the big West End spectacles at the Bristol Hippodrome, Plymouth Theatre Royal and Southamptons Mayflower Theatre; vibrant regional playhouses creating thrilling work and always fascinating theatre festivals such as Mayfest. This is a list of my best theatre of the year and covers only a small percentage of work that has been seen in the South West this year. For example the always enterprising Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter only received one visit from me at the beginning of the year, if I'd been able to get there more I'm sure some of its productions would feature on this list. It is a real gem of the region. Similarly Plymouth and Southampton have been covered by other critics and there work would no doubt feature on their own best of lists.

The work I saw this year covers Bristol, Bath and Salisbury and I saw a great deal of work produced in these cities this year but there are inevitably things missed. I never saw Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factories highly praised Arcadia or the similarly lauded Bad Jews at the Ustinov. I also missed the actor-musician Betty Blue Eyes at the Salisbury Playhouse and have yet to see Tobacco Factory Theatre's Christmas production of 101 Dalmations. So with these caveats out of the way its time for me to talk about what I have seen and praise those shows, venues and performers who have made 2014 such a vintage year.

Touring Production of the year:

West Side Story (Bristol Hippodrome)

One of the daddies of musicals this production demonstrated it may be time for a newly conceived production but had a number of sizzling performances and an orchestra that played the score beautifully.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake (Bristol Hippodrome)

Bourne has done more than anyone to make dance popular to mainstream audiences and his Swan Lake swaggered; playful and irreverent but also respectful to the original. If I wasn't sure about some of the performances this didn't distract from Bourne' vision and sweeping artistry.

My Perfect Mind (Tobacco Factory Theatres)

For theatre buffs like me this autobiographical piece, that told of veteran actor Edward Petherbridge's stroke ,just as he was due to play King Lear in New Zealand, was pure bliss. Aided by Told By An Idiot's Paul Hunter who staged it with grace and economy I could have watched another couple of hours of this. Can someone give Petherbridge another chance with Lear, ideally with Hunter as his fool.

One Man Two Guvnor's (Bath Theatre Royal)

Richard Bean's brilliant vaudeville, end of pier comedy has already bagged Oliviers, Tony's and the rest so its little surprise it ends up on this list. The tour cast were just as superb as the West End casts I have previously seen with Gavin Henshall stepping into the shoes of James Corden and Owain Arthur with aplomb. Grant Olding's music deserves a mention as well, toe-tapping delights all.

Winner: Singing In The Rain(Bristol Hippodrome)

From the first note of the overture to the last delightful splash of the finale I was thoroughly bewitched by this Chichester import. Andrew Wright's choreography demonstrated again that he is the foremost musical theatre choreographer of his generation. I could have seen it again and again. A joy from start to finish nothing intoxicated me more.

Best Supporting Performance:

Paul Hunter (My Perfect Mind)

A perfect foil for Petherbridge, Hunter's expert clowning background allowed him to essay a number of characters, from academics to New Zealand theatre directors whilst always ensuring that the spotlight never left its main player.

Alison Steadman (Therése Raquin)

From bossy matriarch to a frail withered old lady stuck in a wheelchair and horrified at the crime she hears confessed, Steadman's performance is the thing that has most stuck with me from Jonathan Mumby's impressive, expressionistic Thérese Raquin.

Djalenga Scott (West Side Story)

Sexy, sultry and anguished Scott's Anita blazed on the Hippodrome stage. At times the production felt old fashioned but when Scott broke into America the revival felt fresh, urgent and alive.

Stephane Annelli (Singing In The Rain)

A true triple threat this performance took you back to the time of Astaire entertaining cinema audiences in full blown Technicolor. There was no more likeable performance anywhere.

Winner: Rina Fatania (Dead Dog In A Suitcase)

My favourite supporting performance of the year, grotesque, hilarious and captivating. It was a performance that encapsulated the sheer delight of Kneehigh's production and the moment she threw herself into the splits has to be one of my moments of the year.

Best Actor:

Edward Petherbridge (My Perfect Mind)

The veteran performer produced something deeply impressive in a performance style that felt informal whilst being technically sound. A production that suggests Petherbridge would make a fine after dinner speaker. He is a fine ranconteur. He is an even finer actor.

Greg Hicks (Play Strindberg)

Tackling a role that Lawrence Olivier had great success with, albeit in Strindberg's original, rather then Dumet's remagining, the always magnetic Hicks tore through the role creating a monster who somehow by the end had almost convinced the audience to cheer for him. It was a well cast production but you just couldn't take your eyes off him

Louise Maskell (West Side Story)

We expect Tony's to have light tenor voices to present the tender but heroic hero. That was subverted by Maskell's honey dewed baritone that was vocally as strong as anything I heard this year aWorst Wedding Evernd also suggested a darker hue to the character then we may be used to.

Winner: Kenneth Cranham (The Father)

Whilst I seem to be alone in finding The Father's icy aesthetic too alienating to truly love, Cranham produced one of his finest performances; terrifying one moment, lost and frightened the next. He took you into the psyche of a man's mind crumbling to Alzheimer and yet also found moments of light amongst the shade.

Best Actress:

Claire Higgins (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf)

Is there anyone that can play sozzled better? Her Martha was a terrifying lush, brutal but strangely alluring. With her co-star Tim Piggot Smith a little tentative, she kept the ship on coarse and delivered a Martha who London will surely see when she returns from her Broadway sojourn

Madeleine Worrall (Jane Eyre)

As bright, as wilful and as independent as the books heroine, Worrall had the difficult task over the plays two parts to be the only actor to play the one part. As actors multi-tasked around her she was the audience's guiding hand. There is no bigger compliment then to say we would have followed her anywhere.

Silvia Gallerano (La Merda)

The most nakedly vulnerable performance of the year no question. Sitting starkers in a chair, she screamed, she cried, she laughed and she haunted. A very different performance than anything else on this list, but in its way just as affective.

Winner Tanya Moodie (Intimate Apparell)

Undemonstrative but as powerful a piece of work as I had seen all year. Moodie caught the joy of a women falling in love and the painful realisation that it may not be the fairytale she had hoped for. No performance this year made me feel more A glorious central performance in a brilliant play and the finest piece of acting in a staggeringly good year for the Ustinov.

Production of the year:

Worst Wedding Ever (Salisbury Playhouse)

Chris Chibnall's comedy was both genuinely funny and also genuinely local. Sleepy Salisbury had something a little different and artistic director Gareth Machin had tons of fun with the broad brush humour. Its schmaltzy ending was its only misstep all evening.

London Road (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School)

This shone just as bright in this drama school showcase as it had at the National Theatre. Some spine tingling harmonies, a work of depth and grace, it was a fine swan song for these graduating actors. If this is any indication many are set for strong careers in this industry.

Intimate Apparel (Ustinov Studio)

The Ustinov had a fine year but it was Intimate Apparel that stood out on top. Lawrence Boswell's finely judged production was quiet but devastating and had Tanya Moodie giving the performance of the year at it heart.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf(Bath Theatre Royal)

You could smell the bourbon in Adrian Noble's booze soaked version of Albee's masterpiece. Though Tim Piggott Smith had a few issues with lines on press night, Claire Higgins was a striking Martha and there were also strong support work from Iris Roberts and Nathan Riley as the innocent pawns in this couple's desperate game.

Winner: Dead Dog In A Suitcase

Kneehigh's Dead Dog had everything I love about theatre. Madcap, alive with ideas, a little bit naughty, a little bit messy, ambitious and full of heart. It made you think and it provided one great night out. When Kneehigh are on form there is no one that can touch them. This is up there with their best work

Venue of the year: Ustinov Studio

Bristol Old Vic had a strong year with noteworthy performances of Jane Eyre, Swallows And Amazons and my production of the year Dead Dog but it also produced a so-so revival of Juno And The Paycock and a not very good World Cup Final 1966.The Ustinov stood out above the rest, producing a year of high calibre premieres with high definition acting of the highest order. Intimate Apparel and Playing Strindberg were superb, The Father ended up on many best of lists even if I wasn't as sold on it as my colleagues and The Big Meal, A Steady Rain and Exit The King each had many noteworthy things in. You go to this studio theatre with a spring in your step. You leave debating its productions for hours after. What more do you want out of theatre?