35 years theatregoing: stand-out performances

Keeping this list to thirty-five names has not been easy, but here they are – actors and their performances that have really made me gasp, engage or admire their work. In alphabetical order as I couldn’t possibly rank them; some of these names may have made more than one appearance had I allowed it.

So read on …

Richard Armitage – The Crucible (Old Vic, 2014). His John Proctor was breathtaking in this roar of a play. Happily you can watch it on Digital Theatre now – no substitute for being there in the moment, but at least his work is not lost to memory.

Emile Belcourt – Sweeney Todd (Oldham Coliseum, 1991). My first Sweeney, with this operatic heavyweight in the lead. Sondheim was fairly new to me at this time but I won’t forget this one in a hurry.

Eleanor Bron – A Perfect Ganesh (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 1996). I can’t remember much about the play (Prunella Scales was in it and I was seated next to Timothy West who took notes throughout) but Bron’s performance touched my heart and connected across the footlights.

Faith Brown – Sunset Boulevard (Palace, Manchester, 2004). Unlikely casting can often lead to greatness. Brown caught the tragedy of Norma Desmond and was an emotional powerhouse throughout in this touring version of the musical.

Dora Bryan – Hello Dolly (Opera House, Manchester, 1989). My first Jerry Herman show. Bryan may not have been a singer in the strictest sense but her comic chops were unquestionable and her parade unforgettable.

Tom Courtenay – King Lear (Royal Exchange, 1999). A staggering performance I didn’t expect full of vulnerability and hidden determination. At this theatre entrances are often on the steps by the audience and such it was here. Courtenay became the king in a flash.

Lindsay Duncan – The Cryptogram (Ambassadors, 1994). A nothing play in many ways, but Duncan’s grieving mother was the best thing in it, commanding the stage without any apparent effort.

Olympia Dukakis – Rose (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 1999). This one-person play gave Dukakis an opportunity to shine and still lingers long in the memory for her gestures as well as her voice. I feel extremely lucky to have seen it.

Jerome Flynn – Just Like That (Lyceum, Sheffield, 2004). Playing Tommy Cooper is hard but Flynn was not just a fine impersonator but absolutely hilarious, feeding off the audience and moving far beyond simple imitation.

Conleth Hill – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter, 2017). Yes, Imelda Staunton was Maggie, and yes, she did spit in my front-row eye, but Hill was incredible in what is really a tricky role to navigate.

Kathryn Hunter – Mother Courage and her Children (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2000). My first Brecht, and first sight of Hunter, that stage chameleon bizarre in form and speech. Other Courages (Diana Quick, Fiona Shaw) pale in comparison. Hunter braved every moment and showed every slight in her gait and eyes.

Jonathan Hyde – Gently Down The Stream (Park Theatre, 2019). If only for the monologue about the fire at the same club which inspired The View Upstairs, seen at Soho Theatre the same year.

Glenda Jackson – King Lear (Old Vic, 2016) . A return to the stage well worth waiting for, she brought fire and humanity to a role which faces familial greed and dementia head on. Her chemistry with Rhys Ifans as her Fool and Karl Johnson as Gloucester was totally believable.

Derek Jacobi – The Tempest (Sheffield Crucible, 2003). His Prospero was the reason this play, and particular the testing of Ferdinand, clicked for me. Others have been more showy (Sher), journeyman (Allam) or just bizarre (McKellen) but Jacobi’s stays strong in the mind.

James Earl Jones – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Novello Theatre, 2009). Seeing a much-loved actor I’d long admired on screen play the iconic role of Big Daddy had to be a highlight of theatregoing. He didn’t disappoint in this all-black priduction, seen from the front row.

Matthew Kelly – Twelfth Night (Alhambra, Bradford, 2005). A cracking Malvolio in a production that had many highlights, including Hilton McRae playing Feste in high heels. But Kelly was touching as the vain servant much wronged by all, and funny too.

Angela Lansbury – Blithe Spirit (Giegud Theatre, 2014). I will never forget an octogenarian Lansbury leaping over furniture and giving a tour de force lesson in comedy, then acknowledging the audience in the cheap seats in the curtain call bows. That is a star.

Frances de La Tour – Antony and Cleopatra (Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 1999). Hard on the heels of the NT’s version with Rickman/Mirren, the RSC teamed de La Tour with Alan Bates. He was dreadful (I remain an admirer, regardless) but she was interesting, brave, and quite magnificent.

George Layton – Jerusalem (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2005). Not that Jerusalem, this one is by Simon Armitage and is a dark musical comedy. Layton played the drums, well, and was brilliant in what was ultimately a play more admirable than really good.

Adrian Lester – Company (Donmar Warehouse, 2005). I’ve been told I’m an idiot for praising Lester’s performance as Bobby in Sondheim’s musical, but I stand by it. The singing might have been a little thin, but it worked in Sam Mendes’s production. This Bobby’s ‘Marry Me A Little’ was a highlight.

Alec McCowen – Tom and Clem (Aldwych Theatre, 1997). Opposite Michael Gambon, McCowen played Clement Attlee and was funny, lively and a joy to watch. The play didn’t do well, and I had a seat upgrade from UC to stalls, but watching him giving a speech atop a table stays in the mind.

Helen McCrory – Medea (National Theatre, 2014). You can watch this on NT Live, but to be there watching McCrory tear through this role, especially at the heartwrenching finale, is something I won’t forget.

Ian McKellen – Richard III (Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 1990). The t-shirts proclaimed a ‘world tour’ in rock style, and McKellen was absolutely magnetic and totally evil as the king who killed for power. If you’ve only seen the film, that’s fine, but this, with jackboots, looks to the audience, and all, was better.

Tanya Moodie – Medea (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2003). This Greek tragedy was taken to Africa in a production which made the story one of tension and tradition. Moodie was a core part of making this work.

Cillian Murphy – Ballyturk (National Theatre, 2014). This play was bonkers and almost feral, and Murphy rose to the challenge in a part which demandes physical stamina and stage presence.

Leslie Phillips – Camino Real (Swan Theatre, Stratford, 1997). Also featuring Susannah York and Peter Egan, this minor Tennessee Williams play had Phillips as raconteur and narrator, and he was very good indeed.

Si├ón Phillips – Marlene (Oldham Coliseum, 1996). It’s often forgotten that this show started up north. A show in which Phillips plays Dietrich through chat and song, it was marvellous throughout but I cried at ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, a song I love, and never heard sung with such feeling.

Su Pollard – Shout (Arts Theatre, 2009). A fun piece full of 60s references and tunes, Shout was bubbly and energetic. But when Pollard sang ‘You’re My World’ she proved what a great voice she has. A lovely moment.

Pete Postlethwaite – Scaramouche Jones (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2002). A solo performance which felt immediate, funny and full of pathos. Postelthwaite brought the tragic clown with his many white masks to life. A landmark moment in theatre for me.

Jonathan Pryce – The Height of the Storm (Wyndham’s, 2018). Pryce rarely gives a bad performance, and this study of old age and dementia was compelling. Beautifully teamed with Eileen Atkins, this was a play I was glad not to miss.

Philip Quast – The Fix (Donmar Warehouse, 1997). Quast has said he would not be first choice for a gay, wheelchair-using character now, but I’m glad he was then. Grahame was a complex character, vicious and vulnerable, and he played him to perfection.

Denis Quilley – My Fair Lady (Opera House, Manchester, 1988). The moment I fell in love with this musical, with Liz Robertson returning to the role of Eliza. Quilley was more of a singer than most, a brash Higgins but a good one.

Antony Sher – Death of a Salesman (Noel Coward Theatre, 2015). A short man already, Sher crumpled into the role of Willy Loman and made him truly tragic, even as he railed at his sons and begged for his job. The scene out at dinner was especially well-done. One of his best stage roles.

David Suchet – The Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre, 2015). Poirot as Lady Bracknell? He wasn’t the first man to take on the role but Suchet totally dominated this play with double-takes, snobby eyebrow-raising, and fabulous gowns. The closest anyone has come to Dame Edith Evans in embracing the role, and utterly hilarious.

David Troughton – Henry IV (Swan Theatre, Stratford, 2000). Presented in rep with Richard II (a modern take with Samuel West as the king), the Henries were more traditional, and Troughton was unforgettable as the usurper who ends his life pitifully.

Who stands out in your theatre life?

2 thoughts on “35 years theatregoing: stand-out performances

  1. I only saw two of the productions on your list (Medea and Virginia Woolf), though I have seen the majority of those actors in other roles.

    Death is the main factor that makes my memories of actors both more acute and more significant. I always feel a link to a performer when I read an obituary and realise that I saw them in something, ‘We spent an evening together’… I also find that when I read a playscript, I can remember particular inflections and gestures.

    Two such performances that have caught in my memory, either end of the age range –

    I’m one of the few people to have seen Laura Sadler onstage. She died at twenty-two in unfortunate circumstances. I remember her in a couple of plays at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1998/99, especially Ed Himes’ About the Boy, conveying a certain quality of wide-eyed stubbornness that was very funny and felt very distinctive.

    The performance that I go back to in my mind most often is Alfred Burke’s playing the old Shepherd in Jonathan Kent’s production of Oedipus in the Olivier in 2008. This was Alfred Burke’s final role, his first at the National, and I still wasn’t really aware of his amazing TV career at that point. He was almost ninety and almost blind by that stage, but he made up for his infirmities with seven decades of acquired stage presence: “I took pity on the child”.

    1. Laura Sadler was such a great loss – sadly I never saw her on stage. Alfred Burke was at the RSC late in life as was Griffith Jones, memorable performances from both.

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