REVIEW: Herald arts’ highlights from 2019

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Kunene and the King stars John Kani and Antony Sher._Photo by Ellie Kurttz
Herald arts editor Gill Sutherland picks her some of the shows and events she’s enjoyed locally in 2019. See this week’s Herald newspaper for a comprehensive roundup from other contributors involved in the arts locally

‘A year of tears and laughter’ would sum up my cultural experiences in 2019.

Nell Gifford pictured with her daughter earlier in 2019 for show Xanadu

For the last 14 or so years I’ve been a devotee of Giffords Circus – what a joy it is to behold the truly dazzling and creative shows they put on in parks, palaces and farmers’ fields as they tour around the Cotwolds and nearby. Every year without fail I cry at the finale – a life-affirming spectacle which sees performers and audience do a merry jig in the circus ring. Admiration for Giffords is almost cult-like – and the loss of its founder Nell Gifford (from breast cancer) just before Christmas has been keenly felt by many. Reading Helena Bonham Carter’s tribute in The Guardian recently had me reaching for the tissues yet again. She sums up so many of my sentiments when she wrote: “Giffords Circus has been, for 14 years, a beacon in my year. A sort of summer Christmas. Particularly the bit at the end when the troupe invite the audience into the ring to dance. I always try to bottle that feeling to last me for the year.”

Thankfully Giffords continues, and I’m sure 2020’s tour, The Hooley (starting 9th April), will be especially meaningful.

Syd Sutherland’s demon clown alarms Gretel. Photo: Dave Fawbert

I must also express a personal interest in the Playbox… two of my teenage children are keen members and regularly perform in shows. Stand-out productions for me this year were Strikes (revisted 20 years after it was first performed at the Dream Factory) and the festive offering Gretel – a fairytale retold for our times with such poignancy and acted so brilliantly I did the embarrassing mum thing and wept like a leaky tap each time I saw it (along with most other parents in the audience).

Even though I had no children in either show, Joseph from Stratford Musical Theatre Company at the Stratford Play House and Goodnight Mr Tom at the Bear Pit, were both brilliant heart-warming examples of truly great community theatre.

Jonathan Slinger and Alexandra Gilbreath as the Brutes in The Provoked Wife. Photos: Pete Le May

The Play House has been going from strength to strength and offering a creative programme with some real coups – which this year included a stellar outing from legendary rocker Robert Plant’s new folk outfit Saving Grace; and more exciting fare is on the way for 2020 (including my favourite humourist poet, John Cooper Clarke). The venue also hosted high calibre events that included the Stratford Literary Festival (see Annie Ashworth’s in this week’s newspaper) and the Stratford Musical Festival – during which I spent a memorable lunchtime listening to the Albion String Quartet deliver Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ – what bliss. And of course the venue is home to the Orchestra of the Swan, of which we should all be immensely proud and fantastic fringe theatre from Tread the Boards (see Peter Buckroyd’s highlights also in the paper).

It was most tattyfillarious (to channel the late Ken Dodd) to have some champion comedy in town in 2019. I particularly enjoyed the Comedy Festival at the RSC, which had a most impressive line-up. I got to see one of my favourite chuckle merchants, Milton Jones, who I had heard on Radio 4 many times, but had not experienced in the flesh, as it were. More tears but of the laughter variety this time.

Seeing The Boy in the Dress at the RSC had me laughing and crying at once – what a happy marriage of talents it is. It deserves to have more bums on seats than it does at present, but maybe the hoped-for London transfer will fill the theatre coffers. Fingers crossed.

Rosie Sheehy as King John. Photos by Steve Tanner

In general there was a mixed bag at the RSC, but the best of the bunch for me were: The Provoked Wife, which boasted a killer cast who clearly enjoyed themselves; King John, a great energetic take on an overlooked play; Measure For Measure, a timely and brilliantly acted look at sexual politics; and the fascinatingly gender-switched and hilarious Taming of the Shrew.

My tip-top gong of the year though goes to Kunene and the King, John Kani’s incredible new play which draws on King Lear to tell the story of two men of different ethnicities in post-apartheid South Africa. Political, moving and funny, it’s a masterpiece. If you missed it in Stratford you can see it in London from 24th January.