Theatre has a special place in my heart. I love it. It can be visceral, emotive, hypnotic and as deep as the most beautiful piece of music. There's something about people gathering together to watch it. It's old.
And often not very good.
But occasionally there's a gem. A deep diamond experience. A play that stays with you long after the curtain has fallen. It's a tough choice, but here's the 3 best plays I've ever seen – and why.
1) Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson (2009)
I'd got cautious about plays being built up too much – and every show in the West End tends to be billed as a life changing event. That's ok – that's just how advertising works, but it makes you a bit cynical. So one day a friend called me and said he was in the queue for tickets to Jerusalem – in fact, he'd been queuing all night. Did I want a ticket? Yes I did.
There was a bit of awkwardness as I turned up fresh as a daisy at about 6pm to meet him – the people behind were furious as it looked like I was jumping the queue. But, anyway, I got in. Walking beneath the billboard announcing that this was the best play I'd ever see in my life I started to feel a sense of being let down. This was healthy as my expectations were lower – it left me more open.
What followed was around 3 hours of the most perfect thing I've ever seen. Mark Rylance was practically shamanic in how he moved and talked, twisting from funny to pathetic to still to powerful to threatening. I still remember the set – the trees, the chickens, some kid making her entrance through a sofa. Moments still alive in my mind – the old professor talking about his wife, Rooster Byron emerging bloodied and defiant towards the end, the story about the giants, the moment he looks into his ex wife's eyes and there's this magical static in the air as you perceive him for a moment to be much older and earthier than he appeared. The trees shaking at the end.
2) Faust by Punchdrunk. Directed by Felix Barrett & Maxine Doyle (2007)
There's no Punchdrunk experience like your first Punchdrunk experience. Knowing nothing about the company, the play – anything – I found myself in what seemed to be an old power station maybe somewhere in the East End. Walking in, there was a western style saloon and I assumed the play would take place there - a sort of cabaret.
Wrong. Instead I was given one of those Eyes Wide Shut masks and told that it would make me 'invisible'. Then I was directed to a lift occupied by this sleazy lift attendant. He would practically throw people out on different floors – all of us feeling highly visible in our masks. I had absolutely no idea what was happening.
My floor. I'm in another bar – this one shows a pine forest out of the window. There's a couple of cowboys slugging it out. I sit down, assuming I just sit there. Wrong again. Slowly it dawns that you can move – and go anywhere you like. I can leave the bar, walk into the pine forest. It's like realising the fur coats in the cupboard keep going back until you're in Narnia. There's churches, hotels, a town, diners, secret lonely places. The characters travel through the show, sometimes separating making us choose who to follow. Mephistopheles is a good bet as he's loud and interesting, but as it turns out, the quieter characters leading their quiet lives around the tragic story of Faust are often more interesting – and you witness them alone. You're often alone in Punchdrunk shows. The goose bumps go up on my arms thinking about it. It's dream logic. What you lose in coherence you gain in visceral experience. The best dreams aren't often the ones that are easily analysed.
3) Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley. Directed by David Mercatali (2014)
This was a one woman show with no set and if I remember rightly just a couple of lighting changes. It's a 70 minute monologue. Not an easy sell.
Gemma Whelan playing Andrea was this powerhouse of stamina and vulnerability. It's pitch black, real, harrowing – god, so harrowing – that I felt shell shocked after watching it. People often talk about actors 'going there' - and I'm with David Mamet on this. He says sometimes audiences aren't moved, they're moved by their capacity to be moved. 'That's very powerful acting' you might say, wiping a tear and being impressed. There's nothing wrong with that – if I can get to that I'd be pretty chuffed, but with this show Gemma Whelan really did go there. It was like we saw her heart get cracked open like an egg through what happens to her in the play. At times, she could hardly get the words out fast enough. As she took her bow I wondered if she was alright. It was courageous and alive. I don't mean to, but it's subliminally become the barometer that I judge one person shows with. It turns out that the real thing – real drama – isn't about posturing and being impressive, it's about being vulnerable and open. It was magnificent.
Too many other shows to list here which could easily take up one of these places. Journey's End, Every Brilliant Thing, Red, Cargo, Ghost Stories, All My Sons, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Road, The Ferryman, Hamlet (Simon Russell Beale), A Christmas Carol, Bound, Wet House... but for today anyway, this would be my favourite three.