Ten of the best

Despite a difficult financial climate, local theatres have not only produced works of quality, but also plays, theatre, opera and dance which are incredibly popular. Arts Editor Rod McPhee looks at the highlights of 2010

PLAY

Calendar Girls

Leeds Grand Theatre, March

"For the first 30 minutes you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching an edition of Loose Women, but you gradually start to forget and start to accept them for the characters they're playing. But this is only fully achieved by the sheer gusto of the tear-inducing script. It is simply superb. And although it has many similarities to the screenplay of the movie the comedy actually works better within the dynamic of the theatre. It's not an insult to say that there's the whiff of a giant hen party about this production. There's unquestionably an aura of feminine solidarity surrounding Calendar Girls, which is to be expected since it is, in effect, all about women dispensing, not only with their clothes, but with the shackles of what the rest of the world expects of them."

PLAY

History Boys

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, February 2010

"A few elements have been unnecessarily added, some taken away, but the net result is no less hilarious or poignant. The star of the show here remains Bennett and his unparalleled writing, but stealing the show with a heart-melting performance has to be Posner, played by the incredibly talented James Byng whose well-judged comic timing is only equalled by his ability to bound spectacularly around the stage while belting out several hypnotic songs."

DANCE

Swan Lake

The Alhambra, Bradford, March

"Despite being an understandable reaction, this isn't merely a homoerotic homage. It is a genuine attempt to twist the dynamic of dance – and boy does it work. It works because rather than just have men pirouetting and prancing across the stage just as the women did in Tchaikovsky's initial vision, Bourne gives the cast broad-shouldered choreography befitting strong, athletic men. Just to be clear: this Swan Lake isn't a flexing, posing, exercise in post-Chippendales over-exposure, it is a genuine attempt to present a more beefy but no less beautiful interpretation.

MUSICAL

Hairspray

Leeds Grand Theatre, June

"It's been a long time since any musical had a near sell-out audience on their feet, dancing, cheering and applauding as the final curtain came down at The Grand. That's the power of Hairspray – it has heart, soul and, most importantly, a mind. There's nothing token about this show, with a serious narrative, brilliant songs, a fantasy league cast of performers and the kind of backdrops you only normally see in movies. What sets this work of genius out from poorer cousins is that the music and movement is never, ever used merely as filler or a narrative vehicle."

PLAY

Hay Fever

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, June

"Maggie Steed, charged with taking on the matriarchal monster, does a remarkable job of wrestling the part, indeed the play, back from the memory of its creator and onto the centre-stage. A weaker actor might have failed to reign in such a huge character but she booms on the back of Bliss and, in turn, everything else revolves around her beautifully.

"A play as unsurpassable as this could lead you to believe it would be impossible to create a bad version of Hay Fever, but this is far from the truth. Stages across Britain are littered with the bones of clumsy interpretations of what should be a classic comedy. But a production as crafted as this makes it seem hilarious, naturally."

OPERA

Mary Stuart

Leeds Grand Theatre, June

"There's a point in Donizetti's masterpiece where Mary, Queen of Scots grabs a riding whip from Queen Elizabeth, thrusts it under the chin of her royal nemesis and brands her a 'vile bastard'. You could almost here audience members gasp. Yes, this is an absolute corker of an opera. Not some wafer-thin story propped up by a lush score and a dubious love story, but an absolute blockbuster of a clash between two of history's most famous regal rivals. The battle between the two was so epic, so fast and furious that any minor flaws got overwhelmed by an incredible maelstrom which simply has you on the edge of your seat."

PLAY

Death of a Salesman

West Yorkshire Playhouse, May

"There's a moment right at the end, when Willy Loman's fate is finally sealed, when you hear something you rarely hear in a theatre these days – the sound of people crying. Not weeping, wailing or sobbing, but silently sniffling, scrambling for pocket handkerchiefs and lifting up glasses to wipe away tears. Such is the strength of Arthur Miller's timeless tale. Scaling the shoulders of this giant is director Sarah Esdaile, a self-confessed lover of the writer, who has created a production which has realised the potential of every heart-rending element – this is quite possibly as quality a production of Death of A Salesman as you're ever likely to see."

OPERA

Merry Widow

Leeds Grand Theatre, October

"Despite their being a lack of grand arias or choking duets, this is the real deal. It merely blends a select number of operatic nuances with some high-kicking shimmer and sheer festivity. The biggest plus point is that it doesn't take itself too seriously and thw hole thing is played out and, unliek most operas, it doesn't conclude with a heartbroken lover taking their own life. If you were pondering a potential tonic for the post-recession blues then this is ideal."

PLAY

This Land – The Woody Guthrie Story

West Yorkshire Playhouse, July

"I was astounded by the story played out before me, not least because it is so plainly played out. It's peculiarly novel to visit the theatre and see a biography delivered with a straight bat while simultaneously avoiding being pedestrian and dull. This hugely talented cast of eight use their musical instruments and just a few props to chronicle the life of a man who has provided inspiration for a host of musical legends. This Land's biggest strength rests in the music and the fact that they focus on this relentlessly is an absolute joy. Leeds-based Interplay Theatre Company deserve the highest praise for so effectively chronicling the life of a folk hero, capturing every moment of tenderness, tragedy and humour through nothing more than great acting, singing and musicianship."

DANCE

Deborah Colker

The Alhambra, Bradford, May

"This particular sleek, sexy, inventive troupe from Rio de Janeiro create a mix of contemporary dance with a dash of narrative to give the performance some momentum. Entitled Cruel, it aims to explore the dynamic of relationships and all their turbulent, violent and merciless nuances. It's a work in three acts – the first sees a group of dancers move around a giant white ball which is slowly raised into the ceiling, the second uses a huge white bench illuminated from beneath and the third employs a series of large revolving mirrors. This appears part of the company's raison d'tre – to utilise key 'props' along with sublime lighting as a means of offering something really challenging."

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