News and Blog

New play All That debuting this June

My new play All That is being wheeled out for five performances this June.

Semi-coincidentally sharing its name with a lovely Carly Rae Jepsen slowjam, the piece is a comic drama about varying attitudes towards monogamy within the gay community – but not as dry as that probably sounds.

It follows two couples – one in an open relationship, one not – as they live together under one roof; prompting crossed wires, awkward tensions and more than one re-examination of a relationship’s ground rules.

Christopher Cohen, James Robert-Moore, Tom Bovington and Roberta Morris join me in the cast, with Jamie-Rose Monk directing.

We’ll be at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre for five nights only; June 6-10, 2017. Come and take your mind off the General Election for a bit.

All seats are £12 and are available now via See Tickets. Click here.

Praise for previous plays:
“Akin to an exceptional sitcom, conducting the audience to laugh, gasp, groan and cheer in all the right places ****” – The Stage on Positive
“One of the most compelling productions I’ve seen in a long time… Impeccable comic timing *****” – Attitude on Positive
“One word – awesome! *****” – LondonTheatre1 on Christmas Farce

I’ve written for Hollyoaks, pinch me

I’m very excited to have been working with Hollyoaks.

It’s been pretty much exactly a year since my amazing agent first floated the possibility of maybe doing some bits with them, and now – after a rigorous trial process, a commission, several drafts and a lot of waiting – the TX date is here.

It was a show I was obsessed with during the John Paul/Craig years and have had an eye on ever since. I’ve been watching it relentlessly for the last year and it’s on cracking form at the moment (hiya, BAFTA nom) so it’s a big big big privilege to be on board, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

My first episode is on tonight (April 18) at 7pm on E4, and will air on Channel 4 tomorrow (April 19) at 6:30pm. It’ll be on-demand on All4 after the latter broadcast.

The super nifty thing about this is not only the chance to be part of a British institution, but also the fact that this is my first ever TV writing credit.

While I pinch myself, enjoy the episode.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Steps

You’ve either been hiding under a big hetero rock all week or you’re damn well aware that Steps are back with their first proper* single since the dawn of the century. Scared Of The Dark sounds like it could have been made with Clean Bandit: it’s dramatic, it’s got a killer chorus and it’s exactly the type of song that brings the quintet into 2017 without sacrificing their unpretentious roots.

I’ve always loved pop music. It’s only more recently, though, that I’ve been a bit more open about it with people who I know would disagree. But any talk of Steps – be it a fond remembrance, a light mocking or whatever – always makes me feel a bit weird. Not bad weird, not good weird, just like this gloriously ridiculous group in particular hit a really personal nerve that I can’t quite put my finger on.

It’s like, on some subliminal level, I’m a bit embarrassed to like them. As if I should whisper it, or laugh it off as a novelty or semi-jokey. But why is that? They’re just a pop band with daft costumes, endearingly dated dance routines and retrospectively problematic hair. What’s with all the angst?

REWIND.

***

The Spice Girls came out when I was 7. My cousin Zoe had their first album on CD and as a result she was cool as fuck. She also had the first All Saints album, something by Shola Ama and Disremembrance by Dannii Minogue. Her CD collection was comprehensively lit and every time I went round her house, I swear I had some kind of infant-gay awakening. She was like my dealer.

Once I was fully obsessed with Spice, I have a vivid memory of being in Woolworths with my mum and brother (almost four years younger than me), and the pair of us being given a choice: that beloved album on cassette tape, or a Darth Vader toy. And like FUCK was I letting Spice go unpurchased.  “Ahh Wiz,” I suggested breezily. “Let’s get this! We can have a dance!” And I don’t remember exactly what happened next but I’m fairly certain things got intense and we left with both Spice and Darth. The signs were there. The love for pop music had started to blossom.

A year later, I would get the monumental birthday present of a CD player: Spiceworld would be my first album, and Bryan Adams/Melanie C’s When You’re Gone was my first single. I was still the wrong side of 10-years-old to fully appreciate the Spice Girls like the then-adolescent gays perhaps did, but they were certainly the group that first encouraged me to nail my pre-pubescent rainbow colours to the mast.

Then Steps arrived.

When 5,6,7,8 came out in 1997, I hated it. I was obsessed with Top Of The Pops, Now! compilations, and anything and everything to do with the charts – it wasn’t like it passed me by, it just really wound me up. The thing many pop fans will (maybe?) agree with is that out-and-out novelty singles are slightly embarrassing: they give anti-pop snobs ammunition to dismiss the entire genre as shallow, and provide an excuse to lump Robyn into the same category as, say, the Fast Food Rockers. I just wasn’t a fan. Even aged 8.

But going into 1998, at the end of which I aged into the double digits, I remember becoming more aware of them; this five-piece group with garish outfits, cheesy videos and shamelessly fun packaging. Last Thing On My Mind, One For Sorrow, the iconic double-A side of Heartbeat/Tragedy and the fucking flawless Better Best Forgotten all came out and I got more and more obsessed with every listen: soon my parents had taken us (sorry-not-sorry to my siblings) to their first big arena tour, my peak-bloke uncle had bought me a tonne of merchandise for my birthday, and I really didn’t see the problem with buying the majority of their CD singles despite already having all of the  albums. I was INTO. IT.

The second record came out, and by then I was properly hooked. My dad went with me to Virgin Megastores in Norwich to buy me Steptacular (the version with the sparkly album sleeve, because why would you buy the non-sparkly one?!), and I think – one Saturday morning when my sister was having dance lessons – I bought an unofficial Steps book with sacred cash my mum had given me for a small squash. I’ve never been addicted to anything in my life but I swear to God at that point I would have traded a relative for anything relating to Steps.

But then came the tricky part.

In 2000, I finished primary school, and it wasn’t cute anymore. A little boy hooked on flamboyant pop isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising, is it? You might tease him for not fancying himself as a little Bono (fucking Bono) but you’re not gonna hold anything against him. But with secondary school came a whole new ball game, and it wouldn’t have been wise to go into it with the entire dance routine to Say You’ll Be Mine under my belt. I just wouldn’t have survived. Having a cousin with significantly more street-cred than me was only gonna shield me so much.

I don’t want to sound like I went through secondary school hiding my love of pop. By Year 10 I was trading Hilary Duff albums with a girl in my form, and I think in Year 11 I  waltzed in with my CD Walkman listening to Ashlee Simpson. I used Evanescence to pretend I was also into rock, for fuck’s sake; that’s like watching The Simpsons’ Halloween specials and saying your specialty genre is horror.

But still, something about Steps seemed off-limits, especially in those pivotal pre-teen years. They were too unashamedly poppy – their songs were bangers but their packaging was too squeaky. Even in the videos to tracks with depressing lyrics, they looked like they were off to entertain at a problematic pre-school disco. I loved them to pieces, but it was clear that if I wanted to stand any chance of fitting in, I had to hold it back.

On Boxing Day 2001, they split. That was  perfect timing for me. I was out of the woods. It may have been a raging dumpster inferno for them, but for me it was a big favour.

***

Now this is deep. This a massive reach. This is me doing the absolute most to make a serious point out of something quite basic but BEAR. WITH. ME.

Back in 2000, when I realised I had to oppress The Steps Thing, I think that was when I started to actually, properly oppress myself, and my inherent gayness.

I DID WARN YOU IT WAS A MASSIVE REACH.

Again, I don’t wanna make it sound like I was living a tortured teenage life on the school football team, secretly lusting after the D. I wasn’t – in fact I was kicked out of my friendship group in Year 11 for ostensibly being too camp and bitchy**. But the fact is that I’ve always kept a stern eye on myself. Less so nowadays, but still a little bit.

It’s like a self-preservation thing; a way of keeping my head down and avoiding humiliation – or rather humiliating myself before anyone else can get there first. If I talk about music with an acquaintance whose favourite band is, say, the Stereophonics, I will openly joke about my own taste being shite. If I’m on the DLR near a group of lads, I’ll try and look as blandly masculine as possible. If I’m in WH Smith and fancy a copy of Attitude, I’ll buy another magazine as well so I have something to hide it behind when I go to the checkout. I’ll wait until my grandparents bring up my boyfriend; I won’t mention him first. And like fuck am I ever brave enough to show affection to him in public; as if that’s even anything that should require bravery in the first place.

Of course none of this is a direct consequence of pretending to be unmoved by Steps’ cover of Chain Reaction, but what I guess I’m getting at is that trying to stop myself from publicly loving pop music as I was growing up was the first of many instances of me Reigning Myself In. Steps were at the front of that, and I think that’s why I feel so… weird whenever they reform. As if it’s still a love I should keep secret. When their new single came out today, I had a weird moment of thinking “shit… I can actually be quite loud and obnoxious about liking them now!” And I’m not kidding, I will gladly put together a jukebox musical based on their greatest hits. Let’s be real, it would be STUPENDOUS.

Pop means a lot to me, and I think more than any other mainstream genre, it’s very hard to explain to people who Just Don’t Get It. It’s an accessible, unpretentious release. To go back to Steps (and why not), my least favourite songs of theirs are their most popular party hits: Stomp, Tragedy, fucking 5,6,7,8. I love a track about being #onthefloor as much as the next gay, but more than that I like angst-pop, sad-pop, love-pop, euphori-pop… Feelings you can dance to. Feelings that make you want to put your hands in the air; feelings that make your stomach do backflips. My two favourite songs of all time, for context, are Teenage Dream and My Life Would Suck Without You. It’s not just cheese for me. It’s often great fun and, granted, it is occasionally cynical; but considering how basic its technical composition is, it can shapeshift into a lot of different things and create a lot of different responses.

And in defense of Steps, Deeper Shade Of Blue isn’t a favourite of mine but look at the lyrics! Considering they’re often talked about in the same category as Scooch’s Flying The Flag, these are quite dark, no?!:

And snowball on top of that the sweeping It’s The Way You Make Me Feel, the joyful Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart, the really – when you properly look at it – quite sad One For Sorrow… When I was young and unsure where the hell I was supposed to fit in in the world, these were special songs. The band have a reputation for being extremely cheesy (and they were – look at the state of the DSOB video, look at the Cheshire cat smiles when they sing about having your heart ripped into seven) but if you take away the presentation and look solely at the tunes, there’s nothing that different to the more straight-faced popstars of today. They just took themselves much, much less seriously and embraced the fact that they were never going to be ~cool.

Maybe now I’m 28, I should start doing the same.

* I’m not counting this. This does not deserve to be counted.
** To be fair, I was pretty bitchy.

New show Shaun Kitchener’s Six Pack for Leicester Square Theatre this February

I’m extremely excited to have a new show on the way next month, at none other than central London’s Leicester Square Theatre.

I say ‘new show’, it’s a collection of six short plays that have all been rejigged and improved since initially being showcased at the various Briefs new writing nights.

Shaun Kitchener’s Six Pack will see me taking to the stage alongside Jamie-Rose Monk, Natalie Lester, Roberta Morris, Marc Gee-Finch and Christopher Cohen, with direction from Rob Ellis.

Come see us from Thursday February 9 to Saturday February 11 – tickets on sale here.

The pieces being dug out are:
Pithivier [previously known as Engagement Pie]
Afterwards
The Third Nine
That’s Great!
Circulation
Bad Reception

Would be SENSATIONAL to see you there.

Top 20 TV shows of 2016, according to me

I’ve spent the entirety of 2016 working as a TV reporter, which has not only been ace but has also meant WATCHING FUCKLOADS OF TELLY.

So as we reflect on what was actually quite a barbaric year, let’s remember the best of the box over the last twelve months.

And if lengthy year-end lists are your thing, here are my best singles, albums and theatrical productions of 2016 as well.

20. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The first season was such a breezy delight, it was a relief when Kimmy came back as fun as ever for another serving of episodes. With Jane Krakowski and Tituss Burgess providing flawless support, Tina Fey also enjoyed a bigger role as the second season addressed the only real problem with the first: “ok, but seriously, this woman would be FUCKED UP in real life”.

19. American Idol

Christ knows who any of the contestants were on Idol’s 15th (!) cycle, but the fact that everybody knew it was the final one made it a little bit more special. Past contestants returned to perform (the final had an ABSURD number of guests) and – most fittingly of all – the show had its most publicised moment in YEARS, courtesy of the biggest star it’s ever created. When Kelly Clarkson broke down in tears during an emotional rendition of Piece By Piece, she not only bagged her own first US Top 10 hit in four years, she also – as the show’s first ever winner – took it back full circle.

18. This Morning

No but seriously this entire episode – in which Holly and Phil were still drunk from the night before – was ICONIC:

17. Stranger Things

Don’t @ me but I haven’t actually got round to finishing this yet, which is perhaps why it’s relatively low down the list. But if you take its 80s-style feel as nostalgic rather than a rip-off, it’s an absolute treat; Barb injustice and all.

16. Orange Is The New Black

Many have argued that the prison smash lost its way in 2015’s third season, but 2016 put things firmly back on track. From a healthy injection of new characters to the writers finally figuring out what to do with Piper (accidentally starting a horrible white supremacist movement? BINGO!), it was as addictive as ever – and THAT final twist was impossible to bear.

15. The A Word

Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby and little Max Vento were brilliant in this adaptation of Keren Margalit’s Yellow Peppers; a gentle – but honest – drama about a young boy with autism and his family’s various struggles to accept and deal with it. A second series is on the way.

14. The Good Wife

Season six was, for me, a waste of everyone’s time; but the seventh and final run redeemed Alicia Florrick et al, just about: opinion is divided over the very final episode, which I thought was pretty good – my only qualm was the noticeable hole left by the exit of Kalinda.

13. National Treasure

Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters were all kinds of amazing in this super-dark drama about a high-profile celebrity accused of historic sex abuse. The long-running ambiguity over the guilt of Coltrane’s Paul Finchley was what made things so buttock-clenching, and there was amazing support too from Andrea Riseborough as his troubled daughter.

12. Emmerdale

All of the soaps turned out great work this year but Emmerdale really has been unstoppable; arguably overtaking Coronation Street to become one of the country’s best serials. From the sudden death of Tess to the beautifully executed decline of Ashley, it’s been a corker of a year; duly rewarded with the show’s first Best Soap awards in decades. That stunt week, though – in which separate story strands culminated in a truly jaw-dropping pile-up sequence – was the cherry on the cake.

11. Strictly Come Dancing

Ed. Balls.

10. Two Doors Down

The quality of some of the Glaswegian accents remains up for discussion but this really has been a cracker of a new sitcom, based on a pilot that first aired way back in 2013. Its two series this year have both been ace, poking fun of the quiet agony that comes out of a close relationship with your neighbours. Elaine C Smith in particular is hysterical.

09. Crazy Ex Girlfriend

This technically started in 2015 but didn’t hit UK Netflix until July of this year, SO IT COUNTS. And it’s so much better than its premise suggests: creator and titular star Rachel Bloom is a revelation as a deeply, deeply unhappy lawyer who packs in her high-flying job in New York for the small West Coast town inhabited by her ex, spending the next 17 episodes trying to subtly win him back. But it’s the songs that are the programme’s strong suit: lyrically ingenious, they’re perfect send-ups of pop songs and showtunes, and really give the show its edge over similar rivals.

08. Happy Valley

Sarah Lancashire was once again unstoppable in the second series of Sally Wainwright’s watch-it-through-your-fingers thriller, which this year introduced a new set of characters but kept James Norton’s spine-tingling Tommy Lee Royce on the periphery at all times. This is a rare example of a drama that gets huge ratings, unanimously positive reviews, AND IS ACTUALLY GOOD.

07. Mum

Stefan Golaszewski’s sitcom about Cathy, a suburban 59-year-old widow, was played beautifully by Lesley Manville and a tip-top cast; deploying quiet laughs that came not from showy set-pieces but from excruciatingly realistic mini-moments. Honestly, try and catch-up on this if at all possible, it’s more than worth it.

06. Celebrity Big Brother

Look, we all know this show is a hot mess and is a basic hate-watch more than anything else. But whilst the summer series – inexplicably won by Stephen Bear – was a waste of everyone’s time (not least Biggins’), the January run was an exquisite catastrophe thanks to the spectacular unravelling of Stephanie Davies, the ingenious wit of dictionary fan Gemma Collins and the uncompromising takedown of noted homophobe Winston McKenzie by a razor-sharp Emma Willis. But it was this unbearable moment that will surely go down in reality TV history: Angie Bowie, Tiffany Pollard and one ALMIGHTY misunderstanding:

05. Cold Feet

I loved Cold Feet back in the day, so it was such a relief when the new series was actually great. And what made it so great was that the characters, now a decade older, were pretty miserable: turns out, as we all know anyway, 2016 isn’t actually that nice a time to be living in, and the trials and tribulations of just Getting On With Life are that bit harder now than they were back then. It was the handling of Pete’s depression, though, that gave the series its real boost – including THAT unforgettable clifftop scene mid-series.

04. Fleabag

I’m hard to please when it comes to stuff that’s been massively hyped-up (I remember flatly refusing to listen to Daft Punk’s latest album whilst everyone was banging on about it in 2013), but Fleabag mercifully met and kinda exceeded all expectations. I did genuinely like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing, which played to an audience of about 6 people at the start of the year, but Fleabag really puts her on the map. Brilliantly written, directed and performed, it’s worth SO MUCH MORE than the lazy “dirty Miranda” labels, and is completely unmissable for anyone who likes television, comedy or feelings.

03. Planet Earth II

Fucking hell, that iguana scene though…

02. RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars II

It was actually straight friends who first got me into Drag Race, but I have noticed that the last few ‘regular’ series have been must-watches for only the most dedicated of Twitter Gays. Whether that’s just a natural sign of a show being almost a decade old, or because it’s just not as exciting anymore is up for discussion – but any shortcomings in seasons 7 and 8 were well and truly made-up for in the completely enthralling All Stars II. Reality television at its absolute peak, it saw jaw-dropping twists, world-class Lip Synchs, truly captivating inter-personal drama and – even better – the added jeopardy of the contestants knowing how viewers had perceived them first time around, and how they wanted that to change. This was a truly fantastic TV event for all involved – except maybe Phi Phi O’Hara.

01. Brief Encounters

Right I’m possibly only on my soapbox with this one because ITV have, for some OBSCENE reason, cancelled it; but my God I LOVED this show. So, so hard. The trailers showing Penelope Wilton getting in a flap over sex toys drew me in; the heartwarming comedy-drama kept me hooked. No other scripted programme in 2016 has had me laughing and crying so consistently; caring deeply about all the central characters and rooting so hard for them to escape their oppressed roots and win a happy ending. Sadly its consistent ratings and sky-high audience popularity weren’t enough for ITV to green-light a second run, but luckily things were tied up neatly enough for it to exist beautifully as a standalone six-episode delight.

All 52 new albums I heard in 2016, ranked in order of magnificence

Well I’ll cut to the chase lads: it hasn’t been a banner year for pop albums. It’s not that they’ve all been crap (“U SURE ABOUT THAT?!?!” – boring people), it’s just that so few of them – if any – have been completely devoid of filler, and a few of these rankings you’re about to skim over mid-poo really are very rough. So if you’re gonna backchat me with the usual “WHY IS X LOWER THAN Y?!?!?!” business, know that my response will likely be “\_(ツ)_/”.

But enough hyping-up!!! Let’s get on with it.

For reference, my No1 albums in the past have included:

2010: Lights – Ellie Goulding
2011: 21 – Adele
2012: Electra Heart – Marina and the Diamonds
2013: Salute – Little Mix
2014: 1989 – Taylor Swift (doesn’t 2014 Taylor feel a MILLION MILES from 2016 Taylor?!)
2015: Breathe In. Breathe Out. – Hilary Duff (‘tbf’ I would’ve felt like I was cheating if I put you-know-what at No1 when BIBO had a significantly higher Play Count in my iTunes library)

So what of this year? Let’s go…

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52. Butch Queen – RuPaul

I love Sissy That Walk as much as the next gay but honestly I could barely get to the end of this.

51. Thank You – Meghan Trainor

Let’s look for positives: No is good. Better is also fine, and Champagne Problems is… not completely awful. The rest is mostly just the world’s least convincing A-list popstar being as engaging and exciting as Tess Daly doing stand-up.

50. A Wonderful World – Susan Boyle

I do have a soft spot for SuBo, and this is a pleasant – if remarkably low-key – festive listen.

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49. Nobody But Me – Michael Buble

Inoffensive and predictably well-sung, but I just can’t get excited about the Bube. At all. EVEN AT CHRISTMAS.

48. Sing My Heart Out – Sam Bailey

The title track from this album is WONDROUS, but the rest of it… not so much. Props to her for getting a record of originals out at all, though.

47. Back From The Edge – James Arthur

In all fairness, there’s some good stuff on here, and I say that even as someone naturally averse to Sincere White Men With Acoustic Guitars.

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46. Perspective – Lawson

You know where you stand with Lawson: dependable, straight-down-the-middle pop-rock. I think I’m one of about six people who heard this album :(

45. Unfinished Business – Nathan Sykes

Amazing voice, just not really my thing in terms of the actual songs. Tears In The Rain is good, though.

44. Beautiful Lies – Birdy

I can’t think of anything to say about this except that it sounds exactly like you expect a Birdy album to sound.

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43. The Heavy Entertainment Show – Robbie Williams

It’s becoming fashionable to think Robbie Williams is too old to be Robbie Williams – the type of criticism normally reserved for female acts like Madonna – but I absolutely don’t agree. Even so, whilst this has its moments, he’s made far better.

42. Wrong Crowd – Tom Odell

I can barely remember any of this, but I do remember it being a nice soundtrack to a long writing session, which has to count for something?!?!

41. Piece By Piece Remixed – Kelly Clarkson

TIGHTROPE (LIVE VERSION).

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40. Wings Of The Wild – Delta Goodrem

Not as good as Wings, Dear Life and opener Feline got me expecting, but still a solid comeback record.

39. 24 HRS – Olly Murs

As with all Olly Murs albums, there are some good songs and there are some shite songs. But when 24 HRS is good, it’s good; and You Don’t Know Love is the best song he’s ever recorded.

38. Following My Intuition – Craig David

Always have a soft spot for a Comeback Arc, me; although it’ll take a lot more to make me forget those incredible Instagram posts.

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37. HERE – Alicia Keys

Nothing tops that criminally forgotten Beyoncé duet (still not over it) but this is a really slick, cohesive collection with a lot to say.

36. Oh My My – OneRepublic

Their best album for me is still Waking Up, but we all know Ryan Tedder knows his way around a pop song and there’s plenty to love on Oh My My.

35. Illuminate – Shawn Mendes

I had a really nice walk in the fog one day listening to Ruin. It’s the anecdotes that count, guys.

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34. Version Of Me – Melanie C

The greatest Solo Spice achieved her best commercial performance in a decade with this album, which is wonderful. I personally don’t think Version Of Me is her finest work, but its more dance-oriented direction was certainly welcome, and there are some fantastic deep cuts to be enjoyed.

33. 24K Magic – Bruno Mars

Heterobangers, heterobangers, so many heterobangers. I’m never gonna get too worked up about songs referring to “bad bitches and ya ugly ass friends,” but the production is slick, Bruno’s an undeniable showman and there are a few songs on here I do genuinely really like. It’s a very well made album, it’s just not particularly up my street.

32. Night Swim – Josef Salvat

Excellent boypop.

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31. Wild World – Bastille

I feel like I’d hate the ‘clientele’ of a Bastille gig but they continue to walk the line between pop and whatever-genre-some-of-their-fans-would-rather-call-it very well indeed.

30. Remnants – LeAnn Rimes

Much like Mendes, Rimes makes very good music to walk in autumn to.

29. Honey – Katy B

Let it be known that I am terribly disappointed with how this campaign played out. Little Red hit No1, but this – despite also being very good (and despite having the huge KDA collab behind it) peaked at No22, and I don’t know if many people even know it exists…?

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28. Last Year Was Complicated – Nick Jonas

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: for a song by a straight man, Under You is a brilliant anthem re: taking deliveries round the back passage (by which I of course mean the bum).

27. This Is Acting – Sia

Made up mainly of songs turned down by other artists, it’s inevitable that This Is Acting isn’t quite Sia’s best work, but it’s still loads better than its “REJECT SONGS!!!” label suggests.

26. Stranger Things Have Happened – Clare Maguire

Clare passed me by first time around, but this album is gorgeous – especially Elizabeth Taylor.

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25. Long Live The Angels – Emeli Sande

Emeli’s better than you think she is (I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING!): singles Hurts and Breathing Underwater are both great, while Gardens and Lonely also hit a sweet spot.

24. Emotion Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen

Emotion was OBVIOUSLY a sensational listen, and this too is a right treat: a load of tracks that didn’t make the cut first time around but are still beyond decent. Cry is my personal favourite but Body Language and Fever are also way up there.

23. Joanne – Lady Gaga

It is, in a compared-to-past-work sense, the least “Lady Gaga” of Lady Gaga’s non-jazz albums, but I still was really charmed by Joanne. The title track in particular is really touching, and I didn’t even think Perfect Illusion was the disaster it was made out to be.

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22. Night Driver – Busted

I didn’t think I’d be particularly thrilled by the Busted comeback but this album does a really, really great job of slotting them into the 2016 pop scene. New York, Thinking Of You and Without It in particular are outstanding.

21. The Dreaming Room – Laura Mvula

‘Unique’ is a word that gets thrown around far too often in pop, and usually it just means Girl With A Voice Like Diana Vickers, but The Dreaming Room is quite literally unique. Mvula obeys none of the standard pop rules but not to be showy; just to follow her own ~artistic vision~. The Dreaming Room is absolutely not for everybody; I’m sure some people think it makes no sense whatsoever. But I’d take my hat off to it if I was the hat-wearing sort.

20. Choreography – Bright Light Bright Light

To repeat what I thought when BLx2 released an underappreciated major-label album a few years ago: this guy should be huge.

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19. Mind of Mine – Zayn

It’s hard to picture any other 1D soloist topping Zayn in terms of quality of output (although I’m sure Harry will give it a damn good go). It may have hit No1 on a quiet sales week but Mind Of Mine is fully deserving of all its success: from the delicacy of It’s You to the adrenaline rush of Like I Would, its only let-down is the  daft way all the tRaCk tITLEs aRe fORmaTTeD wITH raNdOm caPPED-up LeTTeRs.

18. Starboy – The Weeknd

Gorgeously produced from start to finish, Starboy is candy to the ears. Secrets, False Alarm and the title track are highlights for me – and if anything, I just wish it had a tiny bit more fun to it.

17. Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens

When I compiled my year-end singles list I knew there was a corker I had completely forgotten. I’ve just realised it was Tilted.

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16. Love You To Death – Tegan and Sara

These two are exceptional makers of pop music with a big beating heart at the middle of it, and Love You To Death is a brilliant listen. BWU is my highlight.

15. Mad Love. – JoJo

It’s been a long time coming, this, and it was more than worth the wait. From Vibe to Good Thing to that fucking ACE lead single, Mad Love. is an A-list pop record, and it’s just a shame it didn’t sell like one.

14. I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it – The 1975

A slight whiff of self-indulgence (running time, album title) scupper this slightly, but I liked it 104958294843 times more than I ever expected to.

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13. Royal Blues – Dragonette

You’re never going to get a bad album from Dragonette, really, and Royal Blues is another bullseye. Note especially Detonate and the title track.

12. All I Need – Foxes

All the best songs on this stupidly overlooked LP were made singles or teaser singles prior to release (Amazing! Wicked Love! Feet Don’t Fail Me Now! If You Leave Me Now!), leaving only the less memorable moments like Money when the full package was finally put out. At the time, the result was a hint of disappointment – but looking back on the whole collection now, it is really strong; buoyed by the exceptional Body Talk and kept afloat by the likes of Cruel, Better Love and Devil Side.

11. 7/27 – Fifth Harmony

It’s a shame the wheels have come off the Fifth Harmony wagon so spectacularly because they really find their footing on 7/27. It sold a fraction of the amount achieved by its predecessor Reflection in the US but it’s so much more cohesive; bursting with bangers to the point where even the sort-of-ballads (Write On Me, Squeeze, Dope) are sort-of-danceable. Apparently Epic are due to make a decision on whether or not to option a third, Camila-free effort within the next few days, so it’ll be interesting to see where the whole dumpster fire goes from here.

TOP 10 HO!!!

10. Superwoman – Rebecca Ferguson

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When R-Fergz released Lady Sings The Blues last year I assumed it was curtains for her originals, but Superwoman is wonderful. It may not be quite as flawless as 2011’s Heaven but it’s still a very special album: from the delicacy of The Way You’re Looking At Her to the wallow-a-long gorgeousness of Pay For It, it’s dripping with genuine human emotion (GHE) and, as ever, Rebecca’s sensational voice gives all of it an extra kick. Mistress needs to be a single ASAP.

09. This Is What The Truth Feels Like – Gwen Stefani

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Tranter and Michaels, TAKE a goddamn BOW. Unspeakable heartache once again makes for golden pop music as Gwen Stefani makes a full solo return ten years after her last album. She’s still as ~spunky as she was in the mid-00s but slightly more vulnerable now, too: Truth, for one, is very sweet, and it would have been great if the brilliant single Used To Love You had made more of an impact.

08. ANTI – Rihanna

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Five thousand years in the making, ANTI opens a new chapter for Rihanna; one where the chart-straddling anthems are under her belt and now it’s about treading a new path. Even bearing in mind that Work never really clicked for me, this album is A++ (Love On The Brain, Needed Me, Consideration, Kiss It Better…) – and despite all the max-quality jamzzzz on offer, the highlight is token piano ballad Close To You.

07. Nothing’s Real – Shura

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Gosh, so many of the songs on this are incredibly special. The big single, What’s It Gonna Be?, is an obvious must-listen for anyone yet to jump on the wagon, but Kidz ‘n’ Stuff is elegantly beautiful, Indecision brings to mind the last La Roux album and Nothing’s Real could have been released and well-received in any decade since the 1970s. On the one hand, I wish this was enormous and Shura was ending 2016 as one of the country’s biggest artists, but on the other I kinda like that she’s a low-key gem; a special little secret walking the fine line between indie and mainstream.

06. Lady Wood – Tove Lo

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Another year, another standout album from Tove Lo. Like Queen Of The Clouds, Lady Wood is split into clearly-defined sections (in this case Part 1 is about the highs of thrill-seeking; Part 2 the lows) – and, like Queen Of The Clouds, there’s euphoria to be found throughout. Highlights: absolute masterpiece single True Disaster, ode to a gut feeling Imaginary Friend, and the Wiz Khalifa-assisted Influence. This album only sold 2,000 copies (UK) on its first week of release – I really hope it finds a bigger audience next year.

05. Red Flag – All Saints

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I’m not proud of the fact that back in the mid-00s I was probably more clued-up on the work of Atomic Kitten than the work of All Saints (I know, I know). In the years since, though, I’ve done my catching-up, and it’s such a relief that Red Flag is so slick. It’s not just a treat for anyone who’s ever liked an All Saints record (which in fairness is fucking loads of people anyway); it’s a treat for anyone with any passing interest in pop. Shaznay Lewis’s songwriting is still flawless (she’s credited on 11 of the 12 tracks, with Mel Blatt penning the remainder), the blend of voices still sounds perfect and – unlike much of their 2007 comeback attempt – the music makes sense in the contemporary market whilst staying loyal to the sound that made them big in the first place. Granted, Ratchet Behaviour is a tiny bit shit, but I’ll happily let that one slide.

04. Glory Days – Little Mix

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Better than Get Weird and DNA but not quite up there with Salute, Glory Days contains some absolute 10/10s. Nothing Else Matters, No More Sad Songs, Power, Touch and Beep Beep are standouts, with You Gotta Not (fair play to ya, Meghan), Your Love and Private Show also worthy of spots on next year’s tour setlist. Admittedly Oops (featuring Charlie sodding Puth) is way below standard and Nobody Like You isn’t a patch on the girls’ best ballads, but when Glory Days is good, it’s near-fucking-perfect pop music.

03. Dangerous Woman – Ariana Grande

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If the songs weren’t so damn good, the slight lack of cohesion on Dangerous Woman would be an issue: it does seem kinda odd that e.g. Let Me Love You and Greedy are on the same album, let alone directly one after the other on the tracklisting. But really, it’s hard to fault: Touch It! Thinking Bout You! Bad Decisions! Leave Me Lonely! Single of the year Into You! It’s basically great because more-or-less any bop would make a great single, and whilst in an ideal world it would have set the world ablaze a little bit more in terms of enormous smash hits, the fact it hit No1 in the UK and sold upwards of a million copies in the US at least indicates that Ari is starting to get the superstar status she deserves.

02. Glory – Britney Spears

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It’s standard practice for artists to describe their current albums as “the best thing they’ve ever done” but when promoting Glory there was the genuine sense that Britney actually meant it. By all accounts, this is the record she’s been most hands-on with, and it shows: lyrically she’s as hungry for the D as she’s ever been been, but this time the songs are better than they have been for a while. Producers have ditched the will.i.am dispensibanger approach of 2013’s Britney Jean and put her right back where she was in her (ahem) glory days: at the front of the trends, rather than catching up with them. From the sensual Invitation to the sweet Man On The Moon and magnificently bonkers Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes), there are enough grade-A songs to make the occasional weaker moments (Private Show, What You Need) forgivable. I mean for fuck’s sake, guys, she even sings a song ENTIRELY IN FRENCH.

01. Lemonade – Beyoncé

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I could write pages and pages about this album – its quality, its importance, its context, the sheer artistry of its accompanying film – and I’d never articulate it better than this spot-on piece I read the other day, so just read that instead and know that I agree with every word of it.

The best of British theatre in 2016, according to me

This year I kept a THEATRE JOURNAL. I wanted to make an effort to see loads more stuff and I’ve been making a record of what I’ve seen; having the comfort of knowing that it’s all been relatively private. As someone prone to Do Theatre myself, there’s something I find quite odd about publicly criticising other people’s work.

So here’s me with the journal. Aw. We’re such good pals. Great times.

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This year I ended up seeing a total of 30 plays, excluding things you should technically class as ‘comedy’ (e.g. Catherine Tate Live) and also any shorts seen at new writing nights.

My year’s viewing started on January 7 at the Bread And Roses Theatre…

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… and ended on Saturday, December 17, at the Hampstead Theatre.

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I was so extra, I even gave each play a star rating; although I’ll be damned if any of you buggers are seeing what piece got what mark:

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I should say, though, that even though I knew I was being private, I only used 2-star ratings twice, and never used a 1-star rating at all. So it’s been a good year of Seeing Stuff. Well done everyone.

Anyway I’ve had a look back through the whole thing and want to laud (yes LAUD) my faves with some very deserving praise.

BEST ACTING

Sophie Melville in Iphegenia In Splott (National Theatre, seen February 19)

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I’m SO fussy with one-person-shows. I struggle with my attention span at the best of times, so when it’s all eyes on one person for over an hour, it’s a hard sell. But this play, and this woman, were amazing. Melville was breathtaking: hilarious, engaging and – when the time came – heartbreaking. These are all pretty tired platitudes, I know, but what I’m trying to say is she really did kick your emotions (AND YOUR BRAIN) hard in the bollocks.

Ruth Wilson in Hedda Gabler (National Theatre, seen December 14)

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I wasn’t sold on telly’s The Affair, but I stuck with it long enough to appreciate that Ruth Wilson is very good at her job. Hedda changed my mind: she’s not very good, she’s a fucking marvel. I wasn’t totally sure about the whole production of this old Ibsen classic (*A-level shudders*) but Wilson did, without one slither of a doubt, smash it out of the park – and you should absolutely try to see it if you can get your hands on a ticket. When I left the theatre I felt like I’d been electrocuted. (Not literally electrocuted – I’d be dead – but you get what I mean).

Tamsin Greig in iHo (Hampstead Theatre, seen October 27)

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This was the first time I’d ever seen Greig on-stage and she was absolutely brilliant. She wasn’t in a big, show-y part like Melville or Wilson but she just… smashed it, y’know? Her character wasn’t always likeable and she wasn’t even on-stage that much, but the performance was completely real and now I want to see her in basically everything she does for the rest of time.

BEST PLAYS

Rabbit Hole (Hampstead Theatre, seen February 15)

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When I say ‘this was right up my street’, I mean it was practically parked outside my house. A family drama coated in humour but with a very delicate undercurrent, it examined one couple and their nearest’n’dearest as they attempted to recover from the death of their young son. Claire Skinner and Tom Goodman led a pitch-perfect cast, and while many reviewers thought writer David Lindsay-Abaire didn’t go ~deep enough into the subject matter, I thought it was wonderfully done. It just all felt truthful; and when it feels truthful, the heartbreak is all the more unbearable.

This Much (or an Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage) (Soho Theatre, seen June 30)

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I’m always here for a well-done same-sex relationship drama, and This Much pulled it off brilliantly. With three characters, one relationship muddle and some very wry observations, John Fitzpatrick’s neat play was executed superbly by its cast and creatives but the magic was all in the text, and I found it so relatable it was almost uncomfortable.

Luce (Southwark Playouse, seen March 14)

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I’ll be honest; I booked tickets for this because it was Mel Giedroyc off Bake Off doing some Serious Acting and I was intrigued. Star casting works, folks! And whilst Mel was impressive (and good on her for cutting her teeth in something so low-key), it was the play itself that really shone. Luce told the story of an adopted, extremely smart kid accused of getting up to all sorts of dark shit, and – as his parents defended him vigorously – the play very cleverly toyed with the ambiguity of his guilt.

BEST FUNNIES

Michele Dotrice in Nell Gwynn (Apollo Theatre, seen February 29)

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I think she got an Olivier nomination for this…? RIGHTLY SO. She was hilarious, especially when doing bad-acting acting.

Steve Pemberton in Dead Funny (Vaudeville Theatre, seen November 5)

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This play was quite problematic in several places (the AIDS joke – and the audience’s rapturous laughter at it – was a real low point) but as a closeted, enthusiastic homosexual, Pemberton was missed whenever he was off-stage.

Nicholas Le Prevost in How The Other Half Loves (Theatre Royal Haymarket, seen March 29)

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This classic Ayckbourn farce was masterfully performed by the whole cast but Le Prevost – who had the lion’s share of the one-liners – was side-splitting.

BEST SHAKE-UPS

Henry IV (Donmar at King’s Cross, seen December 1)

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I wish I’d been able to see the whole trilogy, but Henry IV magnificently held its own and was one of my favourite productions of the whole year. The cast was universally O-U-T-S-T-A-N-D-I-N-G and the retelling – set in a women’s prison, in which the inmates were staging Shakespeare’s play – was so well executed. I loved it, and I normally find ‘serious’ Shakespeares a right turn-off.

Uncle Vanya (Almeida, seen March 23)

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Robert Icke bossed Oresteia last year, and in 2016 his spin on Chekhov’s tale of people struggling to Get On With It also hit the mark – although in a very different way. Jessica Brown Findlay did an amiable job playing against type and Vanessa Kirby was a fab Elena, but Paul Rhys’s John was perfection. This was quiet, engrossing brilliance.

Wild Honey (Hampstead Theatre, seen December 17)

Wild Honey performed at Hampstead Theatre Geoffrey Streatfeild as Platonov, Sophie Rundle as Sofya ©Alastair Muir 08.12.16

Michael Frayn’s take on the early untitled Chekhov play is a little uneven, granted, but  relentlessly entertaining from beginning to end. The cast is all great, especially Justine Mitchell in a key supporting role, and though stylistically it might be a bit all over the place, it’s great fun.

FUCK ME, WHAT A SPECTACLE

Les Blancs (National Theatre, seen March 31)

A scene from Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre. Directed by Yael Farber. (Opening 30-03-16) ©Tristram Kenton 03/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550  Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

There was so much to love about this play but on a visual level it totally obliterated everything else I’d seen for a long time – or since. The design, the sound, the lighting, the exciting use of such a vast space… super bloody duper.

BEST KIDS’ SHOW

The Sentence Snatchers (Brighton Fringe, seen May 28)

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Well, truth be told, this was the only kids’ show I saw in 2016, but it was so lovely I wanted to give it a shout-out. It’s got a couple more dates lined-up for 2017, and I’d encourage a visit – it’s made for the kids, but with a big heart at the centre of it (girl loses her words, adventure ensues), it’s endearing for all.

LOW-KEY GEM

Clybourne Park (Bridewell Theatre, seen September 26)

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The first 10 minutes of this were a bit touch-and-go as the actors found their feet, but they – and indeed the rest of the cast – did a grand job once they found their footing, and director Rob Ellis (hi Rob) did Bruce Norris’s script great justice. At its centre was a subject matter that can be awfully on-the-nose, but here it was very admirably handled.

OH SOD IT, THAT WAS FUN

Bad Girls: The Musical (Union Theatre, seen March 26)

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Obliterate Bad Girls as a musical and I’ll be like “yeah alright, fair play”, but it’s just such a fucking ball. And when it’s performed by a great cast, who take it seriously but still have fun with it, it’s a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. This was a total blast, and the “un-glamorous” Union Theatre suited it perfectly.

There were loads more great shows this year too, but I’ll be here for days if I go into them all. Long story short, there was some TOP DRAWER STUFF this year.