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The best on Sydney stages in 2017: our top 10

Written by
Ben Neutze

There's been so much happening on Sydney stages this year: stunning productions of major musicals, indie plays, classics, grand opera and stand-up comedy. Here are the ten best things we saw this year (and a few honourable mentions, because we thought it was important to spread the love).

10. Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Ursula Yovich cemented her status as a legend of the Australian stage with this autobiographical rock musical penned with Alana Valentine. The show rocks, but it also has a ferociously political core, led by Yovich and Elaine Crombie’s performances. There's still time to catch the show: it's at Belvoir until December 23.

Honourable mention: We were impressed by plenty of political, musical or experimental performance, including the extraordinary The Second WomanJatinga, Puntila/Matti, MDLSX, the return season of Hot Brown Honey and Betty Grumble’s Love and Anger.

9. Calamity Jane

Who’d have thought a new, stripped back production of this naff 1950s western musical would be one of the theatrical highlights of the year? Virginia Gay and her co-stars reinvigorated the show with a riotous comic spirit, taking the mickey out of every musical theatre trope in the book. The initial season sold out in just a few days, but Belvoir is bringing the original cast back together for a return season in 2018.

Honourable mention: the Hayes Theatre productions of Assassins and Only Heaven Knows helped the intimate Kings Cross theatre maintain its reputation as Sydney’s home of musicals.

8. Cloud Nine

Sydney Theatre Company’s new artistic director Kip Williams re-introduced the work of Caryl Churchill to the company with his 2015 production of Love and Information. But he delivered something extraordinary this year with his heart-wrenching take on Churchill’s 1979 play Cloud Nine. Sydney theatre stalwart Heather Mitchell delivered an astonishing performance, first as a young boy and then as an older mother, slowly rediscovering her own voice.

Honourable mention: This has been a very strong year for resonant revivals of classics. We were impressed by Merchant of Venice, A View from the Bridge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ghosts, Diving for Pearls and Away.

7. Mother’s Ruin

This razor-sharp, hilarious, political and beautifully boozy cabaret about gin blew our minds. Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood have spent many years as part of the feminist cabaret group, Lady Sings it Better, but they made their mark with this show, which had an unforgettable finale declaring: I’ve drunk every gin.

Honourable mention: Sydney Festival certainly delivered the theatrical goods in 2017, with highlights Shit, Prize Fighter, Huff and Ich Nibber Dibber.

6. Dry Land

Anybody who was at the Sydney opening of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play will remember that an audience member found a climactic miscarriage scene quite viscerally disturbing and fainted in their chair. But they’ll also remember an extraordinary piece of playwriting and performances from some of the brightest young stars on Sydney stages.

Honourable mention: Indie theatre had a fair few hits this year, with The Ham Funeral, Slut and Merciless Gods.

5. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette

Hannah Gadsby announced she was leaving comedy with this fearless, straight-shooting and utterly spectacular show. But we don’t have to bid farewell to Gadsby just yet – she’s bringing the show back for two encore shows at the Sydney Opera House in January.

4. Hir

Although Melbourne got most of the Taylor Mac love this year, Sydney audiences were treated to a superbly acted production of Mac’s play Hir. Telling a tale of family dysfunction and radical feminism, the play was led by Helen Thomson in one of the greatest performances of the year, with an impressive turn by newcomer Kurt Pimblett.

Honourable mention: Australian playwrights Declan Greene and Katie Beckett both presented funny, poignant and adventurous new plays about how identity is shaped by our communities or families: The Homosexuals and Which Way Home.

3. Parsifal

There are few opera stars bigger than Jonas Kaufmann anywhere in the world right now. Opera Australia cleverly got the German tenor to perform three concerts of Wagner’s epic, six-hour Parsifal. In a five-star review, Jason Catlett wrote: “Kaufmann sings Wagner the way Federer plays tennis; the only disappointment we felt after hearing his unstrained perfection was wishing that he had a longer part.”

Honourable mention: Kip Williams’ take on Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia was a fascinating exploration of power and gender.

2. Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play

What would happen to our cultural connection to The Simpsons if electricity suddenly stopped working and we could no longer access any of the original episodes? Anne Washburn’s brilliantly imaginative play attempts to answer this question, exploring how pop culture evolves and endures in a deeply moving, funny and musical piece of theatre. Belvoir’s production, directed by Imara Savage, was practically perfect.

1. Muriel’s Wedding the Musical

You could taste the anticipation in the air at Muriel’s opening night: hopes were almost insurmountably high given the strength of the source material and the team of A-list creative talent bringing this beloved Australian movie to the stage. The verdict? Near unanimous raves for a show that well and truly lived up to its potential. The musical is running at Roslyn Packer Theatre until January 27, and there are still a small number of tickets available for most performances.

Honourable mention: Beautiful: the Carole King Musical also proved to be a sleek and classy major musical with a killer performance from Esther Hannaford at its centre.

There are still a few weeks left to catch some Sydney theatre this year: see the best on stage in December.

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