We asked some of our reviewers to give their top productions that they had seen in 2018, not necessarily ones that they reviewed for us. Here's what they came up with.
James Ballands (Yorkshire)
1) Company - Elliott & Harper Productions, Gielgud Theatre in London
My favourite show of this year is Marianne Elliott's glorious, gender-swapping revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1970 classic Company, in which the lead role is played, brilliantly, by Rosalie Craig. The supporting cast are outstanding, particularly Patti LuPone and Jonathan Bailey, and Bunnie Christie's mobile set is pure magic. Catch it while you can.
2) Kiss Me, Kate - Opera North and Welsh National Opera, Leeds Grand Theatre
This fabulous revival of Opera North's 2015 production could hardly be better: irresistible songs ("Too Darn Hot", "Brush Up Your Shakespeare"), delicious performances, electrifying choreography and an ingeniously structured plot.
3) Underground Railroad Game - Curious Theatre Company, Traverse in Edinburgh
My highlight of the Edinburgh Festival was this hilarious and provocative play in which Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell played American schoolteachers trying to teach their students about slavery. By turns beautiful and shocking, Underground Railroad Game forced us to confront ugly truths about racism.
4) The Wild Duck - Almeida Theatre in London
Robert Icke struck gold yet again with this stripped-down version of Ibsen's 1884 play in which a man's relentless pursuit of the truth leads to a family's destruction. First-rate performances, particularly from Lyndsey Marshal and Edward Hogg, made this drama unbearably tense and heartbreaking.
5) The York Realist - Donmar Warehouse and Sheffield Crucible, Sheffield Crucible
This beautifully studied revival of Peter Gill's 2003 play depicts a gay love affair between a Yorkshire farmer (Ben Batt) and a London theatre director (Jonathan Bailey, again!). Tender, romantic and heartfelt, Robert Hastie's production floored me with its quiet power.
Sally Jack (Midlands)
Looking back on my theatre-going for 2018, themes around the First World War have dominated, understandable with the centenary commemorations of the end of the conflict very much in our consciences. Productions responded to the subject in a variety of approaches; out here in regional theatre-land, it was a pleasure to at last have the opportunity to see West End shows on tour, from the satire of Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre’s The Wipers Times to the stunning puppetry of the National Theatre’s War Horse. Other highlights of my theatrical year include:
Fly Half, by Gary Lagden, Upstairs at the Western, Leicester
A small-scale production but with a huge heart, I loved the poetry of Lagden’s absorbing study of love, life and rugby.
Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual, adapted by Dougal Irvine from the book by Riaz Khan, Curve Theatre, Leicester
Great to see a new play with my home city of Leicester as the backdrop. Recent drama school graduates Jay Varsani and Hareet Deol impress with their boundless energy and multiple “doubling”. Set in the 1980s, this depiction of racism and the treatment of immigrants in a UK city fizzes with physicality, and topicality.
Kindertransport, by Diane Samuels, Nottingham Playhouse
Commemorating another chilling chapter in global history, this imaginatively staged (and almost entirely female) production made me question the play’s themes and my own responses, both during the performance and for a long time afterwards. Although I had criticisms about the play itself, I found it profoundly moving and a stimulus for many subsequent discussions.
Colin Davison (Midlands)
David Pountney’s tenure as Welsh National Opera’s artistic director climaxed with magnificent productions that outshone even Covent Garden and some rather over-dressed offerings from the Met. His War and Peace gets my vote as a culmination of his series of Russian operas, just ahead of Spanish director’s Joan Font’s wildly funny La Cenerentola for the same company.
One can always trust RSC top man Greg Doran to come up with the goods even against expectations based on memories of others’ awful past productions of Troilus and Cressida. His was a revelation, reinstating this Trojan warhorse as a savage satire on love, politics and war.
Best touring production
Hard to choose with strong contenders in James Graham’s This House about party splits—not Brexit but Labour in the 1970s—and the intensely moving Birdsong, a timely revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s WWI drama from the Sebastian Faulks novel. But my vote goes to Alan Bennett’s poignant, filthily funny The Habit Of Art about poetry, music, sex and above all the power of theatre.
Shakespeare In Love and Quartet made me laugh, but nothing made the laughter just that bit more painful than my winner, the Islamic Brummie version of Moliere’s Tartuffe at the RSC with its edgy mockery of extremism.
It was all in the titles: Great Expectations were not fulfilled in Ken Bentley’s anxiety to cram too much into his Dickens adaptation, while Trial By Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman was something of a trial without much laughter.
Othniel Smith (Wales)
In the wake of the controversial cancellation of the Wales Theatre Awards, here is my personal list of triumphs from 2018.
Venue of the Year
The Other Room
Under new Artistic Director Dan Jones, this 45-seat theatre has produced, co-produced and hosted a dizzying array of work in 2018 and continued its tradition of empowering designers to transform the back room of a city-centre pub into a variety of locations, from a futuristic medical science lab (Lucy Prebble’s The Effect—designer Carl Davies) to an apparently fully functional suburban bathroom (Jack Thorne’s Mydidae—designer Ceci Calf).
Performance of the Year
Lauren O’Leary in Matthew Bulgo’s The Awkward Years (Matthew Bulgo / Chapter / The Other Room) at The Other Room
A heartbreaking solo turn in this tale of a broken and not entirely likeable young woman.
Hit of the Year
Cardiff Boy by Kevin Jones (Red Oak Theatre Company) at The Other Room
An unscientific survey of local reviews suggests that this bitter-sweet tale of adolescent trauma chimed even with those who for reasons of age or geography couldn’t fully identify with all of the reference-points.
Play of the Year
This Incredible Life by Alan Harris (Canoe Theatre and Theatrau Sir Gâr)
A dementia-ridden former journalist plays fast and loose with the facts, intentionally or otherwise, as she attempts to connect with her cynical nephew—moving, funny and beautifully performed.
Production of the Year (big)
Lord Of The Flies (Theatr Clwyd and Sherman Theatre)
A powerful and technically stunning presentation of Nigel Williams’s adaptation of William Golding classic “feral youth” novel, showcasing a diverse, youthful female cast (although this was probably the wrong tale to try and turn into a feminist fable).
Production of the Year (small)
Lovecraft (Not The Sex Shop In Cardiff) (Wales Millennium Centre)
Carys Eleri’s simultaneously light and profound science-lecture / musical / slideshow, all about love, loneliness and relationships.
Ensemble of the Year
The company of The Flop (Hijinx and Spymonkey)
Proof that “inclusive” theatre can be filthy fun, in this ramshackle comedy about impotence amongst the nobility in 17thcentury France.
Director of the Year
Angharad Lee and Mark Smith for The Last Five Years (Leeway Theatre)
A highly imaginative re-invention of Jason Robert Brown’s relationship-breakdown-themed off-Broadway musical hit, as a multi-lingual (English, Sign Language, Dance) experience, foregrounding the theme of miscommunication.
Company of the Year
National Dance Company Wales
During a year when National Theatre Wales came under much criticism, their fellow portfolio-funded national company showed them how it could be done: unabashedly taking their art (which boasts varying degrees of social relevance) to the people, nationally and internationally. I was especially grateful to get the chance to re-experience Matteo Marfoglia’s Mafia-themed Omertà, as part of their Rootsshowcase.
Guilty (Not Really) Pleasure of the Year
Let It Be (Annerin Productions / Mark Goucher Productions).
There were token attempts at theatricality, but this was basically a crowd-pleasing parade of Beatles songs, chronologically assembled and slickly performed. Literally the most fun I had in 2018.
Mark Smith (Yorkshire)
Kiss Me Kate – Opera North and Welsh National Opera
While this was not a musical I knew well or held any previous affection for, Opera North’s production (remounted from one in 2015) had me hooked, and grinning, from the very beginning to the final bows. A host of brilliant comic performers and a sizzling “Too Darn Hot” (among many many other great numbers) led to a memorable and riotous night in the theatre, as my breathlessly poorly punctuated review attests.
Three Sisters – RashDash, co-produced with the Royal Exchange
What would an end of year list be without an entry from the ever-invigorating RashDash? I enjoyed their collaboration with Unlimited, Future Bodies, but it was their take on Chekhov which really chimed for me. From the rotating Anton bust to the punky numbers celebrating labour and lethargy, to the challenge to critics to change the terms of engagement, I found the company’s work as inspiring, contagious and resonant as ever.
Underground Railroad Game – Soho Theatre/Ars Nova
Safe to say, this divided the critics. Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard’s take on contemporary (and ingrained) racial violence was challenging in the way a pair of rival rioters unblinkingly squaring up to each other is challenging. I have never seen a show so in control of the immediate, moment-by-moment audience response, nor heard an audience react with quite the same collective holding of the breath. It provoked deep reflection, passionate debate, and real shock; surely some of the key functions that theatre can perform for society.
American Utopia tour (David Byrne)
Definitions are tricky here, and this was of course presented as a concert rather than a theatrical show. But I’m sneaking it in as hands-down the most theatrical, dance-infused, well-designed, dramaturgically thrilling gigs I’ve ever seen. The legendary Talking Heads frontman was joined by a dozen or so bare-footed, grey-suited, endlessly mobile musicians generating constantly changing and energising choreography, with a lighting plot and use of the stage which injected the bare but effective design with ever-new patterns for each song, whether old and familiar or new and politically charged.
The Grand Old Dame of York – York Theatre Royal
There were individual shows bubbling under which will stay with me longer, ones which were “better”, ones which provoked more thought. This wasn’t even my favourite of the recent York Theatre Royal pantos (last year’s takes some beating). But The Grand Old Dame of York was deeply significant: it’s the last time we’ll see Berwick Kaler, the writer, co-director and Dame extraordinaire who over the last forty years has made this an absolute institution. His send-off show is perhaps necessarily a thinner, more wistful offering than others, but nonetheless contains all the usual Goon Show-esque wordplay, energy, non-sequiturs and metatheatrical barminess. I’m no panto lover, but over the last decade of visits, Kaler and the York Theatre Royal team have won me round. Or should that be “worn me down”?
I had a packed and brilliant few days at the Fringe this year, and saw a number of shows which were all brilliant in different ways. Honourable mentions to the following shows from that memorable trip:
- Square Go – Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair
- Providence – Dominic Allen and Simon Maeder
- Everything Not Saved – Malaprop Theatre
David Cunningham (Manchester)
2018 got off to a fine start with Renny Krupinski’s D’Eon at Hope Mill. The tale of a sexually ambiguous 18th century French spy was staggeringly ambitious and of a scale that is rarely seen in Fringe theatre. It also featured an all-out performance from Kaitlin Howard in the central role.
At one time, musicals in the regions were known for cut-price productions with shaky sets and below-par performances. It goes to show how far up the scale Manchester has progressed to be able to attract a musical like Miss Saigon with production values and performances that were both high-calibre. Not cheap but worth every penny.
This House concerned the Lib-Lab pact that propped up the minority Labour Government in the 1970s. James Graham’s script felt like a throwback to that earlier time when authors developed plays with compelling storylines and credible characters. Considering the subject matter the play ought to have been dry as dust but this was a riveting drama.
Mary Stuart may have been written by Friedrich Schiller but the success of the production was largely due to the adaptation and staging by director Robert Icke. The two main actors tossing a coin to determine their roles sounds like a gimmick but brought tension and anxiety to the modern day production. Lia Williams captured the impetuosity and sly cunning of Mary Stuart while Juliet Stevenson was marvellously imperious as Elizabeth I.
Adapting classic texts into a modern setting is tricky yet James Beagon’s updating of Sophocles’ Antigone to a near-future Ireland still coping with the legacy of the IRA worked like a charm. Antigone na h'Éireann (Antigone of Ireland) used aspects of ancient Greek theatre, such as immobile facemasks, to create a frightening sense of a society where the faceless mob were in control and there was a palpable atmosphere of dread and tragedy. The fact the play was staged over a pub in Salford somehow added to the appeal.
Steve Orme (Midlands)
Wonderland by Beth Steel at Nottingham Playhouse
What a great start to the year for Nottingham Playhouse. Artistic director Adam Penford’s production of the regional première of Nottinghamshire playwright Beth Steel’s Wonderland was a “powerful, poignant and occasionally painful work” which captured the internecine effects on families during the 1984 miners’ strike.
Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie at London County Hall
A trip to London led to the examination of the Queen of Crime’s courtroom drama atmospherically presented in a former council chamber which added to the pomp and spectacle.
The Nightmare Room by John Goodrum at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Based on the short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Nightmare Room was an “outstanding” piece of the theatre in the annual Classic Thriller Season, two actors going through a comprehensive range of emotions in a show which had more twists than a corkscrew.
Rebus: Long Shadows by Ian Rankin, adapted by Rona Munro, at Birmingham REP
Curmudgeonly crimefighter John Rebus was brought to the stage for the first time and Ian Rankin was at the top of his game with the Scottish cop trying to solve a cold case. A mammoth part for Charles Lawson who played Rebus but he commendably rose to it.
The Madness by George III by Alan Bennett at Nottingham Playhouse
What a year for the Playhouse. Adam Penford managed to get his old friend Mark Gatiss to commit to playing the title role 12 months before the play was staged. Gatiss was “compelling” while Adrian Scarborough was “imposing” as Dr Willis. Theatrical gold.
Vera Liber (London / Dance)
Not in any particular order:
- Inheritance (for Stephen Daldry’s beautifully choreographed direction)
- La Bayadère – Royal Ballet
- The Head and the Load - William Kentridge at Tate Modern
- Jane Eyre – Northern Ballet
- Smile Upon Us, Lord - Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia at the Barbican
- Manon – Royal Ballet
- Russell Maliphant for maliphantworks2 at the Print Room
- Les Patineurs / Winter Dreams / The Concert – Royal Ballet
- Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
- Richard Alston Company in Cut and Run / Carnaval / Mid Century Modern
Georgina Wells (Manchester / Dance)
1. Swan Lake, Royal Ballet
This new production of the classic premièred this year and proved to be a fantastic, faithful reworking that makes sense of the story whilst creating a strong visual impact. It seamlessly weaves together Petipa’s original choreography, Liam Scarlett’s new steps, John McFarlane’s designs and Tchaikovsky’s genius score to make the best Swan Lake I've ever seen (especially with the dream partnership of Marianela Nunez and Vadim Muntagirov in the lead roles). I've got everything crossed that it wins in its nominated categories in the National Dance Awards in February.
2. 42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane
This hugely successful revival of the 1930s musical is packed to the rafters with big musical numbers, witty one-liners and more sparkle than Strictly. Both band and tap-dancing chorus are on top form, filling the theatre with a sound that is of the era but still fresh and irresistibly catchy. It left me with the biggest grin on my face!
3. TOAST, The Lowry
Commissioned for the Week 53 festival and performed in an intimate black box setting on the Lyric Theatre stage, this play is based on the childhood memoirs of food writer Nigel Slater. It's a funny, moving and beautifully staged celebration of food and family that thoroughly deserves its West End transfer. The food given out to the audience—from tiny jam tarts and lemon meringue pies to paper bags of sweets—is a lovely touch to create a shared social experience between the audience and the characters onstage.
4. Wicked, Palace Theatre
The smash hit musical returned to the Palace Theatre this year and absolutely blew me away with its stunning steampunk visuals, excellent songs (brilliantly performed by the two leads, Amy Ross and Helen Woolf) and portrayal of a poignant, complex female friendship.
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Sally Cookson's in-the-round production of this fantasy classic ticked every box for adults and children alike: ingenious staging and design, excellent acting and a thoughtful balance of faithfulness to the book and some more modern touches. The most magical thing I saw onstage all year.
Sandra Giorgetti (London)
Once again I am a calling the year a vintage one for Sondheim productions thanks to the intelligent and entertaining reworking of Company—which, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I had the privilege to see twice.
Excitement at the start of the year though was very much focused on Hamilton and, although that early January show deserved its many accolades, I was more lastingly impressed by The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios and Caroline or Change at Hampstead Theatre, showing that depth can win over budget.
Other musical highlights were the revival of Little Shop of Horrors and Songs for Nobodies which is having a well deserved transfer from Wilton's Music Hall to London's West End.
Another musical getting a merited second run is Grindr: the Opera at Above the Stag, now settled into its lovely new home on Albert Embankment.
These all made up for the disappointing Hadestown at the National Theatre in which director Rachel Chavkin's overuse of the revolve contributed—literally—to the whole thing spinning into a flimsy mess.
But man cannot live by musicals alone and my other standouts are the revivals of Red and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and new plays The Jungle and Beginning, these making up for the disappointing Quiz and Lehman Trilogy which both managed to be less than the sum of their parts.
On the fringe, VAULT Festival delivered again with Bump!, You and I have a bad feeling about this..., and In the Belly of the Whale from Ockham's Razor made my day at the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival.
This year, I have to add an additional category, best solo show, so I can sing the praises of Christopher Green's The Insatiable Fred Barnes and Mark Farrelly's Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope.
I cannot end without a mention of Battersea Arts Centre and the joyous reopening of the Grand Hall following a devastating fire with the show that would have opened there in 2015, Missing, headlining the evening.
Best musical revival
- Caroline or Change
- Little Shop of Horrors
Best play revival
Best solo show
Keith Mckenna (London)
- Inheritance Part One at the Noël Coward Theatre. (Part Two was unnecessary and very dull)
- The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre
- Sweat at the Donmar
- Trojan Horse at Summerhall in Edinburgh
And the show that carried over from 2017:
- Network at the National Theatre