London and South

Sandra Giorgetti

I spent a compelling weekend at residential theatre event The Home, a creation of the extraordinary theatre maker Christopher Green to explore residential care and how people are treated within it. The experience was as intense as it was personal, and it redefined the meaning of immersive theatre.

If this is the shining star atop my theatre Christmas tree, its brightness does not blind me to other memorable events that cascade below it.

Not having been to Theatre Royal Stratford East all of last year, both visits in 2019 count amongst the highlights: The Unreturning, a moving story by Anna Jordan delivered with Frantic Assembly's signature high precision physicality, and modern classic Equus which followed up its tour with a run at London's West End's Trafalgar Studios.

Another venue with two shows on the list is Jermyn Street Theatre where I was blown away by All's Well That Ends Well directed by the Theatre's artistic director, Tom Littler, and my solo show of the year, Original Death Rabbit.

Another pair of shows are connected not by venue but by star, the multi-talented Sharon D Clarke seen in both Blues in the Night and Death of a Salesman which also got a much deserved West End transfer.

Follies delivered as much on the second visit, this time with Joanna Riding a Sally. The show also featured the charismatic Tracie Bennett singing “I'm Still Here”, Bennett taking the lead in another top musical of 2019, Mame, which proved to be well worth the race against time caused by cancelled trains to reach Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre.

Musical Dear Evan Hansen beat Come From Away (which has charms but too much contrivance to make it to this list) and Waitress (whose predictable charms I am happy to resist) as most anticipated Broadway musical. It didn't disappoint with Sam Tutty making his West End début as Evan now being one to watch—heresy for some I know, but I preferred it to last year's big-hitter Hamilton!

Happy—and proud—to support my local fringe venue, this year Jack Studio Theatre artistic director Kate Bannister directed two of the three highlights to come out of this South East London black box, As a Man Grows Younger (a fine performance by David Bromley) and Precious Little, the third being Pint of Wine Theatre's Queen of the Mist which transferred to Charing Cross Theatre, home to another highlight Amour.

Skulking under the lower branches of my theatre tree are shows notable for disappointing. The fanfare that accompanied The Light in the Piazza might as well have been a raspberry. This was a dated story inhabited by stereotypes delivered against on overblown score.

Angela's Ashes which had two strong central performances also disappointed but more generally, whilst the impressive The Inheritance was let down only in Part 2 by an ill-considered performance from Vanessa Redgrave. A case of gimmick casting that did more harm than good.

Thankfully, there are still more twinkling lights to divert attention away from these damp squibs. First amongst them is After Edward, Tom Stuart’s comic and intelligent play responding to Marlowe's Edward II, and with similar attributes Old Stock: A Refugee Story seen at Wilton's Music Hall and finally Lyric Hammersmith's Leave to Remain.

To close there must be mentions for sheer unadulterated fun—HMS Pinafore at the King's Head and the Above The Stag panto that never fails to deliver, this year Pinocchio No Strings Attached.

Simon Sladen

Vera Liber

20 of the best of 2019—in no particular order:

Karen Bussell

The Life I Lead: Miles Jupp is inspired casting as David Tomlinson—best known as Mr Banks, employer of Mary Poppins. The solo piece is perfection, telling the highs and lows of an unconventional upbringing, wartime piloting, loves, losses and acting career. Beautifully executed, gently comic and poignant.

The inaugural play from (escaped from a superb but vexed stint at the Globe) Emma Rice’s new company Wise Children was her eponymous play taken from the Angela Carter novel. Lavish, quirky, melancholic and magical, Rice populates the stage with all things theatre—from highbrow to end-of-the-pier—with much to entertain and delight as 75-year-old twins look back over a lifetime of vaudeville, sex and questionable heritage.

Rice strikes again with Malory Towers, a re-telling of Enid Blyton’s boarding school series. A tremendous set depicts a jolly hockeysticks and jovial japes boarding school where girls rub along forging friendships and conquering character defects. There’s derring-do upon slippery cliff tops; cocoa to ward off wild windy nights; team spirit and girl power with a smattering of 1940s musical, superb comedic timing, nostalgia, and a glint of self-depreciation and increasing tongue-in-cheek knowingness. Fab.

Wrong Crowd’s Snow White and the Happy Ever After Beauty Salon fuses story, physicality, puppetry and music to twist the iconic fairytale into a fast, comic romp. Escaping a salon full of Prince’s quiffs, hairy chinny chin chins, razor-sharp scissors, brain-fryingly hot hair dryers and lethal powder puffs, Snow winds up with seven moles, blind to more than her physical attractions, cooking worm stews, inventing scat nav (cue poo jokes) and epiphany-inducing mudshakes. Witty, wonderful and such good fun family entertainment.

And my fifth? Should it be Kinky Boots, a favourite film brought delightfully to stage, winning every major British Musical award with Cyndi Lauper’s songs or Le Navet Bete’s swashbuckling laugh-out-loud Treasure Island or the tremendous mockumentary Endless featuring navel-gazing pretentious musicians, Spinal Tap-esque posturing and much exquisite subtlety? Hmmm. No, I’m going with RedCape’s Thunder Road, a First Aid teacher’s unexpected, lawless road trip north through dreams and friendship, emergency medical tips and cowboy boots with the Boss blaring in the Berlingo, Lincoln off-limits due to a cabbage allergy and Papa Smurf in the wilds of Berkshire far, far behind.

Keith Mckenna

With street protests in many countries across the world and social problems from homelessness to racism seeming to increase, I was surprised at how generally politically disengaged theatre has been in 2019. There continued to be powerful plays reflecting the concerns of #MeToo, but theatre seemed to lack a sense of direction and become cautious. There were even plays, such as Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck at the Almeida, that depicted the liberal centre as being paralysed, lost fantasists.

Despite this, I found much that held my attention. My favourite production of the year is Duncan Macmillan’s sensitive adaptation of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s theatre. A play I had for so long disliked suddenly in this production seemed to stand alongside other Ibsen plays that had been shaped by first-wave feminism. (A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts). Its imaginative adaptation, stunning acting and above all Ian Rickson’s inspired direction had me not only hanging onto every piece of dialogue but also noticing the way the non-speaking servants reacted. It was faithful to Ibsen, very urgent, topical and necessary.

Lynne Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat at the Gielgud transferring from the Donmar, was an extraordinary dramatic insight into the wrecked industrial communities of Trump’s America and the way the cruelties of employers can provoke racism and family conflict. Trojan Horse at the Battersea Arts Centre reconstructed, from interviews and various official reports, the terrifying attack on Muslims by government and the media. It is probably the most important play of the year and should be shown in every city. Both Sweat and Trojan Horse fit uneasily in this conservative period, and had to work hard to find their audience, but hopefully they are signs of the way theatre will look in the future.

A play that instantly found an audience was Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at the Vaudeville Theatre. A polemic against the historic oppression of women, pitched as a play about Emilia Bassano and her possible influence on her contemporary Shakespeare, it quickly became the most frequently cited favourite play of young women who were a large part of the audience. Constantly referenced in conversations and social media were Emilia’s final impassioned advice in the play to the women watching: “if they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down.” No wonder many reviewers referred to it as “rousing” given the enthusiastic way those who watched cheered its speeches. That remarkable play began life surprisingly at the Globe Theatre, which has been busy applying good ideas (diversity, teamwork directing and colour- and gender-blind casting) in such a peculiar, often confusing manner that they risk discrediting the ideas.

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays were becoming very clumsy in 2019. At the Almeida, the director Joe Hill-Gibbins gave us Simon Russell Beale as a conventional Richard the Second while the rest of the cast, as if in a different performance, deliberately squabbled like kids in a playground, occasionally chucking buckets of blood over each other.

The Bridge Theatre resisted the trend towards messiness with a bright clear, funny, partly promenade, gay Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Hytner, that had Titania slipping Oberon the drug that led him for a time into the arms of Bottom. It was an exciting performance that overcame all my reservations about its deviation from the text and had me helping to unfurl the rainbow flag and dancing along with other audience members.

Let's hope theatre in 2020 has more socially engaged productions to prod it from its sleepy hollow.