Other Major Theatres

The overarching theme of uneven theatrical quality in 2018 stretches through this band of theatres as much as the state subsidised sector and the West End.

Almeida Theatre

Under Rupert Goold, the Almeida has determinedly sought pared down productions of classics, alongside challenging new writing that is frequently off-beat.

The most extreme example of the former category is the play that ended the year, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s radical reinterpretation of The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, which featured a cast led by the incomparable Simon Russell Beale. Sets, costumes and props had basically been dispensed with, as was a significant part of the text, to create a strange, unsettling evening with no sense of time or location.

A similar effect was created by Rebecca Frecknall in her well-regarded new version of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, which subsequently transferred to the West End and, to a slightly lesser extent, Robert Icke’s production of The Wild Duck by Ibsen, in which explication and exposition were taken to extremes.

Bridging the gap between old work and new was perhaps the theatre’s pick for this critic, Natalie Abrahami’s gripping new production of Machinal by American playwright Sophie Treadwell. With Emily Berrington in the lead, the audience was given an opportunity to tap into the sad lives of working-class Americans, and especially their women, during depressing times 90 years ago.

America also presented the best of the new writing, with the unusual Dance Nation. Claire Barron’s play was a touching tale of teenage dancers, fighting for fame, fortune and college places in a society that has become too competitive for its own good.

Keeping up the American theme, The Twilight Zone attempted to introduce the attractions of cult 1960s TV series of the same name into the theatre. The staging directed by Richard Jones and designed by Paul Steinberg, was superb. The deliberately far-fetched script adapted by Anne Washburn undoubtedly appealed to sci-fi fans but would not necessarily have found favour with the wider public.

For the first 15 minutes, Ella Hickson’s The Writer gripped like almost no other play this year. However, it then drifted into a somewhat confused exploration of a difficult relationship.

Donmar Warehouse

As the Donmar prepares for the transfer of power from Josie Rourke to Michael Longhurst, it also had a mixed year with some memorable highs.

A charming revival of Congreve’s The Way of the World was directed by James Macdonald and, unusually for these times, situated in its original era and benefited greatly as a result. This is always going to be a very funny play and with strong performances from Haydn Gwynn, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Justine Mitchell duly delivered.

The York Realist by Peter Gill is a quiet, contemplative work that is not an obvious fit with the Donmar’s programming policy but, in a co-production with Sheffield Theatres directed by Robert Hastie, shone a light into the lives of working-class folk.

The year’s highlight was undoubtedly saved until the very end, when another play about those wearing metaphorical blue collars was a triumph. Sweat by Lynn Nottage got right under the skin of a couple of generations of working folk in Pennsylvania.

Skilfully directed by the incoming Artistic Director of the Bush, Lynette Linton, the sadly depressing piece made some powerful statements about the failure of The Great American Dream in the early years of the current millennium, but by extension today as well.

While Aristocrats may not be Brian Friel’s best play, a revival by Lindsey Turner proved to be gently amusing if not earth-shattering.

An unusual production of Measure for Measure, directed by Josie Rourke, saw the play considerably condensed and then rendered once in a relatively standard version and then again, immediately after the interval, with the leading roles swapped. If nothing else, this highlighted the stage talents of screen favourite Hayley Atwell.

Royal Court Theatre

The Royal Court remains one of the most prolific theatres in London, presenting over a dozen productions across its two spaces.

The venue peaked early with Dennis Kelly’s deeply moving solo (although it didn’t feel like it) Girls and Boys. This gripping play allowed film star Carey Mulligan to remind viewers of how accomplished she is on stage as well, in a perfectly pitched production directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Notes from the Field showcased the multi-talented Anna Deveare Smith. With her playwright’s hat on, she interviewed 250 people about deprivation and inequality in the United States then condensed their thoughts into a gripping stage production. That was not the end, since the writer also performed a piece that held the attention throughout 2½ gruelling but richly rewarding hours.

debbie tucker green is a challenging playwright whose work is always worth watching. ear for eye covered similar material to Miss Deveare Smith’s but at a microcosmic level as the playwright explored the difficulties faced by black citizens when they come up against the justice system in the United States. A rather bitty work divided into three very distinct parts which got better as it went along.

Mark Ravenhill has written relatively little for the stage in recent years and so The Cane was a welcome reminder of his talent. The three-hander took on challenging contemporary themes, looking at the difficulties faced by a retiring schoolmaster with a history that would not have seemed chequered at the time but looked particularly murky to the social media generation in retrospect. While the drama was sometimes a little inconsistent, the underlying messages came through sharp and clear.

In a rare departure from the policy of presenting nothing but new writing, the theatre welcomed Rita, Sue and Bob Too in a co-production with Out of Joint, directed by Kate Wasserberg. If nothing else, this sparky revival was a reminder of how great a loss the stage suffered with the early death of playwright Andrea Dunbar.

Instructions for Correct Assembly by Thomas Eccleshare was a mildly amusing look into a dystopian future that showed the kind of raw promise that one would normally expect to see in a production Upstairs rather than on the main stage.

The Upstairs space gives Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone an opportunity to try out experimental work and newer playwrights, which inevitably means that amongst the exciting discoveries will be the occasional dud.

At the start of the year, the theatre’s press officer proved herself to be an adept playwright. Anoushka Warden was lucky enough to be presented with a direction team of Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian working with the wonderful Patsy Ferran on My Mum’s a Twat, a solo show about the experiences of a young woman today, which was always amusing and had the feel of a life actually lived, rather than merely created for the stage.

Black Men Walking, written by rapper Testament, did almost exactly what the title suggests, sensitively presenting the trials and tribulations of a trio of relatively old men contemplating life while undergoing a strenuous hill walk.

Cordelia Lynn’s One for Sorrow highlighted the acting abilities of Sarah Woodward, Pearl Chanda and Kitty Archer in a piece that tried to personalise terrorist activity in this country, while cleverly but obliquely exploring the difficulties of religious and racial motivation / prejudice.

Young Vic Theatre

The Young Vic has been going through a period of transition as David Lan’s long tenure came to an end and Kwame Kwei-Armah took the reins.

One of the year’s highlights, Fun Home, is reviewed under musicals.

The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez was an American epic of marathon proportions that took on similar material to Angels in America but without the flashy staging qualities. Indeed, a play directed by Stephen Daldry was rather like an often fascinating seven-hour talking shop addressing homosexuality and AIDS deeply, meaningfully but eventually overstaying its welcome.

Tarrel Alvin McCraney’s poetic The Brothers Size had made its British debut at the Young Vic and enjoyed a welcome return at the beginning of a year in which issues of race seemed to come to the fore on the London stage considerably more prominently than ever before.

To date, Kwame Kwei-Armah has only been responsible for two productions. The first was the transfer of his own rather whimsical American production of A Musical Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Unusually, The Convert by Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira was making it second London appearance in only a couple of years. Set in Rhodesia during Victorian times, this was a beautifully drawn but very depressing depiction of colonial life under British rule.

Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall has turned Hampstead Theatre into a successful venue offering a potent mix of classics, American imports, which dominated the main theatre space in 2018, and new writing, the last most frequently seen in the Downstairs space.

Inevitably, a theatre with adventurous programming will have its ups and downs.

Anna Ledwich directed a cast led by Hayley Atwell in Dry Powder, a work about office life by American playwright Sarah Burgess. Inevitably, as with every other play about the world of business and high finance, there was far more drama than is ever likely to occur in real life. However, this was a well-judged piece that grabbed the attention in its opening moments and never let it go.

Tony Kushner’s semi-autobiographical musical of childhood Caroline or Change had wowed audiences at the National and this revival came to Hampstead by way of Chichester. It featured Sharon D Clarke as a maid in 1960s American suburbia, trying to humour a callow young boy with domestic problems. With catchy music by Jeanine Tessori it proved to be amusing and thought-provoking, helped by the wild imagination of the playwright, especially when turning domestic gadgets into supporting actors.

Continuing the American connection with the transfer from off-Broadway, Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night tangentially explored the life of Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel, portrayed by Ben Caplan. In particular, jumping around in time and space, it depicted a strange relationship that he enjoyed with the chief of the NKVD, Stalin’s internal spy service.

The next American import was Stephen Karam’s intoxicating take on contemporary domestic life, The Humans. This wild comedy set around a happy family Thanksgiving in Chinatown, showed how life can disintegrate almost instantaneously, whatever your age, sexual leanings or outlook.

I and You by Lauren Gunderson was set in, you guessed it, the United States. What apparently started out as an investigation of relations between mismatched teens developed into a detailed exploration of troubled young lives before ending with one of the most unexpected dénouements of the year. With the two performers Maisie (Game of Thrones) Williams and Zach Wyatt making their stage debuts, credit must go to Edward Hall for a convincing production that overcame the actors’ understandable nerves.

The year ended with a new version of Uncle Vanya, written and directed by Terry Johnson, which played up the humour without necessarily getting to the heart of all of the characters’ motivations. It did though feature outstanding performances from Alan Cox and Alice Bailey Johnson.

The pick of the year Downstairs came in January with Georgia Christou’s Yous Two. This marvellous debut play showcased an almost fully developed talent. Its portrayal of a young woman, brilliantly played by Shannon Tarbet, coming of age in a single-parent family with a clinging father and unloved potential boyfriend had the kind of gritty realism that one longs for in a city whose stage presentations often seem to be plagued by either anodyne or sensationalist new writing.

The Strange Death of John Doe by Fiona Doyle was an edgy police procedural that looked like it had originally been written for TV. Even so, the underlying subject matter, following the trials and tribulations of an illegal immigrant desperate to come to the UK, proved to be intriguing.

Menier Chocolate Factory

As always, the programming at the Menier Chocolate Factory was eclectic. The year’s highlight was Fiddler on the Roof, reviewed under musicals.

Laurie Sansom directed an intense and highly atmospheric new version of Kiss of the Spider Woman starring Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett, which gripped from start to finish.

Spamilton, created by Forbidden Broadway maestros writer/director Gerard Alessandrini and lyricist David Zippel, unmercifully parodied Hamilton, not to mention dozens of other Broadway hits, and proved to be extremely funny.

Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies is a play that was both very much of the period in which it was set over 50 years ago and timeless. It cleverly portrays the challenges faced by a bland, suburban couple portrayed by Finty Williams (whose parents Dame Judi Dench and Michael Williams had played the leading roles in the original production) and Chris Larkin, who found themselves living next door to some of the most dangerous spies ever to attack our country. At the same time, the piece was a lovely vocation of middle-class England close to 60 years ago.

Kiln Theatre

For some, the biggest news of the year appeared to be not the wondrous, £7½ million refurbishment of the Tricycle Theatre but its rechristening as the Kiln. This led to protests outside the theatre from incensed locals, who might have done better to head indoors and enjoy Indhu Rubasingham’s first two productions.

Holy Sh!t by Alexis Zegerman was a drama that will have seemed all-too-familiar to parents in the neighbourhood, addressing the difficulties of finding good education for bright kids. In passing, it made some trenchant but intelligent points about race, religion and artifice.

White Teeth, adapted from Zadie Smith’s incomparable novel, had to be the perfect piece for this theatre, being set right outside its front door. This new adaptation by Stephen Sharkey was very different from the original, transforming the work into a happy musical about community, underpinned by the main plot lines created by the novelist.

Park Theatre

The Park Theatre had the good fortune to present one of the year’s finest new plays, Pressure by David Haig. What was effectively little more than an Englishman and an American arguing about the weather became a totally gripping drama, once you realised that the D-Day invasion of Europe from the United Kingdom depended on the forecast. With the writer starring, this brilliant production transferred into the West End but sadly for a far shorter run than it deserved.

Lyric Hammersmith

The Lyric Hammersmith is another theatre that is in transition, as Sean Holmes heads for pastures new. An eclectic and not always consistently strong year peaked with a London outing for an Abbey Theatre Dublin production of The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey, directed by Holmes himself. A wonderful cast made the most of a timeless classic, which guaranteed a great night out.

While it may not have been to everyone’s taste, one had to applaud the adventurous decision to attempt a staging of Derek Jarman’s iconic movie, Jubilee. Chris Goode’s adaptation was probably about as faithful as one could hope for, although this was the kind of visceral experience that would find as many enemies as friends.