My Top 10 Shows of 2019
The top 10 shows from my aisle seat in 2019.
Somewhat belatedly I’ve had a look back at the list of shows that I saw in 2019, and have selected my favourites of the year. Overall I’d say that there were fewer knock-out shows than I happened to see in 2018, and my selection is the poorer for my not making it to the Festival in Edinburgh this past year (I was so bereft at the time that I made a vow not to miss it again this coming year!).
But looking back I am reminded about how much joy and stimulation I have had the good fortune to experience in the theatre this year by seeing something different almost every week of the year.
So in chronological order, here are my 2019 best:
Sweat – Donmar (January)
An authentic and moving portrait of the devastating impact on families and communities of the decline of the American rust belt. Although built from first-hand research in the USA, this also felt resonant of the regional devastation and disaffection informing the Brexit debate in the UK
Cyprus Avenue – The Royal Court (February)
A towering performance by Stephen Rea in a play that was both darkly hilarious and deeply disturbing. It dealt with important themes for our times, the terrible divisions of Northern Ireland representing any tribal bigotry that divides our society.
Collapsible – The Vaults (February)
Essentially a one-woman monologue that vividly explores the personal fragility and social pressures for contemporary young women. We were lucky to be able to publish playwright Margaret Perry at Samuel French; in Collapsible she blends telling and comic observation of work, family and love with true and moving insight into characters’ internal hopes and fears. I was also proud to contribute to the crowd funding that enabled the show to go up in Edinburgh. You can still catch it when it runs again at the Bush in February 2020.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican (March)
Based on the bestselling, poetic novella this was never going to be a naturalistic piece. It was an electrifying theatrical creation: language that was surreal, poetic and precise; dazzling sound and design; a deeply moving portrait of grief, family and love; and a mesmeric performance by Cillian Murphy.
Come from Away – Phoenix (March)The unlikely Broadway hit that came from Newfoundland. Based on the real-life events following 9-11 when international flights were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, this folk musical manages to balance the horror of the time with the uplifting heroism of the ordinary people of Gander who rose to the challenge of the crisis. An award-winning show, and now also a family favourite.
Death of a Salesman – Young Vic (June)
A reminder of how timeless and powerful this play is. The cruel loss of dignity for anyone who is knocked back by the forces of capitalism, and the intense battleground of fathers and sons over their respective hopes and expectations are universal themes. The black casting made the systemic pressures all the more challenging and the individual failures so heart breaking. The lead performances were exceptional and memorable.
The Doctor – Almeida (August)
Another inventive and stimulating piece from Robert Icke, who has provided some of the best theatre in London in his time at the Almeida. This was wonderfully thought-provoking theatre on multiple themes, including the conflicting ethics of medical science and religious faith, and prejudices based on gender, race or religion, which were made all the more vivid and unsettling by the casting against type. Juliet Stevenson was magnificent.
Present Laughter – Old Vic (August)
This has never been my favourite Coward play, but Andrew Scott’s barnstorming performance was sheer joy, and the modern liberties with the gender relationships added an unexpected frisson.
Blank – Donmar (December)
The script for Alice Birch’s play comprises 100 scenes that she allows the Director to select from. This co-production with women’s prison company Clean Break offers a series of characters all of whom have faced challenging personal, psychological and economic circumstances, and suffered setbacks and loss. At times this is difficult to watch, but it was a revealing and powerful social commentary to counter easy judgements.
Fairview – Young Vic (December)
For the first half hour I was very puzzled by what I was watching: it appeared to be a formulaic American TV sit-com. For the second half hour I was also bewildered by an amazingly bold innovation in form being played out. There came a moment however when what was happening on stage and the voice over merged into electrifying synchronisation, and I was won over. Although the whole show is not altogether successful, the turns are dramatic and thought-provoking, and the performances are all enjoyable and exceptionally committed. Unique and unsettling.
As I review the past year and look ahead to 2020, I’d say that the theatres that are consistently staging the most interesting and powerful work in London are the Young Vic, the Almeida and the Donmar. I’m very much looking forward to another year of great theatre.