And in the third and final ‘review of the decade’ the plays…it’s an arbitary distinction, but this had to be organised somehow. No prizes for guessing the top play of the decade (hint I could technically have given it slots one and two).
I saw around 450 performances in 10 years. I was lucky enough to see some of Broadway’s best as well as London’s best too. I also saw 100s of brilliant works closer to home in Cardiff, and beyond. That this list is London and New York-centric doesn’t diminish those plays which moved me, made me laugh and changed me as an artist. But I also saw what I think are some of the decade’s defining works, which naturally loomed large in memory.
And it really is just a memory exercise, what after all these years, and in the future will I remember. This isn’t a ‘best of’ list it’s my best-of list, these are the plays that shaped me this decade and will stay with me well into the next.
10. As Is – William Hoffman –Directed by Andrew Keates – Finborough/Trafalgar Studios (2014/5)
This list seems to be bookended by AIDS plays… and that about sums up my decade in theatre. I’m forever grateful to Andrew Keates for his bringing this play to London, and directing it with such elegance, sensitivity and heart. It’s an important and often neglected play, and it was an important moment for me in my academic life to be invited to speak at a post-show talk. Mostly I’m just very thankful such a brilliant version of this play now lives in my memory.
9. Gloria (2017)
This was just a bloody good play. Honestly not a lot else to say, but if someone asked me to name ‘bloody good plays of the decade’ this one would be there. My new mantra going into the next decade is ‘more well-made plays’. We spend a lot of time trying to break the mould and make something new… when actually a good story, some good acting and a bit of nice direction is more than enough. This play had all of that in spades. And yes, I do like a bit of a jump scare now and then.
8. A View From a Bridge – Arthur Miller –Lyceum Theatre NY (Young Vic Production) – Directed by Ivo Van Hove
Some pieces just sort of burn their way into your mind. I’m not sure how much ‘intellectually’ I got from this production, but I know it moved me, struck me and made me think about what theatre can do still to this day. Sitting intimately close in the ‘stage seats’ (as they became for the NY transfer) made me hyper aware of everything condensed into this version. I throw a lot of shade at Ivo when he’s being ‘peak Ivo’ in other productions… but that’s probably because ‘peak Ivo’ at the other end of the scale is this. Also, I’ll never forget the lady saying ‘That young British boy will do well’ about dear Russell Tovey. He’ll do alright that lad.
7. A Bright Room Called Day – Tony Kushner- The Public Theatre, Directed by Oscar Eustis (2019)
Forever to be known as Tony Kushner’s ‘hold my beer’ play, in which 30 years on in response to his play basically being ‘too Tony Kushner’ he levels it up. And I love him, and Oscar Eustis for it. This play for me was of course the ultimate ‘dream team’ on their ‘home turf’. It wasn’t for everyone granted, but it ticked all the boxes for me. It’s hard to put into words what Kushner’s words do for me…it’s a feeling of lights turning on in my head, like bits of your brain turning on you’d forgotten were there. He’s an intellectual playwright but for those who love him it’s an emotive response.
6. The Boys in the Band- Matt Cowley- Directed by Joe Mantello (2018)
‘Know your history children’ is a refrain I’m fond of muttering, and this is a defining piece of LGBTQ theatrical history that it’s important to know. One of the first plays to be ‘out and proud’ and to tell gay (yes gay men’s but you gotta start somewhere) stories on stage. It’s important that it was revived and revived with a group of ‘out’ actors. And to be in that room felt also significant.
5. A Streetcar Named Desire- Tennessee Williams- The Young Vic- Directed by (2014)
I love theatre because of Gillian Anderson- a well told story is that I first went to the theatre to see her. However, when people ask which of her performances I’ll remember, it’s this one. A true tour de force, there’s little else to say other than to revel in its brilliance.
4. Hamlet (Scot-let) The Almeida directed by Robert Icke (2017)
I saw this Hamlet twice. That’s how good it was- I voluntarily sat through Hamlet twice in one year. I also declare the next decade Hamlet-less. Andrew Scott won Hamlet we’re done. In all seriousness, Robert Icke took the modern Hamlet and made it work, the words and the setting felt contemporary in a way so many reach for and don’t quite achieve. Scott held the audience’s interest from his opening lines- feeling like he was talking to, not at them. And then quietly broke everyone’s heart.
3. Death of a Salesman-Arthur Miller- The Young Vic directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell (2019)
Some productions you remember simply for being in the presence of excellence. And this was a masterclass. From the writing (obviously) through to the direction and every performance on stage, everything was impeccable. The now obvious stroke of genius to change the Loman family to a Black family, the fascinatingly brilliant layers that uncovers without changing a word, makes the already masterwork of a play something new. Proof that Marianne Elliott is indeed our greatest working director- but also in her co-directing with Miranda Cromwell illustration that the true greats know the power in collaboration, and in elevating others alongside them. The final scene of this play shook to the very core, and what endured was a feeling of having seen something truly remarkable.
2. The Drowned Man- Punchdrunk- Temple Studios- (2014)
Is it a play? Who knows what it is really. But it was a defining theatrical experience of the decade, probably my lifetime. It’s a good thing I didn’t encounter it earlier in the run or it would have probably been a defining factor in bankrupting me as well. Let’s get one thing straight: I hate immersive theatre. I hate any kind of audience interaction. But my love for this show is proof you should never say never. There’s something about the Punchdrunk ‘universe’ that feels ‘safe’ for a shy introvert scared of the above. It’s also the personal connections- I was having the worst of days the day I saw this (actual worried I was dying stuff) and it still comes out on top…I made friends connected to it, I published a book chapter on it. The Drowned Man is more than a show, it’s a defining moment in the theatre decade for me.
(Read my book chapter on fans saying goodbye to the show in this delightful book)
1. Angels in America- Tony Kushner- The National Theatre/Neil Simon Theatre- Directed by Marianne Elliott (2017/2018)
What to say about this production? So so much more than a play to me. That spring/summer of 2017 is probably one of my favourite memories of this decade. I felt like the play and everything that came with it for me truly put me back together again after the PhD had pulled me apart. I remember leaning against a wall in the NT after the final show crying but feeling like something had truly changed.
Of course as the Mormon Mother tells us, change is hard – it’s being split in half and pulled back together and ‘it’s up to you to do the stitching’ and it feels like hyperbole to say it, but that’s what this play, this production felt like, and meant.
Of the play itself, even without my particular attachment to it, would rank among the top this decade. It is masterful in every element of its execution. To take Kushner and make sense of him. Make perhaps more sense than he was ever able to himself. To take this play that is contemporary and visceral and important but that is wrapped in so many layers audiences struggle to find it, and to show them those layers. To stage something so epic, yet so quietly intimate and personal all at once. And to deliver that across 7 and a half hours of theatre, hard theatre (this isn’t Harry Potter!) and to have them leave elated, hopeful. To have made something beautiful. That’s what this production did.
And for me? I have said it time and again, that I don’t know where I’d be today without it. I might not have got that far, but I wouldn’t have moved at all had this production not come back. Had I not had it to reignite something in me. My decade in theatre, and in life would look very different without Marianne Elliott.
And the next decade? who knows…as the great man said ‘the world only spins forward’ maybe I’ll see more theatre, maybe less. Maybe my life will shift away from that world…or further into it. I do know however that theatre will continue to shape me in whatever form, and however often I see it. It’s been 18 years since I first went to the theatre and to quote a certain green witch ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good’ not just for what I’ve seen, but for the people I’ve met along the way, who share my love, my passion. Both of which keep me (relatively) sane.