It’s that time of year again… But before I launch into my frankly embarrassingly overthought Top Ten Shows of 2019, a small personal announcement. This is probably going to be my last regular blog post. I’d love for there to be some big, exciting, dramatic reason for this but in truth it’s pretty simple: I don’t really have time anymore (no big reason, just life) and, honestly, I’m not enjoying blogging as much as I used to. I still love theatre, I’ll still be going to the theatre and I’ll still be tweeting about theatre – so you won’t be entirely deprived of my thoughts on the subject. They’ll just be considerably more concise. Which I imagine is a relief to all of us.
Thanks to those of you who have read and supported the blog over the years. I’m not deleting it, and who knows I might pick it up again in the future. But for now, I just want to watch some shows without worrying when and how on earth I’m going to spin 600 words out of them.
Anyway, on with the show(s). It’s been another good year I think with the top five shows on this list in particular being amongst some of the best things I’ve seen in the theatre, ever.
1. Death of a Salesman, Young Vic:
Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell’s incredible production, setting the Loman family as African American, was visionary. The production faultless. A quartet of unbelievable central performances from Wendell Pierce, Sharon D Clarke, Arinze Kene and Martins Imhangbe, and an absolutely definitive production of this play for me.
2. Present Laughter, Old Vic:
Matthew Warchus’ decision to gender swap one of the characters in this classic Noel Coward made it feel utterly contemporary and Andrew Scott’s leading performance was note perfect (Scott and Wendell Pierce were in an absolute league of their own in terms of acting this year – they should hack the Olivier statue in half for them). Riotous, sad fun. I’ve rarely laughed so hard in a theatre.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Bridge:
A second year of immersive Shakespeare at The Bridge and a second utter triumph. Nicholas Hytner’s production with Bunny Christie’s mind boggling design was a joy. The updated text worked brilliantly. Oliver Chris delivered some of the most hilariously deadpan asides I have ever seen. The most fun I’ve ever had in a theatre.
4. Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe:
I missed this at The Globe last year but fucking hell was I glad to catch its transfer. Quite simply a brilliant, brilliant play, beautifully performed (especially by the majestic Clare Perkins). And that last speech…
5. Fairview, Young VicA show that is impossible to review or summarise – you just have to see it. So bold, so inventive, so perfectly done. Ferociously clever. Deeply uncomfortable viewing. A worthy Pulitzer winner and a justified sellout.
6. [Blank], Donmar WarehouseThe best plays are often not the easiest to watch and Alice Birch’s brilliant, innovative and enraging piece on women in the criminal justice system was certainly a case in point. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to punch something. A gem.
7. Downstate, National TheatreSpeaking of difficult pieces, this incredible play about sex offenders was at times almost impossible to watch. But it was also undoubtedly one of the bravest, most intelligent and most moving plays I saw this year. In a pretty decent year for the NT, this was a real shining light – and exactly the sort of high stakes risk I wish they would take more often. Some towering performances, notably from K Todd Freeman, were the cherries on this complicated cake.
8. A Very Expensive Poison, Old VicLucy Prebble’s joyously genre defying playing abut the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was in no way what I thought I’d signed up for – and I loved it all the more for that. Reece Shearsmith produced one of my surprise acting wins of the year as Vladimir Putin. A brilliant example of how irreverent form and serious subject matter can work together to produce something truly memorable and impactful.
9. Sweat, Donmar Warehouse (West End)Another transfer I was thrilled to catch, Lynn Nottage’s masterpiece state of the (American) nation play was a marvel. Gritty, funny, hard hitting and a better explanation of how we got into this mess than any academic or journalistic attempt I’ve read. The ending almost broke me.
10. War Horse, National TheatreAbout a million years late to the party, I finally saw War Horse in January. Eleven months later and I’ve almost stopped crying about it. A legendary production for so many very good reasons.
Close But No CigarA big clutch of shows just lost out to Joey for a spot on my list, but I wanted to mention them anyway: Anomaly at the Old Red Lion was the best Weinstein play aroundIn a year of a lot of great Arthur Miller The Old Vic’s inventive staging of the lesser known The American Clock was greatRufus Norris’ National Theatre finally found its stride with the profoundly moving Small Island, wildly innovative Anna, bonkers Peter Gynt and soulful Three Sisters all rocking my theatrical world.
The Wooden SpoonIt wouldn’t be my year end round up if I didn’t slag off an NT show and the interminable and dreary Rutherford and Sons takes the mouldy biscuit this year. When not even the great Roger Allam can save your show then you know you’ve misfired.