I rarely take my role as a critic for granted, writing for this website has given me access to some of the finest productions staged this year, as well as some major and minor disappointments. Of course, I am unable to review everything, but I also read and listen to other reviews and opinions and actually purchase theatre tickets! It is true though that, for every one show you rave about, someone will always say, “Ah, but did you see….” and name another show you curse yourself for missing. Therefore, any critic’s choice is a personal one, and here’s my pick of 2018.
The Inheritance – Noel Coward Theatre
For the second year in a row my “best of” list is headed by an epic, two part, over six and a half hour sweeping American drama, and one that sits alongside last year’s winner, Angels in America, with ease and a sense of continuation. Matthew Lopez’s extraordinary play is based on E M Forster’s Howards End, features Forster himself among a group of gay men in contemporary New York, and reflects back to the time of AIDS in the 1980s. A superb ensemble, with Kyle Soller’s unforgettable performance as Eric Glass providing the strongest spine, this is beautifully directed by Stephen Daldry. Read alongside Angels in America, the plays provide a sweeping panorama of gay life over the decades, and the end of the first half is the most moving experience I have had in the theatre this year- until Vanessa Redgrave in the second half pierces your heart! A fellow critic called it “the play of the decade.” I would suggest it’s even more important than that. A truly unforgettable night at the theatre.
The York Realist – Donmar Warehouse
There was strong contention for the Revival of the Year in my book, with the Donmar’s wonderful The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie vying for a place. But Peter Gill’s play is a haunting, moving evocation of 1960s Britain, where, during a production of The Mystery Plays in York, two men, the local famer performing in the play and the London wise stage manager, fall in love. Class and the times mean they will never have a life together, and the play is heartbreaking in its restrained desires and yearning. Beautifully performed, especially by Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey as the lovers, there were moments of silence when I swear I would have heard a pin drop. I did, however, hear a tear drop. Read Paul’s review of The York Realist
Fun Home – Young Vic
Yes, my top three reflects an excellent year for LGBTQ work with another great production at the Young Vic, (where The Inheritance originated), I was unfamiliar with Jenine Tesori’s musical based on the graphic novel of the same name, but it’s a show I will never forget now. Alison Bechdel’s “most intimate history” of her coming out and also discovering her father was gay, and deeply closeted, which eventually led to his suicide, is the most emotionally powerful musical I can remember seeing for ages. Perfectly directed by Sam Gold, and with a superb cast, the only question to ask is, “Where’s the West End transfer?”
Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Whilst Martin MDonagh’s new play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, had a mixed response at the Bridge theatre, Irish playwright David Ireland is making a bid for McDonagh’s crown as the playwright who pushes the envelope of political correctness and makes your mouth open with laughter and shock. A female playwright, a gay director and a famous Hollywood actor meet to discuss the production of her new play about The Troubles, which will star the Oscar winning actor. Cautious at first of boundaries regarding history and sexuality, the play builds to a hilarious climax as lines are crossed, insults are hurled, political correctness is shattered and violence erupts. My favourite play of this year’s Fringe, I hope it gets a London run eventually. Meanwhile, check out Ireland’s previous hit Cyprus Avenue, which returns to The Royal Court in February. Read Paul’s review of Ulster American
Chess – London Coliseum
My memories of the original production of Chess are very black and white- which was due to the monochrome staging! I’ve always loved the musical, flaws and all, and the London Coliseum staging brought it to vivid life and colour. For me, it was the orchestration and singing that made this one of my highlights of the year, the show containing two songs not in the original London production. But, topping all that was the appearance of Bjorn and Benny at the curtain call. I had not seen them live since Wembley 1979, so you can imagine the state this First Generation ABBA Fan was in! And as this is a personal choice, I make no apologies for selecting it over other musical revivals! Read Paul’s review of Chess
Girls and Boys – Royal Court Theatre
In an excellent year for solo performances, (see also Laura Linney in My Name is Lucy Barton at The Bridge), Cary Mulligan was mesmerising in Dennis Kelly’s powerful script. What starts off as a funny remembrance of meeting her husband for the first time, interspersed with scenes of her talking to her children, moves into dark and terrifying territory as the story emerges-that of family annihilation. The entire theatre held its breath as Mulligan gave the best performance by a female actor this year-in my opinion.
Pieces Of String – Mercury Theatre, Colchester
My regional theatre Production of the Year, Gus Gowland’s beautiful new musical places a gay love story set in World War Two at its centre, and its legacy on a family struggling to accept homosexuality in future generations. It has some aspects that need developing, especially the character of the mother, but the music soared and it was pleasing to see the Mercury take a complete risk on a brand new British musical. Gowland has since been nominated for, and has won, several awards, and this surely won’t be the only staging of Pieces of String. Read Paul’s review for Pieces Of String
Fly Half – RADA Festival/Touring
Gary Langden’s love letter to rugby, community and the spirit of Wales was a beautifully eloquent experience of loss and love, of the blood, sweat and tears that holds people together. He spoke of industries now disappeared, of villages that supported each other through crisis, all of it scored by wonderful songs from Gareth Moulton. I said his work was “collieries deep”; such was the emotions it found in me. Not just for Welsh viewers, this gorgeously melancholic play has found audiences everywhere, and evokes the spirit of Richard Burton in its story telling. Keep and eye out for further performances. Read Paul’s review of Fly Half
Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios
I am so glad I caught Natasha Gordon’s warm, wonderful play when it transferred into the West End from the National. As I said in my review, death and a wake may be at the centre, but the play thrums with life. The cast are terrific, but Cecilia Noble as Aunt Maggie steals the show, playing the kind of Aunty we all have! A warm and affectionate look at family life during times of grief, it’s a wonderful debut play from Noble. Read Paul’s review of Nine Night
An Octoroon – National Theatre
The Dorfman at the National continues to stage excellent new and recent plays- Nine Night originated here and Home, I’m Darling, Laura Wade’s latest, transfers into the West End next year. Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’s extraordinary adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s An Octoroon refused to leave my brain long after I had seen the show. Hugely contemporary in its examination of the history and consequences of slavery, audacious staging and a text that challenged the viewer with bullet like precision, it stayed hand in hand with the original play and contained some of the most surreal exchanges I have seen this year. The script also contains the best stage direction I’ve ever read, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.” It transferred from the Orange Tree Theatre, so I was late to the party on this one, but I still hope to see it transfer again! Read Paul’s review of An Octoroon
Knocking on the door of the Top Ten are Marianne Elliot’s superlative re-imagining and revival of Sondheim’s Company, excellent revivals of Brian Friel’s Translations, (National Theatre) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Red by the Michael Grandage Company, A great year for Pinter began with Toby Jones and Zoe Wannamaker stunning in The Birthday Party, and Pinter at the Pinter is a glorious, once in a lifetime, cycle of his shorter plays and sketches, continuing into 2019 and culminating with Tom Hiddlestone in Betrayal. . And in Frinton, at the Summer Theatre, Will Taylor gave one of the best performances of the year in Private Peaceful, proof that a theatrical gem can be found anywhere! Here’s to the next year!