Paul T Davies looks back at the theatre he has experienced over the past year to reveal his top picks for 2019. Did you see any of these great productions?
It’s that time of the year when I look back over the many shows I have seen, from many different genres, and select my personal favourites. It’s thrown up a few surprises this year, but that’s the beauty of theatre, from the West End to the Wildest Fringe, prepare to be surprised!
COME FROM AWAY – Phoenix Theatre London
For the last two years, my end of year picks have been topped by two-part seven-hour epics, Angels in America and then The Inheritance. So it’s a bit of a surprise that my favourite show of the year is a tight, perfect 100 minutes, and a musical at that! Come From Away is created from the extraordinary stories of thousands of plane passengers and crew diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, during the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. Over the days of being stranded, the residents welcomed in people from all walks of life, religions and cultures, and showed them kindness and the best of humanity. The ensemble is terrific, the music sublime, it’s a show that will make you laugh and cry, and, in our troubled times, it is full of heart and will lift your soul. I never see things more than once, even if I love them. I’ve seen Come From Away three times, and I’d go again! I haven’t even reviewed it, but I agree totally with what our editor thought!
DEATH OF A SALESMAN – Piccadilly Theatre London
The genius of Marianne Elliot and Miranda Cromwell’s production is in casting the Loman family as an African American one. Without altering any of the text, layers of racism are revealed, adding to the weight of history and the pressure to succeed upon Willy Loman and his sons. The cast are superb, faultless, and reveal new aspects of each character; it is very much a play for our times. It’s my choice for Play Revival of the Year, and Wendell Pierce, as Willy Loman, portraying a man sellotaping over the cracks in his life, gets my nod for Actor of the Year.
SMALL ISLAND – National Theatre London
Adaptations of books have often done well for the National Theatre, think just of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime. For a while recently, the venue struggled to find a new play that filled the massive Olivier stage and pleased audiences as much as the successes under Nicholas Hytner. Then came Helen Edmunson’s sublime adaptation of Andrea Levy’s much-loved novel. A sweeping epic that took us through the Second World War and the arrival of the first Windrush immigrants a few years later, it was a story told through lives we rarely experience the telling through- Caribbean lives. The staging was superb, and the cast were excellent. As in the book, Edmunson places two women, one white, one black, Queenie and Hortense, in a house in Earl’s Court in 1948, and skilfully weaves the events leading up to that moment, and the consequences. It’s my Best New Play, and for her performance as haughty, vulnerable, strong and fierce Hortense, Leah Harvey is my Actress of the Year.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS – Soho Theatre
I didn’t know about the arson attack on the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, in 1973 until I saw Gently Down The Stream, Martin Sherman’s beautiful gay historical play. Thirty-two people died, and it was the worst attack on LGBTQ people until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. A grim subject, but Max Vernon’s powerful musical sears this tragic episode of LGBTQ history into our minds and hearts. A terrific ensemble, great music, and overwhelmingly powerful, I wrote, “this is not just a musical, it’s an act of activism”, a statement I stand by. My LGBTQ event of the year.
A WAR OF TWO HALVES – Edinburgh Festival
Theatre and sport can go together, as proved by one of my choices last year, the soul-lifting rugby play Fly Half. In Edinburgh this year, I didn’t expect to find myself at Tynecastle Football Stadium, home to Heart of Midlothian Football Club, watching the best site-specific production I think I have ever seen. The play commemorated and celebrated the Bravest Team, the 13 players who volunteered to fight together in the First World War. Skilfully, with beautiful music to guide us, the company took us around the massive stadium and managed to create an intimate, deeply moving piece, mainly thanks to the sublime skill of the storytellers. No one in the audience who stood in the memorial garden at the end and watched each actor place a poppy on the plaque of the man they portrayed will ever forget it. Beautiful theatre that also brought in a wider audience, (they should stage it every year), my Site Specific choice of 2019.
IAN McKELLEN ON STAGE WITH TOLKEIN, SHAKESPEARE, OTHERS AND YOU – On Tour
The word legend is overused these days. Step forward a genuine legend, Sir Ian, who, for his 80th birthday celebrations, embarked on an 80 date tour of the UK, going to theatres and places that meant a lot to him, small and large venues, and raised money for local theatres and charities along the way. If that wasn’t enough, the success of it led to him playing a further 80 dates in London. Few performers can hold an audience in the palm of his hand like Sir Ian, erudite, naughty, witty, playful and passionate about theatre, his love for his profession and work shone through and filled the auditorium. I suspect many of us are planning on seeing his 90th birthday celebrations, a true legend!
MOUTHPIECE – Edinburgh Fringe
I had a really good Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year; I saw many productions of such top quality. But the one I took away with me and one that has stayed with me is Kieran Hurley’s extraordinary play. It was a visceral, emotional, totally absorbing theatre experience that looked at poverty porn and appropriation, and ended set in the Traverse Theatre on the opening night of Mouthpiece. As a playwright myself, I was stunned by Hurley’s destruction of the fourth wall, his skill at following a tight dramatic structure whilst shattering one dramatic convention after another. It’s being revived at the Traverse again next year and deserves to be performed far and wide, just outstanding writing.
ANGELA’S ASHES – Fairfield Halls, Croydon
What? Another musical? But you don’t like musicals do you Paul? Well, I don’t like the sweet, saccharine fuelled musicals that could threaten my diabetic control, but I do like musicals with an edge, (see above!). Howell and Hurt’s adaptation of Frank McCourt’s much-loved autobiography has, unsurprisingly, been a big hit in Ireland, and this was its first UK run. I was so glad I saw it. One of the first “misery memoirs”, (as books like this often got bracketed into), McCourt’s story is actually powerful one of survival against the odds, crippling poverty and the class structure. The music was sublime, especially the title song and the haunting Shannon River, and Paul Hurt’s book kept the twinkle as well as the tears in Frank’s eyes. Producers take note; you’re missing a trick here!
ON BEAR RIDGE – Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
One I didn’t get to review, but I am so glad I caught Ed Thomas’s new play that travelled up from the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff to the Royal Court. A superb post-apocalyptic play that leaves the disastrous events beautifully vague, Rhys Ifan played the last Welshman alive on Bear Ridge, proprietor of a now-defunct and ruined butcher shop. Beautifully acted by the cast, with a design that dismantled to reveal the devastation of the land, it was also sharply funny.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM DREAM – Bridge Theatre, London
Surely there was nothing new to be found in Shakespeare’s much revived classic? Well, reverse the love potion trick and have Oberon fall in love with Bottom, and you have a whole new Dream of delights! Nicholas Hytner’s imaginative production at The Bridge staged the events in the round, employed trapeze artistry and audience engagement and made us fall in love with the play all over again. The Shakespeare production of the year!
Other highlights included the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Sweat, which transferred into the West End, and another superb novel adaptation at the National, The Secret River. The Theatrical Event of the Year was Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season, spanning the end of last year and beginning of this, with a sublime Dumb Waiter starring Tim Freeman and Danny Dyer. There were, naturally, some disappointments and, for me, the main one was Ivan Van Hove’s All About Eve. Despite the star casting of Gillian Anderson and Lily James, it was a sterile affair, with an over-reliance on-screen acting and technology, (misplaced in a play all about theatre), that left the stage empty for too much of its running time. But, as always, I feel lucky to have seen so much theatre, of an infinite variety, and we would love to know what you loved this year!