Monday 24 December 2018

Top 10 Theatre of 2018

The inheritance of wisdom, community and self
 Matthew Lopez

Each year, around March, I think of a brilliant way to start the Best of the Year list. Each year, around December, I forget it. In the year when football nearly came home and the UK has been stuck on a political pause, theatre has been the lodestar. Ian Rickson opened up a world of subconscious and unease in Pinter’s The Birthday Party in the West End, Kate Hewitt communicated the contemporaneity of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon in Sheffield, and Polly Stenham rewrote August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (retitled Julie) for the Fleabag generation at the National. Sam Mendes brought us three hours of mansplaining in a disappointing The Lehman Trilogy at the National, Aidan Turner made his West End debut in Martin McDonagh’s hilarious The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End, and Leicester’s Curve delivered a brilliant production of Fiddler on the Roof which put community at the fore.

Other honourable mentions: the genre-defying The Girl from the North Country celebrated the lyrical intimacy of Bob Dylan's music; the irreverent and wickedly debauched The Grinning Man at Trafalgar Studios; and Adam Penford's production of Beth Steel's Wonderland at Nottingham Playhouse brought the play home.

And here’s the Top Ten with a snippet of each review:

10 – The Lovely Bones (Royal & Derngate, Northampton)

Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.

9 – Hello, Dolly! (Shubert, New York)

In the week that Bernadette Peters turned 70, we saw her storm the stage as Dolly Levi on Broadway. If Hamilton has been the musical that made Broadway cool again, appealing to a more diverse and younger audience, Hello, Dolly! is the musical which defines classic Broadway. This was certainly the case in Jerry Zaks’ production which embraced and indulged in all of the trappings of a bonafide, classic Broadway hit. From the marketing and the Shubert’s marquee to the casting and production values, Zaks pulled out the stops. Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs were likewise elaborately sumptuous: the dresses and hats were fabulous; a whole train crossed the stage; dancers pirouetted under the weight of wobbling, proscenium-high stacks of plates; Horace’s shop filled the stage. The whole show, led by Peters, was a frothy, farcical delight.

8 – The Band’s Visit (Ethel Barrymore, New York)

Played straight through with no interval, The Band’s Visit is a fleeting but searing musical which encompasses the cravings, losses, hopes, mistakes, hits and misses of the human experience. Yazbek and Moses have beautifully and succinctly crafted a piece which never outstays its welcome and manages to say in a mere one and a half hours what many try to achieve in years of musings and toil. While it may be overlooked in favour of the flashier shows currently playing in New York, this small, intimate and unassuming musical outshines even the brightest lights on Broadway. Thankfully, it won 10 Tony Awards this summer, including Best New Musical.

7 – Hamilton (Victoria Palace)

Words have power. And just as Hamilton himself did, Miranda has used all the power in his lexicon to move the world – yes, a musical isn’t going to create the same political upheaval as the forming of a constitutional government - but I guarantee that following this, the social and cultural orbits that unite within the arts will shift slightly from their once too predictable axes. So many of Miranda’s songs have already become standards (‘Burn’, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, ‘Wait For It’, ‘Helpless’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘My Shot’, ‘Dear Theodosia’, ‘You’ll Be Back’, to name but a few) that it’s difficult to think of a contemporary composer that has had as great an impact at such a young age. Rich in theme, aesthetic, language, and context I hope and expect Hamilton to find its way onto many an English Literature syllabus where it can take its place amongst the classics of old. In fact, to further the Shakespeare comparison, while we Brits can claim Richard III and Henry V etc. then in Hamilton America has found its History Play and ushers in a new era of creative political commentary. This is a production that merits watching again and again and is sure to reveal new delights with each viewing.

6 – An Octoroon (Dorfman, National Theatre)

‘In clumpy folds, the paint oozed over the left half of his face and down the length of that side of the body, until one eye, one nostril, one shirtsleeve, one pant leg, and one Patek Philippe watch were washed completely white’ (259-260). This is from Paul Beatty’s wickedly funny and wildly subversive 2015 novel The Sellout, a satire about a black Los Angelino who reintroduces racial segregation and takes on a voluntary slave in order to put the town of Dickens back on the map. It’s hard not to see the publicity image for this production of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play and not think of that part, one vivid bit of imagery of many, from Beatty’s novel. But as well as both making such brutal points about racism in America it also makes you think about how such things are discussed. Rereading bits of The Sellout as preparation for this review (these things aren’t just thrown together, surprisingly!) I came across another line: ‘“Problematic,” someone muttered, invoking the code word black thinkers use to characterise anything or anybody that makes them feel uncomfortable… and painfully aware that they don’t have the answers to questions and assholes like me’ (98). ‘Problematic’ is too often an easy get-out word to avoid the heart of something. An Octoroon is problematic but this only strengthens it, provoking us to continuously question its characters’ representations.

But it’s worth probing what is problematic and why that matters. There is a definite uneasiness about seeing minstrelsy, something enhanced by Bennett’s decision to use thick greasepaint or shoe polish to create block colours (black, red and white). This is much more startling when comparing it to production photos from some American productions. And the blackface would be troubling enough if it was simply there as part of a post-modern critique of racial representation but it is compounded with melodrama and stage spectacles such as fire, straight out of Boucicault’s theatre, soAn Octoroon can’t simply be written off as as an easy criticism of the original when at times it feels like a celebration of Boucicault’s theatre as much as a blistering play in its own right. There’s also the interest in stereotypes, from the character of old Pete (an echo of the slave Hominy in Beatty’s work) and the relentless modern stereotypes in the dialogue of Minnie and Dido. But Beatty and Jacobs-Jenkins share an irreverence that is refreshing and shows that serious ideas can be explored as effectively – perhaps more so – through subversion and humour.

5 – Company (Gielgud)

Believe the hype. Elliott’s production is defining a new era of musical theatre. Fantastic performances, lush music, hilarity tinged with poignancy, Company has it all. Above all, Elliott emphasises the ecstatic truths in Sondheim’s lyrics (the skill that, for me, is what sets him apart from his contemporaries – yes he’s incredibly witty, but the real beauty of his music is his unique way of clarifying what is thought to be inexpressible), and by the time Bobbie sings ‘Being Alive’ we have journeyed with her to that point of raw recognition. ‘Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there as frightened as you, to help us survive being alive’ – we all want company, but, thanks to Elliott and Craig’s Bobbie, it is evident that company no longer has to be in the form of conventional marriage, or even conventional relationships. The longing for companionship may be universal, but there is no universal way of obtaining it. And the realisation of that is painful, life-affirming bliss.

4 – Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Curve, Leicester)

Throughout the play, Riaz asks ‘Who am I?’. It’s a question Leicester has had to ask itself over the years, with sometimes uneasy answers. Khan’s time in the Baby Squad precedes my birth and yet it still resonates with this changing and vibrant city. Thirty years on, Brucciani’s is still here and the clock tower remains a beacon of the city. But it’s also changed considerably in the last decade, with the monopolising of the king in the car park, the LCFC murals dotted about town, and indeed the opening of Curve itself. In its tenth year, Curve’s two biggest productions have been a new musical that has attracted audiences in their droves up and down the country, and this very local play about a very specific and pertinent part of Leicester’s lifeblood. These are the highlights of a richly diverse programme made for its city. And in Memoirs, they’ve made a pulsating bit of theatre which is simultaneously sensitively staged with stimulating ambivalence, while remaining jubilant about the making of a man and a city.

3 – Summer and Smoke (Duke of York’s)

This is a play and production of binaries which come together as one. There’s the supposed doppelgänger in Alma which John talks about. There is Forbes Masson as both the Preacher and the Doctor. There is the earthy stage on which the actors play barefoot and the ethereal music and staging all performed in one space. There is the 1948 text by Tennessee Williams and the contemporary direction by Rebecca Frecknall. And, indeed, there is summer and smoke, both suffocating and liberating in certain ways. All harmonise to make a stellar piece of theatre, exquisite not least because of the chemistry between Patsy Ferran (always interesting and thoughtful in her performances) and Matthew Needham. Above all, this production of Summer and Smoke is more than the sum of its parts. Text, direction, voice, movement, lighting come together to show that theatre is truly the most collaborative of art forms.

2 – Fun Home (Young Vic)

Like most memory plays, we are aware that Alison’s version of events is patchy, unfinished and coloured by hindsight and personal feeling. This is beautifully conveyed in Kron’s book as Alison frequently stumbles over her choice of words, tries out and discards new expressions, and generally thinks out loud. As a basic insight into the approach artists take towards creation, it feels, at once, organic and intimate, a technique embraced by David Zinn’s set. From jumbled heaps of furniture, to semi-populated spaces, to the white expanse that echoes a blank canvass, to the fully realised ornate house on Maple Avenue, Zinn’s design mimics the collage of images our memories create while also evoking Bechdel’s original illustrative work.

One of the aspects I found most moving was Kron and Tesori’s faith in silence. As a graphic novel tells a story through images, words and, perhaps most importantly, the spaces in between, Fun Home’s creators similarly embrace multimodal techniques to enhance the joy and tragedy of the piece. Rarely have I seen a ‘loss for words’ so appropriately and satisfyingly portrayed. It may be somewhat incongruous to say, but within ‘Ring of Keys’, the musical’s breakthrough number, the most eloquent expressions of self-discovery are found in Small Alison’s moments of halting inarticulation, there are no words to express the joy and recognition she feels. Alternately, if ‘Ring of Keys’ is a blazing and triumphant epiphany, then ‘Telephone Wire’ is it’s melancholic, transient cousin. Alison’s final car ride with Bruce is brimming with thoughts unspoken and missed milestones, the fact that Big Alison chooses to relive this memory, physically transposing her younger self, is revelatory enough.

1 – The Inheritance (Young Vic)

There’s so much going on in terms of plot, characters, narrative frames and scale that it would be easy to assume that the writing is merely good in the face of the play’s sheer ambition. But, as well as being a damn clever meditation on the creative process, the writing is also emotionally searing, nuanced and consistent, never glib or rushed. There are numerous standout scenes, monologues and instances of dazzling visual imagery so I want to home in on some specifics to at least try to convey Lopez’s skill. At the end of the first act, Walter has a long monologue about the pain of seeing his friends ravaged by AIDS. When talking about their upstate house which he - against Henry's will - used as a refuge for the dying, Walter contrasts images of the city burning around him with the burning reds and oranges of the cherry blossom tree in the garden. One is a picture of death and desolation, the other of growth and birth. Much later, when Toby disappears, he realises that ‘I can’t rewind my story. I can only go forward’, and we are prompted to think of that imagery again when Toby weighs up his options: ‘Heal or burn?’

Real estate plays a key but peripheral role in The Inheritance. Henry is a real estate billionaire, owning an apartment in Manhattan, a place in the Hamptons and a house upstate which we learn he gave to Walter in the late eighties/early nineties. Meanwhile, Eric, at the start of the play at least, lives in the rent-controlled apartment that his grandmother lived and died in. It was there that she watched Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s election victory. Essentially it was in that apartment that she became an American. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy (2015) is similarly set in rent-controlled ‘prime Manhattan real estate’ that would easily fetch ten times its current rate if deregulated. We’re reminded in The Inheritance that partners of the ill were also affected by often losing their homes. Both Lopez and Adly Guirgis, then, paint New York as a city to which people flee and offers the opportunity to form safe communities, only to be threatened, whether by disease, City Hall, or rises in prejudice.

The link between real estate and AIDS is interesting. In 2016, Alexandra Schwartz wrote for The New Yorker that the epidemic occurred simultaneously with the real estate market ‘turn[ing] relentlessly bullish’, with the boroughs that had the highest rate of infection also having the fastest rate of gentrification in the following years. Later she reflects that ‘Whether consciously or not, we build our homes on the graves of others.’ The line seems to have added pertinence in light of this play. Henry gains his billions from the development and exploitation of legacy and its effects on the next generation. Conversely, regarding the duties of community, Walter’s altruism in opening up the doors of his house is a rallying cry for a more socialist approach. In a moving and startling end to part one, the ghosts of a generation of men who died there reconvene to welcome Eric; a reminder of the community lost and what a community can aspire to be.
Clockwise from Top Left: Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance (Credit: Simon Annand); Hareet Deol, Riaz Khan and Jay Varsani in Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual (Credit: Ellie Kurttz); Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones (Credit: Sheila Burnett); The cast of The Band's Visit (Credit: Ahron R. Foster).

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