Monday 23 December 2019

Top 10 Shows of 2019

But I don’t know if that’s interesting’ (The Antipodes)


We’ve seen some great theatre in 2019, from Tim Minchin’s Back in Birmingham, to the Chaoyang acrobats in Beijing. There was the formally brilliant Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury with its call for action at the end, still playing at the Young Vic. At the Birmingham Rep, we saw Roxana Silbert’s light-hearted and giddily enjoyable production of Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac. The female-led The Worst Witch set a standard for family shows with its edgy yet fun high jinks for every generation. We’ve also seen some excellent touring shows (War Horse, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery) which demonstrate the enduring class of popular productions.  And, in the spirit of Michael Billington who's stepping down as chief theatre critic for The Guardian, we loved All My Sons at the Old Vic, but Howard Davies' production still reigned supreme for me.

 But here’s our Top 10 list, for what it’s worth, along with an extract from each review:


10 – The Antipodes (Dorfman, National Theatre)

It might have helped that my seat was upgraded to one of the pit seats at the side of the thrust stage, but I was fully absorbed in Annie Baker’s play. The Antipodes sees 8 people in a pitching room tasked with coming up with a new story. Designer and co-director Chloe Lamford created the panelled boardroom of executive America, with a pyramid of Perrier boxes in the corner, glowing like radioactive material. I loved its characters – some cocksure, some more hesitant – and the play’s creeping pace, jolted by well-choreographed scene changes, where takeaway boxes would appear from nowhere. Yes, it was about and featured storytelling, but it was far slippier than that. Some were grotesque, some more memorable than others, some big, some small, some well-arched, but what was curious was the way they all hanged together in this strange and pressured environment.


9 – Our Lady of Kibeho (Royal & Derngate, Northampton)

James Dacre’s production opens up the world of Kibeho with great detail; it’s a world which is new to us on two levels. Firstly, we see a modest school building: its white and blue walls flaking, a playground thick with red clay, their water source a single hand-pump, electricity only evident in flickering ceiling lights. Radio Rwanda seems to be the only connection with the outside world. Secondly, Hall and Dacre show us a world devout with belief which to a 21st century, young, British audience may seem odd or anachronous. But the nature, extent and purpose of this belief is contested throughout. As the girls’ prophecies draw crowds of locals, media coverage and, eventually, interest from the Vatican, what at first seemed a blessing evolves into a portent of chilling historical magnitude.


8 – The Unreturning (Frantic Assembly at Curve, Leicester)

It’s in Anna Jordan’s text that home is the most strongly and nostalgically conjured – that is, through what characters (mis)remember or desire about home. Her poetry here is honest and lyrical. It may remind some people of Carol Anne Duffy’s text for My Country but it’s far better. Whereas Duffy’s text crowbarred a generic list of national and local stereotypes, Jordan’s words feel personal, stemming from what the characters miss most. But I also think that Jordan’s text is smarter than that. The waxed lyrical ‘hedgerows, fish and chips shops and neat rows of terraced houses’ are edged with a knowingness that these images and questions pervade all three men’s lives spanning over 100 years just as they’ve pervaded British drama for however long. But for each of the men, as in drama, England is unanswered and unrequited. We don’t see Blighty; only ever hear about it or imagine it. It’s a romantic vision of home seen through the mind of someone horrifically torn away from it.


7 – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet (New Adventures at Curve, Leicester)

Bourne has homed in on not two warring families, but a war between master and subject; a war of freedom of identity versus political propriety; this is a youth in revolt. Yet the ultimate tragedy resides in the internal conflict Romeo and Juliet have with their mental health (exacerbated by the incorrect care/treatment demonstrated at Verona). Juliet is scarred and haunted by the tyrannical Tybalt to the point where she is blinded to the world around her. The result is sadder than anything Shakespeare wrote. Bourne has created a powerful statement on the irresponsible and inexcusable neglect of our youth. We live in a society where more young people than ever before suffer from mental health issues, and while these issues are definitely getting more publicity, there remains a sense that those in power – local and national authorities, adults, carers – are unsympathetic and/or ignorant. Romeo and Juliet is what happens when vulnerable children are let down by those that they should be able to trust.


6 – A Taste of Honey (National Theatre on Tour)

Bijan Sheibani’s production is entertaining without being flashy, showcasing Delaney’s text in all its humour, honesty and melancholia. Outstanding performances and an evocative design placed my thoughts and emotions directly with the characters on stage. I was invested in their lives, and it was with a heavy heart that I had to leave them behind, so engrossing was the play. A keystone in feminist theatre, having now seen A Taste of Honey I can see just why Delaney is so lauded for her work.


Kate Hewitt’s production and Magda Willi’s design are deceptively simple. A long traverse stage, no more than two meters wide with a concrete floor, runs from one end of the auditorium to the other. Above, over 40 white spot lights illuminate this catwalk. Four glass doors slide back and forth to create the different places, most notably the separated isolation yards in Rikers Island Prison. It’s an aesthetic which is extremely clean in its execution, and one which gives the illusion (conversely) of space, light and freedom. I particularly liked the way you could see reflections in the glass, to create the sense that characters might be talking to, arguing with, or convincing themselves. Whereas other productions have enclosed the action in cages, the action and performances here – although the characters are still very much confined – are fully opened out. It allows Lucius’ evangelism to soar and Hanrahan’s monologues to gain an air of a courtroom. Furthermore, staging it in the round allows the guard Valdez (a smug and pitiable character played very well by Joplin Sibtain) to roam all levels of the auditorium, in turn creating a panopticon effect. The characters have nowhere to hide so it heightens the idea of performance. And these characters sure do perform!


4 – Amélie, the Musical (Selladoor/Leicester Haymarket)

Michael Fentiman conjures all the phantasmagorical splendour of the original, while Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s honeyed score elevates the story in its melancholy highs. Messé’s music doesn’t quite eclipse the iconic bright minimalism of Yann Tiersen’s film score, but it’s nevertheless beautifully lilting, evoking the atmosphere of Montmartre while lending an intense depth of feeling to the show’s most emotional moments. The Bretodeau story is something of a simple plot device in the film, yet Lucas and co. place more emphasis on the restorative power and feeling of Amélie’s actions. Messé and Tysen's Bretodeau ‘open the box’ leitmotif synonymises the lost and found narrative themes and amplifies all the melancholy ecstasy of memory, epiphany and the transitory illusions of time. While I hesitate to mention any particular stand-out numbers, I felt that the music’s role in the production is to wash over you, inviting you into this strange yet recognisable world, and nourish the soul. Though rarely propelling the plot in the traditional sense of musical theatre, as a mood piece, the score is intrinsic and provides a window into Amélie’s psyche.


3 – West Side Story (Curve, Leicester)

Foster’s production demands we acknowledge these characters for what they are: naïve kids, let down by a society that places ultimate emphasis on the self. That’s why the refrain from ‘Somewhere’ resonates so deeply; the stress is not on the individual, but the collective – ‘we’, ‘us’ – and Kane’s dream ballet sequence, in which the stage brims with an amplified cast of young people dancing, hugging and smiling together, is a utopian depiction of what could be. That is, until the dream dissipates and Tony and Maria are, in fact, alone; isolated upon a bare stage.

Bernstein’s score is given the full orchestral treatment and rightfully shines. There’s a reason that so many of the songs from West Side Story have become standards – I still marvel at Bernstein’s menacing horns and irregular beats, which, coupled with Sondheim’s extraordinary lyrical wit, are the epitome of musical theatre class. There’s not a dud number in the entire show, but standouts include Jamie Muscato’s soulful rendition of ‘Maria’ and an ecstatic and timeless ‘America’ – minimal staging, three performers, Kane’s energetic choreography, and a rousing song prove that crowd-pleasers needn’t rely on large-scale spectacle.


2 – Death of a Salesman (Young Vic)

The production is located in a very specific time and place (refrigerators are the latest kitchen gadget; rich Gershwin melodies lull us into a false sense of nostalgia; New York is expanding and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly gentrified), and just as Willy’s past shapes him and haunts him, so too does the socio-political and cultural history of the USA in which the Loman family live. Here the Lomans’ race undeniably plays into the tragedy. Elliott and Cromwell unearth resonant subtexts in Willy’s work struggles and lack of friends – his assertion that people ‘laugh’ at him when he enters a room takes on a whole new meaning; his boss, Howard, leaps back from a desperate Willy, telling him not to touch him and painstakingly wiping Willy’s fingerprints off his prized sound recorder. In this production I noticed (white) characters’ patronisingly incessant use of the word ‘kid’ in reference to Willy – a lexical slur that made me cringe at every utterance. In the tainted light of racial segregation, the humiliating treatment of Willy leaves a distinctly bitter taste more so than ever before.

This production will become the stuff of legend, hopefully setting a precedent for future ‘classic’ revivals. Elliott and Cromwell bring out the absolute best in Miller’s text, packing a walloping punch with an emotional and intellectual impact that has been subtextually staring us in the face all along. The characters are truly alive. Wondrous stuff.


1 – Come From Away (Phoenix)

Come From Away is a story of togetherness, highlighted in the local bar ‘Screech In’, in which several of the plane people are bestowed with full Islander status – after downing shots and kissing a freshly caught fish in a booze-fuelled initiation ritual. This rustic traditionalism is captured in Sankoff and Hein’s folky music; quaint yet never twee, it effuses a sense of wilderness entwined with the serene harmonies brought about by collective familiarity. Stand out numbers include the lilting paean to momentary happiness, ‘Stop The World’, Hannah’s desperation to protect her child in ‘I Am Here’, and pilot, Beverley’s triumphant love-letter to flight, ‘Me and the Sky’.

Ultimately, Come From Away is so much more than the sum of its parts. The reaction of the audience when we saw it was overwhelmingly positive and the auditorium was aflood with emotion. At a time where cynicism, bigotry and selfishness seem to reign supreme, Sankoff, Hein, Ashley and, most importantly, those Newfoundland islanders that agreed to share their stories have restored my faith in humanity.

From Top Left going Clockwise: The cast of Come From Away.
Credit: Matthew Murphy; Jamie Muscato and Adriana Ivelisse in West Side Story.
Credit: Ellie Kurttz; Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Ukweli Roach in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. Credit: Johan Persson; Gemma Dobson, Tom Varey and Jodie Prenger in A Taste of Honey.
Credit: Marc Brenner.

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