As 2018 rapidly draws to a close it is worth recalling what has been a good, if not great theatrical year, marked by some leading playwrights producing disappointing works. But the past 12 months has seen some stunning revivals of classic works, as well as commendable new plays and, once again, musicals achieved a high level of excellence, drawing the biggest crowds. It has been a difficult task selecting the 10 best shows of the year, but here goes.
In top spot, and the first time I have chosen a musical as number 1, is Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton (Victoria Palace), which has fully justified all the hype. The show brings an inspired, ironic and timely twist to the archetypal American success story in which Alexander Hamilton, born in poverty in the Caribbean, after moving to America, became George Washington’s right-hand man, helping to lay the groundwork for the country’s economic prosperity. In the hands of a multi racial cast, wearing 18th century costumes, but delivering a scintillating score, it has become the collective story of a nation. Miranda’s music combines two elements that rarely go together: political passion and nimble wit, while Hamilton’s mastery of language is shared by the musical’s creator and brilliantly brought out in the densely packed, intricate lyrics. Director Thomas Kail extracts first-rate performances from his excellent ensemble. Tall, elegant newcomer Jamael Westman invests Hamilton with immense authority, reminding us that words were always his strongest weapon and suggests a mixture of opportunist and visionary. As his ambitious nemesis Aaron Burr, Giles Terera has a cool shrewdness, conveying the character’s pent-up longing and envy, while Rachelle Ann Go displays a gorgeously rich voice, as Hamilton’s earnest long-suffering wife Eliza. All one can add is that Miranda’s idea of relating history through the prism of America today is truly ingenious.
The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party (Harold Pinter Theatre). This is Harold Pinter’s first full-length play, which transformed the theatrical landscape, and this year celebrated its 60th anniversary. The new production, directed by Ian Rickson, was attentive to every nuance in the text, abruptly switching from comedy to drama and a sense of mounting dread, achieved by Pinter’s ingeniously disconcerting way with words, so that everyday talks take on a sinister note. This is a play that taps into everyone’s fear of being found out and the abiding fears of totalitarianism, when a knock at the door from a couple of strangers can often be the prelude to torture and death. But it was the sterling performances that made this production the best I have seen of the play. Toby Jones, in particular, was superb as the furtive Stanley, a man in retreat from himself and the world, managing to combine both rueful charm and sour condescension. Equally impressive were Zoe Wanamaker, Stephen Mangan, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Peter Wright and Pearl Mackie. This was certainly a birthday party no one will ever forget.
The Lehman Trilogy
The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre). Stefano Massini’s fascinating multi-generational family epic that sweeps through decades of US economic upheaval is an absorbing saga of riches and ruin that provides an unforgettable cross-section of the roots of capitalism. Sam Mendes’s production is full of flair, wit and insight with only three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles – narrating their own family saga. Clad in black frock coats, they evoke the multiple characters that inherit the story. A five-star triumph!
Imperium (Gielgud Theatre). The thrilling world of power politics in ancient Rome is vividly created in Michael Poulton’s timely six-hour plus, two-part stage adaptation of Robert Harris’s best-selling Cicero trilogy and performed by the RSC.
A rich and rewarding political drama about a democracy descending into tyranny, Poulton skilfully condenses and clarifies all the complex machinations and power plays, the conspiracies, shifting loyalties and betrayals. In his hands the intricate, multi-stranded narrative moves fluidly and is never less than engaging, aided by an outstanding performance by Richard McCabe as Cicero, the focus of the drama. Despite the fact that the events depicted over the six acts of the play are set more than 1000 years ago, they seem startlingly relevant in the wretched and rancorous political climate of today in which all parts of the world seem currently ensnared.
Waiting for Godot
Waiting for Godot (Edinburgh International Festival). The highlight of the festival for me was the Druid Theatre Company of Galway’s masterly production of Samuel Beckett’s iconic 1953 play, directed by Gary Hynes. This is one of Beckett’s funniest and immediate creations but with disturbing undercurrents. It crackles with deadpan wit and linguistic invention, as well as offering compelling glimpses into our existential absurdity. Druid’s powerful staging, with memorable performances from Marty Rea, Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan and Garrett Lombard made it seem like a completely reinvented work for today, bringing together charm and absurdity, high comedy and touching humanity, and reaffirming Beckett’s skill to shock and surprise us.
I will be briefer with my pick of the remaining five:
An Ideal Husband
An Ideal Husband. Few plays can be more timely than this Rolls Royce of English comedies written over 100 years ago and still striking a particular chord – Jonathan Church’s superb revival starring Edward and Freddie Fox and Frances Barber, full of sparkling malevolence, proved to be the best production in the year-long season of works by Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre.
The King and I
The King and I (London Palladium). This 60-year-old Rodgers and Hammerstein classic returned to the West End in a Tony award-winning production directed by Bartlett Sher, redressed with gorgeous sets, needle sharp choreography and winning performances from Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, both making their London debuts. Oh and let’s not forget those glorious songs such as Shall We Dance? and Hello Young Lovers, which acquired fresh nuance and conviction, so you feel you are hearing them for the first time.
Nine Night (National Theatre). Natasha Gordon’s stirring debut drama, directed by Rory Alexander Weise is a very moving and very funny play with a rich emotional depth that gives a firm voice to the Windrush generation. This tough, yet tender, exploration of family ties and West Indian traditions is brought vividly to life by a splendid cast – Cecilia Noble, Franc Ashman, Oliver Alvin-Wilson and Michelle Greenidge – and provides an eloquent vision of what it means to be haunted by the past.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Long Day’s Journey into Night (Wyndhams Theatre). one of the 20th century’s defining dramas of American dreams and disappointments returned to the West End in the shape of Richard Eyre’s magnetic new production of Eugene O’Neill’s piercingly autobiographical vision of a family bent on self destruction, marked by a superlative performance by Leslie Manville.
Summer and Smoke
Summer and Smoke (Almeida Theatre). Love, loneliness and self-destruction are explored by Tennessee Williams’ in his 1948 play, revived in an excellent new production by Rebecca Frecknall, with a revelatory central performance by Patsy Ferran.
I also wish to commend the runners-up: Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre), Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre) and Allelejuah! (Bridge Theatre).
Happy theatregoing in 2019.Last modified: April 6, 2021