As 2019 draws to a close it is worth recalling the best London theatre productions of the past 12 months. It has not been a particularly good year, with too much reliance on revivals and stage adaptations of successful films. But I have managed to select my ten favourite shows which I have listed in order of merit.
1 Best Play of the Year – Sweat (Donmar Warehouse).
Lynn Nottage's stunning Pulitzer prize-winning drama which takes a fresh and fearless look at the collapse of the American Dream. The play is set in Reading, a working class Pennsylvania town, a once proud manufacturing hub but now one of the poorest in the US. Shifting back and forth in time between 2000 and 2008, it traces the shifting dynamics of a close-knit trio of middle-aged female friends and their twenty-something sons. Director Lynette Linton extracts outstanding performances from female leads Clare Perkins, Martha Plimpton and Leanne Best as women hardened by life's kickbacks. Flitting seamlessly between humour, heartbreak and trauma, it emerges as a deeply profound and moving piece of work.
2 Small Island (National Theatre).
A finely observed tale of displacement and conflict, love and loyalty, adapted from the late Andrea Levy's Orange prize winning novel, inspired by her father's experience travelling to England from Jamaica on the HMT -Empire Windrush in 1948. Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation focuses on two female characters, Hortense, who has her heart set on becoming a teacher and yearns for a new life away from rural Jamaica, and convinced that Britain is a land defined by prosperity and politesse, and her British counterpart, Queenie, who comes from a family of Lincolnshire pig farmers and longs for an escape from parochial small-mindedness. Rufus Norris's excellent production with empathetic performances by Leah Harvey , Aisling Loftus and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, shows the particular prejudices faced by by the new generation of immigrants and widespread racism that faced these newcomers to our shore. This is a play that provides a passionate engagement with the past at a time when recognition and compensation for the Windrush generation is under such fierce scrutiny.
3 All My Sons (Old Vic Theatre).
Arthur Miller's superb 1947 play, revived in an outstanding production by Jeremy Herrin, examines loss, honour and betrayal and their consequences, as well as being a piercing attack on greedy individualism and a moving portrait of a family haunted by by a single ugly episode in their past–that the paterfamilias was responsible for shipping faulty aircraft engine parts during the war, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. The Hollywood stars–Sally Field and Bill Pullman bring a real sense of authenticity to this production that is a testament to the enduring power of Miller's appeal to our collective conscience.
4 Death of a Salesman (Young Vic).
A devastating journey through the memories and anxieties of a travelling salesman is provided by Arthur Miller in his Pulitzer-prize winning play, re-invented by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell with an African-American family at its centre. American actor Wendell Pierce gives a stand-out performance as the title character, Willy Loman. Although written in 1949, the play in no way feels dated and seems particularly relevant today when a person's worth is often undervalued In short this is a compassionate, psychologically acute interpretation of Miller's classic that allows us to see a familiar play with fresh eyes.
5 Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train (Young Vic).
Guilt, faith and redemption are explored in Stephen Adly Guirgis's firecracker of a play, revived in a powerful new production, directed by Kate Hewitt. This pumping, pounding drama alternately blazes and freezes its way through the stories of two men incarcerated in the infamous Rikers' Island prison. Every performance blazes and freezes in all the right places, with Oberon KA Adjepong and Ukweli Roach bringing conviction and intensity as the two main protagonists on Death Row.
I will summarise the remaining five productions: 6 The Secret River (National Theatre); 7 Present Laughter (Old Vic); 8 Rutherford and Son (National Theatre); 9 The Hunt (Almeida Theatre); and 10 Waitress (Adelphi Theatre).
Happy theatregoing in 2020Last modified: April 6, 2021