Mark Shenton picks his top 10 plays of 2019
As 2019 dwindles away from us and the decade draws to a close, our resident critic Mark Shenton has been rounding up his theatrical highlights of the year. Last week, he gave us a run-down of his ten best musicals to open in London this year. Now, he gives us his pick of the plays with his ten favourites of the last twelve months.
10. Goldilocks and the Three Bears
The now annual return of the panto to the London Palladium is now one of my favourite events of the year; As I wrote in my review: "There isn't a Christmas treat quite like it; I had one of the best theatre nights of the year here."
9. Ian McKellen on Stage
What a simultaneously stylish, selfless and generous way to mark your own 80th birthday - by staging a show that reviews your own phenomenal career, and donates all the proceeds to charity. An unadulterated love letter to the theatre, to the actor's life and the prose and poetry that fuel both, McKellen's one-man show was a thing of sheer joy and utter wonder: an act of selfless generosity and warmth in every regard.
A canny casting triumph saw Matt Smith and Claire Foy reunited from playing the Queen and Prince Philip in The Crown to play another couple across a lifetime in Duncan Macmillan's poignant drama Lungs, first produced by Paines Plough in 2011. It will be reprised at New York's BAM in March.
7. Present Laughter
A sometimes tiresome Noel Coward comedy about an insufferably self-regarding and narcissistic stage actor was given rare delight in Matthew Warchus's glowing production at the Old Vic starring a superbly cast Andrew Scott.
6. A German Life
A spellbinding solo show at the Bridge Theatre from Maggie Smith, then 84, in which she relates the real-life story of a secretary who worked deep within the Nazi regime for the office of Joseph Goebbels. Let's hope it has another run, just as Laura Linney is about to reprise her solo show My Name is Lucy Barton - also first seen at the Bridge - on Broadway.
Import from off-Broadway of a play about privilege in university admissions that struck immensely topical notes as rich American celebrities were convicted of gaming the system to bribe their children's smooth passage to places. This frequently furious debate play swirls around issues of entitlement, white privilege and positive discrimination, with Daniel Aukin's production keeps the tensions, arguments and counter-arguments flowing rapidly for an unbroken 1 hour 45 minutes.
Director Jamie Lloyd's revelatory, all-star season of Pinter short plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre culminated in a revival of one of his best-known, most powerful and personal plays, Betrayal, originally premiered at the National in 1978. Though I've seen many revivals of the play since then, I wrote of this one that it is "the most acute, spellbinding, and at times most surprising, I've ever seen. More than any other production I've ever seen, it strips the play to its bare bones, both physically and emotionally: it is stylishly staged with minimal sets and props (four bottles stage left, three movable walls, and two chairs) that are placed on a revolve and reconfigure the space constantly. So, too, are the emotions (or sometimes lack of them) among the characters, who project an intoxicating combination of sexuality, hurt and damage."Read Mark's full Betrayal review.
3. The Hunt
The Almeida struck gold with its summer production of The Doctor (which will transfer to the West End's Duke of York's in April), but I also wish that The Hunt gets a further life. As with its stage version of Festen, this is an adaptation of another Thomas Vinterberg film about child abuse - but this time it is the child who is the unreliable accuser as a nursery teacher Lucas, recently separated from his wife of 15 years, finds himself wrongly accused by one of his young chargers. It made for a gripping, unsettling evening - not easy to watch, but impossible to look away from.
2. Death of a Salesman
Another falling theatre ceiling nearly upended the West End transfer of this intense Arthur Miller play, but fortunately, the run proceeded after a few days interruption while it was repaired. It was the revival of the year that changed everything and changed nothing in our approach to this play by turning the central characters into an African-American family, and allowed us to see the play through new eyes entirely.
1. The Son
Teen suicide has been a recurring theme in London theatre this year, with Broadway import Dear Evan Hansen revolving around a high school suicide that galvanises the victim's fellows into a big social media response. But even more intimate and shocking was the intense family story told around one family's attempt to save their son in Florian Zeller's Paris import The Son, which premiered at Kilburn's Kiln before a West End run at the Duke of York's. Laurie Kynaston deservedly won the Evening Standard's Emerging Talent Award for his shattering performance in the title role. In his citation, judge Mark Lawson wrote, "The actor needs exceptional gifts because scenes occur at varying levels of reality: Nicolas puts on different personae, while occurrences may be a figment of his or others' imaginations. The actor has to make each moment feel real, until we discover they aren't. Our huge shock when Kynaston fooled us was a tribute to his total control of role and audience."
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