Editor's pick: Top 10 London theatre productions of 2018
Here we are again. I find an easy way to forget about how quickly a year seems to pass is to really think about all the theatre you've seen in the last 12 months. It's been another solid year in the world's capital of theatre, and picking highlights is always tough, but here are my 10 favourite shows of 2018.
As a relative latecomer to the Bard, I’m a big fan of accessible Shakespeare productions, and that’s exactly what Kwame Kwei-Armah delivered with his inaugural production at the Young Vic. He relocated his musical adaptation of the play to a colourful Notting Hill and filled the show with an array of London characters.
Following up Misty in the larger space at Trafalgar Studios was the hilarious and sobering Nine Night, written by Natasha Gordon. Set to the backdrop of the Caribbean mourning ritual of nine nights – a week and a half of parties to celebrate the life of loved ones – this family drama focussed on the cultural dissonance that can occur when you’re part of a proud heritage, but living within a different one. It was a fascinating, funny and frank story about a culture we too rarely see from in the West End.
One of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-performed plays was brought to life in an intensely atmospheric production at the Almeida. From the moment Patsy Ferran’s Alma takes to the stage to have a panic attack into a microphone, I was gripped by the electricity between her and Matthew Needham’s John which charged this very real story about two very different people who can’t deny their desire for each other. The use of upright pianos around the stage against the Almeida’s bare walls gave this show a rustic feel, emphasising the very real nature of this play, and it has since transferred to the West End's Duke of York's.
I’ve always had a weird fascination with North Korea – I doubt there are many documentaries about the super-secretive state I’m yet to see. Needless to say I was quite excited by the prospect of Francis Turnly’s play about a Japanese girl who is kidnapped and brainwashed by the DPRK. Indhu Rubasingham’s gripping production flipped between captured Hanako imprisoned in Korea and her desperate family in Japan, telling an outlandish story that had more truth to it than bears thinking about.
Arinzé Kene’s musical tapestry of London was a fierce commentary on the gentrification of the city he loves, and the diversity of the art he wants to love. His lyrical dexterity is as poetic as it is volatile, and was soundtracked with a sublimely thumping drum performance by Shiloh Coke. While I don’t agree with Kene’s opinions on lattes and herbal tea, it’s difficult not to get caught up in his view of the world. Speaking to Kene during the run, it was fascinating to hear why the actor never felt like the West End wasn't a place for him, but his play was really diversifying audiences.
It only took half an hour for Simon Stephen's incredible monologue Sea Wall to pack a bruising emotional punch. With Andrew Scott reprising the role - which Stephens wrote with the actor in mind - the performance begins with a very relaxed, down-to-earth Alex, before his life is turned on its head in the blink of an eye as he recalls a holiday from hell; every parent’s worst nightmare. It was a mesmerising solo performance from one of the most consistently-brilliant stage performers of the last few years.
Ian McKellen gave audiences the opportunity to see his final Shakespearean lead role in the West End this year, and his stunning performance as Lear was something to marvel. Watching Lear expertly plunged into madness by the veteran actor in Jonathan Munby’s modern production was gripping; he weaved in and out of sanity and lucidness with ease. I loved the dark, modern aura of this production, but McKellen's masterful performance is one that will stick in the memory.
Marianne Elliott’s genius decision to reverse the gender of Stephen Sondheim’s central character Bobby transformed this musical into a heartfelt commentary on the pressures of love. The entire musical is but a fleeting moment in Bobbi’s head, yet it was one of the most relatable pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Add into the mix memorable performances by Rosalie Craig, Patti LuPone and the hilarious Jonathan Bailey, an iconic scene involving several versions of Bobbi’s future taking place at once, and a beautiful, sleek set designed by Bunny Christie, it set the bar for inventive musical revivals to come.
Robert Icke’s acutely self-aware production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was as tragic as it was beautiful. Blurring the fourth wall (rather than breaking it), it continually caught you off guard while questioning what ‘truth’ is. Edward Hogg’s shattering realisation that he may well not be the father of Hedwig was frantic and real, while the production came to a head with a truly painful yet wondrous closing scene. A star turn by a real duck was also magic.
Great theatre has the power to make great changes, and that’s exactly what The Jungle did (and not just the major structural changes to the Playhouse Theatre…). Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s play was inspired by time they spent with refugees in the Calais ‘jungle’ camp, and it was a thoroughly affecting piece of theatre. There is no doubt that it made every single person who saw it reconsider the way they view the world, by shining a light of humanity in a part of the world at a time where it seemed like there was none. Whether you were eating rice and beans on the front benches, or had a view of the jungle from the ‘Cliffs of Dover’, you could feel the passion and authenticity in Stephen Daldry’s production, which felt like a real feat of storytelling.