From the best musicals and plays to spectacular productions from the worlds of circus, immersive theatre, opera and dance, The Stage’s critics choose the 50 shows that really stood out in 2019
It’s forgivable if your initial reaction to Laura Murphy’s one-woman naked aerial show was concern about rope burns. This was a feminist slam-dunk of circus, lip-syncing and an Irish-dance interlude. It was a relentless bait and switch – one moment Murphy is choked by clingfilm over her face like vacuum-packed meat, the next it’s transformed into a shimmering superhero mask. Murphy subverted expectations of the silent, elegant acrobat, her body and mind unapologetically strong and her voice refreshingly loud and constant.
Instagram has changed the way we see circus. A filtered honed trick in beautiful leggings has become a new pinnacle of virtuosity. Mother (Tamsin Shasha) and daughter (Maisy Taylor) battle over how Taylor presents herself online, tied up like a bondage Christmas present. She claims it’s empowering, to her mother it’s exploitative pornography. Aerial is used to emphasise their relationship and struggles, the ropes pulled between them like heartstrings, holding them together and holding them back.
Originating as Sadiq Ali’s final devised work at the National Centre for Circus Arts, this show’s themes of homosexuality and Islam were considered controversial enough that the video is still not available on the university’s graduate showcase page. This year Ali expanded the work with fellow Chinese Pole artist Hauk Pattison for queer circus festival Cirqadia. This version focuses more on a cross-cultural romance that takes in the literal highs and lows, difference and gravity-defying synchronicity.
It is so sad that one of the shows of the year ends up being a tribute to the company’s co-founder and driving force Nell Gifford, who died this month aged just 46. This show saw Giffords Circus at the top of its game, starring Tweedy the Clown, the Curatola Brothers, the acrobats of the Havana Circus Company, and Nell herself. Brought together by comedy director Cal McCrystal, this showcased the best of the little circus with the big heart.
Although ‘contemporary circus’ is a common claim for Edinburgh shows, it is still rare to find work that feels achingly modern. All-woman Australian circus collective Yuck brought a citrus-sharp palate zinger to the Underbelly Circus Hub at this year’s fringe. This is tumbling with narrative that joyfully leapfrogs any pretension or affected contemporary dance. Instead the female body is explored through clowning, silliness, backflips and ensemble routines as tight as the best sisterhood.
The Stage’s pick of the best shows of 2019 was compiled by Natasha Tripney and Tim Bano, with contributions from George Hall, Anna James, Neil Norman and Francesca Peschier