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
Tanika Gupta’s relocation of Ibsen’s play to India at the time of the Raj was inspired, folding race and colonialism into the original’s commentary on selfhood. Rachel O’Riordan’s production drew out the many threads of the text and the growing tension, as well as strong performances from the cast. Anjana Vasan’s luminous performance in the role of Niru led to her being nominated for an Evening Standard Award, and she was strongly supported by Elliott Cowan as Niru’s charming but ultimately desperately insecure husband Tom.
Jamie Lloyd followed up his ambitious season of Harold Pinter’s short plays with a pared-down production of Pinter’s reverse-chronological study of an adulterous affair.
Lloyd drew out both the heartbreak and the humour of a play that can sometimes feel chilly. As the cuckolded husband Robert, Tom Hiddleston provided a reminder that he is a stage actor of nuance and immense charisma (with a disarming ability to weep). Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton completed the trio in a production that drilled deep into the emotional heart of the play.
Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell’s take on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was genuinely revelatory. Casting the Lomans as a black family made a great play arguably greater, breathing fresh energy into the text. The performances by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke were majestic. Pierce was dignified as Willy, while Clarke was a powerfully moving Linda. Arinzé Kene and Sope Dirisu brought different energies to the role of Biff. Even the partial ceiling collapse at the Piccadilly couldn’t dull its power.
In an Ibsen-heavy year, Chelsea Walker’s production of the Norwegian playwright’s masterwork stood out alongside A Doll’s House, really getting under the skin of the lead character. In the towering central role, Heledd Gwynn gave a layered performance as a volatile, complex woman alert to the damage she is doing. She made a very human Hedda. Strikingly designed by Rosanna Vize, Walker’s production – which used Brian Friel’s version of the text – was as insightful as it was powerful, and full of memorable images. The pristine stage was left scattered with ash and petals, Hedda’s exit as sensitively handled as it has ever been.
In another inspired adaptation, Gupta relocated Harold Brighouse’s 1915 warhorse about a tyrannical father to Salford in the 1980s. The resulting play spoke eloquently about the immigrant experience in a way that was psychologically acute as well as thoroughly entertaining. Atri Banerjee’s assured directorial debut made great use of the Royal Exchange’s distinctive in-the-round space and won him The Stage Debut Award, while Esh Alladi gave one of the comic performances of the year as the downtrodden Mossop, scooping a UK Theatre Award for best supporting performer.
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