After last year’s bumper crop of headline-grabbing new works that caught the spirit of the times and stormed the West End, Andrzej Lukowski asks why fewer plays seem to have captured the popular imagination this year
What is the play of the year? Not my play of the year – that’s Annie Baker’s The Antipodes – but the play of the year.
Usually there’s at least one zeitgeist-munching, breakout piece of new writing that transfers to the West End, storms out of the theatre pages, hoovers up at awards ceremony season and generally looks, sounds, tastes and feels like a show of the year.
At the Evening Standard Theatre Awards last weekend, the best new play shortlist included two plays from last year, one of which (Lynn Nottage’s Sweat) took home the prize. It eminently deserved it, and qualifies for the award due to the event’s counterintuitive qualifying year. But the Donmar Warehouse production also feels like it was the last new play to get a full-on buzz behind it.
That’s no shade on the ever-vibrant British theatre scene, and ‘play of the year buzz’ is definitely not the same thing as ‘the actual best play of the year’, which is an entirely subjective concept. This year has been blessed with some buzzy revivals (Betrayal, Death of a Salesman, various Midsummer Night’s Dreams), adaptations (Small Island, Life of Pi, The Doctor) and plenty of great shows that aren’t exactly plays (Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats, Baby Reindeer).
And there have been great plays: Laura Wade’s The Watsons is the most obvious hit, propelled from Chichester Festival Theatre to the Menier and on to the West End next year. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison is definitely up there. I thought The Antipodes was a masterpiece. Still, they’ve not got the zeitgeisty energy to them that, say, Prebble’s Enron or Wade’s Posh did, and while it would be a mistake to over-invest in what the Evening Standard Theatre Awards think, it is notable that none of those plays were nominated.
Just because The Antipodes is my play of the year, it doesn’t necessarily have Big Play of the Year Energy: that sense of demand for tickets radically outstripping supply, of people outside the industry wanting to talk about it. You can pick those plays out easily most years: The Inheritance, Harry Potter, The Ferryman, People, Places and Things and so on.
Of the new plays that opened in 2019, only The Watsons (arguably a Jane Austen adaptation, but let’s not go there) and Robert Icke’s radical Arthur Schnitzler update The Doctor have gathered the momentum to make it to the West End next year.
‘This year has been blessed with buzzy revivals, adaptations and great shows that aren’t plays’
Contrast that with the class of 2018: Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, Wade’s Home, I’m Darling, Arinzé Kene’s Misty, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, Stefano Massimi’s The Lehman Trilogy, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night and Nottage’s Sweat were new plays that debuted that year and found their way to the West End. That is quite the contrast.
So what’s happened? Has something gone wrong? It’s certainly worth noting that last year had something of a bumper crop, and many of the plays involved had been under development for years: coincidence has a hand to play.
Still, one interesting thing is there have been fewer new plays this year. The Old Vic staged only a single new play in 2019 (Prebble’s), down from four in 2018. The NT is complicated, because it has such a wide remit and there are some seriously blurred lines between what actually constitutes an original story. But I’d say it staged or hosted the transfer of UK premieres of 12 original stories in 2018, which went down to eight in 2019.
For the first time in over a decade, the Shakespeare’s Globe outdoor season featured no new plays. Every play in Rachel O’Riordan’s inaugural season at the Lyric Hammersmith is an adaptation of pre-existing work. The Young Vic, which programmed The Inheritance, has only just opened the year’s first new play proper on the main stage with Fairview.
Let’s not get carried away. It’s not a massive decrease, and the bills at these theatres are often in flux. Maybe there are fewer punts being taken on original plays, or a preference to use familiar names. Many theatres have changed artistic director recently. It’s something to keep an eye on, though.
Still, the fact is that many theatres stage mostly or predominantly new plays, and are still operating at roughly the same capacity as they always have. But I wonder if this is where the answer lies. The Royal Court is the foremost new-writing theatre in the world, and no stranger to Big Play of the Year Energy. Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen and Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman have both done the business in recent years. But it’s notable that the success of those plays felt almost choreographed: Martin McDonagh and Jez Butterworth are Royal Court veterans not really associated with the current regime; The Ferryman had its transfer lined up before it had even opened. The NT always seems to have half an eye on transferring shows out of the Dorfman. The Inheritance felt like a prestige production where West End (and Broadway) success was the goal from the off.
These were good plays, but it’s clear that a certain amount of wheel-greasing helps Big Play of the Year Energy along. Perhaps 2019’s biggest unexpected new play success was Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, which garnered terrific reviews and major celebrity endorsements (Charlize Theron was a fan), but didn’t have anywhere lined up to go and build on that momentum after its three-week run at the tiny Royal Court Upstairs.
Its journey is emphatically not over: Lee-Jones picked up The Stage Debut Award for best writer and the most promising playwright award at the Evening Standard awards, and the show is scheduled to make a return in 2020, when it may acquire Big Play of the Year Energy. But I wonder if a few more weeks in 2019 would have left us talking and thinking very differently about it.
There are other factors you could probably toss in: commercially successful playwrights being lured away by TV, Brexit or many West End theatres being booked up with musicals this year. Who knows? Like I say, 2018 was very different and it’s a bit deflating that 2019 lacked a marquee production. But on the other hand, it’s pretty liberating: theatre awards season is on its way, and the field is completely open.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski