It’s that time of year when critics trawl through their memory banks and choose their best (and sometimes worst) of the year. So, here’s mine: from London, New York and around the UK, I’ve had a bumper 12 months.
“Stop the clocks; the race is won. Here is the play of this year and last year and quite possibly next year as well,” wrote Fiona Mountford in her review of the West End transfer of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance from the Young Vic. And she was quite right; no play this year has matched it for depth or breadth. Yes, it requires commitment – like Angels in America (that it consciously echoes) and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it plays out in two separate three-hour instalments. But it definitely pays it back in spades.
On Broadway, it’s a surprise not just to find a new play at all but also one by a previously unknown playwright, yet as I wrote in The Stage of American Son, “this world premiere by a hitherto unknown Miami-based lawyer-turned-playwright Christopher Demos-Brown is an impassioned and startling piece.”
As I wrote in my review of Peter Gill’s The York Realist, it “may very well be a contemporary classic, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such. It’s one of those beautiful, tender, understated plays that works entirely by stealth; there’s no great dramatic revelation or pay-off, just a quiet accumulation of detail and suppressed emotions.” It was directed by Robert Hastie, who brought alive every nuance and buried emotion in the play.
On Broadway, a revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women confirmed what a bold and formally inventive playwright he was. As I wrote for The Stage, “Through the captivating performances of Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, playing the role with angry defiance, weary disappointment and eager expectation respectively, the play provides a gripping, taunting picture of the life decisions that shape who we become.”
The London musical theatre year ended with the deserved transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2017 revival of Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 musical Caroline, or Change, but it was another Tesori-scored musical Fun Home that received its British premiere at the Young Vic that should also be headed to the West End – but has unaccountably not landed there yet. It’s a musical that takes the rare (and refreshing) step of portraying a lesbian coming-of-age story onstage.
By coincidence, the best new musical on Broadway of the calendar year, The Prom, also puts a lesbian centre stage. As I put it in my review for The Stage, “It takes Broadway types and tropes on the road to a small-town Indiana community wrestling with societal change and promoting a story of lesbian acceptance. The Prom tells the story of an American teenager who wants to take her girlfriend to the school prom, against the wishes of the school’s governors.”
And regionally at Colchester, a new British musical Pieces of String also told a matter-of-fact story of repressed gay lives that in my review I dubbed a “layered and affecting musical tapestry of love, loss, choices and family revelations. Like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, it revolves around the relationship between a mother and her gay adult son. But the wariness and distrust that exists between them and her rejection of his boyfriend mean that it could not be more different. As revelations about her recently deceased father’s own wartime past come tumbling out of the closet, the stage is set for the revisiting of painfully missed past opportunities.”
Two of my four revivals of the year are Stephen Sondheim musicals – gifts that just keep giving. In London, his 1970 urban masterpiece Company was overhauled and propelled into the here and now by a simple gender switch, making the lead character a woman instead of a man; and in Chester, the new Storyhouse offered up a production of his 1973 A Little Night Music that resonated with grit and wit, style and grace.
And Broadway’s own earlier golden age was vibrantly represented twice over in New York, at Lincoln Center’s stunning revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady that I said in my review “positively glows with class, shimmering with confidence and oozing with delight”, while across the water in Brooklyn, St Ann’s Warehouse brought us a New York outing for a regional production of Oklahoma! that, as I wrote in The Stage, turns it “into a festive, contemporary hoedown.”
I’d also like to give an honourable mention to English National Opera’s revival of Chess. Not everyone loved it (my colleague Tim Bano wrote in his own end-of-year round-up, “to be fair, the tech was pretty impressive, but what a ravaging of Benny and Bjorn’s fantastic score”), but this show is such a guilty pleasure that – for me – it was thrilling to hear it sung and played this well.
Though the Almeida had another sensational year (with West End transfers of Mary Stuart, currently Summer and Smoke and soon The Twilight Zone), it was the Young Vic who have to be named my personal theatre of the year, since both my best new play and best new musical of the year originated there (see above). And The Jungle transferred – magnificently – to both the West End’s Playhouse Theatre and New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse, which I saw at each venue and became one of the most important theatre events of the year.
There’s nothing quite like a bad musical, and the witlessness and charmlessness of these three descended below the low bar for the truly terrible. It’s probably no coincidence that two of the three were composite jukebox shows – of the sea-and-sangria party repertoire of Jimmy Buffett in the case of Escape to Margaritaville at Broadway’s Marquis, and of the sex-and-uniforms variety of An Officer and a Gentleman, set to pop songs. But jukebox shows are not necessarily a write-off: Tina (the Tina Musical musical in the West End) and The Cher Show on Broadway offered accurate and impressive impersonations of their respective subjects.
Incoming artistic directors can have a radical effect on a theatre, and none this year has achieved more than Tamara Harvey has at Clwyd, putting this remote Welsh theatre back on the map. Its production of The Assassination of Katie Hopkins made headlines, not just for its title; while Harvey’s own production of Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling (co-produced with the National) is now West End-bound. Another incoming artistic director, Adam Penford at Nottingham Playhouse, is also reinvigorating that theatre, offering a terrific revival of Sweet Charity and also a new regional outing for The Madness of George III (which was screened as part of NT Live).
Nothing as seismic as #MeToo shook the theatre’s foundations this year, but change has suddenly happened in its wake. As Madani Younis stepped down from the Bush to take up a new job as creative director at the South Bank Centre (and was replaced by a 28-year-old woman of colour, Lynette Linton, who earlier this week made her Donmar directorial debut with Sweat), he commented in an interview in the Evening Standard: “A lot of people are talking about this, and we’re living it and we’re living it super-proudly. We are seeing change — change that is well overdue in our sector — [but] I think there is a long way to go. Look, I could sit here and be super negative about the corporatisation of diversity. The truth is that I’ve spent too many years expending my energy critiquing those who are very privileged. I made a decision a few years ago to go: ‘Let me celebrate those who are actually making the difference that we want to see’.” As well as Linton, those people included Matthew Xia, newly appointed to lead Actors Touring Company. And new women leaders are coming in to replace men at Lyric Hammersmith (Rachel O’Riordan, succeeding Sean Holmes) and Hampstead (Roxana Silbert, following Edward Hall), while swapping the other way, Josie Rourke is being succeeded by Michael Longhurst at the helm of the Donmar Warehouse.