It may not go down as a vintage year in British theatre, but it would be wrong to simply write-off 2019. When there aren’t productions like The Inheritance, The Lehman Trilogy or Hamilton dominating best of-lists and awards, it can mean a broader canvas of work is recognised.
In selecting 10 productions that stood out for me this year, I realised three of my favourite new plays came through the National Theatre in London.
Rufus Norris, its artistic director, may have had a rough ride at times since taking over, but as I wrote back in 2017, I think he is the smartest producer of any UK producing theatre and his programming this year demonstrated that.
Downstate by Bruce Norris, a co-production between the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, deserved far greater attention than it received, as it achieved something extraordinary.
Set in a US halfway house for convicted paedophiles, it gave the audience an insight, which at no time created empathy, but found us looking at these individuals as human beings rather than monsters, even though their crimes were never far from our minds.
This balance of writing demonstrates why I believe Norris is one of the most exciting playwrights in the US today, with his British/US cast giving some magnificent performances in the most challenging of contemporary roles.
There is a different halfway house of sorts portrayed in the last part of Alexander Zeldin’s state-of-the-nation trilogy. Faith, Hope and Charity, set in a struggling UK community centre, is an impassioned piece of theatre from one of this country’s finest writer-directors and his incredible ensemble cast.
My new year’s wish is that the National brings the whole trilogy back in rep to the Dorfman for a season (the Dorfman was on fire with new plays this year). I also really liked Annie Baker’s new work The Antipodes.
My only disappointment in all three of these productions is the fact that the National has generally stopped the rep system in the Dorfman, often opting for shorter-block runs instead, which means less time to reach the wider audience that they richly deserve.
It often felt like it was US writers who were packing the punches in London this year, exemplified by Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ new play Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse. I was pleased to see new artistic director Michael Longhurst include it in his first season – Longhurst has been a champion of the playwright’s work, directing the excellent but overlooked Gloria at Hampstead Theatre. I hope we will see more of Jacob-Jenkins’ plays in the UK in future years.
However, it has not been all about drama from the US. One of the year’s most powerful plays was British playwright Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison at London’s Old Vic. Her fascinating new play about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko is a work that challenges audiences and, on the night, it fused together the strengths of a contemporary and commercial production into a great evening of theatre and post-show debate.
Meanwhile, British theatre heavyweight Christopher Hampton’s new play A German Life delivered a virtuoso solo performance from Maggie Smith at London’s Bridge Theatre.
The Bridge also presented my favourite Shakespeare production of the year with Nicholas Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, showing off the possibilities of this versatile theatre.
We are still awaiting that big Brexit play, although I suspect James Graham is sharpening his pencil. However, it was good to see John Godber back in the West End with a transfer of his two-hander The Scary Bikers, which delves into the issue in an accessible, humane, and entertaining way.
No night this year in the theatre felt more joyous than the Old Vic’s pitch-perfect revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, with a genius lead performance from Andrew Scott that demonstrated why he is one of the great actors at work today.
Musical offerings generally felt lighter this year, and the continued – and significant – lack of original British musicals coming through onto our commercial stages needs addressing.
Nonetheless, the arrival of the terrific Dear Evan Hansen from New York, whose teenage story creates an urgent dialogue about mental illness and youth suicide, is likely to become a long-running West End hit with Sam Tutty, Lucy Anderson, Doug Colling and Marcus Harman all making their West End debuts.
The continued, and significant, lack of original British musicals coming through onto our commercial stages needs addressing
There were many notable performances this year. I particularly enjoyed watching the acting skills of John Kani and Antony Sher in Kunene and the King at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. I also felt Sandy Grierson – an actor whose work I have long admired – as Touchstone in the RSC’s production of As You Like It gave one of the finest supporting performances of the year.
David Suchet showed us a brilliant lesson in character study in The Price. Clive Owen was outstanding in The Night of the Iguana, Ian McKellen charmed us all in his solo show, and Aaron Pierre was thrilling in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East (and he is the person to watch this year).
In musicals, Katharine McPhee’s heartfelt performance in Waitress was a treat, Bonnie Langford and Brian Conley were the best double act in town in 9 to 5, but one of the finest lead performances I saw was Kelly Price’s portrayal of Rose in the Off-West End revival of Aspects of Love at Southwark Playhouse.
The year’s biggest disappointment was Bitter Wheat, a new play by David Mamet that promised to expose the toxic #MeToo culture of Hollywood. It also heralded John Malkovich’s highly anticipated return to the London stage. Sadly, it proved itself to be a missed opportunity at every level.
2019 may be best described as the year of the ensemble company, with productions such as the Young Vic’s Death of a Salesman, Small Island, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Emilia, and the Kiln’s Blues in the Night, all joining the litany of good new ensemble plays being produced on the London stage. This was very much a year made up of great companies working in harmony and at their very best.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan