The Stage has a wide pool of expert reviewers watching productions across the UK. Here, some of them reveal their favourite shows of 2019
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
Blood of the Young’s all-female retelling of the classic novel was a riotous, raucous delight. Featuring a raft of great performances (writer Isobel McArthur made a smouldering Darcy, and chemistry abounded between the central romantic pairings), deft use of cheesy pop songs and plenty of great jokes, there was also sense beneath the silliness. For such a broad comedy it was surprisingly smart about class and gender, not shying away from the restrictions the women of the time faced, and how money and status dictate not just what stories we hear, but who gets to tell them.
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Chris Bush took Richard Hawley’s songs and created magic with them, in this Sheffield musical centred about the city’s iconic Park Hill housing complex. Part social history, part romance, with a gritty dose of drama thrown in, Bush zig-zagged through history to explore the stories of three families at different times in history. Hawley’s songs were the wonderful icing on Bush’s rich cake – and the emotional gut-punch of the final scene will stay with those who saw it for a very long time.
Barn Theatre, Cirencester
A tremendously moving story about a lonely only child who saves an orphaned white lion cub on the African high plains. It is a play about the joys of life-long friendship, and although Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate, it resonates with people of all ages without once patronising the younger viewers. The production makes brilliant use of the Barn’s burgeoning puppetry skills, with Maia Kirkman-Richards capturing all three ages of the butterfly lion to stunning effect. The Barn Theatre won The Stage’s 2019 fringe theatre of the year award, and Morpurgo said after attending the first night that the production was so impressive that he no longer saw the need for people to buy his book.
Hope Street Theatre, Liverpool
A fantastically crafted play which balanced internal conflict and outside threat with major stakes. Bailey avoids preaching in favour of human, complex characters and a cracking story that stops the action from stagnating in the total grimness of the young offenders setting. Josh Finan gave an outstanding performance that balanced vulnerability with wringing every brilliant bit of humour out of Bailey’s script.
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
In a year featuring several impressive productions at the New Vic, this show encapsulated what they do best – interesting adaptations of familiar stories, excellent casting, strong and imaginative design and skilled direction that uses the in-the-round space to its fullest.
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
In Neither Here Nor There, Sonia Hughes and Jo Fong invite the audience to engage in a series of six-minute conversations guided by prompts, some specific and some much more open. It holds a precious space for serious reflection about who we are and how we move through the world. It encourages you to listen, really listen, to other people. A simple structure that facilitates a profound experience. It has confirmed a run at Battersea Arts Centre in May next year.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Elizabeth Newman’s first year as artistic director in Pitlochry brought a bright summer repertory season of crowdpleasers and classics, but it was in this understated adaptation of Brian Friel’s three-hander that her transformation of the rural theatre really shone through. Under Newman’s direction, and with pitch-perfect monologue-based performances from George Costigan, Kirsty Stuart and Richard Standing, Friel’s classic but timely tale of belief and perspective unfolded in stunning style.
Saint Augustine’s Church, Manchester
This sweet and idiosyncratic blast of physical theatre was one of the undoubted highlights of this year’s Manchester International Festival. Belgium’s Studio Orka took their skill for site-specific productions to new heights with this charming story of a man who spends his whole life inside the church where he was abandoned as a baby. The moment Titus de Voogdt’s protagonist climbed up the ramshackle set to his bedroom in the rafters was a genuinely jaw-dropping coup de théâtre in a show chock-full of clever visual touches.
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Commissioned by 2019 Outburst Queer Arts Festival and presented as its opening event, this was a fearless and highly original piece of work, beautifully sung and staged. The entire libretto comprises homophobic pronouncements made by the former MP Iris Robinson and other prominent members of the Democratic Unionist Party.