The best theatre of 2018: From Fun Home to Summer and Smoke

Tennessee Williams, revamped musicals, and challenging dramas – here are The Independent’s 10 favourite works of theatre in 2018

Saturday 29 December 2018 09:25
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Clockwise from top left: The Writer, Misty, Fun Home and Summer and Smoke
Clockwise from top left: The Writer, Misty, Fun Home and Summer and Smoke

Numbering and ordering the year is a delicious December pastime – but it’s also always subjective, and never that easy. And theatre’s ephemerality makes it a particularly stubborn artform to sum up. Unlike films or albums, there’s no playing catch-up: I saw over 125 shows last year, but there are always things you miss. And you can’t be everywhere at once: this list is purely of London productions because the vast majority I was able to get to were in the capital.

I’ve not included things that had very short runs, although three shows I was completely bowled over fit that category, so I’m going to cheat and shout about them here: Chris Bush delivered a huge-hearted Pericles performed with a 200-strong community chorus at the National; Jude Christian wrote and performed the kindly, thoughtful and devastating monologue Nanjing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; and Taylor Mac’s 24-decade History of Popular Music at the Barbican was as fabulous and time-bending as I'd hoped.

It was a good year for theatre, but the range of work sharply raises further questions about how you rank it: there were gorgeous, assured, polished shows that fully succeeded on their own terms, and there were exciting but imperfect plays that really had something timely and urgent to say. I think both get a fair airing here.

10. Girls & Boys, Royal Court

One of those plays that had you staggering slightly as you left the stalls. This one-woman show was performed with amusing self-possession and fierce grace by Carey Mulligan, as a woman recounting how she met her husband, and how they navigated her more successful career and having a family. Dennis Kelly’s play began deceptively light and funny, but its snark turned to harrowing tragedy via a twist that left you winded – and delivered a howl against the conditioned violence of men.

Designer Es Devlin’s painterly approach to light and colour was perfect and also paid painful dividends.

Read the full review here

9. Fun Home, Young Vic

This American musical was keenly awaited – and didn’t disappoint. An adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel about her in-the-closet father who ran a funeral home, and her own journey towards coming out, it felt important to see such a story onstage – and was so very beautifully told, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music Jeanine Tesori (who also scored the terrific musical Caroline, or Change, which stormed London in 2018 too after opening in Chichester last year).

Although the show doesn’t totally burn in the memory, Zubin Varla was magnificent as the father, and Eleanor Kane’s song of sexual discovery and first love – “Changing My Major” (to Joan) – was one of my favourite moments of the year.

Read the full review here

8. Dance Nation, The Almeida

By American writer Clare Barron, this play followed a group of teenage dancers, with their earnest dreams, petty rivalries, and general angst. Sounds like a bad TV series… but it was so, so much more. Barron had these girls discovering their power. Power they’re thrilled by; power they’re afraid of. A slippery beast, the play flirted with the supernatural and the mythical in its depiction of the transformation of puberty. Among a strong cast of adults making no attempt to disguise their adulthood, Ria Zmitrowicz was especially memorable as Zuzu.

7. Company, Gielgud Theatre

‘Company’ had a smart, coherent approach to gender-swapped casting (Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

I spend more reviews than I’d like moaning about old-fashioned musical revivals that fail to tackle #problematic material. Stephen Sondheim’s musical about Bobby, whose friends harp on at him to get married, could have been one – but Marianne Elliott unlocked it with a smart, coherent approach to gender-swapped casting.

Bobbie as a woman in her mid-thirties made a lot of sense, as did the switcheroos in several other couples, which gave a fresh fillip to the show’s meandering investigation of relationships. The score sounded divine, Rosalie Craig was a glinting Bobbie, and “Getting Married Today” had me actually breathless with laughter.

Read the full review here

6. Sweat, Donmar Warehouse

A late addition: Sweat has just opened, although after rave reviews tickets are in short supply – catch it if you can before 26 January. Lynn Nottage’s play – about factory workers in Pennsylvania whose friendships and families fracture when job losses loom – was always likely to be good; it won a Pulitzer, after all. But Lynette Linton’s production was ferociously good. Plumbing the emotional depths of Nottage’s heart-breaking story, it had fine, firmly controlled performances and a terrific set by Frankie Bradshaw.

And while this incredibly empathetic play has plenty to tell us about blue-collar America, it couldn’t have struck harder in Brexit Britain either.

5 Misty, The Bush/Trafalgar Studies

‘Misty’ dispelled the notion there is no audience for ‘black plays’

A game-changer, this show built up a thrilling momentum, galvanising audiences and transferring to the West End, allowing us to kick once and for all the bone-headed notion that there isn’t an audience for “black plays” into the long grass. And how: Arinze Kene’s piece of gig-theatre explored and exploded exactly the notion of a “black play”, with the mesmerising Kene playing himself as a writer struggling to work out if he’s pandering to what producers expect of him by writing “urban safari jungle s**t”.

This was art about art that felt pressingly topical, and while there were rough edges to it, there was also vital vim and intent.

Read the full review here

4. John, National Theatre

American playwright Annie Baker’s much-hyped The Flick left me a bit underwhelmed; this swept me up completely. A synopsis – a fighting couple stay in a strange, kitschy B&B filled with uncanny china dolls – doesn’t do it justice.

Here was the finest dissection of a floundering relationship and look at how gender politics infects us all. Here, too, was a kind of metaphysical mysteriousness that was truly stirring – John wasn’t quite a ghost story, but rather, it eerily tilted towards the darker depths of the human soul. It was long, it was slow, and I loved every minute.

Read the full review here

3. The Writer, The Almeida

Yes, another from the north London theatre – but what a year they had. And this was a play that really grappled with the specifics of its own setting: Ella Hickson’s meta-theatrical masterwork began with a scene set at a theatre, where a young female writer castigated a sleazy older male director.

But Blanche McIntyre’s production perpetually snatched the rug from under your feet, and was frighteningly smart and formally thrilling as it did so, asking potent questions about gender, power, capitalism and art. As theatre-about-theatre, it could also be maddening, and had a wildly ambiguous final scene that drove everyone nuts. Quite possibly the most written-about, talked-about, argued-about play of the year.

Read the full review here

2. Ear for Eye, Royal Court

Tosin Cole gives a brilliant performance as an exasperated youth (Stephen Cummiskey)

The year saw a genuine increase in the diversity of stories getting told in British theatre, and debbie tucker green’s incendiary play was a pinnacle of that: brilliantly tough, absolutely necessary. A large black cast moved through elliptical scenes exposing racial prejudice and police brutality – some beautifully poetic, some just vibrating with fury. And a long final filmed section demanded that audiences face the hard truth about British and American slave laws. It was a play that stayed with me long after it finished.

Read the full review here

1. Summer and Smoke, The Almeida

If you’d told me in January that top of my list would be this lesser-known Tennessee Williams play, surely the least enticing show on the Almeida’s absolutely stellar programme, I might have scoffed. But Rebecca Frecknall’s direction of this tale of thwarted love was as delicate and distinctive as it was wonderfully heart-squeezing. Matthew Needham was a burningly intense leading man, but it was Patsy Ferran’s incredibly detailed, funny performance that rocketed this to number one.

The best news? It transferred to the West End, where you can catch it until 19 January.

Read the full review here

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