By Naomi Roper
Looking back at my theatre going in 2018 it would be fair to say that with the exception of the top three on my list the plays I saw this year were entertaining without being hugely memorable. It didn’t seem like an especially banner year or perhaps I’ve just somehow missed all the heavy hitters. Certainly I need to catch up on some shows before they vanish like Company, The Inheritance and Caroline or Change. Very much looking forward to next year which will bring Gillian Anderson and Lily Collins in All About Eve, a raft of Miller adaptations with The American Clock, All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal, Evita in Regents Park, Tartauffe and a new adaptation of Peer Gynt at the National (starring my new fave James McArdle) not to mention big Broadway musical transfers of Waitress and Come From Away (and presumably at some point next year, Dear Evan Hensen).
Thankfully nothing this year was truly terrible but we have to start with the bottom of the pile. (Dis) honourable mention to Laura Benanti for worst accent of the year. She sings like an angel but her attempt at a cockney accent as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was so atrocious it made Dick Van Dyke (the watermark by which all shit accents are judged) look like Meryl Streep. I spent the first 5 minutes she was on stage looking around bewildered at the truly tortured noises she was making.
Worst play was a three way tie between Exit the King, The Iceman Cometh and A Very, Very Dark Matter.
Exit the King was a tedious, pretentious load of old bollocks which utterly wasted its exceptionally talented cast. The only things it had going for it were the staging of the final sequence, the fact it was 90 minutes straight through and that I saw it on one of the hottest days of the year and would have sat through 90 minutes of clowns miming German expressionist films (and I really really hate clowns) simply so I could enjoy the air conditioning.
The Iceman Cometh – am dram which bewilderingly featured Denzel Washington. I had to check at the first interval that the production being on Broadway wasn’t some sort of “perform with Denzel” competition prize. Old fashioned, staid and cheap looking with a cast that all seemed to be really trying to minimal effect it was a turgid night of entertainment. I have no idea who David Morse slept with to get a Tony nomination for his one note, narcolepsy inducing performance (which was mystifyingly nominated over James McArdle’s far superior turn in Angels in America). Denzel oozed star quality from every pore but I didn’t find his Hickey especially magnetic. Poor all round. Also roughly the length of the bible.
A Very Very Dark Matter – McDonagh features on both my best and worst lists which is probably exactly what he would want. I love dark comedy but this was just an odd, misogynistic mess. Cracking racist jokes in an “ironic” way doesn’t stop the piece being racist guys. McDonagh riffs on his favourite motifs- little people, racism, violence and Belgium but to very little effect. Putting a total newcomer on stage opposite as seasoned a performer as Jim Broadbent was a bold gambit which didn’t pay off leaving the poor actress in question painfully exposed and the piece just made zero narrative sense. The only decent scene was Hans driving Charles Dickens insane. A waste.
But enough of the worst onto the cream of the crop.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which opened too long ago to really justify being on this list but I saw it recently in its new home at the Lyric in New York and getting to see the original cast doing their thing was incredible. Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweniespecially bring such heart and gravitas to their performances that anyone I’ve seen since has rather paled in comparison.
Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact. I found the piece itself painfully slight (although his chemistry with Bobby Cannavale was off the scale and I demand Hollywood find them a buddy movie to star in) but the highlight was a scene in which Radcliffe details how a traffic jam listed in Cannavale’s disputed article could never have happened and is essentially this picture on speed.
Ian McKellen giving his Lear
Laura Linney in My Name is Laura Barton. I felt the piece itself went absolutely nowhere but it was an acting masterclass and a showcase of how spellbinding simple storytelling can be when in the hands of someone incredibly talented.
So in descending order of greatness my top ten theatre picks of 2018:
10 – The Tell Tale Heart (National Theatre)
Bold, schlocky, fun re-telling of the classic Edgar Allen Poe story with sapphic undertones as a frustrated playwright becomes friends with her shy, awkward landlady only for the relationship to go badly downhill. The scares are kept to a minimum (although the various stage tricks are great fun) but the piece is at its best when it focuses on the psychological horrors of what people can do to each other. X steals the entire show in a dual role as two very different coppers.
9- Lobby Hero (Broadway)
Timely story of race and gender politics played out in a apartment building lobby. Main draw Chris Evans (oh Captain my Captain) pulled off a porn stache and a Noo Yawk accent to portray a sexist cop used to spending more time screwing than doing actual police work. Brian Tyree Henry was solid (if somewhat incomprehensible if you were too far away from the stage) as the supervisor torn between the truth and his delinquent brother. Michael Cera was charming enough in the creepy “persistent stalker guy who won’t take no for an answer” archetype that I wish would get in the sea – it’s 2018, no girl wants to be harangued by a creepy loser. Overpraised and over-nominated at the Tonys where Michael Cera (the lead) nicked James McArdle’s spot in the best supporting actor category (look I have a LOT of issues with McArdle being over looked OK? This is the hill I will die on.)
8 – Translations (National Theatre)
Handsome story of what happens to a country when it loses its language. I can’t pretend I was following all of the second half but Colin Morgan was winningly charming in a tricky role in the lead and it was entirely worth it to see the Ciaran Hinds masterclass of acting in the last 20 minutes.
7 – Julius Caesar (Bridge Theatre)
Exhilarating, political (check out the red caps with Caesar on the front) modern dress version at the newly opened Bridge theatre with immersive staging. David Morrissey was a rousing, populist Mark Anthony and Ben Whishaw (always a joy on stage) a nervy, pained Brutus.
6 – To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)
The signs outside the theatre may say “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” but there is no question that this baby is absolutely Aaron Sorkin‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this painfully timely staging of the much loved tale Sorkin’s trademark rat a tat dialogue is given voice by the sterling Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. Sorkin re-vamps the story as a memory play with a narrative framework of the grown up versions of Gem, Scout and Dill recounting the trial of Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. Both Tommy and Calpurnia, Atticus’ maid are given more of a voice here and it’s a very welcome change. Atticus’ famous plea that you should walk around in another man’s skin before judging him is put into context firmly by Calpurnia who points out that taking a non judgemental “let’s look at both sides” stance only serves to disrespect those whose skin colour don’t allow them the privilege of doing that. The scenes between Atticus and Calpurnia are probably too modern but Mockingbird has always been a prettily dressed up white saviour tale, I don’t think it does any harm to gently point that out to the audience via Calpurnia’s gentle admonishment of Atticus (Change is coming to Maycomb Calpurnia. Just give it time” “How much time would Maycomb like?”).
Not everything works – the framework of a memory play is odd given the children are being played by grown ups who don’t sufficiently differentiate between their younger and older selves. Atticus oddly genuinely seems to think he’s going to win the trial in this version when in the book it’s clear he has zero chance. Bob Ewell is portrayed too broadly as a violent drunken rapist so we forgive Atticus for taking a swing at him. There is much more humour which is fine and suits Sorkin’s dialogue but the horror of the injustice of Tommy’s fate is a little muted. And poor Boo Radley is something of an afterthought. But a stellar cast and Sorkin’s masterful dialogue makes the evening soar.
5- The Lieutenant of Inishmore (West End)
Probably the most fun I’ve had in the theatre this year. Aidan Turner was a riot in Martin McDonagh‘s hilarious black comedy about a violent IRA man and his murdered cat. Violent and hysterical in equal measure Turner had the audience in the palm of his hand no matter what nefarious deed his character was up to on stage. Chris Walley made a highly impressive debut as the poor unfortunate who stumbles across the dead cat kicking this darkest of farces into gear. Pure fun.
4 – The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre)
Ben Miles, Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale tell the story of three generations of the Lehman brothers from their arrival in the US to the downfall of the bank. While the machinations of all involved who invested heavily in the sub prime market and lost is rather glossed over (watch The Big Short instead for that) this is still an utterly engrossing look at the dangers of the American Dream. Beautifully directed by Sam Mendes, the three actors play every role on ES Devlin’s deceptively simple set. Nearly 3 hours just flew back, touching, funny and sad it’s worth the price of admission for the “And the Beat Goes On” sequence alone. It’s transferring to the West End next year – do catch it if you can.
3 – Network (National Theatre and Broadway)
Bryan Cranston is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. Ivo Van Hove’s superlative staging of the story of how news anchor Howard Beale became an unlikely prophet was a compelling look at love, madness and the cut throat world of news journalism which seemed remarkably timely in this era of “fake news”. As you would expect with a Van Hove production the set and video projections were astonishing. They even do a segment which is a genuine live outside broadcast which seems a particularly bold move in New York given the theatre is seconds away from Times Square and on the night I watched a guy in his car sat watching the whole thing given a thumbs up the whole time. The chances of a non period appropriate Iron Man or Elmo street entertainer wandering by are huge I would think. The decision to have a real life restaurant on stage where you could sit and eat while watching the show (I went the food was insanely good) made the whole piece seem even more immersive. Cranston is gut wrenchingly, superb as firebrand Beale a man who had just “finally run out of bullshit”. Is he an angry prophet or a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown? To the audience who wants a voice for the brewing rage within them he’s both. The centrepiece of his performance “the mad as hell” speech was utterly spellbinding and showed that he truly is one of the finest actors of his generation. I saw the show in both London and New York. Tatiana Maslany had the edge on Michelle Dockery as the reptilian and wildly ambitious Diana who would happily put terrorists on air for the ratings but Douglas Henshall and Tony Goldwyn were equally good as Beale’s loyal, rather sad best friend who foolishly leaves his wife for a life with Diana. Cranston’s final speech, delivered straight to the audience as he sits on the edge of the stage about the destructive power of absolute belief is deeply chilling in this unfortunate era of Trump.
2 – Hamilton
Yes, yes I know you don’t need to hear any more about Hamilton. But tough, my list my rules. Think of me as Richard Roxburgh charging towards the stage at the end of Moulin Rouge, gun in hand screaming “My Way, My Way”. I’ve seen Hamilton more than any other show this year and it still makes me smile, cheer and sob my guts out. Lin Manual Miranda is a genius composer and every single time I go I discover something new in his gloriously clever lyrics. I smile at “My Shot”, I swoon at “Dear Theodosia”, I laugh myself silly at “You’ll be Back”, Im awed at the rapping in “Guns and Ships”, I want to get up and fight with them in “Yorktown” which is the most exhilarating song in any modern musical, I sob at “One Last Time”, I sob uncontrollably with every fibre of my being at “It’s Quiet Uptown”, I beam at “The Room Where it Happens” and I cry again at the bloody “orphanage” line in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. I was lucky enough to see Hamilton with the original cast (minus Chris Jackson and Jonathan Groff) on Broadway and wasn’t sure how it would work with a new cast. After all I’d listened to the album so many times wouldn’t I be disappointed with a new version? But the London cast made you forget the album in seconds. Jamael Westman exudes charm and confidence as Hamilton, Giles Terera deservedly won the Olivier for playing Burr. He bought a real Salieri vibe to the beleaguered Burr who constantly blames Hamilton (and never himself) for his failure to thrive. Rachel John was a powerhouse as Angelica and Cleve September continues to be simply adorable in the dual roles of Laurens/Phillipe. Before watching the show I simply couldn’t see Jason Pennycooke in the dual role of Lafayette and Jefferson. Daveed Diggs seemed an impossible act to follow and ageist that I am Pennycooke seemed too old for the role (yes we’re all works in progress I’ve learned from my error). I was of course a blithering idiot because he’s exceptional. I watched the show in December and Pennycooke is now easily the best thing in it with his joyously preening Jefferson stealing every scene he’s in. I must give love to Ash Hunter, the alternate Hamilton whose approach is different to Westman’s but he’s every bit as stellar. I’ve seen various different people play different roles and must give a shout out to Miriam-Teak Lee who is a powerhouse performer that I hope we get to see in lead roles very soon.
1 – Angels in America (Broadway)
Most plays you go along, have an enjoyable time and then you struggle to recall that you saw them a month later. And some plays change your life. To say that Angels in America had a profound effect on my life sounds like hyperbole but its simple fact. Since seeing this show and being deeply moved by it’s beautiful message that we have but one short life and we have to make the most of it I have done things I would never have dreamed of doing a year ago. I’ve gone on dates, done acting classes, attending meet ups where I didn’t know a single soul and auditioned for a play, all of which may seem like nothing to you but is like climbing Everest in terms of sheer bravery for me. And all because this play moved me. It has simply changed my life so that for Marianne Elliott and your stunning cast I thank you.
I saw Angels here in London (on the day Lin Manuel Miranda and Michelle Visage and Russell T Davies saw it) and it was lovely and fine and I enjoyed it greatly. But watching it on Broadway was like watching a different play. In New York the play was in its spiritual home, the audience got all the references (the nice man next to me explained a lot) and the performances of all the actors felt like they had come on leaps and bounds since the staging at the NT. Andrew Garfield (who deservedly won the Tony) lead the cast with panache as Prior the reluctant prophet, leaving his soul on that stage every night. Nathan Lane was Nathan Lane and the audience loved him. Lee Pace was a fine addition to the cast as Joe Pitt and Nathan Stewart Jarrett’s brilliance was sadly overlooked as Belize. I still don’t get Harper but that’s OK because I don’t think Tony Kushner does either. While I still found Denise Gough’s performance a little mired in the drugs she seemed so much more at home with the character in New York and her scenes with Andrew Garfield were beautiful. And yes as I might have mentioned once or twice already James McArdle was astonishing as Louis, making a character you would want to kill in the wrong hands, likeable and completely understandable. You felt the love Prior and Louis had for each other which made the fact that it all fell so horribly apart, hurt so very very much. It’s simply inconceivable McArdle wasn’t nominated for a Tony but hopefully that’s not an error they’ll ever make again. Andrew Garfield’s final speech, delivered directly to the audience as the house lights were bought up will stay with me for a very, very long time.
“You are fabulous creatures each and every one. And I bless you. More Life”