Monday, 31 December 2018

2018: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Wow, my end-of-year roundup of London theatre seems to come round quicker every year doesn't it? And don't you hate how commercial it's become? It's like people don't even remember the true meaning any more. (The true meaning is nipples.) No really though, this has been another of those years when theatre seems to have largely forgotten to programme shows entirely based on thirst-traps tailored specifically to me. I mean, I'll manage to horribly objectify some men, don't worry. But we'll get to that, first as always I'd like to thank those of you who've kept coming back and reading my reviews regularly, you've both been very loyal. If this is your first one of these you've read, have a seat, I go on a bit. I also give out a few awards along the way. They're not quite in the same categories everyone else gives out awards in.

Once I've rounded everything up I'll be doing my usual best and worst lists: In my 2017 review I decided only three shows were horrific enough to deserve a place on my Shit List, will this year have had enough badness to go back to the usual five? We'll see, it's a real mystery. But yeah, totally, there will be.

But first a category that (even though I write this before having formally compiled my lists) I know will be well-represented in the Hit List, and the one I always start with:


You can bet you'll be hearing a lot more about Future Dame Patsy Ferran as we go through the year but she started it with the brilliantly-titled monologue My Mum's A Twat, bringing theatricality to Anoushka Warden's first play that didn't always provide it itself. Someone who's no stranger to new play lists - he's coughed up at least one annually since the Year of Our Lord 1742 - is Alan Ayckbourn, whose troubled epic The Divide came to London with a lot of changes in tow. What was left was still an oddity, but even so an interesting attempt to create something like a YA novel for the stage. Thrillers were definitely the order of the day in February, as Brad Birch's Black Mountain at the Orange Tree had shades of Misery, while Annie Baker's trademark understatement brought hints of all kinds of horror tropes to the hypnotic John.

Dennis Kelly's Girls and Boys was one of the early talking points of the year, with the star casting of Carey Mulligan delivering on its promise, and Philip Ridley had his own twist on gender relations in Angry, one of those rare Ridley plays not to really do a lot for me. Back in the Dorfman another thriller was a big hit with me when Francis Turnly's The Great Wave swept from Japan to North Korea, launching a decades-long mystery.

Arinzé Kene played with form in Misty, David Haig turned the joke about British people's obsession with the weather into the surprisingly nail-biting Pressure, and back at the Royal Court Thomas Eccleshare's Instructions for Correct Assembly looked at grief by asking what would happen if you could replace your loved one with a flatpack version from IKEA; while also posing the crucial question of just how many Brian Vernels there are.


The Almeida is never a theatre to shy away from a headfuck, and Ella Hickson's The Writer certainly provided that, as well as one of the most genuinely divisive shows of the year. Also getting a mixed reception was Anthony Neilson's The Prudes, as is unsurprising from Neilson one of the funniest, filthiest shows of the year, but as a male response to #MeToo it wasn't without its detractors. Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall should have been a lot less prophetic than it was (its chilling explanation of the title having been all but embraced as official policy verbatim by US politicians in recent weeks) while Fiona Doyle's flawed The Strange Death of John Doe also touched on some facts that seem outlandish but are based on ugly truths. Death was also at the heart of Natasha Gordon's playwrighting debut but despite the grief and family drama Nine Night was an altogether more hopeful affair, full of warmth, great lines, and while the whole cast were excellent there's no question the showstopper was an absolute gift of a role for Cecilia Noble.

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson's The Jungle was another show to draw a certain amount of controversy, but while I can understand that it was a success in by book, and the fact that it managed a West End run a hopeful sign for political theatre tackling subjects people might feel more comfortable ignoring. Steffano Massini's The Lehman Trilogy had its English-language premiere at the National, Ben Power turning the epic into a three-actor tour de force, while round the back of the building Home I'm Darling was yet another great premiere in the Dorfman - it's just a shame the sightlines for Laura Wade's play were even worse than they usually are in there. (The design exhibition in the Olivier foyer shows a 3D mockup testing the sightlines for this of all shows; note to the National: IT AIN'T WORKING.) Meanwhile that theatre's former boss was still trying to establish his new venue's identity, Nicholas Hytner enlisting long-time collaborator Alan Bennett for the imperfect but simultaneously funny and devastating Allelujah!

I'd like to say I'll remember Jordan Seavey's Homos, or Everyone in America for something other than the amount of bath bombs in the room, but in a space as small as the Finborough the smell did get pretty overwhelming. A larger space can be even harder to write for and the Globe has a dodgy track record with new writing. That was certainly still in evidence this year, but before we get to the one that got it wrong there's the one that got it right: New Artistic Director Michelle Terry is soon to get her first West End transfer with Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's Emilia, a history play that captured the mood of 2018 better than many a play set in the present day. Over at the Almeida Dance Nation was so spot-on it was barely distinguishable from Alyssa Edwards: Dancing Queen, and provided the year's third stage appearance for Irfan Shamji, who came out of nowhere to become an instant favourite.

Irfan Shamji in Mayfly, One for Sorrow and Dance Nation

Autumn saw new plays from a couple of writers whose profile was about to shoot up when they wrote some of the better episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who, and their theatre work confirmed that promise, with Vinay Patel's An Adventure delivering just that and, even better, Joy Wilkinson's The Sweet Science of Bruising feeling like a strong companion piece to Emilia without garnering the same amount of attention. Meanwhile all attention at Hampstead Theatre was on Stephen Karam's US import The Humans, which I found decidedly underwhelming; flying under the radar Downstairs there was something much better, the understated gem of Richard Molloy's school comedy-drama Every Day I Make Greatness Happen (and yes, I would be perfectly happy to see more of Moe Bar-El on stage as well.)

It's not a meme restricted to this year, but there's certainly something of a pattern, after 2017's Beginning, in Sam Troughton returning to the Dorfman to play the potential father in a story of a woman longing for a child - this time it was as multiple possible donors in Nina Raine's Stories. Royal Court stalwart debbie tucker green made an explosive return with ear for eye while in one of the traditional places to find a strong newcomer Iman Qureshi won the Papatango award for The Funeral Director.


One of the first major revivals I saw this year was The Birthday Party, a Pinter play at the Pinter Theatre; an appropriate start since that was going to become one of the major themes of the year: Jamie Lloyd took over the theatre to present Pinter at the Pinter: Pinter One, Pinter Two, Pinter Three, Pinter Four and Pinter Six will be followed by installments Five, Seven and Eight in 2019. And thanks to the tight boxers of Pinter Two, for what I think is the first time ever someone's retained an award for the second year running. Who that is probably won't surprise anyone too much.

Russell Tovey in Pinter Two

But cheeks weren't grabbing all the attention, as Pinter Six came in at the last minute to claim its own memorable sight:

Tracy-Ann Oberman and Celia Imrie in Pinter Six

Pinter wasn't the only writer to get a West End theatre exclusively playing his work, as the Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville continued with Lady Windermere's Fan and concluded with an Importance of Being Earnest whose ever-so-slightly broader than usual approach upset purists - which probably says more about how Wilde's plays are preserved in aspic than anything else. David Lan leaving the Young Vic is a bit like the ravens leaving the Tower, and he opened his final season with the return of The Brothers Size. Next year will see another major round of Artistic Director Musical Chairs, including Josie Rourke leaving the Donmar, but the highlight of her 2018 season came early with Robert Hastie's revival of Peter Gill's The York Realist. Like many of the year's best shows it was a quietly moving evening, with a couple at its centre you couldn't help but root for.

Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey in The York Realist

Which brings us to March, and what could easily be another contender for the award I just gave out, except if I start dishing out awards to Future Dame Patsy Ferran I won't be able to stop. She and Matthew Needham made a spectacularly hypnotic couple in Rebecca Frecknall's production of Summer and Smoke, which turned an obscure Tennessee Williams play into his most essential, and made you wish them together even as it would clearly be catastrophic. Despite no TV star names it made it to the West End where I've been recommending it to anyone who'll stand still for more than three seconds.

Michael Grandage revived his own production of John Logan's Red, which led to me doing one of the most obscure and contrived "themed" reviews I've done yet (and I know about obscure and contrived.) The National revived Brian Friel's Translations, which contains one of the best-written love scenes I've ever seen, and the Donmar had a new adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in which Lia Williams deconstructed the inspirational teacher cliché into something much darker. In a series of *fabulous* frocks.

The original production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the first Martin McDonagh play I saw, and a West End revival this year confirmed the twisted humour I'd enjoyed so much the first time (his newest play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, might have been a contender for this year's Pippin Memorial Award for Endearing Whatthefuckery, except while the whatthefuckery is undeniable I'm not sure anyone found it endearing.) Another show that divided opinion was Exit the King, the National's first-ever Ionesco revival, and seen by many as the latest flop in the Olivier; for me on the other hand it was a gut-punch of the most devastating but best kind.

The RSC gave me my first chance to see Christopher Marlowe's Tambourlaine, albeit in an edited version rather than the original two-part epic, and Marlowe was further represented in a mixed but atmospheric Doctor Faustus at the Swanamaker with a gender-switched lead pairing and a scene-stealingly gleeful Mephistopheles in Pauline McLynn. A rather surprising revival to end the year on, in the sense that Danai Gurira's The Convert only premiered in the UK last year, but a different approach to the play justified its appearance at the Young Vic, striking while the playwright is hot property.

Are you bored yet? How about an Evening Standard Theatre Awards-style intermission with an award that bears no relation to anything that comes before or after it?

The Haunting of Hill House

Truly something for everyone: If you didn't like the ghosts you could enjoy the family drama; if you didn't like the family drama you could enjoy Weez ranting on Twitter about her undying hatred of Steven Crain at the least provocation.


In 2017 a Shakespeare production became my show of the year for the first time since the Rupert Goold Romeo and Juliet. Ian McKellen's second stab at King Lear did return in 2018, albeit without the intimacy that was one of its biggest plus points (and minus a couple of the best supporting cast members.) Elsewhere this wasn't a classic year for Shakespeare, with a few very good productions, a few absolute duds but no real standouts. Primarily billed as a new writing theatre, the Bridge's director Nicholas Hytner couldn't resist going back to Shakespeare for a Julius Ceasar that stretched the definition of "promenade staging" to frankly uncomfortable levels. More reliable to deliver something different in a good way are Cheek by Jowl, who this year brought their French company back for an internalised Périclès, Prince de Tyr. The biggest Shakespearean news was of course the changing of the guard at the Globe, Michelle Terry taking over with what was of necessity a more stripped back approach after whatever it is Enema Rice did there. In the statement-of-intent opening rep company shows, Hamlet with Terry herself in the lead didn't really work with the approach used, but its companion As You Like It was a definite hit - and for those of us with long memories, it featured a few easter eggs regarding Jack Laskey playing the female lead after playing the male lead on the same stage in 2009, and incorporating part of his original costume into the new one.

In a season as mixed as artistic directors' first years usually are, for me the biggest success was Terry's interpretation of the trend for gender and disability-blind casting to correct the imbalance in roles: The casting has never felt as organically matched to the actor as in this season.

My other favourite revival in the Globe this summer confirmed what I consider a truism: That the less well-regarded Shakespeares often get more effort thrown into them than the best-loved ones, meaning you can actually end up with a far more entertaining production of an obscurity, because the director isn't assuming the quality and familiarity of the play will do all the work for them. Take, for example, Barrie Rutter noticing how many references to Morris Dancing there are in The Two Noble Kinsmen and going absolutely fucking mental with it.

The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare's Globe

Some of the same cast returned later in the summer at the Swanamaker, for a Love's Labour's Lost that if anything was even more bonkers; editing out much of the stuff the play is usually criticised for, Nick Bagnall's production was then widely criticised for editing it out, because some people are never happy. I'm usually never happy where Romeo and Juliet is concerned, but while Erica Whyman's production wasn't one to make me change my mind, her sexy, frantic version, which included the memorable choice to make Benvolio gay and in love with Romeo, was one of the better ones.

Similarly, Simon Godwin's take on Antony and Cleopatra was strong but couldn't escape the fact that the play gets dull whenever its leading lady is offstage, while Josie Rourke managed to play Measure for Measure twice in one evening without trying the patience - her high concept working a lot better than I'd expected. There's never any shortage of Twelfth Nights but by bringing a musical version to the Young Vic to launch his first season there Kwame Kwei-Armah gave it a new spin, while the RSC rounded out the year with Kathryn Hunter leading a snappy Timon of Athens that kept some lightness to what is generally a bleak tale.

There always seems to be one Shakespeare play that dominates the stage every year, and this year there was no question it was Macbeth - one of the most popular (I saw three productions and skipped at least two more) but also one of the most deceptively difficult to pull off, as became very apparent: Rufus Norris' production at the National was a car crash that'll be talked about for years to come; Polly Findlay's at the RSC was overflowing with great ideas that never cohered into a single theme. It was left to Robert Hastie in the Swanamaker to pare things back to basics, pair Michelle Terry with real-life husband Paul Ready, and deliver something that really worked.

Macbeth at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Fun fact: Several years ago I Exclusively! Revealed! to Twitter that Terry and Ready were a couple, when I saw them attempting to inhale each other in the Young Vic bar.


This has felt like a particularly strong year for musicals, with the usual amount of hype but an unusual amount of shows living up to it. A lot of lauded shows from outside London got their deserved West End runs, starting with the weird and wonderful Grinning Man, while Caroline, or Change transferred from Chichester first to Hampstead, and at time of writing is at the Playhouse. A jukebox musical opening straight into the West End is a pretty straightforward moneymaking move, but writer Katori Hall and star Adrienne Warren brought top quality to TINA. And a Broadway transfer was David Lan's farewell to the Young Vic, the fact that Fun Home hasn't announced any further plans a surprise to many (what, was a lesbian musical set in a funeral home a hard sell or something?)

I loved the original film and the musical adaptation of Heathers captured its bad-taste energy, while another musical bloodbath - and another one I was surprised not to see have a further life as yet - came to the Open Air Theatre when Maria Aberg and Vicky Vox gave Little Shop of Horrors a drag makeover.

Sylvia was famously beset by illness which distracted from the fact that the musical itself arrived on the stage before it was quite ready; I fully expect to see that one return but not for a while, as after some more development this could really be a great piece of theatre. Southwark Playhouse continued to make musicals a strong part of its identity, and musicals about rollerskating an even more niche part of it with The Rink. They also scored a coup with the UK premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda's early show Bring It On, and transferred a production of Pippin - would that be enough to get the Pippin Memorial Award? Well no, because that's named after a production that took Pippin's inherent whatthefuckery and added a whole layer of its own, whereas Jonathan O'Boyle's production went with the theory that the story about a travelling troupe that needs a new leading man every night because it burns him alive at the end of each show was weird enough already. But despair not, Southwark Playhouse, because come September they didn't just stage one of my favourite new musicals of the year - I can still hear the chorus of "(Extra)Ordinary Woman" in my head three months after hearing it the one time - Wasted was also one of the most demented. Carl Miller and Christopher Ash's rock musical about the Brontës could be said to have tapped into an inevitable gag in having Siobhan Athwal play Emily as Kate Bush; her beatboxing dog sidekick was a surprise though.

Wasted at Southwark Playhouse

White Teeth felt like the real relaunch show for the Kiln Theatre, I didn't really see the fuss about Hadestown, and Tom Wells dipped his toe into the musical waters with Drip. But probably the most hyped new musical of the year was an old one: 1970's Company became very 2018 when Stephen Sondheim allowed Marianne Elliott to make changes he hadn't let anyone else make before. This mainly involved gender-swapping a lot of the characters, but the end result was something that felt completely new.

Company at the Gielgud Theatre


And so on to any other business, featuring ongoing themes, memes and noteworthy stories of the year but OK it's mostly about which male actors got their clothes off onstage. Or offstage, as the year's first show was White Fang, which featured Canadian actor and new (to me) face Danny Mahoney, but which was set in a Yukon winter so he had to wear lots of clothes. But oops, it turns out Instagram exists, and this fully-dressed state is not one he subscribes to much when out of character.

2018 resolutely refused to offer up a random meme, the closest thing being when both Gundog and The Duchess of Malfi featured weird, vaguely animal-shaped lumps of flesh as part of their design. And speaking of flesh, it's going to seem reductive that my first mention of The Inheritance is here rather than in the New Plays section, but there are reasons. First of all, nobody forced them to advertise the West End transfer like this:

I mean, it's the obvious advertising strategy but still, that scene was a couple of minutes in a seven-hour play. Secondly though, it doesn't seem to have been a big topic of discussion in the theatre press but it certainly was among those of us who saw it the day I did: Quite apart from the fact that there was only one female character who turned up for the final scene, the issue of diversity in body types was raised by the fact that, even with the majority of the cast conforming very much to "my type," I had as much trouble telling everyone apart as anyone else did. Still, if Stephen Daldry's production didn't quite leave room in its broad sweep of gay life for those of us more familiar with biscuits than the gym, Matthew Lopez' gay retelling of Howards End was definitely an intense day and a landmark of this year's theatre.

The Inheritance at the Young Vic and Noël Coward Theatre

A comparatively quiet year for big names, personally I was most excited to see LAURA MOTHERFUCKING LINNEY in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she didn't disappoint even if the show she was in did. That was at the Bridge Theatre, following a contender for weird theatrical spat of the year as the underwhelming Nightfall saw writer Barney Norris go off on a tweet rant about how director Laurie Sansom was to blame for the show's failure. (Maybe ticket sales would have been helped if they'd taken a note out of The Inheritance's book and released some promo photos of Ukweli Roach in his pants.) Or maybe the weirdest grudge was the one Polly Stenham holds towards budgies: The birds don't come out of Strindberg's Miss Julie very well at the best of times, but having Vanessa Kirby bung one in the blender for her shaky adaptation Julie was a bit cruel and unusual. But even that's nothing compared to the people of Kilburn expending a lot of energy that could surely have had a better target than Indhu Rubasingham, who relaunced the Tricycle as the Kiln and as a result had protestors outside the press nights of both Holy Shit and White Teeth, holding placards with messages like "Down With This Sort of Thing," "It's Quite Hard To Say When You've Got a Cold" and "I'm Not Racist But."

The population of Kilburn vs the word "Kiln"

This section of the review is a handy place for anything that doesn't really fit into any other category, which certainly fits Ontroerend Goed's £¥€$, an entertaining casino-style explanation of why the global economy is chronically fucked. And after a bizarre tendency to wear clothes in everything, Andy Apollo ran out of excuses when playing Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, while getting off with James Cooney into the bargain.

But the award you've all been waiting for has to go to something of an unsung hero of The Country Wife, treated as a bit of background totty to (the not-physically-repulsive in his own right) Eddie Eyre even by the production itself. Restoration Comedy did not come out of 2018 well, and this wasn't really that much of an exception, but there's one thing about it I won't be forgetting in a hurry.

Joshua Hill in The Country Wife at Southwark Playhouse


Before I can round up my Top Ten of the year there's the little matter of those shows that really didn't live up to what I'd hoped for from them. The punk spirit it was trying to evoke felt a bit watered down in Jubilee, while I've already mentioned the notorious misfire of the National's Macbeth. One of the big shocks of the year came with the sudden death of actor Alex Beckett during the run of The Way of the World; I'd like to say that when the production carried on without him it was a suitable tribute, but it was in fact the dullest of the year's Restoration Comedy duds. For King and Country tackled what should have been a hugely emotive subject but missed a wide open goal. And then, just after Emilia reminded us that new writing at the Globe can be done, along came Eyam to remind us that's the exception. The first two-and-three-quarter hours weren't great, but the last 15 minutes were misjudgement on an epic scale.

Eyam at Shakespeare's Globe

I know how you feel

Just 'cause a lot of other people like something doesn't mean I will, and while The Trench came showered in plaudits it largely irritated me. Peter Brook's entire career, on the other hand, seems to have been one long five-star review, but these past glories must be blinding people to what he's actually producing now because The Prisoner was appalling on just about any level you could name. Dawn King's Foxfinder, on the other hand, I readily agree is a really strong play, but this year's West End revival was miscast and entirely misjudged, and its early closure told its own story. Those are the shows that stood out to me for the wrong reasons, and it's a comparatively short list this year; but those I didn't like I really didn't like, and while last year I only really felt like pointing the finger at three duds, this time I'm back to my usual five that really should have known better:


5 - Macbeth at the National Theatre's Olivier

4 - The Way of the World at the Donmar Warehouse

3 - For King and Country at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre

2 - Eyam at Shakespeare's Globe

One of the shortest shows of the year, but feeling like one of the longest; self-satisfied, preachy, ponderous and ultimately meaningless; dated both in style and in attitude, I was often uncomfortable with its treatment of race and disability, let alone its casual use of incest and abuse as a plot point; it smacked of cultural appropriation while never actually acknowledging what culture it was appropriating: I guess some things fly in France that really don't here.

The Prisoner at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

But the National's smallest and worst-designed auditorium needn't despair entirely, as it made a good showing in the best-of list as well. I had a longlist of 15 for this year's Top Ten which makes for a particularly good crop. In the end Emilia, John, Little Shop of Horrors, Home, I'm Darling and Allelujah! get honourable mentions but they were inched out by:


10 - Wasted at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre

9 - Exit the King at the National Theatre's Olivier

8 - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse

7 - The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse

6 - The Great Wave at the National Theatre's Dorfman

5 - Every Day I Make Greatness Happen at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

4 - The Inheritance at the Young Vic and Noël Coward Theatre

3 - Company at the Gielgud Theatre

2 - Nine Night at the National Theatre's Dorfman and Trafalgar Studio 1

Like all Top Ten lists this one is highly personal, and it's not unusual for my #1 choice to not even feature on anyone else's list. I don't think that's very likely to happen this year though, as surely this show, and the performance at the heart of it, are one of the things 2018 theatre in London will be most remembered for. One of the ways I judge shows is by how much I'd want to see them again* and this was one that even as I was watching the first time I was deeply sad that the rest of the run was sold out. When it went against the received wisdom that only star vehicles can make it in the West End and got a transfer, I got that chance to revisit it, and it was still every bit as extraordinary.

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Duke of York's Theatre

With two shows each in the list the Dorfman and Donmar Warehouse share THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2018, the latter giving Josie Rourke a good send-off for her final full year in charge of the venue. And now to try and clear all that from my mind, hit the reset button and find out what 2019 is going to do to try and top that.

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey, Mark Douet, Johan Persson, Helen Murray, Manuel Harlan, Robert Day, Marc Brenner, Simon Annand, Netflix, Tristram Kenton, Nobby Clark, Bill Knight, Helen Maybanks, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg, MWords Photography, Mark Douet, Ryan Buchanan.

*not a hard-and-fast rule, I wouldn't actually want Exit the King to emotionally break me again


  1. Thank you for a wonderfully entertaining review. A year when I was also so moved by Inheritance, York realist and Company

  2. I love reading your blog. Keep up the good work!