Tuesday, 31 December 2019

2019: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

It's the end of another year in theatre, as well as the end of the decade, and the trend on both professional and amateur sites has been to do a post rounding up ten shows that defined the decade in theatre. Well nobody can say I follow the herd because I won't be doing that; although I've been reviewing theatre online since the late noughties I didn't actually start Partially Obstructed View until 2012, so the blog only covers eight of those ten years. Much more importantly, I honestly can't be arsed. I mean, do you know how much effort it is to do a detailed, smutty, rambling and confusing roundup of the last year's highs and lows, spending hours over Christmas writing thousands of words so that regular readers (both of them) can skim-read it to look at the photos and see if there's any decent nipples this year, let alone doing that for an actual decade? Well you know now so we might as well get on with it.

2019: It was a year when a lot of things happened, but sweet jesus let's not talk about any of that for the sake of what's left of our collective sanity, and instead distract ourselves with some theatre, starting with the freshest offerings.


It took a while for much new writing to show up but January did bring US import Sweat to the Donmar and later the West End, providing us with a powerful political play, as well as the chance to look at The One With The Arse Out of The OA for a bit.

February and March asked what "Instagram-famous" people's lives are like behind the apparent glamour in Superhoe, how gay men's history and legacy will be passed down the generations in Gently Down the Stream, whether some of the most vilified criminals can ever truly move on in Downstate, whether the audience would like to leave the theatre with a stinking headache in Grief is the Thing With Feathers, and... something not entirely coherent about Trump in Shipwreck. But there were mercifully some lighter moments, and another American import was one of the funniest, and most satisfyingly ridiculous, I've seen all year: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist only played a handful of performances in London so a return for this very silly show would be most welcome.

Crashing back down to earth with Maggie Smith's return to the stage for A German Life, which unfortunately I mainly remember for wondering if mine was the only performance where she regularly forgot her lines, or if literally everyone else who ever wrote about the show was too polite to mention it. Inua Ellams' brand of mythologising was right up my alley when it threw together Greek and Yoruba myths for The Half God of Rainfall, Zoe Cooper followed up Jess and Joe Forever with another tale of gender diversity in Out of Water, Ben Weatherill's Jellyfish took a warm-hearted and open-minded look at relationships that make some people feel uncomfortable, and a show I mainly went to see because of the cast turned out to be an unexpected, if grisly highlight, as Sarah Kosar looked into the point where America's love of guns becomes a fetish in Armadillo.

Always a focus for new writing, the Royal Court had a pretty adventurous year, with no show garnering quite as much attention as Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. But while Jasmine Lee-Jones was making a name for herself Upstairs, a more established writer's new show proved memorable in a different way, as Jack Thorne's The End of History... will likely be remembered mainly as the show with a baffling approach towards cooking a comfort food staple.

Lesley Sharp's Cheese on Toast technique in The End of History...

As we got into autumn the new plays category really started to ramp up the contenders for this year's Top Ten, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate followed (the soon-to-be-revived) Clybourne Park in proving that a hard-hitting subject and pretty outrageous comedy can be surprisingly great bedfellows.

Lucy Prebble returned to the stage with the eccentric A Very Expensive Poison, and a new regime at Hampstead opened in ambitiously serious mode with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig bringing to life a forgotten scandal in The King of Hell's Palace. Back at the Royal Court Tim Crouch twisted and subverted the relationship between characters and the script they appear in with Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, while Caryl Churchill reminded us why she's a contender for Britain's Greatest Living Playwright as she gave her own take on the way reality and stories create each other in Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.

The ubiquitous Mischief Theatre experimented (with mixed results) with more of a traditional play format in Groan Ups, Anupama Chandrasekhar exposed Indian chauvinism in When the Crows Visit, Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview took a commentary on race as entertainment and added actual commentary to it, and Katori Hall mixed horrors with miracles in Our Lady of Kibeho.


You don't have to have a brand new text to present something fresh though, so here's the revivals and adaptations that made an impact this year, starting with a continuation of one of 2018's big events as Jamie Lloyd's all-star Pinter at the Pinter season concluded with shows Five and Seven, before getting a valedictory lap with a production of Betrayal that has to rank as the best I've seen, and which made a lot clear in a way Lloyd seems particularly skilled at with Pinter.

From an official season dedicated to a single playwright to an unofficial one, as multiple venues decided to revive Arthur Miller's work, beginning with a couple of lesser-known ones, The Price and The American Clock; but on this particular occasion it seemed there's a reason some of his plays are more famous than others, and towering productions of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman brought both big US names to the London stage - Sally Field, Bill Pullman and Wendell Pierce - and some of the year's most quietly devastating moments.

Anna Fleischle’s set in the closing seconds of Death of a Salesman

The latter production was part of many areas of London theatre trying to ensure the landscape didn't look quite so uniformly white (big-budget musicals... not trying quite as hard,) with the Young Vic having previously staged a strong Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train while Stratford East helped my attempt to see all of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle with King Hedley II. There were also a couple of plays I know very well, from having appeared in or directed them years ago: I wasn't really sold on the Open Air Theatre as a venue for the intimacy of Our Town, but it was Ned Bennett's production of Equus that was the best production of the play I've seen by far: Stripping away the staging devices usually associated with Peter Shaffer's play to get to the heart of it.


Ivo van Hove's company was, as we've come to expect, a regular presence in London; Simon Stone's version of Medea really fitting into its aesthetic but, despite so much being great about it, the production did leave me questioning once more at what point something stops being a radical reinterpretation of a classic, and becomes an entirely unrelated story with some thematic similarities. van Hove himself stuck to the movie adaptations that are his current fixation, starting with one of this year's big star vehicles in a satisfying All About Eve; he returned later in the year with a French company for an intense and uncomfortably on-the-nose adaptation of a film about the rise of Nazism, but one which did also provide the first of this year's awards to focus on the blog's unholy USP:

Christophe Montenez in The Damned (Les Damnés)

But don't worry, dark adaptations of movies to the stage can also bring with them much more wholesome awards, like when David Farr and Rupert Goold made The Hunt a tense and thought-provoking evening of NEVER MIND THAT:

FOR BEING A GOOD DOG or possibly sasquatch:
Flora in The Hunt IS A GOOD DOG or possibly sasquatch

The next playwright to get a mini-season was Tennesee Williams, with Seth Numrich making a welcome return for Orpheus Descending, a couple of real obscurities in Southern Belles, and the largest-scale but most disapppointing entry being The Night of the Iguana. Back at the Almeida Robert Icke left the venue with The Doctor, whose clever casting twist provided a new way of looking not only at race on stage, but also at the clichés we use about "not seeing race." Noises Off proved once more that if you can navigate one of the most complex farces ever written there's little that can beat it for big laughs; meanwhile at the Barbican, Cheek by Jowl's brand of insanity colliding with The Knight of the Burning Pestle's brand of insanity could have led to the oddest classic of the year, except for the fact that at the Swanamaker, whatever the hell this is happened:


New beginnings in September as Rachel O'Riordan took over the Lyric Hammersmith with the first of the upcoming reinventions of A Doll's House, and a new fringe theatre launched with a rewritten version of Hervey Fierstein's Torch Song. A transfer I'd been looking forward to since it premiered in Chichester last year didn't disappoint: Laura Wade's The Watsons is, technically, an adaptation; but the fact that Jane Austen only did some of the work for her meant whole new unexpected directions for the show to go off in.

But it was quickly followed up by another instant favourite, as David Greig brought mysterious, claustrophobic, philosophical sci-fi to the stage in Solaris.

The intimate Lungs managed to make a surprisingly effective transition to a huge space and a starry cast, Sally Cookson's take on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made me like that story much more than I usually do, and Inua Ellams and Nadia Fall's Three Sisters was the second version this year - after Cordelia Lynn and Rebecca Frecknall's at the Almeida - and one which was recognisably Chekhov's bleak play but with a whole new dimension. And speaking of new dimensions, creepy creatures were crossing them to bring some Christmassy chills to The Ocean at the End of the Lane.



Shakespeare this year was about quality not quantity, with a handful of productions standing out. Richard II made an early bid to be the most-produced play as Joe Hill-Gibbins' claustrophobic take at the Almeida was closely followed by Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh's unique use of an all-women-of-colour cast at the Swanamaker, which kicked off a year-long project to do all eight Henriad plays on the Globe's stages (if by "eight" you mean "seven.") It concluded back indoors with a compacted Henry VI and Richard III, but the centrepiece was a three-show day in the summer that renamed the most popular plays in the sequence as Hotspur, Falstaff and Harry England.

The Globe remained, appropriately enough, the place for many of the most memorable Shakespeare productions of the year, and while The Merry Wives of Windsor is rarely ranked as a favourite among the comedies, the chance to see Pearce Quigley apply his trademark hangdog style to Falstaff didn't disappoint.

But it was one of the usual suspects that dominated the summer, as three competing Midsummer Night's Dreams vied for attention; only the Open Air Theatre's underwhelmed, with Susan Wokoma's unusually prim and proper Bottom the highlight. Back at the Globe, Sean Holmes' inventive Rio Carnival would have easily been the standout in any ordinary year.

But this was no ordinary year as far as this play's concerned, and at the Bridge, ostensibly a new writing venue, Nicholas Hytner showed where his heart lies with a gloriously queer production that's probably the best Dream I've seen in a quarter of a century; so good that, even with two more productions of the same play within two months, I couldn't tail off the summer without going back for a second visit.


But wait! If the Evening Standard Theatre Awards have taught us nothing else (and they haven't,) it's that in the middle of celebrating the best of theatre you have to stop for a complete nonsequitur of an award!

Westminster Underground Station

I like how it feels like being in a Terry Gilliam film.


If Shakespeare was all about a couple of standout productions, musicals were a cutthroat category this year as the gauntlet was thrown down straight away by the all-conquering new British musical about Henry VIII's SIX wives, and how they're the real stars of his story.

Waitress is a hit show about overcharging for very small, sickly pies (newsflash, the price has even gone up since my review) with a pretty good musical tacked on to it for good measure, while a couple of Andrew Lloyd Webber hits got reinvented - Jamie Lloyd found Evita scrubbed up well, but while Laurence Connor's brash Joseph was a commercial hit, for me it revealed the show's weaknesses like never before. There were the usual big-budget juggernauts - Mary Poppins brought the magic back, the RSC made a new bid for the West End with The Boy in the Dress, Big proved the production can go as big as it likes but it doesn't help if you've forgotten to put any good songs in it, and when Broadway's current darling Dear Evan Hansen arrived in London it didn't disappoint. That show was partly promoted on having found a new star in Sam Tutty, who'd appeared only weeks earlier at Southwark Playhouse in Once On This Island, a show in which I was convinced I'd spotted a new musical theatre star. It wasn't Tutty, but then again I saw Tutty's alternate Marcus Harman in the West End and he was great, so I'm doubling down on who the standout in the summer's musical fairytale was:

Chrissie Bhima in Once On This Island

British shows tended towards a smaller scale, with the likes of Fiver, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Dead Dog in a Suitcase all making an impact, while a British production toning down a Broadway flop made Amélie an intimate hit and a late contender for the best-of lists. But could it be the best of the year? SIX has a marked advantage in that it's already got a soundtrack album that I've listened to many times since seeing the show, but in the end there's a gut-punch of an understated show I hope makes the return to the stage it deserves, puppets, Cornish-language lyrics and all:



Not that theatre hasn't always been that bit queerer than a lot of other media, and inevitably I'll seek out shows with gay interest a bit more than others, but 2019 has definitely felt particularly strong on LGBTQ+ representation, including in classics where it's previously been subtext and now becomes text: After Hytner's Dream, pansexuality started to appear all over the place, like another of this year's star vehicles to live up to the hype, Andrew Scott in Present Laughter.

One classic whose gay storyline has long since been reclaimed is Edward II; the Swanamaker's production this year paired it with a new play from its lead Tom Stuart, and After Edward's angst about the legacy of Section 28 was balanced with hope and celebration. The Lyric Hammersmith offered a new musical with a gay couple at its centre with Leave to Remain, Wife told generations' worth of queer history through the prism of A Doll's House, and The View UpStairs was the second big LGBTQ+ musical premiere this year. Either came up with a conceit to show gender fluidity on stage in an inventive way, while the National's big political drama Hansard only really came to life when it, too, delved into the poisonous effect of Section 28.

Of course, when you think of gay theatre in the context of this blog what you're actually thinking of is men whose clothes have all accidentally fallen off, and regular readers may both recall 2018's end-of-year review, in which I bemoaned the fact that one particular actor had been terribly overdressed. Well, along came 2019 and Afterglow, and even if it wasn't for the fact that it would be churlish not to, I think it's probably safe to say nobody else was in the running for this one this year:

Danny Mahoney in Afterglow

And while I may have had certain issues with the play itself, it's safe to say that on this front Afterglow was a gift that kept on giving:

Sean Hart in Afterglow

Mike Noble in Cougar AND
Lewis Brown in Undetectable

(The interesting Cougar was very much about a heterosexual relationship but gay plays don't have a monopoly on male nudity, and far be it from me to discourage straight plays from joining in the fun.) Meanwhile, did me complaining about Danny Mahoney's clothes last year magically make them all fall off? Because if so, Luke Thallon's looking a bit warm in all those layers, let's see what we can make happen in 2020.

Just time for a couple of less prominent theatrical memes before I get the knives out, and a few prolific theatre creatives tried their hands at something different, with sound designers Ben and Max Ringham joining writer Ella Hickson as creators of Cold War thriller Anna, director Bijan Sheibani turning playwright for The Arrival, and designers turning director when Tom Scutt took on Berberian Sound Studio and Chloe Lamford joined Annie Baker for her latest slice of the weird and wonderful in The Antipodes.

Finally a couple of shows got the kind of publicity they probably weren't looking for when Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah got embroiled in controversy over who actually wrote Tree, and Falsettos neglected to get any Jewish people involved in the creative process of a musical about Jewish characters and traditions. Then again I have a whole other category where the latter show fits in:


Yes, it can't all be hits, and if there was ever any doubt that art is subjective, know that you can get glowing reviews, an enthusiastic fanbase and a pile of awards both sides of the Atlantic and still irritate me enough with two hours of yelling in a comedy "Oirish" accent that I've not forgiven you ten months later.


That's despite competition from the likes of Aspects of Love and the aforementioned Falsettos, which didn't even come close to making up for its controversy with its content. Straight plays ticked along happily enough until March: I was subjected to the unfunny Admissions and the painfully dull Rubenstein Kiss in quick succession, before the biggest car crash of the year came courtesy of David Mamet, whose plan to tackle the #MeToo story from the point of view of someone who had no business tackling the #MeToo story sounded dodgy enough, before Bitter Wheat opened to prove it could actually be so much worse than expected. And these were just the shows I managed to make it all the way through, as even when I'm not enjoying something I like to get the full picture. Twice this year though, I ended up deciding that almost anything else would be a better use of my time than coming back after the interval:


I wasn't surprised to see The Man in the White Suit forced to close early in the West End after its thunking attempts at comedy; and a less-than-stellar year for the RSC included the muddled and dreary A Museum in Baghdad. I earlier described The Rubenstein Kiss as painfully dull, which had it in pole position for one of my most long-standing awards for most of the year. Until, that is, the Bridge came along to demonstrate how you could make half the running time feel twice as long.


Which means it must be time for...


5 - Admissions at Trafalgar Studio 1

4 - Two Ladies at the Bridge Theatre

3 - Falsettos at The Other Palace

2 - Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre

Some years it takes a lot of thought to balance out between stinkers and decide which was the absolute worst show in London. This was not one of those years.

Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre

This means we get to end on the positive, and always a much harder list to compile. Not quite making the cut this year were some big hitters - Present Laughter will no doubt top many peope's lists, but it joins Noises Off and Amélie just outside my Top Ten. In the end, there was just something about each of these shows that stayed with me that little bit more.


10 - Armadillo at the Yard Theatre

9 - Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

8 - Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist at the Vault Festival

7 - Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith

6 - SIX at the Arts Theatre

5 - Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse

4 - Equus at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

3 - The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory

2 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre

No official Theatre of the Year this year, as these ten shows are spread around different venues throughout London, including number 1: I saw my first Shakespeare production a little over thirty years ago, and I've seen hundreds of them since then, so it takes a lot for one to make it into my Top Ten, let alone take the top spot: It would have to basically be the best production of that particular play I'd ever seen. It would have to feel true to the original play while also being completely, radically fresh; send me out of the theatre elated, as if I'd discovered it for the first time, and needing to see the show again before it closed. It doesn't have to cover the entire stalls in a rainbow flag to try and melt even my frozen heart, but this show did that too anyway.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bridge Theatre

All right, that's it, thanks for staying with this to the end, now off you fuck. We've got 2020 to try and get through.

Photo credit: Johan Persson, Greg Macvean, Maurizio Martorana, Manuel Harlan, Marc Brenner, Brinkhoff-Moegenburg, The Other Richard, Jan Versweyveld, Mihaela Bodlovic, Tristram Kenton, Helen Murray, Daniel Wright, Idil Sukan, Eliza Wilmot, Jethro Compton Productions, Alastair Muir, Darren Bell, Nick Rutter, Matthew Murphy, Pete Le May, Helen Maybanks.


  1. Bravo! Thanks for keeping me informed and entertained about London theatre.