2018 has been a bumper year for London theatre, with a number of productions taking the capital by storm. Though unfortunately I didn’t get round to seeing everything I wanted to (I still regret not catching the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night and Misty at the Trafalgar Studios) and my experience of regional theatre was limited (something I aim to fix in 2019), here are the top 10 shows I saw this year in London.
10. Nine Night, National Theatre/Trafalgar Studios
Nine Night is the writing debut from Natasha Gordon and packed a punch, with hilarity and heartbreak all rolled into one. The play initially sold out during its run at the Dorfman Theatre but has thankfully been given a new lease of life at the Trafalgar Studios. Telling the story of a family coming together for the Jamaican tradition of an extended wake, Nine Night offered a relatable and raw insight into tradition, family and grief, with fantastic performances all round; notably Cecilia Noble, who provided endless comic relief as the outspoken Aunt Maggie.
9. Company, Gielgud Theatre
This gender-switched production, with the glorious Rosalie Craig taking the lead as 35-year-old singleton Bobbi was an absolute joy right from the very start, and featured a stand-out cast including former Bake Off legend Mel Giedroyc, Richard Fleeshman, Jonathan Bailey and musical genius and all-round queen Patti LuPone. Witty, clever and bang up-to-date, Marianne Elliot’s reimagining of one of Sondheim’s best-loved musicals boasted an iconic soundtrack that I may never stop listening to and a great ensemble performance, though it must be said that Patti LuPone stole every single scene she was in, while Jonathan Bailey won everything with his frantic and downright hilarious performance of Getting Married Today. Side note: Patti Lupone nursing a cocktail while passing judgement on the world is my new life goal.
8. Cockamamy, Hope Theatre
Written by and starring Louise Coulthard, Cockamamy at Islington’s Hope Theatre was based on her real-life experience of her grandmother’s diagnosis of dementia. The play offered a painfully realistic look at how dementia affects not only the person diagnosed but their family too, with young Rosie dealing with her grandmother Alice’s decline, and mixed humour in with heartbreak. As the play progressed, Alice slipped further into her own little world, culminating in a poignant and harrowing scene that will stay with me for a long, long time. Cockamamy offered a personal and relatable insight into dementia and was deserved of a bigger audience.
7. Dust, Soho Theatre/Trafalgar Studios
Written by and starring Milly Thomas, Dust was a timely play with a powerful message about the glamourising of depression and suicide in the media and arts. Prompted by Milly’s own dealings with depression, Dust told the story of Alice, a woman who had recently taken her own life, and the effect her suicide had on her friends and family. The show was originally performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 before transferring to London, and partnered with the Samaritans to raise awareness of the help available for those who are struggling. Utterly compelling, it was a brave, hard-hitting one-woman show with a masterclass in acting by Thomas – an unforgettable 70 minutes of devastation tinged with the odd moments of humour, and an important discussion on mental health.
6. Six, Arts Theatre
Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six was a history lesson with a difference, focusing on the six wives of Henry VIII. In this 75-minute pop concert musical each of the wives took to the mic and pleaded her case for being dealt the worst hand by the king through a range of catchy music styles, from soul to German electro pop, inspired by the likes of Little Mix, Rhianna and Beyonce. Boasting a talented cast, soulful harmonies, an all-female backing band, slick choreography and regal costumes fit for a queen, Six was clever, hilarious and empowering – if only all history lessons were as entertaining as this!
5. A Monster Calls, Old Vic
Earlier this year I met Patrick Ness, author of A Monster Calls, a moving tale about a young boy dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis, who receives midnight visits from a yew tree with a series of stories to tell. “Your book broke me,” I said to him, welling up at the memory of ugly crying on a crowded commuter train one morning. “The film did too.” He smiled knowingly. “In that case you’ll never survive the play,” he told me. He was right. The Old Vic production of one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read left me – and the rest of the audience – an inconsolable mess. With a minimalistic set and a series of ropes cleverly bringing to life the yew tree, Sally Cookson’s direction captured the tale of love and loss perfectly, resulting in a beautiful and devastating piece of theatre. I’d never known an audience to take a collective sob at the end of a performance before until I saw this play Theatre at its very best.
4. Fun Home, Young Vic
Based on American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home focused on three stages of Alison’s life: growing up in a funeral home (fun home, geddit?), dealing with her sexuality as an awkward teen, and looking back on her father’s own sexuality as well as his subsequent death. With a beautiful soundtrack including “Changing my Major” and “Ring of Keys”, Fun Home was amusing one second and tugging at the heart strings the next, with an ending that left me reaching for the tissues and wanting to hug the stranger next to me. The moving storyline and terrific cast (including the fabulous Jenna Russell – what more could you possibly want?!) combined to produce a unique and unforgettable piece of theatre.
3. Summer and Smoke, Almeida/Duke of York
After overdosing on the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2014 and being somewhat underwhelmed by The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York last year, I initially had reservations about Summer and Smoke, but nonetheless booked a ticket after reading the raving reviews. And then Patsy Ferran walked out on stage, completely blew me away and restored my faith in Tennessee Williams, all in the space of two hours and 40 minutes. The breathtaking performances, brilliant direction by Rebecca Frecknall, music and lighting all combined to produce a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of theatre. Summer and Smoke was a tale of the unrequited love nervy Mississippi teenager Alma (Ferran) has for bad-boy John (Matthew Needham) and the ticket price was worth it solely for the scorching chemistry between the co-stars; so hot I needed a shower by the time we reached the final bows. It may have been one of Williams’ lesser known works, but it’s now firmly one of my favourites and definitely a must-see.
2. The Jungle, Young Vic/Playhouse Theatre
The Young Vic had a bumper year in 2018 with Fun Home, The Inheritance and this, my other contender for the top spot, The Jungle. Now wowing audiences in America, the play highlighted the stories of refugees seeking shelter in the Calais Jungle, and was one of the most powerful and shattering plays I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t an easy watch, not by any means, but it was a story that needed to be told. Expertly directed by Stephen Daldry, The Jungle was brilliantly acted by the impressive cast, utterly compelling and unbelievably moving, with some lighter, interactive moments for good measure. It broke me in the best way possible – I cried so hard that a stranger stopped me in the street after and asked if I was okay. A stranger. Talking to me. In London. That’s the power of The Jungle.
1. The Inheritance, Young Vic/Noël Coward Theatre
Split into two parts totalling almost seven hours, The Inheritance was an epic tale of a group of post-Aids generation men living in New York City. With a nod to E.M Forster’s Howard’s End, it was a breathtakingly beautiful and clever piece of storytelling from start to finish, with stunning performances all round from the super-talented cast. As if that wasn’t enough, Part 2 featured Queen Vanessa Redgrave herself. The Inheritance was guaranteed to make you laugh one second and ugly cry the next, with the ending to Part 1 one of the most powerful moments in theatre I’ve ever had the joy to witness. It truly deserves all of the Oliviers it’s sure to win in 2019. The Inheritance is playing at the Noël Coward Theatre until 21st January, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve still got time to witness one of the most important plays of recent times. Go see it, go see it now.