There have been so many brilliant performances this year that I simply couldn’t narrow them down enough – and it also didn’t seem fair to restrict things even further, so I’ve split what would usually be one post into two (favourite female performances to follow). Mind the Advent also promoted a few more performances, just to cover as many bases as possible!
Not quite making it onto the main list, and populating my male performances subs bench are: Jos Slovick (Stanley – Brief Encounter), Shubham Saraf (Ophelia – Hamlet), Jamie Muscato (JD – Heathers The Musical), Paul Ready (Macbeth – Macbeth), Will Young & Matt Cardle (Wally Strand – Strictly Ballroom), and Andrew Scott (Alex – Sea Wall).
In no particular order, my top ten are…
Christopher Eccleston – Macbeth, Macbeth (RSC @ Barbican Centre)
For me, the ultimate Macbeth. I’ve seen a considerable amount of the Scottish Play over the last 12 months, but nobody has quite projected how I see Macbeth like Christopher Eccleston did. Considering the play has probably been overproduced this year because of the political connotations, it’s bizarre that only Eccleston has really politicised the role; Macbeth may be a lord in name, but he’s a soldier first and foremost – so it absolutely makes sense to bring a working class touch to the role. The position of Prince of Cumberland (the heir to the Scottish throne) would not automatically pass down the hereditary route, so it makes Duncan’s choice to pass this title to his son Malcolm a betrayal of sorts – Macbeth’s hard work & service is overlooked in favour of a son who was born in the right class. He also contrasts well with a less warrior-like Macduff, which is a refreshing change to the usual portrayal of this clash. As well as being intelligently conceived, Eccleston’s performance is incredibly engaging, full of physicality and draws the audience in.
Marc Antolin – Seymour, Little Shop of Horrors (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)
A fitting way to cap off a busy couple of years, going from Twelfth Night to Flying Lovers, to Romantics Anonymous and back to Flying Lovers again, Marc Antolin got cast in his dream role of Seymour at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s final show of the season. Sometimes it seems as if hard-working, trained actors don’t ever get the break they deserve, but 2018 has redressed the balance ever so slightly. This production was wonderful, with the natural greenness contrasting spectacularly with Tom Scutt’s Skid Row and artificial greenness onstage, and Antolin is a perfect fit for this role. It was an absolute joy to see this brilliant musical again (I managed to sneak in a return visit too!), made all the more special with Antolin as the lead.
Stephen Mangan – Goldberg, The Birthday Party (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Probably best known for TV comedy roles, generally playing a nice guy, Stephen Mangan was an absolute revelation as the menacing Goldberg in Ian Rickson’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party earlier this year. When I eventually got to see it, I took advantage of the offer of front row day seats, and it was quite something to be that close to the action; there is an inherent darkness to Pinter’s work, and this one definitely jumped from funny to creepy very quickly. Mangan became a rather imposing figure, capturing Goldberg’s quick wit and dark purpose.
Jonathan Bailey – Jamie, Company (Gielgud Theatre)
I knew nothing about the original Company, but having now seen Marianne Elliott’s reimagined version I honestly can’t see how it would work any other way. As well as Bobby becoming Bobbie (played by Rosalie Craig), Amy has become Jamie – and Jonny Bailey comes very close to stealing the show with his rendition of Getting Married Today, as Jamie gets cold feet on the morning of his marriage to Paul. Enhanced once again by being in a front row day seat (slap bang in the middle of the row, no less), Jamie lets rip a breathless torrent of panic, tormented by increasingly ridiculous appearances by the priest – Jamie and the audience becoming more and more hysterical (though in different ways) with each passing second. Bailey’s comic timing and vocal prowess really come into play here, with great results.
Jos Vantyler – Don Armado, Love’s Labour’s Lost (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)
For reasons that I still can’t fathom, the critics seemed to take umbrage with the fact that Nick Bagnall’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (a comedy) that featured in the summer season at the Globe this year was actually funny. Heaven forbid! A reason why it went down so well with audiences was undoubtedly Jos Vantyler’s unforgettable performance as Don Armado, the lovestruck Spaniard – from climbing up a ladder to Jacquenetta, to accosting the audience with his love songs, this performance was larger than life and made me finally understand how this play was a comedy (the RSC’s version that transferred to the Haymarket a couple of years ago just came across as a tedious drama). I ended up seeing this show twice, and I’ll never forget Vantyler serenading a member of the audience with To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before, coming back to her later on during the show whenever he spotted her.
Matthew Needham – M, Cock (Minerva Theatre) + John Buchanan, Summer and Smoke (Duke of York’s Theatre)
Cheating slightly, but these two plays were so different so they clearly demanded very different performances – and of course Matthew Needham came up trumps in the pair of them. Whilst there’s an emotional undercurrent to both roles, as John’s boyfriend in Cock (referred to simply as M) Needham also had the opportunity to show off his comic chops – M begins happy to banter away with John, but it soon becomes clear this is a cover for his insecurity and desperation to keep John in his life. John Buchanan, however, is a different prospect: a reluctant doctor who’d prefer to live a life of hedonism, content to manipulate the people around him, until he finds some purpose in his life. Needham is a very expressive actor, and committed fully to the physicality and intensity of Tennessee Williams’ lesser known play. It continues to be a thrill to watch him perform.
Jamie Ballard – Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Palace Theatre)
Bizarrely, each principle Harry Potter in the Cursed Child so far has been called Jamie… I didn’t see the original cast, so never saw the Olivier Award-winning Parker, but earlier on this year I did see Glover – however, it was my unexpected second trip which stood out. I’d previously seen Ballard in the titular role of a slightly odd production of King John at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, where the monarch’s final moments were incredibly emotional; it was this range (as well as having the right sort of look) that convinced me he would suit the role of Harry Potter. It’s so nice to be proved right! It probably helped that this time I was sat in the second row of the stalls, so could see everything in great detail, but Ballard’s emotional portrayal of the grown-up wizard was very affecting and added a new dimension to the play.
Arinzé Kene – Blood Cell Virus/Arinzé, Misty (Bush Theatre + Trafalgar Studios)
Yes, I’m still feeling incredibly smug about this one. Not only did I get to see Misty, but I saw it multiple times – including at its original home of the Bush Theatre. It’s one of those shows where every element comes together to make it a slice of perfection, and Arinzé Kene bringing his own writing to life definitely added that extra something (though I would’ve loved to have seen his female understudy, Kibong Tanji, put her own stamp on it). Kene was so charismatic he could get away with anything – and there was something so natural about his performance that, even after seeing it several times, you were never quite sure if what was happening was supposed to happen. Add to that his soulful vocals and sense of fun, and you’ve got an all-round winning performance right there.
Johnny Flynn – Lee, True West (Vaudeville Theatre)
This was perhaps inevitable. Johnny Flynn is an extraordinary talent, and it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of role he plays – he will always stand out. Over the past few years I’ve seen him take on a real range of parts on both stage and screen, and it’s almost like watching a different person each time! The role of Lee gave him the chance to display his impeccable sense of comedy, as well as the ability to make a snap switch into a rather intimidating figure; Lee obviously holds a lot of rage inside him, but Flynn was careful not to let that overwhelm his performance, instead letting it burst out when his brother presses the right button.
Aidan Turner – Padraic, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Noël Coward Theatre)
For anyone who has become a fan of Aidan Turner since he took the lead role in Poldark, aspects of this performance may have come as something of a shock. However, for those of us who enjoyed his portrayals of Mitchell the vampire (in Being Human) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (in Desperate Romantics), it was no surprise at all. Turner is incredibly well suited to Martin McDonagh’s writing, in all its fast-paced, foul-mouthed glory – his comic timing was spot on, and he absolutely nailed one of the quotes of the year (“Put Wee Thomas on the phone” – Wee Thomas was the crazed Padraic’s beloved cat). Turner has great stage presence, so I hope this is the first of many new theatre roles he’ll get his teeth into now Poldark is almost at an end.