As I ended up seeing more different shows than last year (and almost as many in total, thanks to some repeat visits), I decided enough was enough – it’s finally time to branch out from the weird top 12 idea. Beginning with a short list of around 40 (admittedly this doesn’t sound very short), I made some quick decisions and discarded the few that were great but couldn’t quite fit onto the final list. This unfortunately meant that shows such as Brief Encounter, Miss Littlewood, Me and My Girl, The Nature of Forgetting, and Tomorrow Creeps just missed out.
20. Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre
A show that I feel was unfairly maligned. Initially seen in this country up in Leeds over the winter of 2016/17 (where I managed to catch it), it hopped across the pond for a Canadian run – and then returned, revamped, to the UK this spring. I didn’t get to see it until it was a couple of months into its run, and got quite worried by the reviews that the wonderful show I’d seen at the then West Yorkshire Playhouse had been ruined; in fact, I think the change (going from original to jukebox musical, with one character leading most of the singing) managed to make it more about the dancing, as the leads (Jonny Labey & Zizi Strallen) could simply focus on that and their acting. So much camp, sparkly fun – I was gutted it had to close so soon.
19. Flesh and Bone, Soho Theatre
This play went from the Etcetera Theatre to Edinburgh Fringe, followed by Adelaide Fringe, and then Soho Theatre – where I saw it and was absolutely blown away by it. If Shakespeare had been a Cockney, perhaps this is what his plays would have sounded like! The themes of a downtrodden working class and gentrification were immediately relatable, and the whole thing was performed with breathless physicality. “Can a fella not be a geezer and be fabulous at the same time?” is a contender for my favourite line of the year.
18. Measure for Measure, Donmar Warehouse
Basically, I had to see this one as it was another Shakespeare I could tick off my list. Going into it I knew there was some sort of gender inversion, but it wasn’t exactly clear whether it was the whole thing, if the actors alternated the roles between performances, or something else. When I realised we’d effectively be seeing the play twice I was quite skeptical, but once I’d seen it through I just sat there in a state of shock. It was so clever and utterly horrifying. It began as a traditional setup in period costume, before resetting to the present day to find Angelo and Isabella in each other’s shoes. You’d think that Isabella might have a bit more luck in the second scenario, but while in a temporary position of power she’s constantly undermined and ultimately forced into what you suspect will be an abusive marriage. Jack Lowden and Hayley Attwell were exceptional in bringing these characters to life.
17. Tamburlaine, Swan Theatre
I made this more recent trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to tick Troilus and Cressida off my Shakespeare list, but thought I might as well make the most of being there – so booked for this to increase my Marlowe knowledge. For me, this was the better of my pair of shows. In terms of style, it was fairly simple but very striking – the red paint to represent blood and death was very powerful – and it managed to make what is a rather long production (Tamburlaine is technically two plays) compelling throughout. Jude Owusu was incredibly strong in the title role.
16. My Left/Right Foot – The Musical, Assembly Roxy (Central)
My favourite show from my first Edinburgh Festival Fringe simply had to make it onto this list. Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s aim is to increase accessibility for their audiences and companies alike, and this show in particular took this concept to a whole new level – I don’t think I’ve seen a show with quite so many helping hands, if you will. Two of the cast were there for this purpose (as well as acting), with one signing what was happening, and the other providing some rudimentary audio description at various points. There were also some really well-placed and considered captions. The fact that the show managed to balance accessibility and making pertinent points with being absolutely hilarious made it a very memorable event.
15. Before 30, Theatre N16
This one was rather close to home, theme-wise, and once again Tom Hartwell managed to articulate a lot of the things that were on my mind – all wrapped up in a funny and touching story that revolved around aspiring chef Chris, who initially finds himself working as a Deliveroo courier. What I love about Hartwell’s writing is that it is always very funny, but he never sacrifices the story just to get some cheap laughs; our generation can be misunderstood at times, but as long as we have writers like this to represent us we may get our voices heard.
14. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Noël Coward Theatre
I know it’s a bit mean, but I did enjoy imagining what the reactions of some members of the audience would be, who’d booked purely as Poldark fans who wanted to see Aidan Turner onstage – Inishmore is a far cry from Nampara, let’s say! A Martin McDonagh revival, it was first performed back in 2001; I was sure that I’d love it, after really enjoying Hangmen a couple of years back – plus I do have a soft spot for Irish stories and Irish humour, in particular. I only wish I could’ve seen it more! It was hysterically funny – I seem to remember a lot of crying with laughter, most of it uncontrollably. As well as a terrific leading performance from Turner, credit should also go to Chris Walley (star of The Young Offenders) on a phenomenal West End debut.
13. Love’s Labour’s Lost, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
I’m starting to get rather sick of how Shakespeare plays get reviewed. According to many critics they should be this, or shouldn’t be that… As far as I’m concerned, if the original play’s a comedy then it should try to retain some humour, and if it’s a tragedy then it shouldn’t overlook the sad & dramatic elements – whatever else a director chooses to do with it is up to them, and merely needs to have some consistency. Simple, right? Not only was this production of Love’s Labour’s Lost beautifully presented, in candlelight and with a fairytale feel, but it was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. That may not have been good enough for most of the people who reviewed it, but it was enough to make me book a second trip and see this play in a newly appreciative light.
12. Little Shop of Horrors, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
I’d only previously seen this show when it was the school production years and years ago – so when it was announced as part of the new season at the open air theatre I was very excited indeed. Whilst I had been quietly hoping that Gabriel Vick would get cast as Seymour, the news that the role had gone to Marc Antolin went down equally well (as you’ll see in my ‘favourite male performances‘ post)! It is a mad show, but it was another one that I just had to see a second time.
11. Fun Home, Young Vic
Occasionally I get really, really lucky in my ticket purchases. This was one of those times. I had a Saturday evening free in June, and by chance I decided to check the Young Vic website to see if there was any availability for Fun Home (as I hadn’t booked any tickets at that point) – to my great surprise, a single stalls seat was available for £25! It ended up being pretty much the perfect seat: row C, dead centre. (I also happened to be sat very near Alison Bechdel herself.) Having no clue what to expect, Fun Home absolutely blew me away and left me an emotional wreck by the end. The lack of a West End transfer is utterly baffling.
10. Sunshine on Leith, Belgrade Theatre
I enjoyed the film version of this show from a few years ago, but it rather took me by surprise just how much I loved this new stage production of the musical based on songs from The Proclaimers. Almost as soon as I stepped into the auditorium and saw the wonderful pub interior set I regretted not finding a way of seeing it earlier in the run or at a different venue – maddeningly, after Coventry the only dates left were in Scotland, which made it impossible for me to see it again. I still think it’s a show that’s needed in the West End, to widen the variety of musicals on offer and just to provide a bit of heart.
9. Teddy, The Vaults
I’m slightly at a loss as to why this show didn’t have a longer life. (Well, I can probably give you some reasons, but they’d all be in the depressing region of ‘no celebrity casting’.) In its short time in the capital, it did give me some fantastic memories though! First off, Raw PR put on another of their excellent blogger events early in the run – this involved a group of us being treated to a bit of a dance workshop courtesy of choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves (I still remember the moves to Dance Off The Blues), before seeing the show. I love that they released a cast recording of the brilliant original songs, so Johnny Valentine and the Broken Hearts are never too far away!
8. Company, Gielgud Theatre
My very last show of 2018 – it just goes to show that it ain’t over ’til it’s over! Though I haven’t seen Company in its original form (with a male Bobby rather than a female Bobbie), I really can’t see how it could have anywhere near as much meaning in that format; it’s so refreshing to see an additional representation of single, thirtysomething women. Not desperately searching for a husband, or some kind of caricatured spinster – just a woman who’d happily get married, but doesn’t see that as her life’s pursuit. In fact, her prime motivation to tie the knot might actually be to get her friends to shut up about why she’s still single! Outside of all that, I found it incredibly funny and rather aesthetically pleasing too.
7. Twelfth Night, Young Vic
My favourite Shakespeare play given a musical treatment, under the direction of the Young Vic’s new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah. What could be better? Well, some of the casting definitely proved to be the cherry on the cake: Gabrielle Brookes, Melissa Allan & Gerard Carey were brilliant as Viola, Feste & Malvolio, and I was obviously thrilled to see Silas Wyatt-Barke make this his Shakespeare hat-trick as a completely ridiculous Sir Andrew Aguecheek. This compact version of Twelfth Night was a spectacle of pure joy, and I feel lucky that I was able to see it multiple times.
6. Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre
It seems to be some sort of tradition for me to miss out on shows at the Almeida. One good thing is that their well-received shows have a good track record of getting West End transfers! As I’ve developed a fondness for the work of Tennessee Williams over the past couple of years, plus I always love to watch Patsy Ferran, Matthew Needham & Anjana Vasan, so I was extra disappointed about missing out earlier on this year – but luckily I got a reprieve, and booked my ticket for the Duke of York’s run as soon as they went on sale. It was an utterly breathtaking production; I was blinking away tears nearly the whole way through. Mesmerising.
5. The Jungle, Playhouse Theatre
Part experience, part theatre – this was an incredibly special event. The whole thing began as soon as you stepped into the remarkably reconfigured Playhouse auditorium; Miriam Buether’s design transformed it into the refugee camp itself, and if you were sat downstairs & went in early enough you may have been lucky enough to be given a cup of chai to drink while you waited! The whole thing was all rather overwhelming. Knowing that the cast were brought in from diverse backgrounds (including similar situations to those depicted in the play) gave it an extra sense of authenticity, and Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin’s direction was incredibly dynamic – there was a real immediacy about it that definitely heightened the emotional aspect. The show also became very special to me in a different way, as the posters quoted critics’ names as well as their publication – and luckily I was there on BroadwayWorld UK‘s behalf. It was great spotting my name at every possible location!
4. Sylvia, Old Vic
Of the relatively few Suffragette-based theatre events that went on this year, this was undoubtedly one of the highlights. Originally it was supposed to be a dance piece, but Kate Prince and Priya Parmar’s piece gradually evolved into a full-on musical – dubbed by many as the “British Hamilton”, with its hip hop & soul score (from Josh Cohen and DJ Walde). The show had more than its fair share of dramas, with the first preview being turned into an open dress rehearsal (during which their leading lady, Genesis Lynea, collapsed), Maria Omakinwa gamely taking on her role as understudy a lot sooner than anticipated, and further cast illness meaning more performances were cancelled. At least the Old Vic did a reasonable job in allowing customers to rebook and get refunds, openly reclassifying the run as a work-in-progress when it was clear it wouldn’t be able to progress as planned. Whilst it was a rather bloated show, it had great promise and there were some real highlights: Lady Jennie Churchill’s raps blew the audience away, and other numbers had them bawling their eyes out. I loved that they decided to focus on Sylvia, the socialist & pacifist, as her contribution to the fight for universal suffrage is often overlooked, as well as her other achievements out in the East End. I’m rather hoping for a concept album of the show as is, followed by a trim and a second run.
3. Misty, Bush Theatre/Trafalgar Studios
I loved this show from the moment I first laid eyes on it at the Bush, back in April, and was ecstatic when its West End transfer was announced. Despite that, I’ve found myself unable to write a huge amount about it (I pushed myself to put something together during Challenge Week); the groundbreaking and genre-bending nature of the show made it feel like a slightly overwhelming task. I felt that I’d be completely lost for words or end up rambling on & on – either way, I wouldn’t do the show justice. In my eyes, it was absolute perfection. Arinzé Kene is a singular talent, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Though a recording of Misty wouldn’t go amiss…
2. Wise Children, Old Vic + tour
I bet you’re surprised this one isn’t in the top spot! The truth is, Wise Children was a slightly slower burner than Emma Rice’s other productions; I think this was down to a combination of reading the book beforehand (only finishing it a matter of hours before I saw the show), it needing a bit more tightening up than others, and maybe sitting a bit further away than usual for my first show. As the run went on, and I got to see it from slightly closer quarters, it exponentially improved and attached itself to me – even after a few days you could see it coming together. Before long it was giving me the same feeling of happiness that I usually associate with Emma’s shows, and of course watching Katy Owen is always a joy! With the tour following on from its London run, it marked the third year in a row that I got to see an Emma Rice production on my birthday – this one, in its way, was the most memorable of the lot. I can’t wait to continue the tour!
1. Emilia, Shakespeare’s Globe
There could be no other show at number one this year. Despite its short run (to any newbies, this is the Globe’s usual practice for pieces of new writing) it made an incredible impact very quickly, and I ended up being lucky enough to see it three times: first preview, final show, and somewhere in between. As much as I had been enjoying the new summer season at the Globe, I was a tad dejected that it hadn’t elicited the kind of emotional responses that most of the productions during Emma Rice’s tenure had – but then Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia came along. This was the play I’d been looking forward to all season (since it was announced nearly a year prior to its run, in actual fact), and it was all I’d hoped for & more; the fact that I was crying my eyes out and felt incredibly pumped up during that first preview probably says it all. Returning to it following Edinburgh (and my subsequent burnout) gave me a much-needed boost, and the atmosphere during that final performance was something else – I’m actually quite glad that I was forced to sit rather than stand, as the yard looked like it was about to burst! I’m thrilled that it’s heading to the West End next year, though I hope it will make a return to the Globe for a longer run as well, as that is Shakespeare’s “gaff” after all.