My top ten theatre productions of 2019

Even this is a month too late. Hopeless. Anywhere here is my take on the best theatre of 2019.

There were a lot of really good productions in 2019. But these were the ones which pinned me to my seat. Where I was wowed by just what theatre can do. With the writer always at the beating heart.

More or less in order.

  1. Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse. Lynn Nottage’s document of de-industrialised America wore its research lightly and didn’t forget to be a gripping personal drama.
  2. All My Sons at the Old Vic. Jeremy Herrin and A list cast knew exactly how to ratchet up Miller’s didactic tragedy ….
  3. Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. ….. and Marianne Elliott got right inside Willy’s wretched head.
  4. Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads at the Spiegeltent Chichester. Immersed in Roy Williams’s vital examination of race and nationhood.
  5. Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Pants on Fire at the Vaults Festival. Just hilarious Greek myth sketch collection transposed on a shoestring to WWII Britain.
  6. The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Laura Wade’s brilliant riff on authorship drawn from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel.
  7. Shook at the Southwark Playhouse. Samuel Bailey’s oh so alive Papatango winning debut play. (See it at Trafalgar Studios from April).
  8. Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre. Anne Washburn’s extraordinary liberal guilt, state of the nation debate fantasia.
  9. Medea from International Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican. The world’s greatest theatre company update one of the world’s greatest ever stories.
  10. Small Island at the National Theatre. Andrea Levy’s mesmerising story gloriously brought to life on the Olivier stage.

Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado review *****

Stewart Lee: Snowflake/Tornado

Leicester Square Theatre, 10th December 2019

It’s Stewart Lee. He is so far above other comedians that it makes me wonder why they bother. Of course it is a 5* review. Even when he is meandering he is a genius. Here the show was delayed by a power failure. Just more for him to get his teeth into. This double header routine is already lighter than the shows of recent years. The old boy is mellowing. But it is still as sharp as it needs to be and he wants it to be.

Went with BD who, by virtue of age, education and upbringing will not lot anything offensive pass. This is the only fat, bearded, privileged, cantankerous, white, straight, fifty-something bloke that she has the time of day for. Apart from Dad of course. And that is touch and go. I took her to see Ben Elton a week or so later. Based on my memory and our shared love of Blackadder. He was awful. An embarrassment. Pretending to be aware but reverting to lazy, tired cliche. I didn’t need BD to tell me what was wrong. We walked as soon as we could.

SL, beyond the deconstruction, reconstruction, repetition, dissonance, surreality, clever-clever, childish, audience prodding, provocation, intimidation, irony, sarcasm, faux self-regard, self-deprecation, is an optimist, a moral crusader who cannot tolerate hypocrisy even in himself. In a world where everyone is seeking offence or victimhood, he is critical in all senses. Of course you already know that and will have already signed up to see the show. Of which there are many. As he says, without him us liberals have been “starved of the opportunity to participate in mass agreement”. If you haven’t why don’t you go and see what all the fuss is about.

Snowflake works because it defends the “politically correct” that the uncritical rail against largely through the confrontation they employ. The attack of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy conceit. The painful put-down of Ricky Gervais “saying the unsayable”. Tornado works through incongruity. The confused Netflix listing, the Alan Bennett expansion and the Dave Chapelle anecdote. And those on just the hooks on which so many other laughs are secured.

For he is very, very, very funny.

Three Sisters at the National Theatre review ***

Three Sisters

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th December 2019

Opportunity partially missed I am afraid. Inua Ellams has come up with a brilliant idea by transporting Chekhov to 1960s Nigeria, specifically during the Biafaran Civil War. Yet his urge to educate and contextualise leaves the dialogue heavy on exposition. And, in deference to the Russian master, his adaptation retains the key elements of AC’s plot, which then leads to a few incongruous shifts in the narrative.

It certainly looks the part with Katrina Lindsay’s mobile set, and especially extensive costumes, along with Peter Mumford’s lighting design, and especially Donato Wharton’s sound design, creating a real sense of time and place. The music, under the direction of Michael Henry, also contributes significantly. The cast is top drawer, with some particular favourites of mine showcasing their talents: Ronke Adekoleuejo (previously The Mountaintop, Cyprus Avenue), Tobi Bamtefa (The Last King of Scotland, Network), Ken Nwosu (An Octoroon, As You Like It, The Alchemist, and Sticks and Stones on the telly recently), Sule Rimi (American Clock, All My Sons, Glass/Kill/Bluebeard/Imp, Sweat, Measure for Measure, Love and Information, The Rolling Stone) and Natalie Simpson (Cymbeline, Hedda Tesman, Honour, The Cardinal). They, and their colleagues, definitely have their moments but in such a broad panorama, with many shifts in pace, action and tone, didn’t really get the opportunity to get under the skin of their characters.

Of course Chekhov’s original play can work in all manner of settings and, as long as translators/adaptors remain true to the tragi-comic timbre, the text can be whatever they want it to be. Inua Ellams’s sisters Onuzo, melancholic but politically aware Lolo (Sarah Niles), restless and resentful Nne Chukwu (Natalie Simpson), who was married at just 12, and initially playful, eventually broken, Udo (Rachael Ofori, who impressed), and brother Dimgba (Tobi Bamtefa), are a long way from where they were brought up, cosmopolitan Lagos, as Igbos returned to the east of the country as war breaks out. Their geographical and psychological separation, and the presence of the Biafran army, fits AC like a glove. Ronke Adekoluejo, as Dimgba’s Yoruba vulgar wife Abosede, adds a bullying edge of superiority to brash comedy, as she takes over the family home. I learnt a lot about modern Nigerian history, the baleful influence once again of the colonising Brits, the coup and counter-coup ahead of Biafra’s declaration of independence in 1967, the ethnic divisions, the war waged through bombing and blockades, the role of women in the war. And I have added Half of a Yellow Sun to my, admittedly thin, holiday reading list. But I didn’t really learn very much about the family, and the attarctions, at the heart of the drama.

Knowing the story made it pretty easy to fill in the gaps and to see how IE had weaved in the key symbols and events in the plot. The birthday party, the fire, here the result of an impressively staged airborne bomb strike, the clock, the photo, the duel. If one were new to Three Sisters I could imagine some of the interactions might have felt a little hazy amidst the spectacle but that didn’t seem to faze the enthusiastic audience at this preview performance. I see that, whilst there are tickets remaining through the rest of the run for the next three weeks (sorry, so far behind), it is been pretty successful and the crowd on our outing, was very enthusiastic, as well as, by NT standards, pretty diverse.

BTW all those dullards taking a pop at Rufus Norris’s tenure at the NT should recognise what he has done to extend the reach of the institution. I appreciate that there is still a way to go but here was a classic play, skilfully adapted by a British-Nigerian artist of immense talent, directed by one of the very best AD’s around right now, Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Can’t see that would have happened under previous NT regimes. Anything that reduces the proportion of entitled, old, white duffers like me in the NT audience is a good thing.

Though I have to say that, whilst Ms Fall showed her customary energy in the set-piece scenes, and mined the comedy in text and character, even she couldn’t find a way of marrying the big picture events outside the frame and the personal, domestic drama at the core of AC’s masterpiece. Still on the plus side there was none of the sense of ennui that can pervade some productions that are too literal (or, sorry to say, too Russian). I am with those who say that Inua Ellams could have made an even better play by running even further away from the original.