It is the season of lists, and this year Exeunt’s editors took their commitment towards Top Ten-ing very seriously. There are some things we can’t control, including that the list will inevitably be biased towards shows that it was actually possible to get tickets for (hence the ‘honourable mention’ below) and towards big name venues. It also reflects that the inequalities in the programming of these venues: please, guys, help us achieve a 50:50 playwright and director gender ratio in 2018.
But it’s still a memento of the shows that set our collective worlds alight in a pretty grim year. We asked Exeunt’s London theatre reviewing team to pick their three favourite shows that opened in London in 2017, ranked in order of preference (read our regional theatre highlights here). We received 22 completed ballots. We then assigned three points to their top choice, two points to their second, and one point to their third, and tallied up the results, which appear below – alongside words commissioned from the writers who chose them.
Honourable mention – Hamilton
Oh, Hamilton. I am not, by nature, a joiner. I am skeptical of hype. But sometimes you have to hold your hands up and say, “fuck me, this is the greatest musical of the next fifty years, probably”. It is brilliant and imperfect, its female characters are underserved by both history and the show, it is witty and dazzling, the way it puts the USA’s relationship with race and immigration under the spotlight is bold and heartening and doesn’t wholly translate to a British context, each and every performance is a knockout, it erases Native Americans from the narrative completely and refuses to think of the Founding Fathers as colonisers, it made me gasp and cheer and cry.
In the end, it’s just a fantastic show. The intricacy – both powerful and delicate – of the lyrics are catnip to the kind of obsessive nerd I am, tracing wordplay and refrains across two and half hours of restless, beautiful music. It feels like a show where everyone involved has pushed themselves to the limit of what they can achieve, in the service of telling a story they believe in – most of all Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose graft and craft is evident in every line. I’ve listened to the soundtrack every single day of the ten days since I saw it (major con: I’m now a white person trying to rap in the shower). I probably won’t see such a rich offering of ideas and energy in the same place again for a long time. Consider me Satisfied. (Rafaella Marcus)
10 – Life of Galileo
I watched Life of Galileo at the Young Vic a month after returning from a trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile. While we were there, my husband and I went out at midnight on a stargazing trip – the air is so dry and so clear in the darkness of the desert that it’s a prime spot for gazing up at the universe. Our guide was an astronomer with more than 20 years of field experience, and he was certain we’d get a good glimpse of Jupiter that night. Through the telescope I saw our solar system’s largest planet, a swirl of brown and white the size of my fingernail, and four pinpricks of light extending from it in a perfect line. These were the moons that Galileo himself saw through his telescope and named in 1610 – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – that convinced him of celestial bodies orbiting others, and that the earth was revolving around the sun, not the other way round. Director Joe Wright’s soaring, exuberant take on the Brecht classic strives to fit the galaxies into the Young Vic, reconfigured as a miniature planetarium, and captures a bit of what it’s like to gaze up at the glittering sprawl of the Milky Way and feel the largeness of it all and the smallness of your self. Brendan Cowell is a Galileo both child-like and old before his time, cavorting about the theatre-in-the-round with the joy of science’s epiphanies and sinking into the depths of despair over the intransigence of archaic, puritanical beliefs. It’s a stunning contemporary update on a play that was prescient enough to recognise the struggle between science and superstition and how this mutual suspicion continues to this very day – but chooses to recognise and celebrate acts of curiosity, of discovery, of hope. (Corrie Tan)
9 – Angels in America
I’ve always had a very personal connection to Angels in America: it was the play that was used to teach me how to dramaturgically evaluate a playtext. Seeing it onstage was a culmination of that journey, with an unique lesson in how to see the play better. It rocked me the way people claim theatre should. Like a neo-Gothic building, every material element contributed to this epic, complex whole: the sophistication of its phenomenal ensemble cast, the fluidity and complexity of its sometimes clunky neon-lit set design, the moments made to feel out of time, and the moments that made me realise the history we’ve inherited and are still living. The production was as messy and elegant as the text on its own, and the life and history it is embodying, which was to me the most appropriate way to wrestle with this masterpiece. (Amy Borsuk)
8 – Mosquitoes
Mosquitoes was a blast. A play of real intellectual daring, wrapped in a sensitive family drama and powered by gorgeous characters and performances. Olivia Coleman’s louche, boozy Jenny was one of the acting highlights of the year, barrelling into her sister’s life like a rogue sub-atomic particle. It felt like the beating heart at the centre of Rufus Norris’s remarkable, controversial year at the NT, a play about truth and fiction, about reader competency and fake news. Traversing huge disparities of scale, from the galactic, through the domestic, right down to a particle level, Mosquitoes felt like confirmation, as if that were needed, that Kirkwood is about the smartest thinker in town. (Stewart Pringle)
7 – In Event of Moone Disaster
Feasting on a Michelin level dinner, expected from London leading establishments, becomes something extra special when you were expecting chips. Chips are great, I fucking love chips but In The Event of a Moone Disaster was a white tablecloth, silverware, a dinner a la carte of a production in a pub theatre.
I loved how it built the dynasty of the Moone women as legend worthy. Whether prepping for a mission to Mars or boiling carrots, they were mighty explorers with big dreams. The sci-fi setting provided a perfect background as to how far we’ve come and nevertheless not so far at all. Interplanetary travel a piece of piss compared to women daring to ask for what they want in bed.
The Moone women looked to the stars but remained unseen in place of how they are imagined by the men in their lives. Sylvia 1969/2056 (Rosie Wyatt) and Julie (Alicya Eyo) are cast as wife, mother and cold-career women by men they love and respect yet who lack the ability to see the whole of the Moone. Creepy goth that I am, I spend a lot of time wandering around cemeteries and am always struck about the patriarchal limitations we place on women even in death: here lies wife of, mother of, daughter of… I keep coming back to The Event of a Moone Disaster on my walks and how it made me think about being in control of our stories and legacies; the burning tale of a comet, bright as it is brief and insubstantial. (Francesca Peschier)
6 – The Ferryman
Over the last few months, I have noticed a slow but steady backlash growing against Jez Butterworth’s play on Twitter, and it needs to stop now. Yes, it may rashly romanticise The Troubles, yes, it’s nakedly aiming at a kind-of twee Oirishness that’s a little bit uncomfortable, and yes, you can work out where it’s going from about thirty seconds in, but criticising it on that level is like criticising a rollercoaster for not having cup holders: who cares when the ride is this wild?
It is simply an astonishingly accomplished piece of theatrical writing. You try crafting a world that rich, that teeming with characters, that perfectly plotted, and that utterly gripping from start to finish, then come back to me and tell me The Ferryman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I saw it at the Royal Court, from pretty much the worst seat in the house, where I could only see about an eighth of the stage, and I was still compulsively gripped by Sam Mendes’ vital production. To me, it’s the best play of the year, bar none. It just is. Plus it has a goose. (Fergus Morgan)
5 – This Beautiful Future
Rita Kalnejais’s play is set inside a nest, a prickly, cosy metaphor for the claustrophobic relationship it circles round. Two awkward fledgling teenagers preen and bicker and delight each other with their own obnoxious cleverness. They’re falling in love in Nazi-occupied France, but they’re solipsistic enough that it could be anywhere – at first. Staged at The Yard, This Beautiful Future was endearing, strange, and startlingly, well, beautiful. A study in how world events can register as no more than a breeze in the hair of a love-sick teenager, until they blow everything apart. (Alice Saville)
4 – Barber Shop Chronicles
In a year of many divisions, I choose to hold sacred the tremendously unifying dynamism of Inua Ellams’s Barber Shop Chronicles. On the 7th June, I was lucky enough to book a theatrical flight from Lagos to London, Accra to Kampala, Johannesburg to Harare, visiting more salons in the space of one night than I have in the entirety of the last three years. Centred around the idea of the ‘strong black man’, Barber Shop Chronicles swaddles that thin stereotype with diverse global versions of black masculinities. It’s an electric production, that crackles with debate and imagination, and its cut-throat electricity bursts out of the circuit. That being said, at the centre of this punchy ensemble cast, coiffured by hits by Drake and the mechanical buzz of the razor, the easy familiarity of each barber shop – each so different, and yet so homely – generates the kind of gentle intimacy that the world needs more of right now. (Amelia Forsbrook)
3 – An Octoroon
This is slightly cheating as I actually first saw An Octoroon in 2015 at Soho Rep in New York, in a production directed by Sarah Benson. I’ve been thinking about the play on and off for the last two years: the play’s madcap metatheatricality; its unflinching confrontation of the racism entangled with American and British theatre history; the directness of its relationship with its audience. When I heard it was coming to the UK, I knew I had to see it again. In the intervening two years I’ve become a bit of a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins fangirl; I read all his published plays I could get my hands on in the UK (not many) and took my friends to see Gloria at the Hampstead (funny and formally interesting but not as hard-hitting as An Octoroon or Neighbors).
Ned Bennett’s production brought out many things I love about the play (and literally deconstructing the stage of the Orange Tree was a nice touch too). However, seeing the play again and reading some reactions to it (particularly Salome Wagaine’s excellent response for Exeunt), has complicated my feelings about An Octoroon, particularly its representation of black female characters and my consumption of the play as a white person in a predominantly white audience (the staging in the round and the demographic of the Orange Tree made me acutely aware of this). Nonetheless, I do think that walking a tightrope between entertainment and discomfort is key to the effect of the play and, although Bennett’s production sometimes misfired (as in the staging of the lynching scene), it provoked some serious thinking. I’m going to go and see it again at the National Theatre next year. (Hannah Greenstreet)
2 – An Anatomy of a Suicide
Depression is assumed to be an inherently depressing subject, despite the accepted truth that the condition is both the subject and cause of much ‘great art’. Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide, directed in its world premiere by Katie Mitchell, was one of the most acutely realistic and complex studies of female depression I’ve come across (and, you know, since around age 14 I’ve really gone some to deliberately seek stuff out on this topic), but it was anything but depressing. Which might sound surprising to those who only saw it as the narrative of three damaged women – two of whom end up dead – and the inherited grief passed from one generation to the next. But to understand it as a sad play would be to miss the point that this very truthful story was actually profoundly hopefully. Instead of showing how history simply repeats itself through trauma begetting trauma, the closing scenes of the play – where trees that have remained barren for years suddenly fruit and the house that is the location of tragedy is sold – suggest that inevitability isn’t always as fixed as we think it to be. (Rosemary Waugh)
1 – Hamlet
For me, a ghostly figure emerging on a grid of surveillance screens is the lasting (if not haunting) image from Icke’s Hamlet. It disrupts our faith in technology as a definitive tool for yielding answers. Endless reels of audio-visual footage do not always secure or reassure us; sometimes they mystify, churning up the unexplained, leaving us to ponder what, if anything, can be witnessed, and how might people witness us. That atmosphere of distrust and insecurity, even in ourselves, is so keenly apparent in Icke’s Hamlet and reflective of our modern day anxieties. Andrew Scott, such a remarkable Hamlet, speaks in a sort of lingering indecisiveness, a groaning weight of grief his only certainty. With that comes a nostalgia for more peaceful times and a looming sense of the future. But it’s that Icke bravely allows all of this to just sit and swell, each silence a gestation period. Everything becomes overbearing, framing devices strained and bloated, all alive with an exhaustive and inconsolable vitality of the tragedy. (Brendan MacDonald)