Features Published 18 December 2018

Exeunt’s Favourite London Shows of 2018

Exeunt’s London writers choose the shows that they loved, fought for, and couldn’t stop talking about in 2018.

Exeunt Staff

It’s the season of mulled wine and rheumy-eyed reflections on the fading year, so we’ve asked Exeunt’s London writers to pick their personal theatre highlights from 2018 (there’s also be a still-bigger UK-wide list following later this week). Each writer ranked their top five shows, and the results were compiled, using a highly scientific spreadsheet-based process, to create the following top 15. And each entry is accompanied by reflections from one of the writers who nominated it, because art is as subjective as lists are fun.

Pericles at the National Theatre. Photo: James Bellorini

Pericles at the National Theatre. Photo: James Bellorini

Honorable Mentions
A lot of shows lose out in this kind of list: shows that it’s hard to get tickets for, shows with short runs, shows in small venues, shows that open in late December. So please let it be known that even if they didn’t show up in the final results, respondents to Exeunt’s poll also jumped up and down and got highly excited about: Sweat (Donmar Warehouse), Dealing With Clair (Orange Tree Theatre), Notes from the Field (Royal Court), Pericles (NT), The Convert (Young Vic) and Taylor Mac (Barbican).

Buggy Baby at The Yard. Photo: The Other Richard

Buggy Baby at The Yard. Photo: The Other Richard

15. Buggy Baby (The Yard)
“There have been a few plays this year where, on exiting the theatre, I have sent furious texts to inform my nearest and dearest to get their asses to the box office as this is something NEW. I did it with Emilia and An Adventure and even made my parents leave a dinner party early to get to the dress of Pericles (‘but darling, there’s cheese’…’BUT THIS IS A REVOLUTIONARY USE OF THE OLIVIER’S STAGE’). On leaving Buggy Baby I did the same, but included a disclaimer that this show frightened the bee-jesus out of me. Jasmine Jones was terrifyingly good as baby Aya, existing in a shifting uncertain reality splattered with shots of neon, Max John’s sinister balloons, floating wardrobes and murderous bunnies. Director Ned Bennett’s work, from Pomona to An Octoroon, masterfully unsettles and disturbs the theatre-going experience. You want to know what an active spectator is without reading Guy Debord? Contradictory to the opinion of far too many ‘immersive’ experiences, it is not ‘walking around a bit’ – but you will find it in (scary) droves at a Bennett show.” (Francesca Peschier)

An Adventure at Bush Theatre

An Adventure at Bush Theatre

14. An Adventure (Bush Theatre)
“When people complain that no one has the ambition to fill the Olivier anymore, or lament the loss of all our writing talent to television, where they forget how to write for the stage, I assume they didn’t see Vinay Patel’s An Adventure. This epic love story, based on his own grandparents’ lives, was a celebration of big, lovely, specifically theatrical storytelling. Anchored by Anjana Vasan and Subham Saraf’s gorgeous performances, it had me rapt for its entire long, sprawling duration, which in itself felt like a glorious rebuke to the economies that are supposed to characterize plays put on in black boxes, by smaller venues, by young writers. Someone bring it back at once, please.” (Hailey Bachrach)

‘Three Sisters’ by Rashdash at Yard Theatre. Photo: Richard Davenport

13. RashDash’s Three Sisters (The Yard)
“I’m not normally a fan of gig theatre, but the final song of RashDash’s Three Sisters had me wanting to leap up from my seat in the Yard and join their feminist girlband onstage. RashDash’s take on Three Sisters, which was not so much an adaptation but a deconstruction of what Chekhov represents in the white, male British theatrical canon, hit upon the perfect combination of being intellectually engaging and really really fun. There was so much to love: the costumes (period dress meets bear suits); Rosie Elnile’s collage design, a riot of light and colour; the music – particularly Chloe Rianna Burke and Yoon-ji Kim’s drum and violin solos; and Abbi Greenland’s reviews rap. RashDash had better be releasing the album soon.” (Hannah Greenstreet)

Girls & Boys at the Royal Court. Photo: Mark Brenner.

Girls & Boys at the Royal Court. Photo: Mark Brenner.

12. Girls & Boys (Royal Court)
“I’m not always sold on Carey Mulligan’s screen performances, but she knocked it out of the park in this 90-minute monologue by Dennis Kelly that starts out meandering rom-com, and ends up human horror story, with a vital perspective on the nature of male violence. Mulligan’s quality never dipped as she navigated the play’s slightly jarring jumps from jocular anecdotes about her character’s early relationship with her husband, to the disconcerting scenes in which she engages in one-sided dialogue with her invisible children, to the devastating final act, told with the straightforwardness the subject matter demands.” (Simon Gwynn)

‘Nine Night’ at National Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

11. Nine Night (National Theatre)
“More decades ago than I care to admit, the National Theatre was the first place I ever saw a theatre show. But the first time I ever felt like I truly belonged in that space was when I sat down to watch Nine Night. And that’s not least because Rahja Shakiry’s impeccable design looked and smelled almost exactly like the house in which I grew up – where a sofa in the kitchen was completely normal. Nine Night is about the Jamaican traditions of mourning but it represented much more than that. I am not Jamaican; I am Black British-Nigerian, and it is the Black Britishness of this play in all of its messy contradictions and beautiful synergies that make it so gorgeously captivating.” (J N Benjamin)

Tom Mothersdale and Anneika Rose in ‘John’ at the National Theatre

10. John (National Theatre)
“John was my first show of 2018 and one of the best examples of a show I couldn’t decide whether I loved or hated, both whilst watching and long afterwards. I remember sitting up until 2am after watching it, images of American Girl dolls rattling around my head. It’s a slippery play, both firmly rooted in place and obsessed with the spaces inbetween. Baker lets you sit and stew in the silence between a warring couple, nudges you into scanning every inch of the stage, watching for ghosts. 11 months later and moments from it still hang in my head like dead air. It’s a masterpiece.” (Ava Wong Davies)

Beginners at the Unicorn Theatre. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Beginners at the Unicorn Theatre. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

9. Beginners (Unicorn Theatre)
“Oh Beginners. You fill my heart. Tim Crouch’s latest creation for the Unicorn Theatre bubbled and glistened. One of my best friends, Emily, makes little squeaks and squeals when she likes something and that’s what I associate Beginners with. There is a genuine joy and kindness in the roots of the piece – a love for theatre and storytelling and the sheer magic of imagination. As I begin to take my baby steps into the world of adulthood I find myself clinging onto shows like this. They remind me what it is to love and create in its purest form. It still bears Crouch’s trademarks of course; loss and pain, but humour found in the cracks, and language always in play, always the thing which must be unlocked and understood anew. Beginners decided to revel in the unending newness and uncertainty of childhood in a year which has felt impenetrably unstable. I couldn’t think of a better way to make a political show than to make it for and about children.” (Eve Allin)

‘ear for eye’ at Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton

8. ear for eye (Royal Court)
“I haven’t been able to get debbie tucker green’s ear for eye out of my head since I saw it; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I still don’t claim to understand it fully. The seeping, accumulating violence of tucker green’s scenes that have a terrible, sparse beauty. I am appalled at how easy it is to fill in the gaps of the scenes referencing racist violence in Britain and America – a black mother telling her black son where to put his hands, repeated several times, gestures to all the black men and women who have been victims of police brutality. The second part is a video installation of white people, reading in unemotive, almost sing-song voices, the penal codes of Jamaica, and US states. It feels like the video goes on for a long time. A challenge to the white members of the audience – how dare you be bored? Can you only be bored if you have not faced this oppression, or does the repetition in ear for eye also capture how wearing it is to experience micro- and macro-aggressions, day in day out? How dare I be bored.” (Hannah Greenstreet)

The Writer at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Writer at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan

7. The Writer (Almeida)
“I don’t remember ever talking about a show as much as I talked about The Writer. It was almost compulsive. And as tickets became ever scarcer, I started to feel like that worst-of-people – the theatrey insider. I was gossipily fascinated by a play that cracks open the hidden, not-entirely-healthy-seeming power dynamics of the Almeida, while being written with the understanding that even its theatrical illusion of transparency is, in itself, a cloudy, troubled and marketable thing. Still, I wanted to know everything: exactly how each moment translated from playtext to stage, what the ending ‘meant’, whether my disgruntled reading of the gender politics of the (notorious, purple-dildo-involving) final scene was ‘right’. Bits frustrated me, especially the way it instrumentalised lesbian relationships to make its point about male/female power dynamics. But it also thrilled me. Like Emilia, it was made with a powerful awareness of the politics of the space it played in that’s so rare, so vital in new writing. And its endless, sharp-edged layers and sudden shifts tore away at my ideas of what theatre could do, even as they shattered under my attempts to understand them. If it got a West End transfer right now I’d buy whatever the theatre equivalent of a season ticket is, because I want to be back in that room, working it out.” (Alice Saville)

Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in ‘Summer and Smoke’. Photo: Marc Brenner

6. Summer & Smoke (Almeida)
“The text is blunt, thin on the kind of contemporaneous relevance theatremakers seem to love, but, in Rebecca Frecknall’s hands, Tennesse Williams’ minor work becomes a masterpiece. Why? I suspect because this is a production wants to be a piece of theatre. And it’s made by people who know, and love, what that means. Summer & Smoke is theatrical. The lights! The music! The movement! A pretty set! People doing all the acting – not least Patsy Ferran, in her astonishing central performance. Every element is executed to perfection, working in unison to transform a simple-ish will-they-won’t-they-love story into the kind of sit-forward-in-your-seat-holding-your-breath event that so many show don’t even think about trying to deliver. It’s not trying to be cool, but it just effortlessly is. This is why I go to the theatre.” (Sally Hales)

The Wild Duck at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

The Wild Duck at the Almeida. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

5. The Wild Duck (Almeida)
“I loved The Wild Duck so much that after reviewing it I went back to see it again. And when [SPOILER] Bunny Christie’s set design did its magic trick to reveal the Ekdahls’ Forest – a moment I’d assigned something close to mythical status to – I burst into tears so dramatically the stranger siting to my right was startled into sitting bolt upright and looking desperately around, obviously thinking ‘Should I… should I… do something??’

The Wild Duck gracefully combined a meta-commentary on Ibsen, storytelling and theatre with a sleek, sophisticated retelling of the story, and did so in a way that meant all the ‘clever’ extra stuff didn’t distract from the brittle sorrow of the original – if anything, it intensified it. Like all of Icke’s creations, part of the joy of watching The Wild Duck comes from detecting how every element of the production is painstakingly considered, making the final piece like a endlessly complex, many roomed ice palace to wander into and never come out of again.” (Rosemary Waugh)

‘Fun Home’ at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

4. Fun Home (Young Vic)
“My partner was silent on the walk back to the tube station from the Young Vic, which was a very good sign. It meant he was really thinking. Reeling, perhaps. Fun Home did that. I’d read the graphic novel, and I had been waiting for this show for years. I was so excited to share it with my partner, to hear his thoughts. And when they came pouring out, at around Chancery Lane on the central line, we didn’t stop. ‘The lighting – those two yellow spots for oncoming truck lights…’ ‘Yes! and that gorgeous silhouette of young Alison when she catches her dad sneaking out!’ ‘The awkwardness and pain that you could feel in ‘Telephone Wire’, that feeling of wanting to say something to your parents when you know you’re not really the same, you’re not ever going to connect.’ ‘Changing My Major to Joan was as fun and delightful as I had hoped it would be,’ I admitted, ‘that was totally me in college. Totally. The bi version.’ We both laugh. And then we talk about dads. Mental health. About the genius of the union of form and content, especially the music. We talked about parents – husband and wife – that drift apart, age, wither and struggle in their boxed in roles. Fun Home brought out things that we had both buried deep without realising. It encouraged us to review our own lives like Alison. Fun Home is about composition, balance, craft, personally and artistically. It felt like a gift that had been given to me – to us – and it’s something I hold close lest it flies away.” (Amy Borsuk)

Emilia at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Helen Murray

Emilia at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo: Helen Murray

3. Emilia (Shakespeare’s Globe)
“The reasons I loved Emilia have to do as much with my theatre-going experience as with the show itself. I was bowled over by the very different representational politics produced by the diverse, all-female cast on stage (and on THAT stage in particular). Women of all ages tell a story about poet and musician Emilia Bassano, cheekily but never coyly using ‘Shakespeare the Man and the Myth’ as a text which can be ripped up and reordered. Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s text argues eloquently that sexist history can be rewritten at a point when new stories are needed the most.

I went to see Emilia with a good friend. We are both writers and teachers and, for us in particular, Emilia’s story is an alluring one – that education will empower and help women prevail. But despite the relevance to our lives it so happened that my friend almost fainted halfway through the show. She had had an exhausting day beforehand and during the interval we found ourselves in a little room off to the side of the Globe’s pit where she had been told to rest for a little while. We shared chocolate croissants and tried to gather some strength for the second half. It was, to my mind, a perfect illustration of how exhausting life can be, how our need to be feminists is often at odds with the daily demands we face. I know that there has been some concern about feminist theatre that plays exclusively for women – but Emilia is not that. It’s fuel for those who think they can’t go on. Sometimes I just want to be able to stand in a room – or in the open air – surrounded by other women and those who care about them and sob. Sob because what has happened to so many women in the past was truly awful and unfair. Sob because what many women are experiencing today still is abhorrent and terrible. And I wanna keep sobbing until I’ve gathered strength and can raise my fist in solidarity again – that’s what Emilia does. And I can’t wait for it to come back.” (Annegret Marten)

‘Dance Nation’ at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner

2. Dance Nation (Almeida)
“I’m thankful to Clare Barron’s Dance Nation as it led to some of the more deep-reaching discussion I’ve seen all year (seriously, click that link). I’m thankful too because despite its imperfections, it still transfixed me: a shifting, weird, funny, slippery uncomfortable thing following a dance troupe grappling with an upcoming competition. The split on Dance Nation was partly due to its place in the context of the Almeida – a beautiful space, but a pretty stuffy one – and how a hundred minutes of the frantic and furious wobbling of teenage girls isn’t quite enough. And it isn’t. And yet it’s still something I’m thinking about, and it’s Dance Nation‘s quieter moments which stay with me: a defiant, then trembling monologue from one girl about her feelings towards her body and her power, and a silence-filled scene with the troupe’s only boy simply driving home with his mum on a rainy night. It was hard to even look away from the actors’ faces.

I saw Dance Nation on its second-last night, and fifteen minutes in I was cursing myself for not going sooner so I could have spread the word and seen it again. I cried. I staggered out and interrupted some strangers’ conversation to rave about what we’d just seen, told Kayla Meikle much too intensely that she was incredible, and bought a poster. It remains the first and only time I’ve done those things.” (Frey Kwa Hawking)

‘Misty’. Photo: Tristram Kenton

1. Misty (Bush Theatre/Trafalgar Studios)
“Misty by Arinzé Kene was an event. As the second black British play to be staged on the West End, it attracted a wonderfully diverse audience, but it never let itself rest on the laurels of representation. Interrogating the notion of a “black play”, Kene’s ambitious part-spoken word, part-gig theatre, metatheatrical performance managed to be poetic and affecting, yet hyper self-aware and conflicted, tackling everything from violence to the violence of gentrification, and the politics of art-making. It was a bold piece of theatre – you felt that risk from Kene and from Bush Theatre and its then-artistic director Madani Younis – that deserved its critical and mainstream success. Its incendiary ending pulled the rug from beneath our feet, simultaneously firing up the downtrodden whilst firing shots at the privileged, and somehow turning body percussion into a singularly revolutionary act.” (Nabilah Said)

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine