Features Published 23 December 2019

Exeunt’s Standout London Theatre Shows of 2019

The results are in: Exeunt’s writers voted for their favourite London shows of 2019. Here are the shows they can’t stop thinking about.

Exeunt Staff

In what’s become an annual Exeunt tradition, we asked our writers to vote for their favourite London shows of 2019 (a separate UK-wide list is out tomorrow). The emails that came back involved a lot of uncertainty; writers’ ballots were cast, rescinded, chewed over painfully, like a splintered strepsil. It’s been that kind of year. Sieving your brain for highlights is a weird exercise when the events of the past 12 months have disintegrated in December’s sour-tasting soup of political disappointments. But it’s also worthwhile, just about. The shows that follow aren’t the ‘best’ ones, because a) any kind of end-of-year list automatically prioritises the big shows, the ones with budgets, the ones that lots of people get to see and b) there’s no such thing as ‘best’. Instead, they’re the ones that stood like landmarks in our collective 2019s; the ones we talked about, the ones we couldn’t stop thinking about, the ones that we’ll take with us into 2020, whatever it holds.

When we have sufficiently tortured each other at National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

When we have sufficiently tortured each other at National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

15. When we have sufficiently tortured each other
The media circus that surrounded Martin Crimp’s bdsm play back in January feels faint and distant now, but oh my it was quite something. The combination of an A-list star (Cate Blanchett), a plastic phallus, and an uncompromising rewrite of Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Pamela was a heady one, and it made a lot of people completely lose their minds. First came a bloody struggle for tickets in the NT’s tiny Dorfman, fought between sharp-elbowed experimental theatre fans and starry-eyed Blanchett stans. Then a fizzle of negative reviews from bored and angry critics. Then, hysterical tabloid stories of disappointed punters selling their tickets for a song outside the NT. I came in late, and honestly loved it. It felt as quiet and considered, a chilly nucleus to the noise and heat the surrounded it. And it made me think longer and harder than any other show this year, about how women internalise patriarchal structures, about whether desire and objectification can co-exist, about whether you even need pleasure if you’ve got power. I wrote reams of notes on my phone that never saw the light of day. And I basically forgot Cate Blanchett-in-a-strap-on was even in it , which can only be a tribute to Crimp’s play. (Alice Saville)

‘Come From Away’ at Phoenix Theatre. Photo: Matthew Murphy

14. Come From Away
As I wrote in my review for this website, Come From Away doesn’t quite live up to everything it’s trying to be. But I have to eat my words a little: the soundtrack topped in my Spotify year in review. Even thought I was sceptical of its silver-linings narrative, the upbeat, folky music is irresistible. The cast were versatile and utterly winning, and in moments it stunningly captured the sublime and unspeakable strangeness of being caught at the fringes of a world-changing disaster. If the rest of the story rarely rose above ‘heartwarming,’ the promise of a warmer world is nothing to sneer at these days. (Hailey Bachrach)

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation by Tim Crouch. Photo: Eoin Carey.

Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation by Tim Crouch. Photo: Eoin Carey.

13. Total Immediate Collective Terrestrial Salvation
Tim Crouch’s play should have won the Exeunt award for most difficult to remember name, keeping reviewers and the twitterati on their toes (the author himself condensed the title to the snappier hashtag #TerrestrialSalvation). That difficulty is characteristic of the experience of watching it; what I loved most about Karl James and Andy Smith’s production was how it grabs you by the brain and makes you think. In exploring the parallels between a piece of theatre and a cult led by a charismatic leader, it suggests that imaginative world building exerts a form of control. It is a reminder that, although we might like to think of art as politically progressive, it can be underscored by the authoritarian. The concept of a performance that takes place between the stage and the pages of a book – beautifully illustrated by Rachana Jadhav – also pushes the possibilities of what counts as performance. In leaving space for imagination to lift the design off the page, the production emphasises the importance of the audience – both complicit in the playwright’s schemes and with some power to resist. (Hannah Greenstreet)

‘Bronx Gothic’ at Young Vic. Photo: Ian Douglas

12. Bronx Gothic
Let’s cut to the chase: Bronx Gothic isn’t one of the best things I have seen in 2019. It’s one of the best things I have seen, full stop. Written and performed by Okwui Okpokwasili, this complete work of art (which I mean in the gesamkunstwerksense) is so many things all at once. It’s a deceptively clever, raw and delicate piece of storytelling about black girlhood, female friendship, sex and power. It’s also a hypnotic, visceral dance performance that sends ripples of energy out through the room. And, finally, it’s one of the most intensely generous performances possible. It feels, above all, like Okpokwasili is giving so much of herself to the audience, offering her physical form up to channel all this pain and blood and sweat and love. Witnessing that made me feel like I was being given a gift I almost certainly didn’t deserve and couldn’t repay with anything I wrote about it. (Rosemary Waugh)

Dear Elizabeth at Gate Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray

11. Dear Elizabeth
Firstly, Ellen MacDougall’s move to cast a different pair of performers as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell each night was audaciously brilliant, so that just choosing when to go felt like being a kid in a sweetshop. Jade Anouka and Jonjo O’Neill?! Anjana Vasan and Tobias Menzies?! Chris Thorpe and Kayla Meikle?! In the end I saw it with Dickie Beau (dry, ironical, faintly amused) and Hattie Morahan (completely, sweetly, sincere): an odd couple meeting for the first time, discovering their lines and instructions hidden in brown envelopes like clues. Then watched them surprising themselves, learning to fit around each other, fucking up, apologising, laughing. The stage filling with unexpected props: picnic blanket, empty whiskey bottles, parcels, red and white petals. Sarah Ruhl’s play is based on forty years of funny, honest letters from a friendship that was as complicated and necessary and tender as love. And the production carefully uncovered the things unsaid in the letters – including both poets’ struggles with alcoholism and depression – in a way that somehow felt so warm and new (every night!) like a little baby that you want to protect forever. (Lily Levinson)

Grace Molony and Louise Ford in ‘The Watsons’. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

10. The Watsons
I went into Laura Wade’s new play expecting some metatheatrical games, but nothing could have prepared me for its endlessly self-aware display of dramatic fireworks. The Watsons is a cauldron which somehow brings together Austen, Pirandello, and even Enlightenment political theory, distilling these overt and covert influences into a potion that is simultaneously earthbound and sublime. Armoured with a superb cast, Samuel West’s zesty production at the Menier Chocolate Factory allowed the characters of an unfinished Austen novel to come alive, plunge into existential despair, and then crawl out of it. I watched this spirited, confident meditation on art with a stupid grin on my face and a cascade of questions in my mind. (Mert Dilek)

Out of Order at Southbank Centre. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Out of Order at Southbank Centre. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

9. Out of Order
At a time when our public discourse is increasingly dominated by outrageous buffoons, this wordless, tragicomic clown-fight felt almost unbearably pertinent. It’s the first time that classification-resistant performance-makers Forced Entertainment presented a show with no spoken text, but it’s one of their most eloquent, with carefully curated moments emerging from a chaotic scramble of densely layered, vaguely ominous skits. Balloons are competitively inflated. Scuffles break out. Clowns trudge in an endless circle, laden with their belongings like refugees fleeing a warzone. Impressively, the performance managed to be pretty unrelentingly funny from start to finish, but leaves you ultimately unsettled, energised, anxious, and struggling to pin down the right words. Out of Order – unacceptable – disjointed – breaking down – (Dave Fargnoli)

‘Teenage Dick’ at Donmar Warehouse.

8. Teenage Dick
I was a teenage dick. I mean, in many ways but including in the sense of developing a big bend in my spine at some point during early adolescence. And because of that I’ve long harboured this devoted but idiotic ambition to write or direct a version of Richard III that, you know, somehow addressed how the play both helped to create and sustain, through endless directorial and performance choices, the basic equation of hunchback = evil. Or, worse: physical disability = evil. Or, even worse: evil soul causes physical disability, ergo the more evil the character gets, the more pronounced the physical disability. Anyway, if I had ever got around to tackling RIII there’s no way in hell it would have been even a fraction as good as Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick. Lew’s high school play is less about Shakespeare’s text or the historical king, and more about the legacy of that play and disability on (and off) stage in general. It’s also hilarious, massively fun, contains an actual Clueless reference (!!!) and, in Daniel Monks, has a charismatic, brilliant lead performer with great comic timing. Lew basically created my dream play (Richard III x Alicia Silverstone) and, for that, I can’t thank him enough. (Rosemary Waugh)

Danielle Vitalis and Tia Bannon in ‘seven methods of killing kylie jenner’ at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Helen Murra

7. seven methods of killing kylie jenner
I almost didn’t see seven methods of killing kylie jenner. When Royal Court announced it in this year’s summer season, I looked at the title and blurb and thought ‘great – another overmoneyed and undersensed white feminist millennial lamenting the ‘woke culture’ that demands they acknowledge their privilege; ain’t nobody got time for that’. Also, I really don’t care about the Kardashian family. Obviously, I knew nothing of Jasmine Lee-Jones. I wonder if I’d be forgiven for thinking that not many did? She seemed to burst onto the scene out of nowhere, like Big Brother 2018 contestant Da’Vonne Rogers bursts through the door in that now legendary gif. I see a lot of theatre and while I am still fundamentally excited by the medium, seeing close to 100 shows a year is enough to make anybody yearn for somebody to come along and fuck with the form a bit, to shake up the status quo. I wanna hear stories I ain’t heard before; show me the people that are willfully hidden; give me unconventional syntax and linguistic dexterity. Teach me something I don’t already know. I loved seven methods of killing kylie jenner because it did all this. I love the way it is so sure about what it sets out to do, about who it sets out to reach. I loved the way it affirmed this at every given opportunity. I loved the way it was written – literally – there are memes and gifs in the playtext. Not alongside the words, but instead of them. That acknowledgement that sometimes, words are ineffective mode of communication; sometimes there are different ways, better ways. The acknowledgement that in order to be understood, you need to speak in the language of your intended audience, not speak in the way you’ve been taught to speak because you’ve always done it that way. Decolonisation by stealth. I love the way centres and celebrates Black women – acknowledging their talent, their intelligence, their beauty, their complexity. I love the way it’s unapologetic about this – not addressed to white people, though it does not put them down in any way; it simply ignores them. (J N Benjamin)

The Arrival at Bush Theatre. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

The Arrival at Bush Theatre. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

6. The Arrival
It matters when you have no choice but to love something this painful. The two brothers of The Arrival and their awkward – above all, awkward! – relationship are so real it almost feels like we shouldn’t be seeing any of this, that it’s private. Does the title refer to Tom’s arrival into Samad’s life? Tom’s perhaps too-soon arrival as a baby to their parents, just as soon followed by his departure from their lives? Bijan Sheibani’s writing debut, directed by himself, shows us his instinctive ear for the slow, then suddenly stumblingly fast stickiness of naturalistic dialogue, paired with the empathic way he’s come to work with the choreography of his longtime collaborator Aline David. Watching The Arrival felt like someone taking your hand and going “Let me show you something which just works.” (Frey Kwa Hawking)

‘A Very Expensive Poison’ at Old Vic Theatre

5. A Very Expensive Poison
I saw Lucy Prebble’s play from a very inexpensive and hence terrible seat; but even with two thirds of the stage obscured, it was better than most whole plays I saw in 2019. It took the story of the real, recent tragedy of Litvinenko’s poisoning and retold it with a knowing metatheatrical playfulness (giant gold cardboard cocks, Spitting Image-style masks) that never felt glib, because it was also made with obvious care for, and input from, the family whose story it told. And its crowd-pleasing theatricality slowly involved into a satire of Putin’s leadership, and the cult of personality he crafts, Hollywood producer-like around himself. When Prebble finally tore down the curtain, it was devastating. (Alice Saville)

Zoe West, Lucy Briggs-Owen and Tilda Wickham in Out of Water at Orange Tree Theatre, London. Photo: The Other Richard

4. Out of Water
This was one of those shows that I didn’t see coming. I saw it with Ava who was reviewing, and we’d both had bad days, and growled to each other that we weren’t really in the mood for theatre. But it was great. A story about gender, place and class, with a multi-roling cast that intersect at different angles revealing different tensions in a way that was amazingly astute and sensitive. People loving each other! Queer people getting happy endings! Teachers working really hard! I miss the North East! Zoe Cooper is such an intelligent writer but the real unabashed warmth running through the whole play has meant that it’s the only show I’ve returned to as a punter this year. (Emily Davis)

 

Naana Agyei-Ampadu in Fairview at the Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

3. Fairview
The critical response to the European debut of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winner Fairview at the Young Vic was frustratingly hampered in two ways: reviewers were asked not to spoil anything much past the first half of this quite slim play, and all initial reviewers with large platforms were white. It draws unblinking attention to our identities in the conversations we have between each other about it, too: you can’t talk about Fairview without talking about who you are, about the people around you when you saw it. In Nadia Latif’s production, Fairview‘s deceptively simple and direct methods and forms are brought out with the fiercest elegance. Yes, it concerns itself with an American family and (mainly) American attitudes towards race, but you’d be taking the piss (and some really did) to suggest that Fairview doesn’t speak to racial beliefs, festishisations and injustices ever present in this country as well. Its final coup de grâce will always be uncomfortable, problematic in the truest sense of the word, and unmissable. There could be no other home for it in London right now than the Young Vic. (Frey Kwa Hawking)

[BLANK] at Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Maybanks.

[BLANK] at Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Maybanks.


2. [Blank]

Blank is a masterclass in how form and content exist in conversation. Alice Birch’s flinty, fragmented text in its entirety is a 500 page doorstop, a choose-your-own-adventure experiment for directors, and one of the most corrosive experiences I’ve had at the theatre this year. It’s a series of interconnected (or not, depending on your interpretation) scenes exploring the British carceral system and its effect on women – mothers and daughters, in particular. It’s devastating – each scene glass-like, perfectly formed and brimming with humanity, but leaving you aching for more. It’s an inherently impossible proposition from Birch – one can attempt to structure a coherent, satisfying narrative out of these shard-like scenes but it will never truly coalesce. The system is weighted against the participants from the beginning – that’s Birch’s trump card. That, and the astonishing, breathtakingly orchestral dinner party scene which blows every other naturalistic play this year out of the water. It is an utterly bleak and desperately beautiful show – one which feels utterly suited to 2019. (Ava Wong Davies)

‘The Antipodes’ at National Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan


1. The Antipodes

The Antipodes saw Annie Baker, known for her painstakingly naturalistic dramas, take the weirdness and slipperiness of her previous play, John, and run. Set in a writer’s room for an unspecified (but seemingly high-profile) project, it mostly consisted of its nine characters telling stories: personal anecdotes, tall tales, ancient myths. What was extraordinary was how this situation was able to speak to an astonishing breadth of themes both everyday and celestial, from gender and power in the workplace, to climate emergency, to the spiralling, ineffable nature of time itself. Chloe Lamford (who co-directed alongside Baker) designed a sleek, carpeted, high-ceilinged boardroom, whose huge lighting fixture, ever-present air-con hum and massive stack of boxes of sparkling water felt not quite of this world. The impeccable ensemble cast’s performances were precisely tuned to micro-degrees of realism and supernatural strangeness. But above all, The Antipodes showed a writer at the height of her craft, able to draw impossible pathos from a story about picking up chickens, summon haunting visions, seemingly bend time to her will. It was a waking dream which sublimated the horrors of a world in turmoil, arguing, in its subtle, beguiling way, for a desperate need for new stories, whilst itself going some way to fulfilling that very need. (Ben Kulvichit)

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine