Features Published 23 December 2018

Exeunt’s Most Memorable UK-wide Theatre 2018

From a strange seaside experience to meta Jane Austen, Exeunt’s writers pick their stand-out shows outside of London.

Exeunt Staff
Petra Letang in random at Chichester Festival Theatre. Image: Manuel Harlan

Petra Letang in random/generations at Chichester Festival Theatre. Image: Manuel Harlan

In the heady fervour of December’s end-of-year round-ups, a Martian visitor might be forgiven for thinking that theatre exists only in London. But as our writers demonstrate below, 2018 has given us brilliant theatre all over the country, and though far from exhaustive, this list paints a picture of UK theatre in all its lovely variegated colours. From The Last Ship, the Sting musical which embarked on a national tour, to the hyperlocal Torch in St Helens which took in audiences of four at a time, there’s room for creatures both great and small here. These were our writers’ favourites from 2018:

random/generations at Chichester Festival Theatre
Tinuke Craig’s debbie tucker green double bill crackled with intelligence and force. Both plays were subsumed in grief and trauma, whether it be generational, immediate, or systemic. Craig’s deftness allowed the plays to breathe, and the actors to grapple with the stickiness of tucker green’s writing while also revelling in the poetry. The bright blue design sticks with me still, holding the actors in a deep chasm, a wide timeless void. (Eve Allin)

Wonderland and Shebeen at Nottingham Playhouse
Nottingham Playhouse developed a powerful political punch in 2019, with two plays on the region’s role in national events. The regional premiere of Beth Steel’s Wonderland was visually stunning and evoked the unyielding bonds that tie workers together; Mufaro Makubika’s Shebeen chronicled the racial abuse and simmering tensions that led to the St Ann’s riots of the 1950s that preceded the Notting Hill riots by a week. Both plays drew in new, vocal communities united by anger, solidarity and hope. (Pete Kirwan)

The Last Ship at Northern Stage, Newcastle
A play that reminded me I loved Newcastle so much I moved back there. Gorgeous, epic musical of working class lives with a great roster of songs, strong performances, and stunning design by 59 Productions. (Tracey Sinclair)

Cheryl Byron in don't forget the birds at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Photo: Keith Pattison.

Cheryl Byron in don’t forget the birds at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Photo: Keith Pattison.

don’t forget the birds at Live Theatre, Newcastle
One of the ‘smallest’ shows I have seen this year but also one of the most affecting, Open Clasp’s production tells the story of real-life mother and daughter Cheryl and Abigail Bryon adjusting to Cheryl’s return from prison. Funny, affecting and real, this was everything I want theatre to be. (Tracey Sinclair)

Toast at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Toast was so amazingly heartbreaking/heartwarming in equal measure. When you’re mid-Fringe and tired out from the massively imbalanced flyering:performing ratio being able to sit in on Nigel Slater’s upbringing and first encounters with food was like a big warm “I miss my mum” kind of hug. (Louise Jones)

Windrush: Movement of the People at York Theatre Royal
Windrush proved itself a tale that absolutely deserved to be told via dance. Dialogue would have bogged its characters down in a mire of lost-in-translation scrapes that reduce these lives to stereotypes of the outsider. Windrush celebrates the culture that its generation brought into the UK, a burst of music and movement and joy. (Louise Jones)

Cheryl Byron in don't forget the birds at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Photo: Keith Pattison.

FK Alexander in Violence at the Tramway, Glasgow. Photo: Niall Walker.

Violence at Tramway, Glasgow
FK Alexander’s piece, part of Take Me Somewhere, was as though Laura Palmer had somehow survived and come back to perform a revenge ritual. She moved with a flamenco dancer’s grace, but chopped the heads off flowers like Morticia Addams, and slowed pretty ballad The End Of The World down to a narcotic slump. Beautiful, otherworldly and troubling. (Lorna Irvine)

Icons at Assembly George Square, Edinburgh
Le Gateau Chocolat melts you with his camp, acerbic and moving shows. Icons was no exception. When he wasn’t dancing awkwardly to Madonna in his mocked up childhood bedroom, he was citing the late Adrian Howells as his mentor, or reminding us through his incredible operatic voice of how far we’ve come through intersectionality, and how much further there is to go. (Lorna Irvine)

Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths at Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Martin McCormick’s play was a triumph of absurdist discomfort. The set, as everything else about the production, was at a bizarre angle. As Ma (Karen Dunbar) and Pa (Gerry Mulgrew) invited Nalini Chetty’s interloper, the incongruously named Neil, into their parlour games, it was impossible not to feel her trauma in your marrow. (Lorna Irvine)

The Killers at The Regent Cafe, Weston-Super-Mare. Image: Paul Blakemore

The Killers at The Regent Cafe, Weston-Super-Mare. Image: Paul Blakemore

The Killers at The Regent Cafe, Weston-Super-Mare
From the window of the fish and chip shop in Weston-Super-Mare where The Killers took place you could just about see the sea. And just like the best day of a seaside holiday it felt like you were gently rocked in the waves of the show, immersed more in impressions and feelings than a story. It began gently and ended with no resolution, feeling less like a bordered-off show and more like a moment of making the world beautiful, and strange, and exciting. From the moment I put on the headphones I felt my jaw slacken in wonder, and my mum and I spent the swift walk back to the train station squealing in delight. (Lilith Wozniak)

A Little Death at Bristol Old Vic
A Little Death was the smartest, thinkiest, most-multi-layered, deepest show I saw this year – and it was also the funniest, the silliest and the most playful. It has so much in it that I can’t begin to touch on, from mass hysteria to family legends, and I completely believe that if I saw it again (which I want to do another 10 times) I would see more and different connections and ideas. It felt like the show was a massive bag of magician’s tricks, from the dollhouse props to the songs to the record, and it proved more delightful and profound as each was pulled out. (Lilith Wozniak)

Katherine Parkinson and Richard Harrington in Home, I'm Darling at Theatr Clwyd. Image: Manuel Harlan.

Katherine Parkinson and Richard Harrington in Home, I’m Darling at Theatr Clwyd. Image: Manuel Harlan.

Home, I’m Darling at Theatr Clwyd, Mold (Laura Wade 1.0)
With Home I’m Darling, Laura Wade and Tamara Harvey created a play that was just as shiny, colourful and stylish on the surface as the vintage movement it gently satirised. But despite its obviously very thorough research into the whole 50s nostalgia trend, this was really a play about constructing a goldfish bowl of a home life with another human being, banishing the outside world until it becomes too scary to go back into and the tireless lengths we go to trying to perform the role of perfect partner, wife, woman… anything really. Everyone thought this play was just oh-so pretty, and somehow missed mentioning the fact it was also heartbreaking. (Rosemary Waugh)

The Watsons at Chichester Festival Theatre (Laura Wade 2.0)
And then this! Another play by Laura Wade that looked cutesy and chocolateboxy on the outside, but had a steel core. The Watsons is an unfished novel by Jane Austen. Wade took the snippet available and went on a meta marathon. But even that wasn’t the actual twist. References to Pirandello aside, The Watsons is as much about writing-while-being-a-woman, with all the accompanying imposter syndrome and baggage around ageing, raising children and trying to live up to your literary heroes (similar to Ella Hickson’s The Writer, in that regard). If I ever get it together to write a book, I will owe a great debt to Wade and having seen this particular play at this particular moment in time. (Rosemary Waugh)

Laurietta Essien in The Mysteries at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes.

Laurietta Essien in The Mysteries at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes.

The Mysteries at Royal Exchange Manchester
Watching all six plays in Chris Thorpe’s Medieval-influenced cycle over the course of a Sunday afternoon, the air became steadily denser. The plays, telling stories from six towns, villages and cities in the North of England, amassed a cumulative impression of what it means to belong to a place, to leave, return, own, visit, guard and welcome. The epic scale of the project was tempered by the intimacy of the stories – a Lithuanian man who’s lost his son, a pair of friends fighting for a closing tourist information centre. And it all led up to the final segment, Manchester, which played out like a sermon for the city, challenging its sense of identity in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing with rigour and ferocity. In the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round main house, it was incredibly powerful; theatre with a direct civic function. (Ben Kulvichit)

The Capital at Birmingham REP
Man, Stan’s Cafe really know what they’re doing. I was blown away by the sheer technical skill and inventiveness in The Capital, which was staged on two constantly running travellators. With no words and five actors playing some hundred-odd characters, James Yarker’s direction felt incredibly musical – people gliding by in strict polyphony, rarely in the same costume twice, a visual symphony for a city where bankers, asylum-seekers, fashion moguls, students all walk with and past each other on the street. It’s touring in January and February next year. (Ben Kulvichit)

Mother Courage and Her Children at Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds. Image: Anthony Robling.

Mother Courage and Her Children at Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds. Image: Anthony Robling.

Mother Courage & Her Children at Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds
Red Ladder Theatre’s decision to stage Brecht’s anti-war classic as a promenade production was an inspired one – as the audience follow an outstanding Pauline McLynn around a cavernous Leeds warehouse, you feel like you’re literally walking in the footsteps of the dispossessed all those years ago. And, although it was written over 70 years ago, it remains a scarily prescient piece of work. (John Murphy)
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at Sheffield Crucible
It’s a brave person who decides to stage Cuckoo’s Nest, given the iconic status that Jack Nicholson and Milos Foreman bestowed on it – wisely, Javaad Alipoor based his revival closer to the original novel by Ken Kesey rather than the classic film. Joel Gilman wasn’t afraid to play McMurphy as the rather creepy arsehole he was written as, and Lucy Osborne’s set was suitably washed out and beige. (John Murphy)
Nandi Bhebhe in Torch. Photo: Radka Dolinska.

Nandi Bhebhe in Torch. Photo: Radka Dolinska.

Torch, St Helens
Torch is the stuff that theatre dreams are made, that truffle of theatre delight in an unexpected place. That is not to be rude about St Helens, Heart of Glass are absolutely killing it. But standing in its central station on a damp, miserable winter night, it’s safe to say that I wasn’t expecting to be witched away (literally, I was pulled into a car) by one of my shows of the year. Directed by Louise Lowe, Torch took an audience of max four (FOUR – ALL THIS WORK FOR ONLY FOUR PEOPLE AT A TIME) across time and the city to encounter women and their stories. It achieved a recreation of the strange, particular intimacy that exists in the daily moments between women – in a conversation about a forgotten school play costume in a car conducted between you, the driver and her sister on the iPhone you proffer towards her. The confession that comes out as your glamorous friend paints your nails on her bedroom floor, a secret shared washing up with your mum after Christmas Lunch. And a wordless cry of pain that scales the wall in the form of dance (Nandi Bhebe). Torch filled the city streets with the full blooded heartbeat of St Helen’s women, then and now, their truth, their futures band their dreams. (Francesca Peschier)

This is Exeunt’s UK-wide list of 2018 theatre highlights. For more retrospective theatre fun, read our Favourite London Shows of 2018


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.