A highlight for me was definitely Emma Geragthy’s autobiographical Fat Girl Singing at York Theatre Royal. For such a raw and personal piece, Geragthy sought to make her story as welcoming as possible whilst never for a second subduing her own character. As far as solo theatre shows go, this opened up the self but never for a second coasted on the discomfort of others.
I really enjoyed Incognito’s The Burning this summer, a promising piece on witches and womanhood. Using a loop pedal to send their performers back in time, at its height The Burning seethes with anger at the injustice shown to its heroines. Whereas the modern day sequences lacked that same ambience, there was a genuine sense of atmosphere that followed me home like a lingering chill.
Birmingham’s Fierce Festival was an exciting collection of British and international work, with the fact it is the only chance to see many of the pieces in the UK adding to its allure. I saw many of my favourite shows of the year there; Begüm Erciyas’ Voicing Pieces gave you an opportunity to give a delicate and thoughtful gift to yourself, Miet Warlop’s Ghost Writer and the Broken Hand Break was thrilling and surprising and Nicola Gunn’s Working with Children was utterly, utterly delightful.
I’ve been listening to ‘Sur la planche’ since I saw Alice lamb and Annabelle Baldwin giddily circle each other in Wild Swimming (Edinburgh Fringe, Bristol Old Vic) a time travelling ode to love and literature and poetry. Marek Horn’s writing is infectious and silly, characterised by lyrical jibes and confessions dripping with playful sarcasm. He writes that swimming is like writing, and it feels like he’s reached inside my brain and pulled out all the memories of beaches and swimming pools and stretched out the images, turning them inside out, so that I can see the verses in the waves. 400 years collapses into an hour, into a single look between two actors. And then it’s disrupted again and there’s mess and snacks on the floor, and they’re changing costume again. Wild Swimming stays nestled in my heart, a reminder of why I should probably keep going back to the theatre and the beach.
Right at the beginning of the year I saw Commonism at Birmingham REP; a talk/show(?) about hope – a new way of living and organising ourselves. Now, I’m ending the year in a government that kills through austerity, benefit cuts, and racism. It’s not very Christmassy to say, but I feel depleted. Yet this show was a way of using our art to tangibly change things, or at least set the cogs in motion for change. I increasingly feel like that’s the way we should be heading – towards political activism, and collectivity. Whether that means we leave aesthetics behind or not, I’m not sure, but it feels like it could be the only way right now.
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) at Northern Stage was undoubtedly the best night out I had at the theatre this year – a riotously funny all-female retelling of the classic packed with feminism, social commentary and cheesy pop songs. At Live, Joe Douglas’ revival of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil was powerful and passionate political theatre that also managed to be enormous fun. Two smaller shows that stuck with me were Camisado Club’s eerie take on Bluebeard, smartly updated for the #MeToo era (Alphabetti Theatre), and Rosa Postlethwaite’s sharp and unsettling solo show Composed (Northern Stage).
One of the most memorable experiences I had this year was at Neither Here Nor There (Chapter Arts Centre), Sonia Hughes and Jo Fong’s participatory piece, which invites the audience to engage in a series of 6 minute conversations guided by prompts, some specific and some much more open. It holds a precious space for serious reflection about who we are and how we move through the world. It encourages you to listen – really listen – to other people. The structure was really simple, but the experience it facilitated truly profound.
I was also very taken by the golden, velvet reveries of Sleepwalk Collective’s Kourtney Kardashian (HOME), I loved the pure weirdness of Singlet, Erin Markey’s astonishingly performed two-hander about friendship and desire at Bristol’s In Between Time, and had the time of my life at The Wardrobe Theatre’s uproarious, filthy filthy Christmas show Drac and Jill.
Skellig at Nottingham Playhouse conjured not only the excitement of being a child reading a book you deeply love, but also the positive impact theatre can have on young people. Hearing a room full of children become silent and mesmerised by the performances gave me permission to feel mesmerised too. Theatre criticism can rarely capture the lasting impact that a play has on an individual, but Skellig reminded me how important that personal connection is, regardless of how we ‘rate’ a production.
A fifteen-strong party, performed entirely in slow-motion, under shifting lights and pulsing beats. Gisèle Vienne’s Crowd was a spectacular and exhilarating evening of euphoria, togetherness and violence. In a work with so much to praise, the storytelling felt revolutionary. The stage is overwhelmed with bodies, the audience with characters. Instances of emotional, physical and sexual violence collide with moments of friendship, intimacy and care. The ordinariness of the crowd, the complexity of people being together, has never been so tangibly realised.
At Take Me Somewhere festival, Luke Pell’s In the Ink Dark was a living poem about mourning, remembrance and grief, performed in the Bridge Library at Platform. Taking the form of a site-responsive installation, this was a richly emotional experience comprising dance, drawing and hourglasses. My memories include stealing a glimpse of dancers through bookshelves, and crouching down to watch sand (and time) gather. It felt awkward, then I felt angry, then the earth seemed to open up. When we left, I walked a little lighter, with a bit more space to move.
And some cheats…
My ‘best of the rest’ pick isn’t actually from the UK but, frankly, it’s just far too good to exclude from this list. Premiering at the Dublin Theatre festival, Teaċ Daṁsa’s Mám was like an epic summoning of primordial energy. It opens by trapping the audience under a fug of slow-hanging clouds that smell like the remnants of a bonfire lit four days ago in the centre of a dank wood, and then clonks, stamps and shakes its way through a series of semi-abstract scenes suitable for an end-of-days party. The only vaguely comparable piece I can think of is Pina Bausch’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, a terrifying and exhilarating transfer of brutal, mud-splattered energy. Londoners: it’s coming to Sadler’s Wells in 2020, and you need to buy a ticket.
So I am going to use mega-poncy-fancy pant privilege and go for so far out of London it was in Prague. At Prague Quadrennial this year Swiss clown-wizards Panorama herded their audience into a rotating black box with one side cut out to make a cinema ‘screen’. As we spun slowly in a baking hot cube (despite the ‘air conditioning’ – e.g. water misters) the rest of the company conjured passers-by into being the film’s stars. It’s very very silly, very fun and more than a little big magic.
Exeunt is made possible by donations from our readers. If you’ve enjoyed reading our work this year, consider signing up to our Friends Scheme, from £2 a month; all contributions go straight into our commissioning budget, which means more reviews, interviews, and thoughtful commentary on the UK’s theatre scene.