With a new year fast approaching, it is an interesting time to reflect on small changes across the theatre landscape in 2019 that will continue to shape how UK theatre will look as it moves into a new decade. While there is still a very long way to go in equally reflecting voices from different perspectives and experiences there is a sense – in fringe theatre primarily but slowly making its way into the mainstream as well – of shifting sands and the desire of artistic directors and theatre programmers to present seasons that better reflect the make-up of our multicultural and multinational communities.
Regional Theatre Brings New Perspectives
There are interesting and educative works emerging from companies from around the country; most memorable were Education, Education, Education in which Bristol-based theatre company The Wardrobe Ensemble innovatively unpacked the enduring problems in our scholastic system since the Blair government. Likewise, Helen Monks and Matt Woodhouse’s Trojan Horse which came to Battersea Arts Centre as part of a wider tour examined the nonsense of a Muslim conspiracy in Birmingham schools – a show that went on to play to the communities affected in the hope of finally healing the breach, while Luke Barnes and the Young Vic Taking Part in collaboration with inmates at HMP Wandsworth created the insightful The Jumper Factory currently at HOME Manchester until February.
Meanwhile, the relocation of The Tower Theatre company to Stoke Newington also brought a season of critically acclaimed comedy and drama including a superb approach to The Beauty Queen of Leenane – with productions of Sweat, A Passage to India and The Norman Conquests already announced for Spring, this is definitely a company on the up. The surface simplicity of a star rating system doesn’t always reflect the potential or the lasting impression that these works in progress are already making, and the role that regional theatre companies will continue to play in 2020 to broaden perspectives.
It may lack the funding and support of theatre in the capital but regional venues continue to punch above their weight; at Chichester Festival Theatre in September John Simm joined forced with Dervla Kirwan for an exciting production of Macbeth – rivaled only by an astonishingly good interpretation at Temple Church by Antic Disposition in August starring Harry Anton as the troubled and murderous monarch – while the wonderful Laura Wade play The Watsons came first to the Menier Chocolate Factory and will take over the Harold Pinter Theatre in May, a must-see deconstruction of female authorship and characterisation.
A late addition to the West End arrived in the days before Christmas as the charming Curtains: The Musical Comedy rescued the Wyndhams with an unexpectedly delightful backstage murder mystery – the West End premiere of Kander and Ebb’s forgotten song and dance show which will shortly resume its tour until April. The Theatre Royal Bath production of Blithe Spirit with Jennifer Saunders and Geoffrey Streatfeild has also charmed its way to a regional tour followed by a West End transfer from March 2020 – the first since Angela Lansbury’s turn as Madame Arcarti in 2014.
Great tours included the fantastic Glengarry Glen Ross which replaced its West End cast with equally impressive performances from Mark Benson and Nigel Harman (the less said about the disgraceful Bitter Wheat the better!), while Inua Ellams’s unstoppable The Barbershop Chronicles continues to run and run two years on. The National Theatre also toured their production of A Taste of Honey which concluded with a West End transfer to the Trafalgar Studios running until February. And not forgetting Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’s Six, the one-hour pop sensation about the wives of Henry VIII which toured widely this year earning an Olivier nomination for Best Musical and now a Broadway transfer.
Some of the most exciting work in 2019 have entirely reinvented well-known plays or used innovative techniques to make important social or political statements. Best among them was Femi Elufowoju jr’s The Glass Menagerie at The Arcola Theatre, whose diverse and varied programming entirely reflects the Dalston community it serves. In a co-production with Watford Palace Theatre, Elufowoju jr’s production of Tennessee Williams’s classic play recast the Wingfields as an African-American family to meaningful effect.
Marianne Elliott did the same with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman casting Wendell Pierce and Sharon D. Clarke that earned its own West End transfer and found a whole new level to the isolation of the central family and why the American Dream was never for everyone. Add to that Inua Ellams’s exciting and vivid relocation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters to the Biafran War in Nigeria at the National Theatre, and Jamie Armitage’s Southern Belles at the King’s Head which brought two one-act Williams play’s about emotional fragility and class division so sensitively to life, and theatremakers are starting to think more broadly about ways in which the thematic and emotional universality of the classical canon can be reflected on stage.
The West End Finds Breadth and Depth
Those big American dramatists had significant West End success as well with a range of productions celebrating Arthur Miller, including the aforementioned Death of a Salesman as well a disappointing production of The American Clock at the Old Vic, who quickly revived with this year’s most outstanding Miller production, inviting Bill Pullman and Sally Field to star in a very fine and devastating version of All My Sons which also boasted excellent supporting turns from Colin Morgan and Jenna Coleman. A lesser performed Tennessee Williams play also enjoyed a big West End run in the autumn, hailing the return of Clive Owen to the stage as the lead in The Night of the Iguana, a sultry and rewarding version directed by James McDonald.
It was a trend that continued with varied approaches to other classic playwrights, and some of the best theatre came from productions of lesser known works given an all to rare outing. For Ibsen-lovers it was Hayley Atwell who easily gave one of the performances of the year as the complex Rebecca West in Rosmersholm alongside Tom Burke as the eponymous landowner, while Noel Coward has rarely been better served than in Matthew Warchus’s hilarious gender and sexuality-bending version of Present Laughter that put paid to any questions about Coward’s modern relevance. As well as a fine cast including Indira Varma, Sophie Thompson and up-and-comer Luke Thallon on superb form, it also boasted an exquisite central performance from Andrew Scott, every bit as good as his Hamlet in 2017.
New versions of the classics look equally promising in 2020 with Ian Rickson’s take on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya from January with Richard Armitage and Ciaran Hinds while in the same month the Old Vic celebrate Samuel Beckett with Endgame tempting Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe back to the stage. Angels in America writer Tony Kushner adapts Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit with Lesley Manville, while celebrated directed Ivo van Hove brings his international, and brief, versions of both Death in Venice and The Glass Menagerie – the latter with Isabelle Huppert – to the Barbican. And not forgetting a much anticipated To Kill a Mockingbird penned by TV and film writer Aaron Sorkin starring Rhys Ifans.
New writing wasn’t entirely forgotten in 2019 although there seemed to be fewer new plays opening in the West End than we’ve seen in the last few years. Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 play Lungs isn’t exactly new but it made its London debut with the inspired pairing of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in an emotional story about reproduction and climate change which heads to the US for an off-Broadway run from late March. Simon Woods attracted theatre royalty Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings to star in his first play Hansard at the National in August, a fascinating and honed debut about the political failures of the Left and Right in the last 30 years, while the theatre also hosted the UK premiere of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes another fine installment from a playwright whose reputation grows in stature with each new play. And concluding the year, Mike Lew’s invigorating homage to Richard III and the High School Movie became the wonderfully astute Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse in December.
The Musical Resurgent
But if the West End in 2019 was really defined by anything it was both the reprise of musical theatre and the productions of Jamie Lloyd – with the two themes neatly intersecting in the summer. Not so long ago the musical was widely derided, tourist fodder that serious theatre-goers would actively avoid, but revitalised and mature productions of Follies and Company led to a renaissance for the genre which this year has born considerable fruit. The UK premiere of Dear Evan Hansen won everybody over with the first true musical of the social media age, a new star was born in Jac Yarrow who took the lead in a refreshed revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which added some serious nostalgia factor by adding Jason Donovan to the cast, while the temporary closure of the renamed Sondheim Theatre led to the all-star Les Miserables: The Staged Concert which united old friends Alfie Boe and Michael Ball, the latter adding a new chapter to the show’s performance history by swapping his status as the original Marius for the role of Javert. And proving that musicals can also meaningfully tell more serious real life stories, the Soho Theatre hosted the UK premiere of Max Vernon’s stirring The View Upstairs, with great turns from John Partridge and Declan Bennett.
The musical then is going nowhere in 2020 and some big productions are already lined-up; American film star Jake Gyllenhaal brings his acclaimed turn in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George to the Savoy Theatre from June, while the dream team of director Dominic Cooke and leading lady Imelda Staunton reunite for Hello Dolly at the Adelphi in August. Michael Ball continues his journey through his career highs by returning to the role of Edna Turnblad in a new version of Hairspray at the Coliseum in April with Lizzie Bea making her debut as Tracy – a production that promises to be plenty of fun. And if you missed it in Regent’s Park in the summer, then Jamie Lloyd’s joyously modern take on Evita transfers to the Barbican in August where the challenge of reimagining his ticker-taped, multi-entrance outside production in a classic proscenium arch auditorium will be an interesting one.
Jamie Lloyd Dominates the West End
And what an exceptional year it has been for Jamie Lloyd, the director’s name seems to be on everyone’s lips as he landed astonishing production after production, reimagining and reinvigorating the classics. The divisive Faustus in 2016 seems a long time ago, gone are the bells and whistles and lurid designs and instead Lloyd’s commitment to the purity of the original text has been an abiding feature of his success in the last 18 months. As the new year began, the West End was in the midst of the Pinter at the Pinter season with Lloyd resuming the reigns for Collections Six and Seven which celebrated and marvelled at Pinter’s playful use of language, most notably in an intense radio play staging of A Slight Ache, followed by a celebrated stage return for Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in The Dumb Waiter.
Going head-to-head with Atwell and Scott for the year’s very best performances are Tom Hiddleston and James McAvoy who set theatreland alight with their devastatingly raw portrayals of love gone horribly wrong. The Pinter series concluded with Betrayal in March, as fine a production as you’ll see anywhere, with Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox playing the unbearably entwined friends and lovers that was filled with pain, self-destruction and deception which Lloyd steered with an unassuming simplicity that lent unrelenting weight to the emotional entanglements. It rightly earned an acclaimed Broadway transfer in the autumn.
Lloyd rapidly announced a new residency at The Playhouse Theatre where, despite the poor sightlines and eye-wateringly expensive ticket prices, Cyrano de Bergerac has earned wide acclaim with a mesmerising performance of unrequited love, jealousy and soldierly bravado by James McAvoy that runs until February. This must-see production has been inclusively realised, turning what is often a very silly three hour caricature into an outstanding and crushing examination of self-image and emotional laceration. 2020 will also deliver two major West End debuts as Lloyd tackles both Chekhov and Ibsen with Emilia Clarke in The Seagull and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, both set to be fascinating but respectful interpretations by a superstar director.
But the new theatre year has plenty more gifts to offer, not least Timothee Chalamet making his West End debut alongside Eileen Atkins in 4000 Miles at the Old Vic in April, Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet at the Young Vic in July, the return of City of Angels, a new play by Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt, a stage version of Upstart Crow and Colin Morgan in Caryl Churchill at the Bridge – with plenty more to be announced. 2019 may not have entirely shaken-up theatreland but the foundations are slowly being laid for greater representation and the inclusion of more voices in 2020. And whether it’s musicals or plays, fringe, regional theatre or West End every bit of the theatre ecosystem has a vital part to play.