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Top shows of 2018 in London – from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

2018 has been a busy year with our team of reviewers attending and reviewing more than 800 productions across London, including West End and Off-West End. These are the top picks for the year.

Andrew Polec as Strat in BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit - Specular
Andrew Polec as Strat in BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit – Specular

1. Bat Out of Hell The Musical – Dominion Theatre, 20 April
There are dynamic performances all round, and in terms of singing vocals, this production comes up trumps with passion and power… The whole thing is ridiculously but marvellously over the top, and the special effects continue to demonstrate what theatre is now capable of delivering.

2. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Drayton Arms Theatre, 31 May
Who knew so much fun could be had at a spelling competition? This production had me rolling in the aisles. An energetic and delightful show.

3. Caroline, Or Change – Hampstead Theatre, 20 March
Michael Longhurst’s direction and Ann Yee’s choreography are, respectively, robust and elegant… an extraordinary performance from Sharon D Clarke.

4. Kindertransport – Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, 10 March
An international cast and an international creative team deliver a play with an international and inter-generational setting. To put it another way, this isn’t the sort of production that happens every day.

5. Pippin The Musical – Southwark Playhouse, 28 February
The cast and creatives have pulled together… the result is a marvellous musical, a captivating experience full of energy and vitality.

6. Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual – Curve Theatre, 3 October
It’s all a tad self-indulgent, but more pertinently provides much food for thought for a wide range of topics… An intense, passionate and relevant play.

7. Misty – Trafalgar Studios, 13 September
…if there are no straightforward solutions presented to the problems being articulated, there’s nothing wrong with letting audiences ponder on such matters for themselves. A raw, powerful and memorable production.

8. Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios, 6 December
Aunt Maggie (Cecilia Noble), in particular, brought the house down again and again with a refreshing forthrightness… a truly remarkable, hilarious and poignant piece of theatre.

9. And Then They Came For Me – Hope Theatre, 9 September
The single act production, on the whole, maintains a good pace throughout, and with just props and a black-box set, the scene changes are largely very smooth. This poignant and thought-provoking production is, perhaps inevitably, uncomfortable viewing at times. It is, however, worth seeing.

10. Statements – King’s Head Theatre, 15 January
I came away with a more substantial understanding of special needs in the modern era, all while enjoying the proceedings of an excellent play. Now there’s a learning outcome if ever there was one. An A-star performance.

And from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018…
Private Peaceful
No prior knowledge of the book is needed to be able to follow proceedings. This excellent revival serves as a good introduction to the way things were for soldiers in the First World War, as well as a poignant reminder for those of us revisiting the subject matter.

Daniel Sloss: X
There’s an assured confidence in a slick and genuinely witty performance. To make an audience laugh heartily through what is billed as a comedy show is one thing. But to preach, as it were, without coming across as preachy – that takes considerable skill. Pure genius.

Six
The choreography (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) is vibrant and energetic, and the writing (Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss) is often accessible for audiences in the digital age… Both educational and entertaining, there’s no denying the power and passion in this bold, uplifting and magnificent production.

Chris Omaweng

*****

Lesley Nicol (Mother) and Ben Batt (George) in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Robert Hastie. Photo by Johan Persson
Lesley Nicol (Mother) and Ben Batt (George) in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Robert Hastie. Photo by Johan Persson

2018 has been a really good year for amazing shows and, this year I’ve given 44 of them the coveted 5 Star rating for www.londontheatre1.com but which make it my top 10 list?

Coming in at No 10 is Skin Deep which was on at the Stockwell playhouse back in April. Not only is this a great musical about body image and the reality of how we see ourselves, but for the first and probably last time ever, I attended a show naked. Not just me obviously, virtually the entire audience had shed their inhibitions and clothes as well.

At No 9, and fully clothed, is The York Realist by Peter Gill. The story of Yorkshire farm labourer George whose life seems to be going along a pretty well ordered route until he meets John, who is Assistant Director of the York Mystery Plays. This wonderful tale of opposites attracting and trying but not succeeding in getting out of the trap that is their pre-ordained lives.

In 8th place we are heading off to one of the most tumultuous times in Twentieth Century history with Billy Bishop Goes to War, which flew into the Jermyn Street Theatre in November. This amazing tale about a World War 1 Canadian flying ace, by John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson, started when I entered the auditorium and had my first site of Daisy Blower’s fantastic set. A two-hander with almost a ‘Boys Own’ comic feel about it really brought the true – and well worth googling – story of Billy Bishop to life.

At No 7 it’s off to Vauxhall in June and the new home of the Above the Stag theatre for Jonathan Harvey’s wonderful coming of age play Beautiful Thing. Twenty-five years after it was first produced this tale of working-class teenage boys coming to terms with their sexuality, can still raise a lump in the throat. The story is pretty simple, closeted boy lives next door to closeted boy on council estate for years and one day, they fall in love. This new production took Jonathan’s excellent script, found a first-rate cast and put them in a very believable set to provide a fantastic production, complete with music from the amazing Mamma Cass.

HIDDEN FIGURES: WW2
HIDDEN FIGURES: WW2

No 6 takes us to a secret location in deepest Bermondsey and a meeting with top spy Hardy Aimes as we went into the immersive experience of Hidden Figures: WW2. This gem of a show, devised and Produced by Paul King takes the audience back to World War 2 by assigning them a real-life character from the war and then taking them on an agent’s training course, during which they meet the first ‘M’ and Alan Turing. The night is The assigned characters are all unsung, and very surprising real people that served the allies in WW2 so the whole show is entertainment and a history lesson with a glass or two of fizz in the mess afterwards.

Into the top five now and at No 5, one of the most surprising shows from this year’s Vault Festival. Paul Westwood’s twenty-minute play – And the winner is… takes place in a caravan, with an audience of around ten people but packs a punch way above what you would expect for such a small production. The story follows a young actress in her first leading role. Whilst everything seems rosy, there is a rather nasty fly in the ointment in the shape of her Producer. There is something really disturbing in the writing and highly realistic acting that, combined with the small space, makes the audience almost feel complicit in the Producer’s actions. Unable to help only able to observe, we are in as bad a position as Julie the actress. Brilliantly written and acted, this is a play that stays with you for a long time.

CJ de Mooi as Alan in Banana Crabtree Simon
CJ de Mooi as Alan in Banana Crabtree Simon

It’s a monologue for the No 4 spot with Banana Crabtree Simon by David Hendon at the Drayton Arms. CJ de Mooi absolutely nailed the role of Alan, a fifty-year-old man descending into early onset dementia, and its painful to watch as this tall, healthy man, with a contemptuous attitude to unnecessary fuss, crumbles into a stumbling figure who barely remembers his own name. The production is wonderfully set with just a chair and side table that is Alan’s refuge as CJ tugs at your heartstrings with his portrayal. Due to my age, this show really struck a chord for me, but it is one of those plays that will definitely touch the hearts and minds of all that see it.

No 3 and once again the fantastic team of SEDOS really delivered the goods with their production of Pippin at the Bridewell Theatre. This surreal musical tells the story of King Charlemagne’s first born son as a show within a show, and its brilliant. I absolutely loved the story, the songs and everything about it. SEDOS really know how to put on a great musical and I always feel a shiver of excitement when I am going to one of their shows. This production started just after the highly acclaimed Southwark Playhouse version and I was worried it might have suffered but once more the amazingly talented SEDOS team really delivered. Corin Miller as The Leading Player really grabbed the audience and held onto them from the start to the famous ‘Theo Ending’. I was so into the show that I even joined in with the audience participation during ‘No Time At All’ – my favourite song of the evening. There were so many things to love about the show, and there is a huge part of me wants to see it in the West End – preferably with this cast – as soon as possible.

Andy Nyman (Tevye) image by Johan Persson.
Andy Nyman (Tevye) image by Johan Persson.

A late entrant into the top 10 and a visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory where the very welcome revival of Fiddler on the Roof makes it to the No 2 spot. And oy vey what a show. This fantastic story of one man’s fight to keep his traditional way of life as the world about him changes is an all-time classic in its own right. Trevor Nunn has brought together a truly stellar team of cast and creatives to bring the Russian village of Anatevka to life once more. Andy Nyman shines as Tevye a poor Jewish farmer who lives in the village with his wife and five daughters. As he enters the stage and starts the opening number, it is obvious that this he is a force to be reckoned with. Judy Kuhn as his ‘power behind the throne’ wife Golde rules the house – and her husband – with a rod of iron, keeping the family going whatever trials and tribulations the good Lord throws at them. The reality is that Fiddler shouldn’t work as a musical. The story itself is bleak with both the first and second act end in a depressingly downbeat way. Tevye, the show’s hero’ is not a young, good-looking man whose life changes for the better. In fact, he is a troubled man who is a bit of a loser in life and is destined to remain one. Somehow though, the show not only works but delivers a knockout punch to its audience so that while you know things aren’t going to get better, your heart goes with the villagers as they start their walk away from their home. The production itself works on every level and there is nothing I could think of to fault it. An absolutely amazing production of one of the best musical shows ever.

My No 1 show of the year takes place in a city in a park in a city, with a man, who is a woman who is a plant and a medical professional who is the last word in sadism. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about Little Shop of Horrors at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. The story of Seymour, Audrey, Mushnick and a carnivorous plant is pure ‘B’ movie horror and is superb because of it.

Written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and one of my favourite movies, I was worried that it might not translate that well to the stage but I needn’t have worried as this production took every element of the film and made it into something really special. Marc Antolin and Jemima Rooper had a wonderful chemistry as Seymour and Audrey respectively and when they sang ‘Suddenly Seymour’ I may have had to wipe away a tear or two as the two actors gave their all to this hugely emotional song. Director Maria Aberg has one or two surprises for the audience, the best of which is the appearance of American drag queen Vicky Vox as the murderous plant Audrey II. A truly inspired idea Vicky brings the plant to life in a way that works brilliantly. From where we were sat, it really looked as if everyone on stage was thoroughly enjoying themselves and that enjoyment spread like wildfire among the audience leading to one of the longest, loudest and most deserved standing ovations I’ve ever been part of. I’m going to finish with the last lines from my review of Horrors – this was the perfect show in the perfect location – and four months on, I haven’t changed my mind one iota.

So, thanks for reading this and my reviews from the year. Have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy new year.

Terry Eastham

*****

1. Julius Caesar (as seen from the ‘mob’) – I’ve never been part of something like this before so I was a little apprehensive before the show, but the immersive nature of the ‘mob’ made the experience incredibly intense. Combine this with impeccable acting and the shown is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

2. The Jungle – I’ve never had such a strong reaction to theatre before, I was angry for days afterwards about all sorts of things. A real demonstration of the power of theatre and it’s importance in telling true stories.

3. Company – Marianne Eliott’s gender-swapped version adds a real relevance to the outwardly funny but slightly melancholy lyrics and music of Sondheim. It’s a fast-paced and funny, and the cast are superb.

Emily Diver

*****

The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre
Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre
A very, very, very dark matter – The Bridge Theatre

Sally Knipe

*****

The Jungle at Playhouse TheatreThe Jungle
A superb, moving, funny uplifting story of refugees resident in the “jungle” just outside Calais. The Playhouse Theatre was transformed into the restaurant on the site, so brilliantly that if it wasn’t for the fact that the theatre’s circle was left intact, you wouldn’t have thought you were in a theatre.

Fun Home
A wonderful, poignant tale based on a graphic novel of a young girl coming to terms with the fact she’s a lesbian and her relationship with her gay father. Superbly staged in a non-linear form, the songs were sublime and the performances first rate.

Company
Director Marianne Elliott decision to turn the show’s protagonist “Bobby” into “Bobbie” was controversial (even Stephen Sondheim was convinced at first) but it paid off in spades giving a fresh spin to one of Sondheim’s finest works.

Alan Fitter

*****

The Inheritance
Pack of Lies – Donmar
Season’s Greetings – Leatherhead: top prize for best direction!
Special award to Bill Kenwright for keeping regional theatres open by generally high-quality productions.

John Groves

*****

1. The Lehman Trilogy.
2. Imperium
3. Dealing With Claire

John O’Brien

*****

A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar) - Photo Credit: Graham Michael
A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar) – Photo Credit: Graham Michael

A Girl in School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) at New Diorama: Innovative script and use of theatre space that explores movement and dialogue in total darkness.

The Height of the Storm at Wyndham’s Theatre:
Best performance by an actress – Eileen Atkins

A Pint-sized Conversation, JuJu’s Bar and Stage, London:
An original script that highlights the debilitating effects of mental health, not only on the sufferer but on family and friends. The show is visually sophisticated, although put together on a shoestring, and both educates and entertains the audience from the outset. It is currently playing to sold-out houses across the United Kingdom.

Loretta Monaco

*****

3) The Distance You Have Come at the Union Theatre.
The music in this was so gorgeous and it introduced me to Scott Alan’s work. The performances were so moving and touching that I didn’t want an interval. Even though it was a musical revue the characters storylines were beautifully told and acted in the intimate space.

2) Little Shop of Horrors at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
Everything about this production was over the top and fabulous. The costumes and sets were amazing. The choreography was outstanding. Having Vicky Vox as Audrey 2 was brilliant casting. But that finale?! Just fantastic fun.

SIX - photo by Idil Sukan
SIX – photo by Idil Sukan

1) Six at the Arts Theatre.
This show is no doubt my favourite in a long time. Since seeing a workshop production in January to the full on UK tour which has taken the theatres by storm it’s just grown and developed into a phenomenon. The Queens are ridiculously talented and the new costumes and choreography are great. The writing by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss is superb. The best night out, full of laughs, superb songs, attitude and history, or as they say ‘her-story’.

Amanda Reynolds

*****

For jaw-dropping, main-house, wow factor Hadestown at the National.
For best laugh out loud, absurdist comedy, Say My Name at Theatre N16.
And finally, Violet at the Bunker Theatre for economic writing, superb direction and nuanced performance.

Laura Thomas

*****

Syrus Lowe, Kyle Soller and Michael Walters in The Inheritance. Photo by Simon Annand
Syrus Lowe, Kyle Soller and Michael Walters in The Inheritance. Photo by Simon Annand

Cock at Chichester Minerva Theatre
I left the theatre shaking. Kate Hewitt’s production expertly transferred Mike Bartlett’s text, keeping its integrity intact by teasing out its tensions on a bare hexagonal stage. Luke Thallon’s performance was particularly outstanding.

Fun Home at the Young Vic
This absolutely melted my heart. I wish I could see it again. It had so much feeling through the story and music. And it felt so at home at the Young Vic. The audience felt like a proper community.

The Inheritance at the Noel Coward Theatre
Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour epic is so beautifully crafted; it’s so gentle with its humour, its empathy, its humanity. It feels rich in imagery and character. It needs seven hours to tell its story and I hope to visit it again before it closes in January.

Joseph Winer

*****

Dust by Milly Thomas as the best written and performed play of the year, As You Like It at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park as the most visually splendid play I’ve seen this year, and Frogman for sheer innovation and pushing the boundaries of theatre-making.

Christina Care

*****

1. The Inheritance
2. The Lehman Trilogy
3. Exit the King

James Evans

*****

1. Little Shop of Horrors
2. Eugenius
3. Dreamgirls

Daisy Smith

*****

National Theatre: Absolute Hell
Duke of York’s: The Moderate Soprano
Palladium: The King and I
National Theatre: The Lehmann Trilogy
Watermill: Sweet Charity
Chichester: Copenhagen

Paddy Briggs

*****

1. Nine Night NT / Trafalgar Studios. Natasha Gordon’s beautifully written exploration of expatriate Jamaican traditions.
2. Company Gielgud. Delightful re-imagining of the Sondheim classic.
3. Anthony and Cleopatra NT. – Explosively epic treatment by Simon Godwin.

Peter Yates

*****

1. Viktor by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch at Sadler’s Wells
2. A Quiet Evening of Dance by William Forsyth at Sadler’s Wells
3. Autobiography by Company Wayne McGregor

Marian Kennedy

*****

1. HOME I’M DARLING – Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre – A pleasant surprise last year. Katherine Parkinson shined and this play proved even further why Laura Wade is a fantastic playwright. Original, funny and rightfully transferring to the West End in 2019!
2. THE INHERITANCE – Young Vic / Noel Coward – An epic play that can easily challenge and live alongside the importance of other two-part plays such as Angels in America. This play will surpass generations and be studied for decades to come.
3. RASHEEDA SPEAKING – Trafalgar Studios #2 – An honest and fantastic piece of new writing. Great acting, poignant topic about racism in the workplace and deserved much more recognition.

Tomm Ingram

*****

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