After seeing a 166 shows this year, I managed to narrow them down to the top 15 shows that really stuck with me. There’s quite a running theme, as I discovered this year that the theatre that hits me right in the heart is theatre about real people and real emotions. I learnt so much this year, whether it was about the Refugee Crisis across the world, mental health, Asian communities in Birmingham, how people with cancer really feel, gentrification and more, and I learnt all this through theatre. These are the shows that touched me, moved me, made me sob, made me belly laugh and totally empowered me in 2018.
The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Bryony Kimmings’ powerful, raw and honest production felt like the therapy session I, and anyone affected by cancer, so desperately needed. Bryony Kimmings manages to cram real-life narratives, musical numbers, conversation and re-enactment into 100 minutes of seriously strong theatre about cancer, and the way we as a society deal with it.
The Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
The Hope Mill Theatre’s Spring Awakening was packed with emotion and bursting with resonance, it was a piece of theatre that grasped me from the first note and had me clinging on until the very last bow. It’s as if this musical about growing up in 16th century Germany was made for the Hope Mill Theatre. It was heartachingly beautiful with a depth of emotion that lingered in my mind for days. Spring Awakening was a pure example of first-rate acting as the exemplary cast lifted the bar on what theatre has the power to do.
Southwark Playhouse, London
Telling the story of a mother and daughter who meet again after years apart, Kander and Ebb’s musical The Rink was given a new lease of life at the Southwark Playhouse with an intimate production starring theatre royalty Caroline O’Connor. It was joyous, uplifting, reflective and pulled on all my heartstrings as it made me laugh, cry and everything in-between. Not to mention, Caroline O’Connor and Gemma Sutton gave an unforgettable performance.
The Playhouse Theatre, London
This show literally changed my life. I sat on the front row one evening and became completely immersed in a story that I thought I knew, but I really didn’t. Ripping out the stalls in the Playhouse Theatre to turn it into the Calais Refugee Camp, you meet the hopeful and resilient residents of The Jungle. The stories of these refugees opened up my eyes to this horrendous crisis and these people in desperate need. Telling stories of loss, fear, community and hope, it’s a story about humanity and the way these people are being treated. The Jungle was the most thought-provoking and important piece of theatre I’ve ever seen as I still think about this show all the time. To this day, The Jungle is the best play I’ve ever watched on stage.
The RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Director Fiona Laird successfully made the most accessible Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen this year. Her modern production felt so relevant as it was lavish, stylish and ludicrously funny. With bright colours, camp characters and lots of sparkle, she brilliantly blended the idea of a contemporary reality TV show with one of Shakespeare’s classics. The feminist take on the show was remarkably refreshing, as it made the characters authentic and the show accessible to all ages and gender. It was bold, loud, heaps of fun and exactly the direction the RSC should be heading in to engage with a young audience.
A Monster Calls
The Old Vic, London
Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls was brought to life on stage at the Old Vic directed by remarkable director Sally Cookson. This imaginative, magical and emotional piece of theatre completely broke me. It is the story of a young boy dealing with his mother’s cancer. As her illness deteriorates he meets a monster who has come to tell Conor tales. When the monster has finished telling his stories, Conor must tell his own and face his deepest fears. I was emotionally drained after seeing A Monster Calls, it was such a poignant production that totally consumed me and all of my emotions. If you’ve ever watched your loved ones go through cancer or illness, it is a pretty tough watch, sometimes I even found myself unable to look at the stage. But it will really resonate and I do believe that sometimes you need that good cry. Sometimes theatre is the perfect therapy.
It wouldn’t be a post about 2018 theatre without mentioning the hugely successful new musical SIX. Having first seen it earlier this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, the show continued to hit the West End and tour the UK The gig theatre that created the coolest girl band in theatre out of Henry the 8th’s six wives is a new generation of musical theatre. With catchy modern music, witty lyrics and strong feminist characters, every girl wants to join their squad. Written by the hottest writing pair on the block Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss who wrote this smash-hit at university, I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Sparks was a beautifully poignant show telling the story of a woman searching for love amidst grief. Performed by Jessica Butcher and Anoushka Lucas, they tell her story through both music and monologue. It was a heartbreaking story of love and loss told in the most authentic and resonating way. It was a phenomenal piece of storytelling that encapsulated every emotion and lingered in my mind for days, weeks, months afterwards. It was simply fringe theatre at it’s best – raw, real and utterly striking.
The Gielgud Theatre, West End
Considering I’ve seen this musical three times and already booked for a fourth, there is no doubt Company was the best musical to grace the West End stage this year. Marianne Elliott reinvented Sondheim’s classic Company as a completely modern production with a woman right at the heart of the story. There is a distinct essence of Sex and the City in this modern day portrayal of women in a genuine, honest and resonant way. This musical emphasises both the questions women are asking themselves and the questions women are constantly being asked by those around them. The music, cast, direction and staging is extraordinary.
Trafalgar Studios, London
Dust was a powerful and shocking piece of theatre written and performed by Milly Thomas about suicide and mental health. This performance felt like a punch in the stomach, it was so raw but so incredibly important as it portrayed the dangerous effects of mental health. Bravely and boldly acted, and exceptionally written, it was a gripping and thought-provoking 75 minutes that is still stuck in my head. It was a truly fantastic example of why we need theatre to be able to tell these stories with honesty.
Trafalgar Studios, London
Misty is a production like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Transferring from the Bush Theatre to Trafalgar Studios, Arinzé Kene has written and performed one of the most important productions of our generation. It’s a profound and unique performance about modern life as Kene takes you on a lyrical journey through dialogue, rap and song. All about the heart and soul of inner-city London, it covers themes of gentrification, race, theatre and living up to expectation. I didn’t stop thinking about this show for a very long time and even purchased the playtext to relive some of the power of Kene’s words.
The RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Telling the story of a Pakistani Muslim family from Birmingham, the RSC’s adaptation of Moliére’s Tartuffe is superbly contemporary and brilliantly funny. Adapted by the writers of Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars and Citizen Khan, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, it’s rich in humour. Tartuffe is a bold, intelligent and hilarious comedy that shines a light on family dynamics and the Asian community in Birmingham. With everything from Brexit, to Twitter and Windrush thrown into the script, it’s a relevant piece of theatre filled with characters that will really resonate.
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
Bush Theatre, London
I caught All We Ever Wanted Was Everything on a bit of a whim at the Bush Theatre this year and I’m so glad I did. With words by Luke Barnes and music by James Frewer, my mind was blown by this piece of gig theatre. Set across three decades, from 1997’s Cool Britannia to today’s Brexit Britain, it is a story about the world we inherited and the one we are leaving behind. I loved this play so much because it was about real people and it tumbled through a rollercoaster of emotions in an incredibly unique and commanding way. It was a really refreshing and relevant piece of theatre told in the most exhilarating way.
Noel Coward Theatre, West End
I spent over seven hours watching both parts of this excellent production. Probably the most well-written play I’ve ever seen, The Inheritance tells the story of a group of gay men during the generation after the peak of the AID’s crisis. Performed simply, with barely any set, just remarkable acting, it was an eye-opening piece of theatre that displayed what it is like to be a young gay man in New York. Going through many themes such as pain and love in the most profound way, it is a true portrayal of real life. The way it was performed and the conversations on stage were so insightful as I discovered different perspectives through the different characters. An intense, but life-changing piece of theatre.
A Christmas Carol The Old Vic
The Old Vic, London
Cried both tears of sadness & joy at the utterly beautiful A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. The simplicity of it captured every single emotion. With an intimate setting as the audience surrounded the stage on multiple levels, you really felt invested in the story. Each scene was scored by moving arrangements of classic Christmas carols such as O Holy Night and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which just enhanced the poignancy of the production. Never did I ever think I’d be sobbing at A Christmas Carol, but Stephen Tompkinson’s portrayal of Scrooge was so touching. A completely life-affirming performance that left me feeling so warm, fuzzy and festive inside.