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Year round-up Best of 2019: London Theatre

THE YEAR began with a flurry of Arthur Miller productions which left his canon feeling surprisingly dated.

A sprinkling of stardust with Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke could not fully re-energise the Young Vic’s Death of a Salesmen and the sense of anarchy in Jay Miller’s production of The Crucible at The Yard was more enigmatic than eerie.

The West End transfer of The Price packed the biggest punch of the impromptu season, with David Suchet's star turn as Jewish furniture dealer Gregory Solomon resurrecting Miller’s piercing critique of consumerist society.

New writing was really where it was at in 2019. Jasmine Lee-Jones’ seven methods of killing kylie jenner at the Royal Court was the undoubted highlight of the year. It stood out for its defiant political voice and its ability to transfer the digital sphere onto the stage with breakneck intensity and wicked humour. Huge credit must also go to director Milli Bhatia for realising the meme-filled text with vivid clarity.

Set in an Illinois group home for sex offenders, Bruce Norris’s Downstate was another remarkably fearless work which challenged  its audience to consider the consequences of a punitive justice system with no interest in rehabilitation.

Pam MacKinnon’s realist production at the National gave rise to two of the best performances of the year from American actors Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman, with both deeply compassionate in their portrayals of fallible characters.  

Alexander Zeldin’s return to the same theatre was another devastating triumph. His latest play, Faith, Hope and Charity, assessed the acute damage 10 years of funding-cuts have inflicted on the most vulnerable in our society and demonstrated once again that he is a unique dramatist with a special ability to make the political personal.

Samuel Bailey’s debut at the Southwark Playhouse had similar power. Shook, the tale of three young men trapped in the merry-go-round of young offender institutions, offered another bleak but defiant portrait of the corrosive combination of draconian treatment and underfunding. Ivan Oyik and Josh Finan both produced compelling depictions of contained rage in one of the year’s breakout hits.

At the Donmar Warehouse, Lynne Nottage’s Sweat has been rightfully lauded for providing an insightful and entertaining look at the fragmentation of communities in the post-industrial towns of the US.

At the National, Alice Birch’s [BLANK] broke all the rules in probing issues of class, age, race, gender and much more in over 100 scenes – all acted, written and directed by women and primarily for women.

Finally, there were three productions of plays by Athol Fugard, a writer whose defining qualities, defiance and compassion characterise 2019’s best theatre.

While A Lesson from Aloes at the Finborough and Blood Knot at the Orange Tree both made intriguing viewing it was "Master Harold"... and the Boys at the National that really showcased the very best of one of the world’s greatest living playwrights.

Complete with a masterly performance from Lucian Msamati, one of  Britain's finest actors, it was a quintessential production of an essential play.

 

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