FROM Trump’s inauguration onwards, an unsettling year. Even closer to home, hope has been hard to come by, which may be why the best theatre in the last 12 months has shown us turmoil seething beneath the surface of lives that are helplessly on the edge and why JT Rogers’s Oslo, on the search for the Israel-Palestine conflict at the National Theatre, though impressive, ultimately leads down a blind alley of smug complacency.
The first of the best is The Ferryman, a brilliant new work by Jez Butterworth. It's set in Northern Ireland in 1981, where the Carney family are preparing to hold their harvest supper. A domestic play you might imagine, but this is a work on a massive scale where personal passion, Greek tragedy, myth and legend are all swept up in the inexorable march of history.
With a 21-strong cast that spans the generations, we're taken to the year of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers when Sinn Fein are about to enter mainstream politics and, crucial for this family, a man’s body has just been found. Originally at the Royal Court and now enjoying a twice-extended run at the Gielgud, Sam Mendes’s production is first-rate and the performances excellent.
Two plays gave eloquent voice to the plight of our needy and broken. Jim Cartwright’s Road was revived to great effect at the Royal Court by John Tiffany.
Premiered in the 1980s, this gloriously inventive and original drama charts the progress of a group of residents from one street in one deprived area somewhere in the north of England. It gives this array of characters the validity so often denied them by society at large and reshapes our consciousness of the poverty trap.
Jane Upton’s hour-long All the Little Lights at the Arcola shows deprivation in a different form, the interior worlds of three damaged and destitute teenage girls.
They’re unloved, uncared for, belittled and abused, but their urgent humanity sets them alight. Lacking structure in their lives, they grab whatever they can, to both humorous and shocking effect. Heartbreaking in their innocence, their situation is an indictment of our society and the play is a lesson in compassion. Theatre at its most powerful.
In London it was James Graham’s year, with no fewer than three plays in major West End theatres and another on the way.
This House and Ink humorously examine the world of politics and journalism, while Labour of Love stars a flawless Martin Freeman as a metrosexual Blairite Labour MP trying to promote centrist policies in a traditional Nottinghamshire constituency for 27 years.
His often stormy relationship with Tamsin Greig’s explosive, left-wing agent and office manager is the stuff of romcom, but it’s a blinder for the audience and builds a nifty analysis of Labour Party fortunes in the process. Easy entertainment but insightful nevertheless.
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