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A Very Very Very Theatrical Top 10

It’s New Year’s Eve, so there’s just time for another list. Here are the 10 shows that stood out for me in 2018, in the order that I saw them.

  1. My Mum’s a Twat – Royal Court
  2. Network – National Theatre
  3. Quiz – Noel Coward Theatre
  4. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre
  5. Fun Home – Young Vic
  6. The Jungle – Playhouse Theatre
  7. Exit the King – National Theatre
  8. Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre
  9. Company – Gielgud Theatre
  10. A Very Very Very Dark Matter – Bridge Theatre

As a massive Brief Encounter fan, I’d like to give a special mention to the revival of Emma Rice’s stage version at the Empire Cinema in London and to Posting Letters to the Moon, which I saw at the Mill at Sonning shortly afterwards. A perfect double bill.

Happy theatrical New Year!

The Cane – Royal Court

“Why would they attack the most popular teacher in the school?” That’s the question posed at the beginning of this tense three-hander by Mark Ravenhill. The answer, of course, is in the title.

Alun Armstrong plays Edward, a teacher on the brink of retirement, whose home is besieged by a baying mob of children and adults. A brick has been lobbed through the window. There’s never any doubt that worse is to come.

But is the real enemy already inside the house? Edward, and his nervous wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), are being visited by their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker).

“It was impossible to love you,” her mother tells her coldly, as she recounts how Anna ran amok with an axe as a child. The wall in the drab living room still bears the scars.

Walker, brilliant in the role, is the real focal point of the play. Anna asks questions like a detective rather than a daughter. She’s keen to help fix the the ugly situation outside, yet fails to recall her own adolescent rage.

Director Vicky Featherstone expertly turns up the tension as revelations about the past (and the contents of the attic) emerge. Even though the ending is easy to predict, it’s still shocking to witness.

In a social media age when five year old tweets can wreck a career or a job application, Ravenhill asks some searching questions about past actions affecting the present, and the nature of responsibility.

The Tell-Tale Heart – National Theatre (Dorfman)

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, this new play written and directed by Anthony Neilson offers plenty of Christmas-time chills.

It’s hard to describe the story in much detail without giving spoilers. In brief, a playwright (Tamara Lawrence) rents an attic room in Brighton to work on her next play and forms a relationship with her landlady (Imogen Doel), who wears an eye mask for reasons she doesn’t like to discuss.

Fans of the original Poe tale (printed in the programme) will know it doesn’t end well.

Lawrence and Doel admirably handle the multi-layered plot’s blend of comedy and horror without tipping it into farce. And I very much enjoyed the dual nature of David Carlyle’s detective.

It does go a bit Twilight Zone at times, but there are genuine shocks and scares to be had here, not least from the ingenious lighting and set design. The playwright’s typewriter is a particular delight.

After this you’ll never look at eyes – or eggs – in the same way.


Summer and Smoke – Duke of York’s Theatre

You can almost feel the heat. With its stage bathed in orange light, this production of Tennessee Williams’ play – a transfer from the Almeida – brings a welcome blast of “August madness” to a wintery West End.

Summer and Smoke centres on vicar’s daughter Alma (Patsy Ferran) and her complex relationship with doctor John Buchanan (Matthew Needham).

The minimalist staging of Rebecca Frecknall’s production lets the lyricism and emotion shine through. The action takes place within a semi-circle of pianos – their innards revealed as if to reflect Alma’s exposed soul.

The cast is impressive throughout, but it’s Patsy Ferran’s performance that people will be talking about in years to come. I first interviewed Patsy when she won a Critics’ Circle Award for most promising newcomer in 2015. She kicked off my theatrical year in 2018 in Anoushka Warden’s excellent My Mum’s a Twat at the Royal Court.

Here’s she’s unforgettable from the play’s opening moment as Alma finds herself thrashing around in the grip of a panic attack. You can’t take your eyes off her for the next two hours.

I’ve already bought my tickets to see this remarkable talent in Frecknall’s Three Sisters at the Almeida in April. It can’t come soon enough.