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2019 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of Theatre

2019 Year in Review: Gary Naylor's Best of Theatre
Tiger Cohen-Towell and Eve Austin
in Lit at HighTide Festival

In 2019, I saw 119 shows - and here are my highlights.

I'd never seen Les Mis, so - after many days, boy and man, walking past its theatre - going within was a real treat. Rather like me, the show was beginning to wear its years somewhat heavily, but (rather unlike me) it still packed a punch. I'm glad to have seen this production before the show's reinvention for the 2020s.

New musicals prove as hard to get off the grounds as ever, so one looks as much to hybrid shows that straddle the ground between performance, opera and musical theatre for innovation. Isango Ensemble's extraordinary SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill at the Linbury Studio was part-history lesson, part-performance art and wholly entertaining, a display of theatrical virtuosity with bite in both subject matter and delivery.

Much the same could be said for the Watermill Theatre's Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter's hit a safe choice as a show, but transformed by its cast of musician-actors and a frighteningly up to date "Too Darn Hot" into an utterly engaging experience.

Opera was a delight throughout the year, my two highlights showing just how malleable the genre is and how spoilt Londoners are these days. Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House was transporting - the music eerie, the sets spectacular and the performances rising above even such excellence. We really were in another world, discomfited but seduced.

Treemonisha at the Arcola's Grimeborn Festival was equally transporting, but as a consequence of its intimacy, its totally committed cast and music that effortlessly reached across decades. Scott Joplin may be a little clumsy in his storytelling, but the man could write a tune.

Two explicitly "state of the nation" plays offered a restatement of theatre's role in our nation's difficult conversation with itself. In Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre, Alexander Zeldin gave us the individuals behind the statistics and the soundbites - the left-behind and hungry. It also included the single most uplifting moment all year: a faltering, slightly out-of-tune, so, so beautiful rendition of the New Radicals' "You Get What You Give".

No less ferocious was Lit at the Hightide Festival, Sophie Ellerby's cry from the estates of our post-industrial Midlands, illuminated by a sensational central performance from Eve Austin. With a This Is England vibe, this debut play marks the arrival of an important new voice in British heatre.

It was a good year for young women on stage with Sadie Levett making a superbly controlled debut in the Union Theatre's Whistle Down The Wind. Diversity in both audiences and productions continues to be an issue, but, as this article shows, there's an ocean of talent out there amongst casts and creatives who happen to be different to me - a middle-aged, white male.

I have never felt so much that stereotype than when I sat on a little chair in a Birmingham primary school gym to see the RSC's children's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. These kids, with heritages very different to mine, immediately connected with the play and we were united across any boundaries that others might seek to impose on us by the genius of art - theatre wins again.

Amongst plays, Ben Weatherill's Jellyfish in the Dorfman Theatre gave us a young woman who refused to allow her Down's Syndrome define her - Sarah Gordy brilliantly funny and warm as its charismatic protagonist.

Equally charismatic and funny, but anything but warm, Stephen Rea commanded the stage in the Royal Court's revival of Cyprus Avenue, a captivating, malevolent presence in a play that you just could not take your eyes off, no matter how hard you tried. And I tried.

Perhaps the play of 2019 that had most to say about 2019 was a small production that had toured church halls and fetched up at the Watermill Theatre in leafy Newbury. Our Church pitched young against old, Daily Mail against Guardian, openness against fear, and never sought to judge. Well, we know who's winning that battle now.

At the end of a decade reviewing for BroadwayWorld, I continue to be surprised, amused and amazed by what happens when the talking stops and the lights go down. As long as all those actors, actresses and creatives (and the front of house, management staff and PRs) continue to do their extraordinary work with such talent and commitment, that frisson will still run down my spine for as long as I can find my way to my seat.

As I said this time last year, we don't say thank you enough... So, thank you!

Photo Craig Sugden

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