Top 5 Shows Of 2019 (according to me)
To get a sense of how many great shows played UK theatres in 2019, look at some of the outstanding productions that didn’t make my top 5.
From the RSC’s Robbie Williams powered The Boy in the Dress (brilliantly adapted from David Walliams’ book), the first actor-musician staging of Kiss Me, Kate at Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Ian McKellen’s herculean 80 date one man evening of autobiography that was a love letter to theatre, a reinvigorated West Side Story at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and, of course, Chichester Festival Theatre’s dazzling Oklahoma!
There was a dizzying array of delights on offer.
Waitress. Oh Waitress…
Based on Adrienne Shelly’s film and scored by Sara Bareilles, the New York hit arrived in London in a flat, laboured, commercially driven production. It lingered on and on and on with haphazard marketing, repellent casting & the worst set in town.
A move which was either an act of open warfare on its own audiences or a demonstration of supreme charity towards superior broadway imports peppered across town.
Elsewhere, Sean Foley’s musical staging of The Man in The White Suit featured Stephen Mangan and Kara Tointon. Both performers were trapped in “what the hell’s going on” territory, and up against some hum-drum stage effects, while Sue Johnston phoned it in as a washer-woman.
Bizarre and ghastly, it left audiences in theatre hell and closed 6 weeks early.
Best we can say about The Man In The White Suit is at least it was brief.
I don’t think I have the energy to give Big – The Musical an autopsy – suffice to say it was totally terrible.
Anyway, my top 5 shows of 2019:
1. Life of Pi
If I were picking a theatre of the year, it would undoubtedly be Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
With one compelling show after another in Guys and Dolls, Reasons To Stay Alive and then this remarkable reimagining of Yann Martel’s book. Everything was stunningly brought to life in a production of theatrical genius, cunningly adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti.
In case you missed this five-star spectacle, fear not; Crucible Theatre’s acclaimed production will come to the London stage next year.
The Wyndham’s’ auditorium will be reconfigured for the first time in order to accommodate the production, with seating levels altered and the stage extended out into the stalls. Unmissable.
2. Come From Away
This feel-good musical comes straight from the heart and it is solid gold, winning the best new musical Olivier award, as well as best sound design and outstanding achievement in music.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s folksy show tells the tale of 7,000 stranded air passengers amid the chaos of 9/11 and the small town that took them in.
A uniformly excellent cast captivate audiences for 100 storming minutes: you’ll laugh, tap your foot, cry happy tears, and leave feeling good about civilisation. A must see.
3. Death of a Salesman
Originally staged at the Young Vic and transferring to the west end in the autumn, a beautiful piece of theatre which was and there are no two ways about this, amazing.
Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke probably nailed some Olivier Award nominations with their outstanding and dusted down performances as Willy and Linda Loman too.
Dream team Elliott and Cromwell carved something new and utterly contemporary out of an old play, with the dislocating quality of a dream.
Broadway beckons, surely.
4. Standing at The Sky’s Edge
An astonishing musical, with new and old songs by pop star Richard Hawley and a snappy book by Chris Bush, possessed the rarest things in modern British musicals, a beginning, a middle, an end, and a sense of humour.
What moved me and others to tears, in this across-the decades wonder, also offerered one of the richest and most profound audience experiences of the year. Robert Hastie’s heartfelt production delighted in being visceral. Ben Stone’s concrete multi-level design both stunningly simple and enchanting; it all added up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
It was damn near perfect. I hope it has another life.
5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Look, 2019 marked 50 years since the original Joseph concept album was released. This summer, the eccentric show was back at the London Palladium.
Laurence Connor directed a cast including Sheridan Smith and Jason Donovan, who brought charisma to a gleeful revival – but neither could match the professional debut of Arts Ed graduate Jac Yarrow. This was a shimmering summer pantomime.
At its centre, Yarrow elevated Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s silly musical to new heights; it was almost as if he was born to sing Close Every Door on that Palladium stage. I didn’t always know what was happening, but it didn’t matter – everyone left with a smile on their face after an entertaining and vibrant 100 minutes.
And that brings our list to a close. Not great news for 9 to 5 The Musical, but pretty good news for theatre’s best people.