Is that an American accent I hear? During 2018, the answer on London stages more likely than not was yes, as American titles flooded the London stage – a wave that looks unlikely to recede in 2019. From the National Theatre premiere of Annie Baker’s gorgeous and prismatic John, featuring New York stage veteran Marylouise Burke in sublime form, through to the transfers with their original casts intact of Underground Railroad Game and The Humans, London playhouses depended on American voices to make up for a notable shortfall of their own, at least on the new writing front.
How could that happen in a year that found new plays from Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare and Martin McDonagh? The first two entries were watchable and entertaining in themselves without necessarily breaking new ground, though Bennett’s Allelujah! did offer a feast of a role to the great Deborah Findlay as a health practitioner with less than holistic intentions, just as Ayckbourn’s The Divide did to the fast-rising young actress Erin Doherty – a veteran of small stages like the Royal Court who blossomed within the capacious confines of the Old Vic.
But oh dear, what to say about the egregious misfires of both Hare’s I’m Not Running, the first play in my experience since Doubt to co-opt its title as its final line, and McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter – have I left out a Very? – in which a singular talent seemed to be taking the piss (as his own characters might say) out of his own considerable artistry.
Both plays attracted name talent, as one might expect, but also prompted one to wonder whether they would have been produced quite so directly were the authors themselves lesser known. It wasn’t until the closing weeks of 2018 that a top-rank English play announced itself in Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane, a scorching examination of the embedded nature of violence in lives whether public or private. Might the title represent a sly nod to Ravenhill’s onetime Royal Court colleague, the late Sarah Kane? Who’s to say, except that the writer of Shopping and Fucking seemed with this latest play to have found a newly mature voice – if no less bleak than the one that first put him on the map some two decades ago.
What, then, of the classics in a capital that can be relied upon to trawl the back catalogue for excitement when the new writing well for whatever reason has run dry? Interestingly, there were fewer defining revivals than in years past, though the best were as good as any in recent memory. I’m referring, for starters, to Ian Rickson’s absolutely wonderful production on the National Theatre’s biggest stage of Brian Friel’s Translations, an enduring masterpiece that seemed to spread its thematic wings in accordance with the open reaches of Rae Smith’s telling set. Playing a young Irishman caught between the dictates of home and the larger, linguistically separate world beyond, Colin Morgan articulated a depth of feeling that was formidable to behold.
The same auditorium later in the year proffered a double act for the ages with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Antony and Cleopatra – a Shakespeare devotee paired with a comparative classical newbie to thrilling effect in a production from Simon Godwin that utilised the full splendor of the Olivier space, its dazzling drum revolve included. (Fiennes and Okonedo shared the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for Best Actor and Actress, which hasn’t happened at that ceremony since 1988 when Lindsay Duncan and Eric Porter headlined a National Theatre Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)
The Almeida Theatre proved itself first amongst equals when it came to vividly deconstructing such disparate texts as Summer and Smoke, The Wild Duckand Richard II. All three titles were presented with a bruising lack of naturalism that shone a spotlight on some terrific performances and reminded one yet again that the best plays more than withstand directorial innovation in keeping with the spirit if not always the precise letter of the writing. Simon Russell Beale’s forlorn and friendless Richard joined his onetime RSC colleague Fiennes’ fallen icon of an Antony as joint reminders of an ease with verse-speaking that should stand as a beacon for generations to come. Some proven Shakespeare hands, Antony Sher and David Suchet, were among the name draws of the director Jamie Lloyd’s ambitious, altogether laudable sequence of Pinter one-acts at the West End playhouse that bears the Nobel laureate’s name. Both stage vets seemed newly emboldened and refreshed by the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves away from more familiar climes – supporting performances in terms of minutes on stage but seared in the memory all the same.
And yet, time and again one was taken back to the American repertoire, exhilaratingly so in the case of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, a two-part epic in substance if not always in style akin to Angels in America that seemed to come out of nowhere and arrived steeped in (of all unlikely sources) the E.M. Forster novel Howards End. Stephen Daldry’s rendingly spare staging provided a platform for the ages for a wondrous ensemble headed by the unimpeachable anchor to events that was Kyle Soller and a blazing comet of a performer in Soller’s fellow American Andrew Burnap, whose Toby Darling represented a study in self-invention that won’t be easily matched by those lucky enough to inherit this play, and part, in time. (Kudos, too, to the contrastingly trenchant contributions of Paul Hilton and John Benjamin Hickey, the latter in peerless form as a billionaire Trumpie who may not quite be the confidence man that he would seem at first.)
And in a thin year for musicals, Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped “revisal” of Company illuminated afresh the sometimes opaque corridors of a bona fide Broadway classic, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 milestone given a clever Alice in Wonderland-style visual twist by the designer Bunny Christie, whose visionary gifts continue to surpass even themselves. The production offered a roster of run-with-them moments for such male supporting players as Matthew Seadon-Young, Richard Fleeshman and the inimitable Jonathan Bailey and a double-act to savour in Patti LuPone as a time-wizened lady who’s lunched and Rosalie Craig as the 35-year-old Bobbie resistant to marriage who ends the show newly alive and ready to love in front of an adoring audience all but prepared by that point to take her home.