2017 Wrap-Up: Our Picks for Best London Shows of the Year

2017 Wrap-Up: Our Picks for Best London Shows of the Year

New plays aplenty left their mark on the London theater this year, while musicals coupled time-honored, venerated titles with the arrival just before Christmas of a new kid on the block, who also happens to be one of the American founding fathers. Read on below for a list of five of the year’s best shows (six, really, since there is a tie), though there are at least another dozen or so titles worthy of honorable mention.

In a city not exactly known for its dance musicals (when’s the last time you tapped your feet to Les Miserables?), the West End within several weeks of one another opened two entirely contrasting dance-heavy shows. The first was An American in Paris, transplanted from Broadway and featuring—for its opening months at least—the magical footwork of its New York leading man, Robert Fairchild, alongside two very fine homegrown talents in David Seadon-Young, as the lovelorn, limping Adam, and Zoe Rainey, as the cougarish Milo. 42nd Street featured a handpicked London cast that saw fancy footwork from Clare Halse and Stuart Neal and brought to the West End the sort of bigger-is-better ethos that one doesn’t, alas, find much anymore.

Not the most cheerful show of the year, Alice Birch’s Royal Court premiere last summer was without question one of the best: an intriguingly told puzzle play that chronicled the move towards and away from madness and despair of three generations of women whose relationships to one another were there for keen-eyed playgoers to piece together for themselves. Katie Mitchell directed like a master conductor keeping her gifted cast on the right beat, and a peerless company was led without fear but with tremulousness aplenty by the great Hattie Morahan and Adelle Leonce.

“Hats off,” as the lyric goes, not just to the “beautiful girls” descending the rickety staircase near the start of the show but to pretty much everything about the director Dominic Cooke’s probing and beautiful National Theatre revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman 1971 masterwork. For once the checks and balances that go with appraising any cast of this show found a level playing field in which the four leads—Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and the lesser-known but invaluable Peter Forbes—were singly and individually superb.

Would London take to as fully and thoroughly American a work as Hamilton, whose topic remains nothing less than the birth of the American nation at such time as the embryonic country was shedding the shackles of England? And how, as evidenced by the ecstatic response to the show at a press preview at which Jamael Westman in the title role, gave one of the most electrifying performances ever seen from a comparative theater newbie. (Westman only graduated from drama school two years ago.) But the entire creation that is Hamilton remains a marvel: long admired in the U.S., Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda looks to have found a loving and appreciative second home for his work across the pond.

5. INK
Playwright James Graham achieved a notable coup this past fall when he had two successful new plays running down the street from one another, both to full houses. And while Labour of Love constituted a cunning, politically layered rewrite of Much Ado About Nothing, the fiercely entertaining Ink was a cautionary tale dressed up as a journalistic vaudeville. Onetime Matilda star Bertie Carvel reinvented his look and sound afresh to play a young and sinuous Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who is known worldwide. Richard Coyle was even better as Murdoch’s onetime star editor, Larry Lamb, who oversaw The Sun newspaper’s relaunch—and, with it, the birth in 1969 of the modern tabloid culture, from which much darkness has since fallen.