2018 Wrap-Up: Best London Performances of the Year

2018 Wrap-Up: Best London Performances of the Year
(Photos by Johan Persson, Marc Brenner, Helen Maybanks, Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and David Stewart)

Whoever thinks actresses are getting a raw deal these days should hang out in London, where show after show during 2018 put one or another terrific female center-stage—sometimes solo, in the dual examples of Carey Mulligan (Girls & Boys) and Laura Linney (My Name is Lucy Barton). Various actresses continued their career ascent—Tamara Lawrance in The Tell-Tale Heart and Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke among them—and, yes, there were some pretty strong men on hand as well. For more, read on.

Alun Armstrong in The Cane (Photo: Johan Persson)

1. Alun Armstrong in The Cane
A onetime (and brilliant) Sweeney Todd for the National Theatre as well as the first-ever Thenardier in Les Miz, Armstrong is giving a career-best performance just now at the Royal Court as the teacher who finds himself on the defensive against an unseen mob of students and a visibly militant daughter (played by the wonderful Nicola Walker) in the searing new Mark Ravenhill play, The Cane. The title refers to the bygone English custom of caning in schools, and Armstrong’s performance has a correspondingly whiplash force.

Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance (Photo: Marc Brenner)

2. Andrew Burnap in The Inheritance
Matthew Lopez’s hugely expansive American play about love and loss among a gay community riven by politics, money and illness features an array of mighty performances, from stage veterans (John Benjamin Hickey, Vanessa Redgrave) to a younger generation among whom Andrew Burnap—a onetime Troilus at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park—burns with a bulb-shattering voltage. Playing a self-made artiste with the rather wonderful name of Toby Darling, Burnap has given so much during my two visits to this seven-hour play that one wishes him a restful holiday in 2019: performances this committed are so impactful that they hurt.

Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, or Change (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

3. Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, or Change
Michael Longhurst’s shrewd and wounding production of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori collaboration that won the 2007 Olivier for Best Musical during its original London run has a tremendous amount to commend it, sterling supporting turns from Lauren Ward and Teddy Kempner included. But first among equals is the granitic force field that is Sharon D. Clarke, here playing the maid, Caroline, employed by a Jewish household in 1963 Louisiana who does soul-stirring battle not to succumb to hate. Now at its third venue (the Playhouse), the show, and Clarke’s performance, possess an abiding fury that has only got stronger with time.

Rosalie Craig in Company (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

4. Rosalie Craig in Company
A good idea doesn’t move forward without the talent on hand to fulfil it. All credit, then, to the director Marianne Elliott for proceeding with her producing partner Chris Harper’s vision of a gender-flipped Company and for then giving the reconceived Bobbie (no longer the male Bobby of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 original) to the inimitably warm and engaging Rosalie Craig. The performance not only lands the unmarried 35-year-old at the heart of material from which s/he can sometimes seem strangely absent, but it works as part of a sublime double-act near the end with none other than Patti LuPone. No wonder the Broadway legend’s embrace of Craig at the curtain call feels like one generation of musical theater royalty anointing another very evidently on its way.

Lia Williams in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

5. Lia Williams in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
It’s not easy putting memories of an Oscar-winning Maggie Smith to one side, but the undersung, always-impressive Lia Williams (seen on Broadway in Skylight and Arcadia) managed just that in director Polly Findlay’s take-no-prisoners version of the celebrated Muriel Spark novel for the Donmar. Possessed of a flamboyant wit appropriate to the extravagance of the character, Williams slayed the house with an 11th-hour transformation that was terrifying to behold. If New York producers are listening, she, and the production, deserve a Stateside berth.