2018 Wrap-Up: Best London Shows of the Year

2018 Wrap-Up: Best London Shows of the Year
(Photos by Johan Persson, Marc Brenner, Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Mark Douet)

American work was everywhere on the London stage during 2018, as it looks to be again in the year ahead when, for example, there will be five major Arthur Miller revivals within the first six months alone. But amid such bracing titles as Underground Railroad Game, Annie Baker’s John and the transfer (its original cast entirely intact) of the Tony-winning The Humans, five titles transcended nationality to speak to the universal power of great theater.

Antony and Cleopatra (Photo: Johan Persson)

1. Antony and Cleopatra
Shakespeare’s most sprawling play was given focus and passion to go with its sweep by a superbly empathic director in Simon Godwin (newly appointed to run the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.) and two ravishing star turns from Tony winners Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the title roles, both of them marking a return to the National Theatre’s biggest stage. That rare production to use the full capability of the Olivier auditorium’s depth-defying drum revolve, the show encompassed Rome and Egypt and various battlegrounds in between, all the while doing justice to the altogether separate frontiers of the heart.

The Cane (Photo: Johan Perssony)

2. The Cane
A onetime bad boy of the British stage, Mark Ravenhill first made waves—and confounded copy editors—with his breakout Royal Court play Shopping and F**king (later seen off-Broadway). And he returned to the Court just this month with his best and also scariest play to date: a taut three-hander about the absorption of violence into all aspects of life, whether at school or at home, between teacher and student, parent and child, husband and wife. Vicky Featherstone directed the incomparable cast (Alun Armstrong, Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed), who by rights will travel with this play wherever it goes next.

Company (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)

3. Company
The director Marianne Elliott certainly seems to like the American canon, between Angels in America in London and then on Broadway and also the promise of an all-black Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic next year. But the two-time Tony winner achieved a career high with her “revisal” of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 Tony winner, Company. By putting a woman at this famously plotless musical's sometimes-opaque center—the New York singleton is now the female Bobbie (Rosalie Craig, luminous) and not the male Bobby of old—the show acquired newfound gravity and pathos while retaining a gut-busting humor evidenced at no point more clearly than when the amazing Jonathan Bailey sings “Getting Married Today.” Oh, and an especially glorious Patti LuPone is in it, too. Everybody rise!

The Inheritance (Photo: Marc Brenner)

4. The Inheritance
You can describe it as an offshoot of Angels in America or a response to the E.M. Forster novel Howards End, but Matthew Lopez’s deeply emotional two-part, seven-hour play about gay American life in the Trump era and existing in the shadow of AIDS was the year’s biggest surprise: the sort of vast, sweeping play they don’t seem to make any more, until they do—and served up with incomparable grace by the director Stephen Daldry and some wonderful American actors who include Kyle Soller, John Benjamin Hickey and the electrifying Andrew Burnap. The play's lone woman is, yes, Vanessa Redgrave, which tells you something about the level of talent on view.

The Lehman Trilogy (Photo: Marc Douet)

5. The Lehman Trilogy
Headed during 2019 to the Park Avenue Armory in New York and then to the West End for a commercial run, Ben Power’s National Theatre adaptation of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s historical epic got the most immediate, and rousing, standing ovation of any play or musical I came across this year. For that, credit the director Sam Mendes, marking an astonishing about-face from the hyper-realism of his award-winning The Ferryman, and an astonishingly adroit cast of three in Adam Godley, Ben Miles, and the always-welcome Simon Russell Beale. The protean performer segued at year’s end from the German-born Lehman family patriarch, Henry, to a ferociously cut, whacked-out production for north London’s Almeida Theatre of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Count Russell Beale among that select group of actors worth following wherever they may go.