Heather Jeffery - Editor
Top of my tree in 2018 was the premiere of Margaret Cavendish’s THE UNNATURAL TRAGEDY at WHITE BEAR, 350 years after it was written. At a time when women were banned from the theatre profession, the Aristocratic Cavendish had much to say on behalf of women. It’s perfect #metoo material, so she was way before her tme. This cleverly written, and bitingly satirical play was superbly directed by Graham Watts. Bravo White Bear for championing older theatre makers and new writers.
I would also like to mention Matthew Parker's production of Ionesco's THE LESSON at The HOPE which pushed the boundaries of artistic vision.
Praise must also go to JACK STUDIO THEATRE run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard. They had an excellent year with many productions gaining outstanding critical acclaim and some shows selling out their entire run. I was fortunate to see two shows this year, their in-house Christmas show CINDERELLA and a re-imagining of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA adapted by Ross McGregor for ARROWS AND TRAPS. Whenever I’m at the Jack I am always impressed with their technical capabilities and the number of creatives involved in the success of their shows. It really is the complete theatrical experience.
Goodness, it’s been terribly hard choosing the best of 2018. The standard within London Pub Theatres has been incredibly high. Special mention should go to the FINBOROUGH’s remarkable revival of Irwin Shaw’s BURY THE DEAD. The director Rafaella Marcus gave us an urgent and impassioned production that will live long in the memory.
But it is to two pieces, presented at the same venue, the BROCKLEY JACK, that most of the plaudits must go.
Firstly, Ross McGregor’s remarkable staging of DRACULA by Bram Stoker. Some would regard yet another production of Dracula ‘as overkill’ (sic). Yet McGregor brought enormous vitality to the piece as well as humour and great insight. All round it was a pretty impressive piece of work. McGregor is a young man destined for a stellar career in the theatre.
And secondly to the current Artistic director of the Brockley Jack, Kate Bannister, and her production of KES. This was simply a joy. Everything about the piece had been given enormous weight and sensitivity. The stagecraft, acting and production values were second to none. Amongst many wonderful things she gave us two actors who were able to conjure up an ‘imaginary’ bird that was totally convincing. The night I was in a young boy in front of me shouted at one of the actors: ‘Don’t kill Kes. Please don’t kill him. What’s he done to you?’ That to me is what great theatre should all be about.
I have seen some excellent shows this year. Louise Coulthard's COCKAMAMY at THE HOPE was a moving portrayal of the battle with dementia while AN HONOURABLE MAN, by Michael McManus at WHITE BEAR THEATRE was an important and powerful political play for our time.
But the stand out show of the year for me was GRACIE at the FINBOROUGH, written by Joan McLeod. Carla Langley delivers a one-woman tour-de-force, as Gracie, a young girl living in a polygamous religious community on the Canadian border. With nothing but a staging block for support, Langley has the audience hanging on her every word in this fascinating and compellingly human drama.
Without doubt my favourite Pub Theatre show this year was THE WHITE ROSE from ARROWS AND TRAPS at the always impressive JACK STUDIO, Brockley. The heart-breaking story of Sophie Scholl the young German resistance fighter who was executed at the hands of the Nazis in 1945 was written and directed by Ross McGregor and the story moved smoothly between Sophie’s interrogation and the story of how she became involved in the push back against creeping nazism. The script was deft and assured, acting superb and movement from Roman Berry was exquisite. A well-deserved five stars from me.
The FINBROUGH has once again come up trumps with some brilliant revivals like CYRIL’S SUCCESS and JEANNIE as well as new and international writing like vibrant Welsh play Exodus by Rachael Boulton and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNAECOLOGICAL ONGOLOGY UNIT at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York by Halley Feiffer.
As always, the ambition and can-do attitude of London’s wide array of pub theatres is always inspiring and embodies the real spirit of theatre.
Three (and a half) shows stood out for me this year, with no particular linking theme or style, just strong stories beautifully told in ways that made me think about them for weeks after the shows. The year ended on a high-quality note with NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT at UPSTAIRS AT THE GATEHOUSE in Highgate, a perfectly realised and nicely disguised modern mash-up of some of George and Ira Gershwin’s greatest hits in a PG Wodehouse/Guy Bolton-inspired story of bootleggers, fake butlers and love eventually requited. Also hitting the right note, was the joyful musical of the 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE at the DRAYTON ARMS in Kensington, a tale of competitive, insecure schoolkids, from which I’d defy anyone to walk out at the end without a grin plastered all over their face. CRUMPLE ZONE at the KING’S HEAD in Islington brought pathos, laughter and real depth in a story about the labours and losses of love, which happened to be largely about gay men in an unfashionable part of New York City but achieved universality. And, sneakily, I’ll add one half of a not-entirely successful double bill at THE HOPE, also in Islington – EMPTY BEDS saw three sisters travel to the bedside of their sick brother and was the single most emotionally intense and fully achieved piece of work I saw on the fringe in 2018, beautifully written with real knowledge of how much three people who love each other can fray each other’s nerves and acted with remarkable conviction.
The best play I saw in 2018 was at the beginning of the year. The revival of Steven Berkoff’s EAST by ATTICIST Productions, at the KING’S HEAD THEATRE left a strong impression on me. Directed by Jessica Lazar, this battering ram of a play was astonishing in its verbal dexterity and physicality. A superb cast gave their all – the only option with a Berkoff script – and the production long stayed in the memory. Lazar was excellent at bringing out the contemporary resonances whilst staying faithful to the script. She repeated the trick with a revival of Mart Crowley’s FOR REASONS THAT REMAIN UNCLEAR later in the year, and will be back at the King’s Head directing a revival of David Grieg’s OUTLYING ISLANDS in the new year.
MEDICINE at The HOPE Theatre & WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? at The OLD RED LION
Much like Meryl Streep’s dilemma in ‘Sophie’s Choice’, I couldn’t decide between these two shows. Both were exceptional, gut-wrenching and memorable. All the elements were aligned perfectly: incisive and tautly written; beautifully acted and imaginatively staged. At frequent intervals I still mention WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM? in conversation, so powerful and chilling was its impact. While the rawness of emotion and biting humour of MEDICINE has led me to dwell on it many times. So, don’t make me choose, I can’t do it.