Matt Trueman: My top 10 shows of 2016
WhatsOnStage critic Matt Trueman picks the shows he loved in 2016
The Hamilton Complex, Unicorn Theatre / LIFT
What a complex look at adolescence this was: a row of teenage girls running rings around a male bodybuilder. Lies Pauwels' devised piece at the Unicorn, part of a strong, often strange, LIFT festival line-up, keyed into the slipperiness of that in-between stage – not a girl, not yet a woman – as the girls swung from hormonal hysterics to butter-wouldn't-melt innocence. "Are there any paedophiles here today?" asked one. We laughed. We squirmed. We shuddered. As celebratory as it was scathing, at once challenging and jubilant, The Hamilton Complex was that rarest of things: properly grown-up theatre.
The Flick, National Theatre
Three cinema ushers sweeping up popcorn and soaking up soda spills for three hours; The Flick shouldn't have made great theatre, but, good god, it did. Annie Baker so cares for her characters that we can't not. She lays bare their hearts, their hopes and their existential horrors. There's politics in that – making ordinary, overlooked people as visible as the stars on the big screen; all wrapped up in an intricate argument about digitisation, automation and what it is to be human.
Things Easily Forgotten, Mime Festival
This was table magic; a miniature marvel. Using only trinkets and keepsakes, the flotsam of flea markets, Xavier Bobes purred through Spain's 20th century like a croupier dealing out history. How much we forget – and how easily. Bobes shows history made of tiny units – daily lives and individuals – but also how big things fade from views. There was Franco. And facism. And war. Lest we forget once again.
A passenger jet comes down in London; a rocket strike over Parsons Green. Not only did Stuart Slade dare to imagine the fall-out in high definition – the smell of burned skin, flesh like "pulled pork" – he went on to warp that story out of shape. Into rom-com territory. Into comic caper. Into con trick. BU21 dared us to laugh in the face of terror, but, more than that, it showed it up as a story – a plot just like any other. Catch it at Trafalgar Studios in January.
Putting Words In Your Mouth, Roundhouse
There's still no shaking off the politics of Scottee's punchy performance piece. Having interviewed three LGBTQ members of far-right political parties, Scottee had three performers of colour – also all gay – lip-sync along. Thing is: their arguments made some sense at first, then turned mighty sour. Liberalism tipped into nationalism and against multiculturalism. Should we tolerate intolerance? I'm still seeking a rebuttal that stands up.
Counting Sheep, Summerhall
A party or a protest – or both? Toronto's Lemon Bucket Orchestra remade Maidan Square in an Edinburgh church hall in this participatory piece. It wasn't immersive. It was old-school forum theatre: a theatrical re-enactment. But re-enactments are still real, and Counting Sheep was, in its way, in primer for protest, even for revolution should the need ever arise. It ended, however, with war in Donbass, armed separatists and Russian soldiers – and nothing, nothing, prepares you for that.
The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre
Billie Piper has picked up the plaudits for Yerma, but for me, Helen McCrory gave the performance of the year. Washed out and worn down, her Hester was a waif with no life of her own to speak; a woman surviving on scraps of affection; a dishevelled doll with bird's nest hair. By the time she finally cooked that egg, she'd been through so much, you wished her only happiness to come. With the dreamy harmonies of The Flamingos swimming past, Carrie Cracknell's production wrung this woozy, dizzying atmosphere from Rattigan's play and turned in a truly feminist production.
The Destroyed Room, Battersea Arts Centre
Shattering enough at the time, Vanishing Point's reflections on the refugee crisis seem all the more prescient now. Three do-gooders debating the state of the world – a scripted simulacra of a genuine, improvised conversation – tied themselves in knots and spoke at cross-purposes, confusing the personal and the political. Everyone had an opinion; no one had a solution. Welcome to the post-fact world. Problem is, as the final images made clear, the crisis is, in fact, all too real.
Unreachable, Royal Court
In gloomy times, comedy can seem radical. Anthony Neilson's Unreachable was as delirious as it was profound. Matt Smith starred as a prodigious film director in search of the ideal light – a perfectionist and a self-saboteur – but he was also a man-child in search of a mother, a lost soul in search of himself and a depressive in search of happiness. Art is unattainable. Other people are unknowable. The past is impenetrable. And nobody chews the scenery like Jonjo O'Neil's Brute.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre
I'm no Potterhead, but I am a theatre addict and nothing, but nothing, gave me more pleasure than seeing John Tiffany and co. smash Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Thrillingly theatrical – all rough magic and imagination – the result is a show that will do for theatre what the original books did for reading. Even if the second instalment stuttered as the plot kicked in, I can't remember the last time three hours of stage time flew by so quickly. Truly spellbinding stuff.