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Sarah Crompton's top 10 theatre shows of 2019

WhatsOnStage's chief theatre critic picks her favourites from the last 12 months

Monica Dolan in Appropriate
(© Marc Brenner)

As 2020 edges closer, Sarah Crompton looks back over the last 12 months to round up which shows really stole the limelight.

1. Death of A Salesman, Young Vic, May

Wendell Pierce and cast in Death of a Salesman
© Brinkhoff Mogenburg

It feels a bit predictable to put this top of my list. But Arthur Miller's towering study of failure is a play I feel I have lived with all my life and yet saw new for the first time in this magnificent production by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. For me, it wasn't just the transformation of the Lomans into a black family that illuminated the play, but the way the production teased out threads about the relationships between fathers and sons and the influence of the past on the present. A moving and profound revival with a subtle interpretation of Willy Loman by Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke in shattering form as Linda.

2. Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp, Royal Court, September

Toby Jones, Deborah Findlay and Sule Rimi in Bluebeard's Friends
© Johan Persson

At the age of 81, the towering figure of Caryl Churchill is still one of the most daring, audacious playwrights around, and this quartet of plays were a characteristically imperious, challenging, troubling and funny examination of humanity's need to create stories to explain the violence and anxiety that churn beneath the surface of apparently normal life. Written with a scalpel, they were directed by James Macdonald with such a depth of care and understanding that they felt like a gift and performed with precision and ferocious truth.

3. Anna, National Theatre, May

Phoebe Fox in Anna
© Johan Persson

You never know what to expect from a play from Ella Hickson, who is rapidly becoming a writer you can't afford to miss. Set at a party in East Berlin in 1968, this one-hour play, performed in a glass box, with an astonishing soundscape by Ben and Max Ringham, was shaped like a thriller; you genuinely wanted to know what was going on and the ending was a proper surprise. But Hickson, her director Natalie Abrahami and an excellent cast use that format to raise disturbing questions about society and the capacity of humans to adapt to deception. A real surprise.

4. Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court, July

Tia Bannon in Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner
© Helen Murray 2019

Another surprise and perhaps the play that has stayed with me most through the year. Playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones displays astonishing boldness in the way she manages to cover an amazing amount of ground in a highly original manner. It's a play dealing with race, slavery, white supremacy, the offensive tropes that surround black women, the nature of Twitter and the malicious power of the digital world while equally being a touching and revealing portrait of two young women who feel they are not being heard. In a year that saw the emergence of a lot of excellent black women writers, this was a wild and loud announcement of an important new voice.

5 The Doctor, Almeida, August

The Doctor
© Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke's final show as associate director at the Almeida revealed the qualities with which this talented director has made his name. He took a classic play (Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler) and turned it into something fresh and relevant, using its themes of a doctor under attack to examine all the contradictions and complexities of contemporary life, the collisions between the rational and the irrational and the difficulties of gender and identity politics. Its unsettling shifts of argument never let you know the ground you were standing on – an achievement powered by a magnificent central performance by Juliet Stevenson and by Icke's unflinching eye.

6 Downstate, National Theatre, March

(L to R) ensemble member Francis Guinan (Fred), ensemble member Glenn Davis (Gio), Celilia Noble (Ivy), Eddie Torres (Felix) and ensemble member K. Todd Freeman (Dee)
© Michael Brosilow

Probably my most uncomfortable night in the theatre all year came courtesy of Bruce Norris's brave, play about the ways we seek vengeance on convicted paedophiles. It constantly undercuts your expectations, making laughter die in the throat and a chill seep up the spine. A co-production between the National Theatre and Steppenwolf, it featured American actors doing what they do so brilliantly, inhabiting these convicted sex-offenders and making us understand them, without ever minimising their impact on their victims. It also starred Cecilia Noble as a harassed and overwhelmed social worker; for this and her performance in Alexander Zeldin's Faith, Hope and Charity, she was my actress of the year.

7. Appropriate, Donmar Warehouse, August

Monica Dolan, Steven MacKintosh and Edward Hogg in Appropriate
© Johan Persson

Prize for the best scene change in the middle of a production has to go to this play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, designed by Fly Davis. We spend the first act in a crumbling rubbish heap of the plantation home of a now-dead father; as his offspring gather to sell the house off and, in the process, discover his secrets, the room is transformed into a clean space for sale. But the secrets continue to moulder away, corrupting all who come into contact with them. Jacobs-Jenkins confirmed the talent revealed in An Octoroon in this blistering piece of writing which is all about the legacy and ghosts of race, though no black character ever appears. It was given a great UK premiere in a production directed by Ola Ince.

8 A Very Expensive Poison, Old Vic, September

Lloyd Hutchinson as Dimitri Kovtun, Tom Brooke as Alexander Litvinenko, Michael Shaeffer as Andrei Lugovi
© Marc Brenner

Lucy Prebble's play based on Luke Harding's book about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is big, expansive and a bit of a mess. I loved it. John Crowley's confident production threw the kitchen sink of theatrical devices at its story, using everything from giant puppets to a direct addresses to the audience, to punch its points home. Propelled by righteous anger that the murder of a Russian citizen on British soil has not, for reasons of realpolitik, received the attention it deserved, it was theatre that increased understanding both of its victim and of the forces that drive Russia itself and grounded by two understated and deeply felt performances by Tom Brookes and MyAnna Buring.

9. Noises Off, Lyric Hammersmith, July

The cast of Noises Off
© Helen Maybanks

There's been precious little to laugh about this year, in the theatre or in the world at large, so the revival of Michael Frayn's imperishable meta-farce felt like a good deed in a dirty world. Its second act – where we see the truly farcical action driven by petty rivalries and profound emotions behind the scenes of a more formal farce this troupe of actors are supposedly performing, reduced me to such a heap of helpless laughter that tears ran down my face. The 37 years since its first production has done nothing to diminish the inexorable logic and pinpoint sharpness of Frayn's writing and Jeremy Herrin's production did it proud.

10. Cyrano de Bergerac, Playhouse, December

James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac
© Marc Brenner

There's always a danger in making these kind of lists in thinking that the last thing you've seen is the best, but Jamie Lloyd crowned a year to remember (the conclusion of his towering Pinter at the Pinter season, a glittering revival of Betrayal and a good one of Evita) with this magnificent rethinking of Edmond Rostand's romantic tragi-comedy. With a powerful, flexible contemporary adaptation by Martin Crimp and a barebones production that strips everything back to the words and the thoughts, Lloyd revealed he had learnt what Pinter had taught him: the power of silence, the weight of language. He also coaxed from his regular collaborator James McAvoy a performance of towering charisma, which makes him my actor of the year.

Special mentions

The productions that lurked just outside this impossible-to-pick top ten were: The Deep Blue Sea, Chichester; Faith, Hope and Charity, National Theatre; A Doll's House, Lyric Hammersmith; A German Life, The Bridge; Present Laughter, the Old Vic; Rosmersholm, Duke of York's and This is My Family, Chichester. The latter was the only musical I truly loved this year, the others all had merits that makes it hard not to include them. But my editor insisted on ten and so ten it is.