Three Kingdoms (2012)
Few productions this century have divided opinion like Three Kingdoms. Simon Stephens’ detective yarn took audiences on a thrilling and disorientating trip across Europe, in a trilingual collaboration with German director Sebastian Nübling and Estonian designer Ene-Liis Semper. Loathed and loved in equal measure, it has undoubtedly galvanised a new generation of directors inspired by continental European theatre. And in its pre-Brexit deconstruction of Britain’s relationship with Europe, it feels chillingly prescient. CL Read the review.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006)
Wild, scorching and gleefully profane, Young Jean Lee’s early play is an Asian-American identity-politics comedy. Lee, a Korean-American artist, populated the stage with three women in traditional Korean dress and a fourth woman, Korean-American, who despises them. (There’s also a very boring white couple.) An exquisitely uncomfortable exploration of bias, it also includes mimed suicides choreographed to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas. Lee continued to explore themes of prejudice and stereotype in works such as The Shipment and Straight White Men, but this finds her at her most scurrilous and original. AS Read an interview.
Mission Drift (2012)
Brilliantly collapsing time and space, the Team’s dissection of US capitalism is one of the most theatrically ambitious shows of recent years. Mission Drift’s heady mix of history, mythology and floor-shaking tunes skewered the American dream while recreating the giddy, greedy thrill it promises. In the age of Donald Trump, I’ve yet to see another play that quite so incisively captures the myth of the United States and all the ugliness it has bred. CL Read the review.
Elmina’s Kitchen (2003)
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play, which began life at the National before transferring, was one of the first by a black British dramatist to make it to the West End. Even if it eventually flirts with melodrama, Elmina’s Kitchen is a work of surging vitality that takes on board gun control, the battle between books and consumerism, and the maelstrom of life in a Hackney eatery. MB Read the review.
The Smile Off Your Face (2004)
You are sitting in a wheelchair, blindfolded and pushed into a room where your senses are caressed: fingers run through your hair, a chocolate is popped in your mouth, a voice whispers intimate questions. Deprived of sight, you focus intensely on each stimulus. Then, vision restored, you see a face in front of you. A tear rolls down his cheek. Devastating. This was the first UK visit of Ontroerend Goed, the remarkable Belgian company skilled in generating heightened emotions by unconventional means. MF Read the review.
Who would have thought that a TV interview would be the source of such gripping drama? Peter Morgan skilfully showed how David Frost’s 1977 encounter with Richard Nixon was more than an on-camera combat between a talkshow host and a disgraced president. It implied that the two men, in vastly different ways, needed each other. Frost, having lost his American and Australian programmes, was seeking to restore his dwindling fortunes, while Nixon craved public expiation of his Watergate sins. Morgan also made one nostalgic for a time when current affairs TV had theatrical power. MB Read the review.
The Pitmen Painters (2007)
Starting its life at Live theatre in Newcastle, Lee Hall’s play deservedly went on to become an international hit. Its ostensible subject was the way a group of Ashington miners, from 1934 to 1947, were turned into formidably skilful painters. Hall’s play was fundamentally about the relationship between art and socialism and suggested that society had to be measured by its capacity for political change rather than by personal progress. MB Read the review.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2002)
Initially seen as a slur against Irish patriotism, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy has gained even more resonance with time. Mad Padraic, a gunman deemed too extreme for the IRA, returns to his native village to avenge himself on the killers of his beloved cat. While still hair-raising, the play now seems like a potent satire on terrorist violence. MB Read the review.
A tidy two-hander that somehow encompasses much of US history in its brief scenes, Suzan-Lori Parks’ lively and cerebral comedy centres on two brothers, one named Lincoln and the other Booth, locked in love and deadly rivalry. No prizes for guessing how this one ends. Lincoln works at a shooting gallery, dressing up, in whiteface and stovepipe, as the president he is named for. Booth hopes to master three-card monte, a sidewalk con game. Topdog/Underdog enjoy its pretences and con games, but it is Parks’ language – vibrant, poetic, jazz-inflected – that makes this play the real deal. AS Read the review.
One Man, Two Guvnors (2011)
Goldoni’s 18th century comedy, Il Servitore di Due Padroni, has had many makeovers but few funnier than this one by Richard Bean. The action was shifted from Venice to 1960s Brighton, the hero became a failed skiffle player and the masterstroke was the addition to the dinner-serving scene of an octogenarian waiter with a tremulous hand and a remarkable capacity to rebound after falling backwards down the stairs. MB Read the review.
Caroline, or Change (2003)
With a score by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, this was a genuine musical game-changer. Dealing with the relationship between an African-American housemaid and her Jewish employers, it exposed the racial, social and economic tensions in 1960s America and the vivacious score even animated washing machines and hairdryers. MB Read the review.
First Night (2001)
An act of theatrical bad faith, this brilliant and subversive piece by the devised theatre company Forced Entertainment shreds the social contract between performers and audience. Structured as a smarmy seaside variety entertainment, the show begins badly and gets much worse. There’s a balloon-clad ecdysiast who runs off in tears, a doll who tortures his ventriloquist, a mentalist who predicts the death of most everyone watching. The performers’ smiles contort into a rictus; the sequins sparkle menacingly. Cruel, unsettling and often very funny, it attacks its spectators directly, upheaving dramatic expectations and disrupting audience complacency. AS Read the review.
An Oak Tree (2005)
The concept behind Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree is simple but brilliant: each night, a new, unrehearsed actor performs the show alongside Crouch, thus exposing the transformation that lies at the heart of all theatre. While it might sound like a cold intellectual exercise, the use of an unprepared and often slightly baffled performer poignantly speaks to the show’s themes of loss and grief, making it one of the century’s best marriages of form and content. CL Read the review.
In random, debbie tucker green reinvigorated the monologue form, testing how many voices can be channelled through one performer. Each of the characters in this story of a family shattered by a random act of violence has a distinct way of speaking, yet they all cohere in one female figure who holds together their collective grief. Sadly, with violent crime on the rise, the play is as powerful and relevant as ever. CL Read the review.
God of Carnage (2006)
In Yasmina Reza’s play, two ostensibly civilised couples meet to sort out a playground punch-up by their respective offspring. Its beauty is that the pales and forts of reason quickly break down and bourgeois hypocrisy is exposed. Underrated because of her commercial success (Art, Life x 3), Reza is a razor-sharp analyst of middle-class manners whose work reveals a satirist’s savage indignation. MB Read the review.
Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002)
Roy Williams’ play still offers one of the most vivid accounts of the variety and depth of Anglicised racism. That racism may take the form of reflex bigotry, skin-deep liberalism or, since the play is set in a pub on the day England are playing Germany in a World Cup qualifier, barbaric tribalism. Football, for Williams, becomes a way of exposing the ugly face of the nation. MB Read the review.
Loosely based on Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer prize-winning play unfurls at Mama Nadi’s, a brothel and bar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here Mama Nadi and her “girls”, each an orphan of war, entertain soldiers on both sides, flirting for their lives. Never indulgent or exploitative, this shattering play explores how women assert themselves in a world ruled by men who use rape and mutilation as weapons. Nottage’s play never sanitises this violence, but it argues, via beautifully complicated characters, that survival, compassion and even love remain possible. AS Read the review.
Mr Burns (2012)
Much was made of Anne Washburn’s decision to imagine The Simpsons surviving the collapse of human civilisation, but really Mr Burns is about how cultures evolve and reinvent. Almost regardless of whether it’s Homer Simpson or the Homer of The Iliad who manages to escape apocalypse, the play wittily explores how these stories morph, mutate and lend meaning to human lives. And it’s theatrically audacious, concluding with an elaborate pop-culture opera. CL Read the review.
Fun Home (2013)
This sweet and bitter musical, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir, tells twinned stories, one comic, one tragic. Alison – seen at three ages: Small, Medium and Big – describes her sexual awakening while trying to understand why her gay father, an English teacher and a funeral director, committed suicide. Jeanine Tesori’s delectable melodies and Lisa Kron’s lyrics, just on the elegant side of conversational, give the show a remarkable intimacy. The piece thrums with empathy for all its characters and the songs in which Alison discovers her lesbianism, the poignant Ring of Keys and the giddy Changing My Major, are pure joy. AS Read the review.
Red Velvet (2012)
Theatre history is a rich subject. Lolita Chakrabarti seized on the stunning story of the passions aroused by the London debut in 1833 of the African-American actor Ira Aldridge as Othello. His presence provoked professional bitchery, press venom and popular prejudice. But this was also a play about the nature of performance and a reminder that Aldridge was resented because, like all great actors, he was seen as a pioneering realist. MB Read the review.
The History Boys (2004)
Can one still champion a play whose main character, Hector, likes copping a feel of boys’ balls? Absolutely, because Alan Bennett’s point is that an inspirational teacher may also be morally imperfect. But that is only one aspect of a richly diverse comedy that deals with the covert eroticism of the teacher-pupil relationship, the overt elitism of the educational system and the debasement of culture by flashy presentation. MB Read the review.
The James Plays (2014)
Rona Munro’s seven-and-a-half hour trilogy covered Scotland’s history from 1421-88. The overwhelming impression was of a kingdom beset by feudal infighting and of the inescapable solitude of monarchy. Presented by the national theatres of Scotland and Great Britain, Munro’s timely trilogy also raised serious questions about the huge potential and possible hazards of independence. MB Read the review.
Iphigenia in Splott (2015)
Inspired by Euripides’s tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis, Gary Owen delivered a blistering dispatch from modern-day Cardiff, capturing just one of the many British communities on the brink, ripped by divisions and badly wounded by austerity. In the sacrificial Effie, who lives at a million miles an hour and gives the audience the finger, but hides a heart-bursting benevolence, he created one of the most enduring heroines of the century so far. Owen’s monologue starts with the rush of a boozy night out then stings with a hangover from hell. CW Read the review.
Cyprus Avenue (2016)
David Ireland’s blackly comic play showed how a Protestant loyalist’s devotion to the unionist cause led him to murderously lunatic extremes. The play was almost a mirror image of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore in that it exposed the destructive absurdity of sectarian hatred. It also yielded a truly great performance by Stephen Rea, who unforgettably captured the melancholia behind the hero’s mania. MB Read the review.
The Masque of the Red Death (2007)
Punchdrunk’s beguiling show, based on several short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, occupied the Victorian-era Battersea Arts Centre. Sexy, scary, often hallucinatory and wholly immersive, it left masked ticket holders free to wander its atmospheric, lavishly decorated rooms or to chase after incestuous siblings and black cats (sometimes those characters chased back) before gathering everyone together for an orgiastic masquerade. At times, upon discovering a secret passage tucked inside a wardrobe, say, or suddenly hearing music issuing from a hidden music hall, The Masque of the Red Death could conjure the feeling of walking through one’s own dreams. AS Read the review.
Brand New Ancients (2012)
Kate Tempest has mastered and blurred an impressive range of forms: written poetry, spoken word, theatre, hip-hop and fiction. Brand New Ancients thrillingly mashed together poetry, drama and music, bringing an epic spirit to stories about ordinary people. The show throbbed with energy and compassion, placing audiences firmly in the shoes of its characters. Bold, lyrical and compelling, Brand New Ancients showcased a virtuosic storyteller at her best. CL Read the review.
London Road (2011)
This pioneering verbatim musical showed how an Ipswich community reconstituted itself after the gruesome murder of five sex workers on a single street. Adam Cork’s score, deploying the everyday phrases of London Road residents collated by Alecky Blythe, acquired a fugal delicacy and opened up new possibilities for musical theatre: the savour of actuality, one felt, might one day supplant the narcissism of showbiz. MB Read the review.
The Height of the Storm (2018)
Florian Zeller’s plays, translated by Christopher Hampton, have captivated British audiences through their cryptic portrayals of personal crisis. This was his best yet because it explored love, loss, dementia and the difficulty of coming to terms with the death of a lifelong partner. As played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, it moved one to tears but also left one pleasantly perplexed about its ultimate meaning. MB Read the review.
The Watsons (2018)
The heart often shrinks at the prospect of yet another adaptation of a novel, but Laura Wade’s take on a piece of unfinished Jane Austen juvenilia shone like a gem. Having summarised Austen’s plot in under a half-hour, Wade brilliantly turned the play into an argument between herself and the characters about their destiny. Like a heady mix of Luigi Pirandello and Tom Stoppard, the play opened up fascinating questions about the capacity of fictional figures to escape their author’s control. MB Read the review.
David Harrower’s disturbing play offers a riveting study of sexual obsession. It deals with a fraught confrontation between a 28-year-old woman and a 56-year-old man who, 15 years earlier, had enjoyed a criminally transgressive relationship. Harrower suspends moral judgment to question our knee-jerk assumptions about the nature of adult guilt and adolescent innocence. MB Read the review.
Barber Shop Chronicles (2017)
Switching between six establishments in two continents on a single day, Inua Ellams’s invigorating play showed how, for African men, barber shops are both pub and political platform. Soccer, social issues and the difficulties of father-son relationships were recurring themes. But the abiding image of Bijan Sheibani’s production, which incorporated uplifting music and dance, was of the barber shop as a place where you shed your locks but discover your identity. MB Read the review.
Our Lady of Kibeho (2014)
Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) turns the story of the Marian apparitions that visited a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls in 1981 into a religious and political drama with echoes of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Hall’s great achievement is that, without necessarily validating the visions, she shows how they reflected the country’s existing Tutsi-Hutu tensions and foresaw the horrific genocide to come. MB Read the review.
Lucy Prebble’s was the first in a number of plays skewering corporate corruption following the financial crash. Dealing with the rise and fall of an overextended Texan energy company that started trading in the internet and even the weather, Prebble’s play was an exhilarating mix of political satire, modern morality and – in Rupert Goold’s production – Citizen Kane-like spectacle. MB Read the review.
Nine Night (2018)
Playwriting debuts don’t come much better than this. Natasha Gordon took a theme explored by many other writers: what it means to lead a bicultural existence in which you are caught between immigrant tradition and the insistent present. Gordon gave it fizz and bounce by showing a London family’s divided reaction to the Jamaican custom of a nine-night funeral wake. Nothing was more touching than the sight of the family’s graduate daughter suspending her natural scepticism to acknowledge the power of her spiritual inheritance. MB Read the review.
Joe Penhall’s compassion for those marginalised by society was seen at its best in this extraordinary play. It showed a young black man, who believed oranges are blue and Idi Amin was his father, being used as a ping-pong ball by two warring, white medical practitioners. Penhall nailed several issues: the myth of a tolerant community ready to receive people with a personality disorder, the high incidence of mental illness among members of the African-Caribbean population and the idea that all professions are a conspiracy against the laity. MB Read the review.
The Inheritance (2018)
Modern drama seems to oscillate between the minimal and the maximal. Matthew Lopez’s two-part, seven-hour play was emphatically in the latter camp. Dealing with the bitter inheritance of Aids and the spiritual qualities of a house, it was like a cross between Angels in America and Howards End. It teemed with narrative incident and impassioned debate. However, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of Morgan Forster’s quiet humanity is what sticks in the mind. MB Read the review.
The Ferryman (2017)
Set on a 50-acre farm in County Armagh in 1981, Jez Butterworth’s play had the richness and density of a good novel. It was partly about a reformed IRA gunman whose violent past is catching up with him, partly about the power of unspoken love and partly about the Hardy-esque rituals that give a rhythm to rural life. In an age of theatrical nouvelle cuisine, Butterworth’s play felt like a five-course feast. MB Read the review.
The Encounter (2015)
It wasn’t the first show to put the audience in headphones, but it was the first to make such extraordinary use of binaural sound. The Complicité production matched the hallucinatory nature of Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, a biography of the explorer Loren McIntyre, with a soundscape that got inside your head. Loops and vocal distortions turned an empty stage into a dense forest where Simon McBurney could ask questions about the ephemeral, the material and the telepathic. MF Read the review.
King Charles III (2014)
What would happen if the UK’s future monarch refused to give royal assent to a bill he strongly opposed? Constitutional crisis, civil war and palace plotting, according to Mike Bartlett’s fascinating blank-verse play. The Shakespearean echoes, which embraced Macbeth and Richard II, were made even more evident by Tim Pigott-Smith’s deeply moving portrayal of the isolated and unloved insomniac king. MB Read the review.
An Octoroon (2014)
This is a confounding comedy of race. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s script eviscerates Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, an 1859 melodrama about forbidden love on a slave plantation. Clever and dangerous, the play is designed to unsettle its audience – and it does. Using blackface, whiteface, redface and an anarchic humour, it blows up conventional notions of identity. It also blows up a steamship. Woven through the script is an anguished meditation on how a black artist should live and work in a white world. “Hi, everyone,” a character known as BJJ says at the beginning. “I’m a ‘black playwright’. I don’t know exactly what that means.” AS Read the review.
Lucy Kirkwood can do both intimate and epic. This was her most expansive play to date, charting the parallels and differences between the world’s two rival superpowers. In individualist US, we saw a photographer garlanded for his pursuit of an exiled Tiananmen Square demonstrator; in collectivist China, we watched a man punished for protesting about the smog-induced death of a neighbour. Today, as a trade war between the two nations accelerates, Kirkwood’s play looks ever more pertinent. MB Read the review.
Black Watch (2006)
Charged with bringing the National Theatre of Scotland into being, Vicky Featherstone reckoned there might be a story to tell about the Black Watch regiment before it was subsumed into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. She asked playwright Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany to devise a soldier’s eye view of the battalion’s history right up to the still topical war in Iraq. Epic, hard-bitten and tender, this landmark production put the NTS on the map. MF Read the review.
Escaped Alone (2016)
Caryl Churchill’s play hinged on a powerful juxtaposition. Four elderly women sit in a sunlit garden dwelling on times past, at one point even breaking into a version of Da Doo Ron Ron. Meanwhile, one periodically cuts through the chat to offer a vision, in seven monologues, of a world of flood, fire, thirst and starvation. This was no routine road to dystopia, but a wryly compassionate play about life’s soon-to-be-lost daily beauty. MB Read the review.
Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s dizzily enjoyable musical about Roald Dahl’s telekinetic bookworm sings the importance of two invaluable resources: public libraries and arts subsidy. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it became a global sensation thanks to its sweetly spiky songs, empowering celebration of the imagination and brilliantly rebellious heroine who puts the “revolt” into revolting rhymes. While her mum is at the bingo, Dahl’s Matilda spends “two glorious hours” at the library. This gives the same pleasure in the theatre. CW Read the review.
The York Realist (2001)
Class and sex intertwine beautifully in Peter Gill’s play, reminding us that, as a director, he rediscovered the forgotten dramas of DH Lawrence. Gill shows a Yorkshire farm-worker enjoying an affair with a London-based theatre man working on the medieval mystery plays. Ultimately, however, the two men are divided by geography and the historic assumption that, in England, art is the property of the middle classes. MB Read the review.
A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2016)
Angry and ecstatic, this piece – first performed in eight three-hour chunks and finally assembled into one all-day, all-night, sleep-optional extravaganza – explores the fraught history of America, from the revolutionary war onwards, by revisiting the music these United States have loved. Taylor Mac, backed by a live band and joined by many guests, allots one hour for each decade, changing into new and increasingly jaw-dropping costumes (Machine Dazzle is the designer) as each segment concludes. A thrilling playwright and performer who identifies as queer and prefers the pronoun judy, Mac is no patriot, but the show’s scepticism is interleaved with joy. AS Read the review.
The Flick (2013)
If drama is a study in human desperation, then Annie Baker’s play was intensely dramatic. Not everyone, especially in New York, responded warmly to its more than three-hour running time. Others, though, were overwhelmed by Baker’s portrait of three loners working in a rundown Massachusetts movie house. Apart from its touching evocation of frustrated desire, the play also offered a passionate defence of movies shot on 35mm film stock in a digitised age. MB Read the review.
The Children (2016)
Lucy Kirkwood’s probing, thoughtful play showed three nuclear physicists reunited in the wake of a disaster at a local power station. This opened up huge questions about the poisoned legacy we are handing on to future generations and about whether having children heightens or diminishes one’s sense of responsibility. It was an impressive, slow-burning work that confirmed Kirkwood’s status in the front rank of British dramatists. MB Read the review.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the birth of a nation and the rise to power of “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” was hyped to the skies. It justified the drum-beating through its pulsating energy, dexterous lyrics and celebration of America’s overwhelming debt to immigrants. Only time will tell if it has a major impact on the musical form but, in performance, it proved an exhilarating rollercoaster of a show. MB Read the review.
Jez Butterworth’s mesmerising study of a changing England was built around the figure of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a Wiltshire Falstaff unforgettably played by Mark Rylance. Like Falstaff, Johnny was both a charismatic storyteller and a disturber of the piece, and that ambivalence was the key to Butterworth’s play. It lamented the loss of local customs but pinpointed the absurdity of seeking to preserve them in a modern, corporate age where even the morris dancers are brewery-sponsored. That double vision ran right through the play. We were spellbound by Johnny’s outrageous stories of meeting a giant on the A14 or being kidnapped by traffic wardens in Marlborough. At the same time, we saw that the folkloric heroes he sought to emulate were a thing of the past in our modern, mechanised world. MB Read the review.