Michael gives a month by month overview of his favourite cultural events of 2019…
Cultural highlights of 2019
As I write each year, I know my opinions aren’t any more valid than anyone else’s, but I find it a useful exercise to recap my year and, if I’m going to do that, I might as well post it in this journal. As usual, I’ve ignored TV and books, as I watch so much TV and read so few books.
So, here’s my subjective list of the cultural events that thrilled me (and some that didn’t) in 2019.
Summer and Smoke – Duke of York’s Theatre
My year began strongly with a West End trip, via Today Tix, to see Rebecca Frecknall’s beautiful production of this Tennessee Williams play. The transfer from the Almeida was interesting: they’d recreated every detail of the stage, including the curved brick wall. Patsy Ferran was remarkable in it. And, looking back, I notice that Matthew Needham (who I saw more recently in Fairview) played opposite her. I’m sure they are both destined for greater stardom.
Kieran Hodgson ‘75 – Soho Theatre
Kieran Hodgson’s show about the 1975 EU referendum was hilarious, fascinating and of course resonant in our current political climate. I’ve no idea if the young crowd knew how uncanny his impressions were (they really were) but everyone in that bubble of Remoaners loved every minute and every minute detail.
Follies – National Theatre
I’m no big fan of musicals (although I seem to have been to several in 2019) but everyone keeps telling me how great Sondheim is. So, with the temptation of cheap, last-minute, front-row seats, I went to see Follies. It was magnificent. Faded glory, the regret of misstepped relationships, the politics of personality, all played out in stunning costumes in a lavish set. What’s not to like?
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch – Battersea Arts Centre
There’s no pretence and no compromise with Bryony Kimmings. She is an artist. Perhaps that’s why this technically complex show had been postponed, or why I’d been moved from my rescheduled seats. That night, I sat uncomfortably close to the action. The show was heartbreaking, devastating, empowering, confrontational, harrowing, exposing and many other ‘ing’ words. I have no idea how she puts herself through that every night but I am very grateful that she did, that night.
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican
If you’ve been through grief, you’ll know how difficult it is to articulate. Enda Walsh’s adaptation of Max Porter’s novel comes as close as I’ve seen to capturing its spirit. In this case, the spirit animal is a crow who threatens to stay until he is no longer needed (like an even more ominous Mary Poppins). Cillian Murphy inhabits the splitting personalities of a father and his grief. It’s a messy, dirty, truthful telling of the pain of being human (or a corvus).
Velvet Petal – Laban Theatre
I came for the advertised punk party, but got a much more nuanced examination of misfit kids finding their own clothes as iconic adults. Inspired by the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Velvet Petal grasps at moments and evokes feelings in ways that only dance can do. Amongst an excellent ensemble, I was mesmerised by the movement of Pauline Torzuoli. It was a Cog Night and I wrote the review.
Mouthpiece – Soho Theatre
I don’t know if it’s a trend or if the chip on my shoulder tilts me towards it, but class consciousness has been a particular theme of my cultural year. This play, from Kieran Hurley, talks us through the appropriation of a life story. It’s a my fair laddy tale, set in Edinburgh. It’s an attempt to educate; middle-class angst struggled with but forgotten; the adoption of ‘the other’ as a form of entertainment. There’s a lot to think about, sitting in a central London theatre.
Recollection – London Bridge area
I can’t remember how I came across new company Any One Thing but I’m glad I did. Recollection was an immersive experience for six people. In preparation, they’d done the research and scanned through our social media. So, when we were rushing around back-streets, being bundled into vans, breaking into offices to delete files, it was our friends and family that appeared in the digital footprints we were supposed to be removing.
A German Life – Bridge Theatre
A more surprising theme of my year has been the human stories behind the Nazis. Perhaps we’re ready to start admitting that inhumanity starts with humans. In this powerful one-hander, Maggie Smith played Brunhilde Pomsel and talks us through the testimony of an ‘apolitical’ life. She speaks of ambition, how she bettered herself, rose through the ranks and shone; how she was picked to work in the top job, as secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Through the 100-minute single act the stage moved imperceptibly closer to us, incrementally drawing us in to the complicity.
Les Damned – Barbican Theatre
The people behind The Third Reich were also the subject of Comédie Française’s first visit to Britain in almost 20 years. But, in total contrast to A German Life, this story was played out on a grand, cinematic scale (directed by Ivo Van Hove). A war-mongering industrialist dynasty, seemingly too powerful to be held to account, collides with the unstoppable force of a new political age.
Projections, decadent set-pieces, ostentatious displays of sexuality, grand-entrances, sinister asides and disastrous power plays, the tolling of bells, drunken naked masculinity, rape, paedophilic intent, incest, murder, live burials and a pretty faithful tarring and feathering were all uncomfortably played out in front of us. It was an awesome spectacle and another reminder that we must remember our past or be condemned to repeat it.
Anna – National Theatre
Jumping a couple of decades forward from the Nazis, Anna is set in Stasi-dominated East Germany. We were given headphones so we only experienced the aural perspective of Anna, a worker confronting a demon from her past. The claustrophobic setting of a (high-ranking) high-rise flat added to the atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue (and mirrored the brutalist aesthetic of the National Theatre). Secrets were whispered, action was seen but not heard, suspicions were raised and nothing was as it seemed.
Death of a Salesman – New Vic
I’d never really ‘got’ Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman always seemed pitiful to me, and I’m not sure I want to invest my evenings pitying people. But an incredible cast drew me in to this production and I’m glad they did. Wendell Pierce was wonderful, of course, and so was everyone else, including Arinzé Kene (whose Misty featured in this list last year) as son Biff. I’ve not seen a better portrayal of the toxicity of masculine pride, at least not on stage. I was lucky to catch the last night before it transferred to a long run in the West End.
The War of the Worlds – Dot Dot Dot
I’ve been to a few (usually rubbish) VR experiences, and a few (often great) immersive experiences, but this was the first trip to a venue that properly combined the two. We followed the story and the soundtrack of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, interacting with actors along the way. Yes, it was cheesy and sometimes glitchy, and our English reserve held us back from being too involved with the English Reserves. But it was great fun and admirable in its intent, and pretty great in its execution.
Jerry Seinfeld – Soho Theatre
Being able to see Jerry Seinfeld, in the UK, is a remarkable thing. Being three rows from him in a tiny theatre, filled with almost every British comedian I could name, was something else. Jerry was there to test some material, to see how it translated before embarking on a run at Hammersmith Apollo (or whatever it’s currently called). I was there out of good fortune and an accident of timing. Everyone else was very cool about it. Try Googling it – almost nobody else even acknowledges it happened; it must be a comedian’s code to not mention it. I’ve told everyone I’ve seen since.
End of the Road 2019 – Larmer Tree Farm
Once again, my favourite festival didn’t let me down. The sun shone, Spiritualized opened up and JARV IS closed the weekend, and I rushed about seeing dozens of brilliant bands in between. Highlights included: Courtney Barnett, Jade Bird, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Squid, Sweaty Palms, TVAM, and Charlie Parr. I’ve written a detailed run-down of each day elsewhere in this journal.
Fleabag – Wyndhams Theatre
When Fleabag first came on BBC Three, I couldn’t believe my eyes (and ears), it was such great telly. I was kicking myself to have missed the numerous times Phoebe Waller-Bridge had performed that monologue at Soho Theatre. I even went to see Maddie Rice do it (excellently) at Warwick Arts Centre. I was thrilled by the opportunity (if not the price) to see Phoebe perform it when she brought it back to the West End. It’s great theatre as well as telly.
Akram Khan’s Giselle – Sadler’s Wells
English National Ballet have been transformed by Tamara Rojo’s tenure as artistic director. One of her masterstrokes is teaming up with the incredible Akram Khan. I saw this show in 2016 (it made my top picks that year too) with Tamara in the lead. This time I saw someone else – I don’t know who but she was great. The show still blew me away. The score is worth the money alone, the set is incredible, and the dancing is better than them both.
Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation – Royal Court
Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree (where a different actor reads the script for the first time, on stage, with him) was one of the first experimental shows ever I went to; there are resonances of that show in this latest work. Two concentric circles of chairs surround the action, we sit in those hard-backed circles, hard-back book in hand. We look at the illustrations, read the words and turn the pages as the three actors tell us ‘now’. We are invited to read the parts (I avoided eye contact) as the story unwraps. It was clever and very compelling but I was a little distracted. Opposite me throughout was Marina Abramovich. I rushed over at the end, like a giddy schoolboy, to say hello and shake her hand. It made my night, week, maybe year.
BFI London Film Festival
As always, the Film Festival took most of my October. Bigger and better than ever with the new artistic director Tricia Tuttle permanently at the helm. I saw 14 films in 12 days. Following the theme of my year, my favourite film was about Nazis – Jojo Rabbit really is excellent. Other highlights included the very dark Koko-di Koko-da, the even darker The Lighthouse, and the perhaps overly light The Personal History of David Copperfield. I also saw the excellent Knives Out, and the great low-budget British film Days of the Bagnold Summer, and the fairly average, Netflix budgeted monster, The Irishman. I’ve written about each day elsewhere in this journal.
Out Of Order – Purcell Room
I’ve not seen anything by Forced Entertainment that didn’t push me beyond comfort. In this show, six identically-dressed performers clown about, wordless and often joyless. They perform rituals, angrily lunge at each other and return to peace before kicking off again. Just as you begin to learn the rules of engagement they reinvent the lack of language. I can entirely relate to the audience member who ceremoniously stomped out after twenty minutes but if you’re prepared to stick with them, Forced Entertainment always deliver.
The Watsons – Menier Chocolate Factory
Laura Wade’s meta working of Jane Austen’s unfinished work was brilliantly written, wonderfully acted and faultlessly directed (by Wade’s partner Samuel West). Where Austen’s story ends, Wade gently steps in to character. But the other characters do not take that lightly, and they make the narrative their own. The play rightly deserves its transfer to the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2020.
Deep England – Southbank Centre
I’d seen Elizabeth Bernholz’s Gazelle Twin persona at End of the Road and I didn’t really understand what I was seeing. At the Southbank, Gazelle Twin + NYX all made sense. A twisted histrionic England, brought to life through drones, beats and faux ritual. Performers dressed like characters from a futuristic graphic novel, looking back at a folkloric past through the dark glass of Gilead. Blake’s Jerusalem at half speed with a bass so low it rattled your rib-cage. We sat in awed silence throughout. At the end the woman behind me could not contain herself to applause, she shouted her approval and I was with her. It was an amazing spactacle.
Billy Bragg – Islington Assembly Hall
On his 2019 tour, Bragg played three consecutive night residencies in small venues. New stuff on the first night, and his first three ‘albums’ on night two. I was in Islington for night three: albums 4,5 and 6. When my eldest son was a baby he cried a lot. Instead of lullabies I would soothe him (or maybe amuse myself) with songs from these albums. I sat next to that son (now 24) and we mouthed the ingrained lyrics from memory – “mixing pop and politics he ask me what the use is, and I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses”. An unforgettable night.
The Vote – Bush House
First performed (and streamed live on TV) at the Donmar in 2015, The Vote was the creation of director Josie Rourke and writer James Graham. Played in real time, with a cast of close to 40 it tells the story of the closing 90 minutes in a small polling station. On this election night, Nica Burns reprised the show with a unique read-through performance, featuring many of the biggest stars of stage and screen (including Graham). As if to demonstrate the spontaneous nature of the event, the house lights couldn’t be turned off – that made it feel all the more special and intimate for us in the audience.
Bridget Riley – Hayward Gallery
It’s difficult to underestimate the impact that Riley has made on the British art world (and fashion, film, advertising and interior design). What Reich and Glass were doing with music, she was doing with paint, on her own. Of course I’ve looked at her Op Art creations before but I’ve never had a chance to stare so intently into the patterns of her painted lines. There were times when I had to turn away for fear of falling over.
Amongst the outstanding shows were a fair few other great events…
Along with everyone else, I really enjoyed the epic Antony Gormley show at Royal Academy, with its feats of engineering, amplifying the human form. Their Summer Exhibition was less blousy than Grayson Perry’s curation of last year but I still got a lot out of it (and even bought a print).
At Tate Modern, it was fun playing in the light and the fog of Olafur Eliasson ‘s exhibition. And I revisited the Tanks several times to pay dues to Douglas Gordon’s installation, Feature Film, a projected close-up of the hands of James Conlon, conducting the score of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
At Tate Britain I enjoyed the exhibition of William Blake illustrations although I was less than impressed by how crowded it was.
Outside of London, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Jeff Koons’ small exhibition at Ashmolean Museum. And the Still I Rise exhibition of feminist resistance art at De La Warr Pavilion, alongside the excellent first solo show from Hayv Kahraman.
And on a trip to Coventry, I made my first pilgrimage to the glory of Coventry Cathedral and then to the nearby Herbert Art Gallery & Museum for the Coventry Biennial, entitled The Twin. Stephen Cornford’s RGB (Retinally Governed Behaviours) was an amazing installation of looped projectors and projections.
But it was the work of Damien Hirst that made the biggest impact on me, whilst I was on holiday in the Summer. First I saw his gold-plated, eight-foot bronze Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain amongst the wide range of art and sculptures at Chatsworth House. Then I went to the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International where Hirst had seven major sculptures, many at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Tim Minchin was back in London after years in Hollywood, and some time back in Australia sulking about his experience in Hollywood. I managed to nab a production seat at the London Palladium, released at the last minute, and found myself sitting near Julia Gillard, Jason Donovan, Adam Hills and lots of other celebs who aren’t Australian. Despite all that, the show, where Minchin was backed by a full band, was very funny and surprisingly emotional.
I contrived to see Daniel Kitson three times in the year. Keep at Battersea Arts Centre was a theatrical conceit where he catalogued every item in his home; it could have been very dull but of course it wasn’t. At a typically antisocial time (noon on a Sunday) I saw him at the Bill Murray pub, trying out new material, and a few weeks later I saw him and Gavin Osborn late on a Sunday night at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with sad songs, funny stories and standard lamps.
At Soho Theatre, I saw an ‘in progress’ version of Trolls Not The Dolls, David Baddiel’s third ‘…not the…’ show. It was very funny but I suppose didn’t have the emotion pull of the first two shows so maybe this one won’t develop much further. And Robin Ince’s charmingly ramshackle, semi-improvised Chaos of Delights was, as always, a great way to spend an hour, plus he started early to try to squeeze it all in and even then only managed to cover half of his slides.
Billed to be the first live London gig by the Russian activist band, I was in a warehouse in Peckham to see Pussy Riot. Actually it was more of a situationist art happening than a gig, with a couple of hundred of us crammed around a tiny stage that was set up more for its online audience than those in the room. Still, it was pretty amazing to see Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, after enjoying Maria Alyokhina’s version of Pussy Riot last year.
The security at Pussy Riot was intense but at least I was allowed to keep my phone, unlike at The Raconteurs warm-up gig I went to at Electric Ballroom. There, all of our phones were sealed in pouches. It did make for a great gig where you could actually see Jack White in all his glory.
Having enjoyed them at End of the Road, I crammed into The Forum in Tunbridge Wells (the NME’s best small venue) for the last night of Squid’s UK tour. They were complex energetic, clever and accessibly experimental. I liked them a lot.
As well as Billy Bragg, my year featured a run of bands, revisiting music that had been important to me through my life. Asian Dub Foundation were back at Rich Mix with a raucous show, even if it wasn’t quite the ‘Rafi’s Revenge live‘ experience that had been billed. The amazing Salt’n’Pepa made me wanna shoop at Indigo. And, perhaps the most important band of my youth, The Subhumans were back at New Cross Inn, with the same level of subversion, anger and tongue in cheek humour that I remember being so thrilled by when I was fifteen.
And at Islington Assembly Hall, the same venue where I saw Billy Bragg, I was at Nouvelle Vague’s 15th anniversary concert, where they played through their broad back-catalogue of new-wave pop covers to everyone’s delight.
And at London Palladium, the same venue where I saw Tim Minchin, I saw Damon Albarn’s interesting alternative take on Britishness, with his band The Good, The Bad and the Queen. It was a fascinating contrast to his Gorillaz collective that had filled my previous year; I caught the documentary about that project, Reject False Icons, just before Xmas.
For sheer scale of ambition, my biggest gig of the year was probably Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s semi-staged version of St John Passion at Royal Festival Hall. Directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Simon Rattle. The choir were astonishing and the whole evening triumphant.
And my longest gig of the year was Amanda Palmer‘s There Will Be No Intermission show. I saw it (again, having seen an early incarnation in Edinburgh in 2017) at Union Chapel where, with some irony, there was an intermission because everyone realised that sitting on a wooden pew, listening to stories of trauma, for four straight hours, might be a bit much.
Big screen (with some small screen)
Outside of the London Film Festival, I saw very few good new films at the cinema but I did enjoy Joker on the IMAX screen. And, after a trip to the Kubrick exhibition at Design Museum I went to an IMAX screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I was also at a few advanced screenings of TV programmes. Early in the year I was also at IMAX for the BFI TV Festival where Russell T Davies and the cast introduced the excellent Years and Years which proved to be such a great series on BBC One.
At BFI I was very nervous at the screening of the first episode of Fleabag Series 2, attended by most of the cast and crew. I needn’t have been because it was, of course, a brilliant follow-on, with added sexy-priest. I even got to say hello to Fiona Shaw who I adore.
Later in the year I was at a similar screening of the BBC adaptation of War of the Worlds. The show was less than triumphant but Samira Ahmed was a great host and interviewer.
Encapsulating the two big themes of my cultural year, I was at Soho Theatre for The Paper Man . In it, Improbable’s Lee Simpson wants to talk about a footballer, murdered by the Nazis but his young female cast don’t. Should we listen to the older white man with his conventional narrative or follow the women he has cast, as they lead the narrative in some surprisingly funny and challenging directions, well beyond the fourth wall?
With a different take on the idea of appropriating stories, writer/performer Travis Alabanza invites a member of the audience on stage to chat and prepare a cooked burger with them. Burgerz is a show inspired by an incident where a burger was thrown at them, along with a transphobic slur, on Waterloo Bridge. So it felt appropriate to see it at the adjacent Purcell Room.
Around the corner at National Theatre I saw Caryl Churchill’s ambiguous feminist portrait of the early 80s, Top Girls. It was, at times, confusing but brilliantly staged and acted, I loved the overlapping dialogue.
Having started at National Theatre, before touring the country, Inua Ellams’ acclaimed Barbershop Chronicles was back in London for a run at Roundhouse. I was so pleased to get the chance to see it. It was great.
I’m a sucker for famous-name casting so I booked to see the ever wonderful Penelope Wilton and Ophelia Lovibond as mother and daughter in David Hare’s The Bay at Nice at Menier Chocolate Factory. And of course Andrew Scott makes everything better: great things like Fleabag, and usually unbearable things like Noël Coward farce Present Laughter which I saw at The Old Vic.
At Bridge Theatre I went to see Laura Linney deliver an exceptional monologue performance of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, My Name is Lucy Barton , although I realise now that I was so focused on her that I can’t remember much of the story.
In a similar vein I sat mesmerised by the monologue performance of Maxine Peake in Avalanche: a love story at Barbican Theatre. This traumatic tale of one woman’s longing for motherhood reminded me a lot of Yerma at Young Vic a couple of years ago.
I travelled east to see Lenny Henry in King Hedley II at Stratford East. The ninth of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays was building tension brilliantly but it started late and was very long, and I’m embarrassed to say that I left at the interval so I don’t know if it all worked out for Aaron Pierre’s King Hedley or Lenny Henry’s Elmore.
In the West End I very much enjoyed being at the opening ‘day’ matinee of Pinter 5 (part of Jamie Loyd’s ambitious Pinter at the Pinter season), a triple bill of celebrity-studded casting in The Room (Pinter’s first play), Victoria Station and Family Voices. Rupert Graves was particularly notable. And, at Duke of York’s Theatre, I very much enjoyed the performances of Tom Burke and Hayley Atwell and the modern resonance in Ibsen’s play in Rosmersholm , about a town on the eve of an election. It’s always thrilling to see a stage flooded and immersed at the end.
I dipped my toe further into the waters of the ever deepening Vault Festival this year. I saw Padraic Walsh’s excellent and very intimate Blue Thunder with seven other audience members and the three actors in a minibus and I took part in Darkfield Theatre’s Seance, in a converted shipping container. I was pleased to catch Madeline Gould’s psychopathic monologue Ladykiller , and Lucy Roslyn’s impeccably naturalistic Orlando which took Virgnia Woolfe’s novel as inspiration to construct her own tragic narrative. My favourite outing was probably the very loud and very messy first performance of White Noise from RADA student company New Public – they really went for it, with no consideration about having to clear up and turn round another show 20 minutes later.
At Donmar Warehouse I enjoyed Josie Rourke’s final production Sweet Charity, with Anne-Marie Duff and guest star for the night Adrian Lester banging out the hits in a wildly over the top sixties stage-set; and Michael Longhurst’s inaugural Donmar show Europe, a revival of David Greig’s prescient tale of refugees in a forgotten station. Berberian Sound Studio didn’t perhaps live up to the promise of the film but it was a suitably weird staging with fruit-based recreations of flesh-tearing ’70s Italian horror sound-effects.
White liberal guilt (or the lack of it) in the US was a theme that has cropped up a few times this year (hot on the heels of last year’s Octoroon). Shipwreck at Almeida cleverly cut between the liberal experience of Trump’s America and the African American experience that’s conveniently out of site and mind. Fairview at Young Vic was a more tangibly awkward experience for the predominantly white and usually comfortable audience.
Back at the Almeida, Tobias Menzies was excellent in The Hunt, a play about toxic masculinity, generations of secrets and an accusation. It also featured a stunning stage-set from my favourite designer Es Devlin.
It feels odd to write it, but I saw a lot less puppetry this year than normal. Exceptions included the ever brilliant Les Antliaclastes with their brilliantly bonkers Waltz of the Hommelettes. And, at Dorfman Theatre, Neil Gaiman’s fantastic The Ocean at the End of the Lane was brought to life through exceptional performances, grand-illusion, and terrifying demons that must have kept a lot of the very young audience awake all night.
Also featuring a fair amount of misdirection and stage-craft, the triumphant return of Ghost Stories to Lyric Hammersmith (and then back into the West End, and national tour in 2020) is definitely worth a mention. It was the fourth time I’d seen it and the jumps were no less real this time around.
Eve Leigh’s The Trick (at Bush Theatre) promised stage illusion as a metaphor for loss but something seemed to have changed between the advanced marketing copy and the actual play. I still enjoyed it. especially Ani Nelson’s performance.
Nothing’s perfect and there were a few events that I was confused, frustrated or upset by…
It feels almost sacrilegious to say it but Stewart Lee‘s Tornado/Snowflake wasn’t great when I went to the opening night at Leicester Square Theatre. I’m sure it will have improved during the three month residency . And the usually very positive Dave Gorman seemed to be having a grumpy time of it when I saw his show at Southbank.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to a late night opening because AI: More Than Human was packed and strangely lacking in much artificial intelligence at Barbican.
The Psychic Project at The Vaults had a huge marketing campaign, selling it as a mind-reading experience, based on US army archives. Actually it was a less than average magic and mentalism show.
In his debut play, God’s Dice, David Baddiel explores religion and belief through the conceit of a maths professor. I’ve loved his personal shows but this felt too ambitious and under written.
Having been rejected by the ballot, I managed to get a ticket to the Dorfman Theatre to see Cate Blanchet and Stephen Dillane star in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. Maybe I just wan’t in the mood but I found it gratuitous, bizarre, unnecessarily obtuse and exploitative.
Talking of exploitative, my least favourite outing of the year (partly, I suspect, because of the obscene ticket price) was Bitter Wheat. Some of my favourite theatre is written by David Mamet but this ‘dark comedy’ was misjudged and misguided. The usually wonderful John Malkovich was surprising unconvincing in the Harvey Weinstein fat-suit.