As we collectively look back at what we didn’t quite achieve in the year just gone and make promises for what we will achieve in the year ahead, (well, maybe), there could be far worse New Year’s resolutions than seeing more theatre. With the astonishing rise of streaming services like Netflix and gaming revolutions like Fortnite emptying our cinemas and theatres, the experience of sharing a cultural event with others, of experiencing a shared reaction to a story being told, is at risk of disappearing.
So instead of buying that gym membership that won’t get used or the juicer that will gather dust in the cupboard, make a decision to go out and share a story or two with a live audience. The capital has hundreds of exciting shows lined up. To launch a monthly “theatre must-see” column, here’s my utterly subjective and far from conclusive top 20 shows opening in London in 2020.
Uncle Vanya, Harold Pinter Theatre
14 January-2 May
Olivier-Award winner Connor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s masterpiece of dark humour and hidden passion returns to the West End, with a star-studded cast led by Toby Jones as Vanya. Jones is surely one of the finest actors of the modern generation, and the chance to see him live should not be missed.
The Canary And The Crow, Arcola Theatre
16 January-8 February
One of my favourite companies of the past decade, Hull’s Middle Child have become one of the UK’s most renowned producers of gig-theatre. Their latest show, transferring to London for just 4 weeks, uses grime, hip-hop and theatre to tell the story of a working-class black kid accepted to a prestigious grammar school.
Leopoldstadt, Wyndhams Theatre
25 January-13 June
A new play by Tom Stoppard is always an event. Hailed by The Times as “Britain’s greatest living playwright”, Stoppard’s latest play revolves around a family living in Leopoldstadt – in 1900, a welcoming home to thousands of Jews, but with a dramatic turn coming in the first half of the twentieth century.
Endgame, Old Vic
27 January-28 March
In one of the casting coups of 2020, Alan Cumming plays opposite Daniel Radcliffe in Samuel Beckett’s bleakly funny play full of casual savagery. Beckett isn’t always an easy watch, but with an A-list cast like this, and the show playing as one half of a double-bill with Rough For Theatre II (starring Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson) this looks like being one of the theatre events of the Spring.
(and… if that’s not enough Beckett for you, former National Theatre director Trevor Nunn directs Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe and The Old Tune as a triple-bill at Jermyn Street Theatre from 15 January.)
The Visit, National Theatre
31 January-13 May
Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (The Phantom Thread) and Lord of the Rings star Hugo Weaving lead the cast in this tale set in post-war recession-hit New York. Claire Zachanassian, improbably beautiful and impenetrably terrifying, returns to her hometown as the world’s richest woman. The locals hope her arrival signals a change in their fortunes, but they soon realise that prosperity will only come at a terrible price.
Albion, Almeida Theatre
Victoria Hamilton (The Crown) reprises her incredible performance, for which she won Best Actress at the 2018 Critics’ Circle Awards, in this state of the nation play from the writer of Doctor Foster.
The High Table, Bush Theatre
8 February-21 March
In a co-production with Birmingham Rep, the Bush Theatre presents the debut play from Temi Wilkey, a tale of a Nigerian woman going against her parents’ wishes to marry the woman she loves, and of the three African ancestors jolted to life to watch over the events as they unfold.
A Number, Bridge Theatre
14 February-14 March
Since opening in 2017, the Bridge Theatre (a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge) has become a force to be reckoned with. The first show lined up for 2020, following the current run of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, sees Roger Allam star in Caryl Churchill’s A Number. Last seen on the London stage in 2019 as the domineering patriarch in Rutherford And Son at the National Theatre, Allam plays the father to several identical sons in Churchill’s near-future thriller about a world of all-too-believable genetic experiments and cloning.
(and… the Donmar Warehouse will also be home to a Churchill classic in 2020 with the 20 year annniversary production of Far Away playing from 6 February.)
19 February-14 March
Clapham’s intimate Theatre503 consistently punches above its weight in the new-writing stakes. Meat is a story of class, consent and how modern Ireland reckons with the transgressions buried in its past. Written by playwright and dramaturg Gillian Greer, the play was a finalist in Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award in 2018, reaching the top 5 of 2,055 plays submitted from 49 countries. Successful Theatre503 writers have gone on to win Evening Standard and Olivier awards, so Meat is certainly worth a punt.
The Last Five Years, Southwark Playhouse
28 February-28 March
Southwark Playhouse has become one of the unofficial Off-West End leaders in high-quality musical theatre. Jason Robert Brown’s innovative musical about two New Yorkers falling in and out of love, presented by Aria Entertainment, follows Jamie’s story chronologically from their first meeting and Cathy’s in reverse from their break-up, with their wedding the only meeting point in the show. Regularly produced in London and around the UK and the world, this production promises something new with actor musicians bringing a new musical dimension to the story.
City Of Angels, Garrick Theatre
5 March-5 September
This revival-of-a-revival sees Josie Rourke’s 2014 production of City Of Angels brought back for a six-month West End run. Described as a love letter to film noir and the glamorous world of old Hollywood, the musical intertwines the story of a writer working on a screenplay with the story he is trying to finish.
The Incident Room, New Diorama Theatre / Greenwich Theatre
11 Feb-14 Mar / 17-21 March
This spring we revive The Incident Room, our 2019 Edinburgh sell-out co-production with the New Diorama Theatre, telling the story of the 1975 search for the Yorkshire Ripper. Following Down And Out In Paris And London and 2017’s Secret Life Of Humans, which subsequently transferred to New York, this new show plays at both venues in Spring 2020.
The Effect, Boulevard Theatre
19 March-30 May
If the opening production of Ghost Quartet is anything to go by, there are great things in store for this new boutique venue in the heart of the West End. In March the venue is home to the first London revival of The Effect by Lucy Prebble (the award-winning writer of A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic and ENRON at the Royal Court and later in the West End), following a relationship unfolding against a backdrop of pharmaceutical drug trials – but is Tristan and Connie’s unfolding love real, or a result of the drugs they’re testing?
The Doctor, Duke Of York’s Theatre
20 April-18 July
The latest in a series of West End transfers from Islington’s Almeida Theatre, The Doctor stars Olivier award-winner Juliet Stevenson (in a reprisal of one of the stand-out performances of 2019) as the doctor who denies a priest access to a dying woman, causing national outrage and splitting a nation.
Women Without Men, Finborough Theatre
28 April-23 May
An example of the Finborough’s policy of reviving long-forgotten pieces, Hazel Ellis’ play about an enthusiastic young teacher coming into conflict with her jealous, petty new colleagues returns to the UK after more than 80 years. Rediscovered and produced in New York in 2016, where it was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for outstanding revival, this production features a full female cast and creative team.
To Kill A Mockingbird, Gielgud Theatre
21 May-5 September
In what may just prove to be the casting revelation of the year, Rhys Ifans takes on the part of Atticus Finch for this West End production of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Marking 60 years since the publication of the novel, the production tells the story of small town lawyer Finch and the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a local white woman.
Sunday In The Park With George, Savoy Theatre
11 June-5 September
This looks like becoming 2020’s ‘kill-for-a-ticket’ production, with Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal partnering with the Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford in Stephen Sondheim’s Pullitzer Prize winning musical. Not that many people will care, but the show is about pointillist artist Georges Seurat and his attempt to complete what will become his most famous painting.
The Dance Of Death, Arcola Theatre
18 June-25 July
August Strindberg’s landmark drama about a marriage in crisis is adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz as part of the Arcola’s 20th anniversary season. Lenkiewicz has enjoyed a long relationship with the Dalston venue, having previously adapted Ibsen’s Ghosts and An Enemy Of The People and writing the new play The Painter about J M W Turner. The Dance Of Death is directed by the venue’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen.
Hamlet, Young Vic
6 July-22 August
Cush Jumbo, star of The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight, promises a new kind of Hamlet for this generation. Jumbo’s casting follows a series of recent and high profile gender swapped Shakespearean leads – including Glenda Jackson as Lear, Harriet Walter as Henry IV and Maxine Peake as Hamlet. This could just be the year’s most talked-about Shakespeare production.
(and… if July is too far away for you, Sophie Russell plays Richard III at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from today until 26 January)
The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, Bridge Theatre
11 July-10 October
Following Jack Thorne’s high profile BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials, it’s the turn of playwright Bryony Lavery to enter the Pullman universe with her adaptation of The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who himself directed His Dark Materials for the National Theatre, the story takes place 12 years before the action of His Dark Materials with Lyra just a baby.