Now we are approaching the end of the year, here are the performers who have particularly impressed me with their work on the London stage during 2019. A further post will look at the thirty productions which I have enjoyed the most – but here are thirty people who caught my eye during the year.
West End Plays
Monica Dolan in All About Eve at Noel Coward Theatre. Monica played Karen, the faithful friend of the self-centred Margo. Despite supporting both Gillian Anderson and Lily James, she more than held her own and gave a great account of a complex character in Ivo van Hove’s production.
Miles Jupp in The Life I Lead at Wyndhams Theatre. Miles portrayed David Tomlinson (much loved as Mr Banks in the film of Mary Poppins) in this one-man show, which transferred from the Park Theatre. His portrayal was amusing, touching, and a spookily accurate portrayal. Delightful.
Sam Newton in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Piccadilly Theatre. Sam played the lead role of autistic teenager Christopher in this adaptation of the novel by Mark Haddon. I found his portrayal absolutely compelling and it made me laugh, think, and wipe a tear away.
Zubin Varla in Equus at Trafalgar Studio 1. Zubin was Dr Martin Dysart in this superb production, transferring from Theatre Royal Stratford East. His nervous and dynamic portrayal was the core of this show: compelling, touching, and deftly navigating an extremely difficult role. Zubin also turned up again later in the year in a very different role in Ghost Quartet, which underlined his range and gave even more weight to the work he did in Equus.
West End Musicals
Miriam Teak-Lee in & Juliet at Shaftesbury Theatre. Miriam’s debut leading role in the West End is an absolute smash, and she steals the show whenever she is on stage, with a fantastic voice and a strong stage presence. I really felt I was in the presence of a huge future star.
Off-West End and wider London fringe
Off West End plays
Louise Jameson in Vincent River at Trafalgar Studio 2. Louise played a bereaved mother whose son has been murdered, and who has to deal with painful revelations when an unwanted visitor arrives. In her eyes and her movement, a picture of a woman whose whole world is falling apart was strongly evoked, and the whole performance was extremely powerful.
Lorn Macdonald in Mouthpiece at Soho Theatre. Lorn plays Declan, the boy who becomes the inspiration for the writer who meets him in a desolate place he goes to think, in Kieran Hurley’s perceptive play. His delivery, intelligence, and ability to amuse, move and shock the audience surely highlights an actor who has many great roles to come.
Lizzie Muncey in Toast at The Other Palace. In Nigel Slater’s memoir about his early life, Lizzie was delicate and sweet as his ailing mother, the one who gave him a love of cooking. I found her performance deeply moving and perfectly pitched, and hers is the character I remember looking back at the show.
Wendell Pierce in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic. Wendell was a big draw, brought across from American TV to play the role of Willy Loman. He was absolutely superb, a bear of a man brought low by circumstance and practically shrinking before our eyes. The production has quite rightly transferred into the West End since I saw it.
Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies at the Bridge Theatre. Zoe played the wife of the French president and navigated the political satire of Nancy Harris’s play with her usual skill and style. Her Helen was a coiled spring of irritation which stayed taut up until the very last minute, and this kept the play interesting and watchable.
Off West End musicals
Trudi Camilleri in Queen of the Mist at Charing Cross Theatre. Trudi displayed an amazing vocal range in the role of Anna Edson Taylor in this tricky musical. Handling a lead role of a dynamic woman who isn’t exactly likeable at the start and then making her someone you root for as the show progresses isn’t easy, and the fact that she achieved it is a tribute to her acting style. Keep an eye on Trudi.
John Partridge in The View UpStairs at Soho Theatre. John has made his name with numerous leading roles on the stage, and is currently the Emcee in the tour of Cabaret. As Buddy in this musical he brought the closeted gay pianist to sharp relief and became the focus of the disperate group who gather to be themselves UpStairs. His performance was enthralling and rather understated, which made it all the more effective.
Wider London fringe plays
Richard Cant in Wife at the Kiln Theatre. Richard played the older Ivan in this play which travelled through LGBTQ+ history, and his businessman who flatly denied his former, hedonistic, life was very memorable and beautifully done. It’s a small supporting role I wanted to highlight this year.
Caoilfhionn Dunne in The Crucible at The Yard. Caoilfhionn played John Proctor in this version of the Arthur Miller classic, and her portrayal gave new depths to the character of the man who was both abuser of and abused by his servant Abigail Williams, during the Salem Witch Trials.
Scott Folan in Mother of Him at the Park Theatre. Scott played Matthew, the son who had committed an appalling crime and was about to be committed to prison as a teenager. In his interactions with younger brother, mother, lawyer, and girlfriend, we saw different facets of a character who was both a frightened child and a sociopathic man without compassion for his victim.
Lenny Henry in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Henry has come on in leaps and bounds in his dramatic career and his portrayal of hustler Elmore was absolutely stunning and engrossing from the moment he stepped on the stage. The moment when tragedy hits the family after a moment of heightened happiness was devastating, and so well performed.
Jonathan Hyde in Gently Down The Stream at the Park Theatre. Jonathan played Beau, a sixty-something man who takes up with a much younger boyfriend. Their chemistry was lovely to watch but it was a speech about the fire at the UpStairs lounge (the same one which ended The View UpStairs) which was a moment of genius from a performer I’ve been watching for many years.
Jack Klaff in The Ice Cream Boys at Jermyn Street Theatre. I’ve been following Jack’s work for over thirty years, and it is always a pleasure. As Ronnie Kasrils, South African intelligence officer and mercenary, he was extremely persuasive and believable as the old man now left with only the memories of his white privilege and feud with authority.
Luke Mullins in Southern Belles at the King’s Head. Luke gave the role of the drag queen in Tennessee Williams’s And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens a heart and soul which shone through, making the final scenes more devastating and shocking. It was a delicate performance with a core of steel which I have been thinking about several times since the show closed.
Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Juliet’s doctor navigating her unconscious biases and visible prejudices was the latest in a long line of wonderful and powerful screen and stage performances from this versatile actresses. The play returns to the West End in 2020 after a short tour.
Anjana Vasan in A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith. After her supporting role in Rutherford and Son at the National, Anjana assumed the role of Nora in this version of Ibsen transplanted to India. She was absolutely superb as the young wife of a white man who cannot see beyond his tightly-wound view of the Raj, and quite rightly she was lauded for a quiet yet dynamic piece of work.
Wider London fringe musicals
Jeannette Bayardelle in Shida at the Vaults. Jeannette brought the show she created across from the USA, and played all the characters in this musical portrayal of her friend’s history. It was a marvellous performance with staggering vocals and perfectly pitched acting throughout, adding up to an entertaining and emotional whole.
Jo Eaton-Kent in Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse. Jo was in the ensemble of this musical revival, playing both male and female roles with panache and clarity. Their work caught the eye in more than one scene, and I look forward to seeing what opportunities present themselves for them next.
James Marlowe in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the Southwark Playhouse. James was a deeply touching Benjamin in this reverse time-travel tale from Jethro Compton Productions. I felt his work stood out from an already strong and accomplished company.
Jak Malone in Operation Mincemeat at the New Diorama. Jak played a few roles in this quirky musical from SpitLip, which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse in January and again in May. Although I enjoyed his American airman, it was his work as middle-aged spinster secretary Hester and the beautiful letter of lost love which he sang, which gives him a place on this list.
Andy Nyman in Fiddler in the Roof at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Andy’s Tevye had little sentiment and a lot of fire in this revival, which later transferred to the West End. Catching the complexities of a man of tradition as well as the glee of a man with dreams, it was a great performance.
George Rae in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the Chiswick Playhouse. In the quartet performing this musical of vignettes about love, George caught my eye as the husband living in quiet harmony with his newspaper-reading wife, and especially as the gay widower finding new romance at a funeral.
Oliver Ford-Davies in Peter Gynt . Oliver, a veteran actor, managed to make an impact in a brief but pivotal supporting role in David Hare’s sprawling adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt as the button-maker. A quiet moment of recurring calm against all the noise and madness that had gone before, his performance was a lovely piece of work.
Ricardo Afonso in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ricardo took on the role of Judas with a rock star voice and a strongman attitude, which was very refreshing and fitted the style of this revival – a transfer from the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park – extremely well. He will take on the role of Zorro in a concert performance in the Spring.
Cillian Murphy in Grief is the Thing With Feathers. Despite huge success on the big screen and in Peaky Blinders, Cillian continues to return to the stage where he can explore a wider emotional range and physical dexterity in his roles: in a dual role in this tale of loss and acceptance of death he was dynamic; dominating the Barbican stage in a terrifying performance as Crow, balanced by quiet moments from Dad with his sons.