A dramatic year: the 10 best theatre shows of 2020

National Theatre, London

Rafe Spall gave one of the most virtuosic performances of the year in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ one-man show about class, race, identity and inheritance. He played Michael, a tormented working-class man grappling with the legacy of a racist father. Stalking the length and breadth of the stage, which was designed in the shape of a St George’s Cross, Spall performed with the punkish energy of a man possessed. His drunken eulogy at his father’s funeral was an exemplar of a dramatic meltdown. Read the full review.

Chichester Festival theatre and online

Sarah Kane’s one-act play is as opaque as it is intense, but under Tinuke Craig’s direction it was transformed into a clean, contemporary, thrillerish drama. Its four unnamed characters appeared on treadmills on a revolving stage, with magnified images on a back-screen. The set’s lurching movement reflected the play’s unstable emotional states and Erin Doherty gave an especially scintillating performance. Read the full review.

Harold Pinter theatre, London

Ian Rickson’s gorgeous production sparkled with energy despite Chekhov’s prevailing ennui. There was a sensational turn by Toby Jones as Vanya, striking performances by the rest of the cast including Richard Armitage and Aimee Lou Wood, and an exquisite, airy set by Rae Smith that summed up the faded grandeur of this turn-of-the-century Russian family. Conor McPherson’s adaptation gave the script a modern zing and brought sudden laughter followed with swooping sadness. Read the full review.

Old Vic, London

Beckett’s bleak drama about a blind man and his valet was given a comical revamp in this starry revival. Alan Cumming’s master, Hamm, had an arch touch of Kenny Everett, while Daniel Radcliffe played his boy-servant, Clov, with fantastic physical comedy. And its elderly characters who emerge out of dustbins (Jane Horrocks and Karl Johnson) imbued their lines with more comedy than tragedy. Nihilism made positively upbeat. Read the full review.

Theatre Royal Bath

David Mamet’s 1992 campus drama about a student who brings charges of sexual abuse against her middle-aged university professor gained new resonances in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Lucy Bailey’s expertly directed production starred Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy, both in fierce form, and felt every bit like a play for our times, touching on everything from sexual microaggressions to class privilege, political correctness, university no-platforming and cancel culture. Read the full review.

Online

Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel about the Thatcher era and the scheming Winshaw family was the most accomplished, inventive online drama of the year. Starting at the book’s end and inventing an extra character, it managed to be maverick without sacrificing the spirit of the original. Derek Jacobi, Sharon D Clarke, Stephen Fry and Griff Rhys Jones lent their voices to this co-production by the Barn, Lawrence Batley and New Wolsey theatres, while Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button gave blackly satirical on-screen performances. Read the full review.

National Theatre, London

Robert Lepage’s monumental play unfurled in all its dazzling beauty over the course of seven hours (and several intervals) without a hint of a longueur. Shifting from the grand scale to searing moments of emotional intimacy, and spanning themes that ranged from the fallout of the Hiroshima bomb in Japan to the Aids crisis in America, it was staged just days before lockdown, which cut short its run. Read the full review.

New Diorama, London

Lulu Raczka’s radical retelling of Sophocles stripped away every character other than its two sisters, Antigone and Ismene (Annabel Baldwin and Rachel Hosker), who emerged in Converse trainers and pink dresses from a mound of earth in the startling opening scene. Their relationship had a powerful intimacy and the script was hypnotic and filled with tension. Made by theatre company Holy What, which aims to create irreverent productions that interrogate theatrical tradition, it did exactly that to dazzling effect. Read the full review.

Kiln theatre, London

This UK staging of Antoinette Nwandu’s taut two-hander about racial oppression and police violence in America came some months before the killing of George Floyd. The play was magnificently performed by Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr, playing two American hobos whose lives are besieged by institutionalised police violence, even though they are doing nothing more than waiting on a street corner. Fear and anxiety rumbled through the performance and it felt epic in its tragedy, despite its small scale. Read the full review.

Bridge theatre, London

Monologues had a renaissance over lockdown and this one was, without question, the most sensational. A 30-minute piece by Alan Bennett, it was first performed by Julie Walters in 1998. Rochenda Sandall made the role of a serial killer’s wife entirely her own. Confessional, intimate and unsettling, she played Marjory as a hard-faced woman with an obsessive compulsive disorder whose growing suspicions about her slaughterman husband are contained in silences, anxious looks and all that she doesn’t dare to utter aloud. The drama, part of a season of Bennett’s Talking Heads, was audaciously directed by Nadia Fall, and felt like a masterclass in how to make the familiar feel new and urgent.

Where Bennett’s monologues are often performed statically – addressing an audience or facing a camera – this production contained a physicality that raised the stakes and gave added punch. Sandall built up the tension slowly and Fall’s direction gave the drama a contemporary, noirish edge. Marjory is a tragic figure: an abused wife, silent but knowing, and too fearful to speak out but eaten up by not doing so. Her story is a frightening one that speaks to our times in the light of the increased levels of domestic violence during the pandemic. Sandall’s performance showed its complexities and dramatised how her character could be both a victim and silent accomplice to her abuser. Read the full review.