1. Hangmen
Royal Court, London

Martin McDonagh’s play, his first in London in over a decade, haunts me still. Its ostensible theme was the aftermath of the abolition of hanging in 1965. But behind that lay a whole series of questions. How do professional executioners overcome the instinct to kill? How can any civilised state sanction a system that allows no scope for the correction of injustice? Does violence, even when approved by law, breed more violence? But the great thing about McDonagh’s play was that the issues emerged only through a riveting story and a deluge of black humour.

It was fascinating to see the retired hangman, beautifully played by David Morrissey, being treated as a local celebrity by the sycophantic barflies in his Oldham pub. And when Johnny Flynn turned up in the pub as a brash young Cockney intruder, we were never quite sure whether he was an agent of retribution, an act of homage to the menacing piss-takers in Pinter’s The Homecoming and Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane or simply an innocent abroad.

Everything about the play felt right, from Bronwyn James’s performance as the publican’s shy daughter to Anna Fleischle’s smoky fug of a set, Kate Waters’ terrifying fights and Matthew Dunster’s needle-sharp production. Most reassuring of all was to be reminded that McDonagh’s early work, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, was no flash in the pan. He has a gift for suspenseful storytelling, rich dialogue and dark laughter that allows him to handle big themes in an entertaining way. Which is why this was the best new play of 2015. Read the full review

2. Young Chekhov: The Birth of a Genius
Chichester Festival theatre

Anna Chancellor and Samuel West in The Seagull at Chichester.
Anna Chancellor and Samuel West in The Seagull at Chichester. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Helen Gardner points out in The Business of Criticism (1959) that no work of art is autonomous but has “an historical relation to the author’s other works”. You could hardly have more dazzling proof than in this brilliant triptych of Chekhov’s Platonov (1880), Ivanov (1887) and The Seagull (1896). In the course of a single day, it was possible to see Chekhov experimenting with farce and melodrama before achieving his own peculiar brand of symphonic realism in The Seagull. David Hare’s texts were fresh and funny; Jonathan Kent’s productions were visually immaculate and handsomely acted. I shall not quickly forget Olivia Vinall’s portrayal of three different women destroyed by love or the instinctive self-absorption of Anna Chancellor’s Arkadina, glancing at her watch while tending her suicidal son. Read the full review

3. Gypsy
Savoy theatre, London

Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver Louise in Gypsy.
Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver Louise in Gypsy. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This was another triumph for Chichester, where it first appeared last year, and for Jonathan Kent as director. I make no apology for citing it again, since it got even better when played in a proscenium theatre with scope for a pit band (superbly conducted by Nicholas Skilbeck). But the real revelation was Imelda Staunton as Mamma Rose. She took a role associated with musical titans like Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury and played her as a bustling little woman, not without charm and warmth, who sought vicarious fame through her daughters. Staunton’s Mamma secretly craved stardom but knew deep down that “if I could have been, I would have been.” A great piece of acting in a great show that, happily, will be shown on BBC TV this Christmas. Don’t miss it. Read the full review

4. The Father
Wyndham’s theatre, London

Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father.
Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to Florian Zeller’s play since I’d missed it at Bath’s Ustinov and London’s Tricycle but I was as impressed as everyone else. Zeller taps into a common fear, that of losing one’s mind to Alzheimer’s, but rescues it from easy pathos. The fascinating thing about Kenneth Cranham’s Andre – the high point of a distinguished acting career – was not that he was some generalised everyman but an ex-engineer still clinging to the vestiges of an authority he was no longer capable of executing. He was testy, awkward, cantankerous but also dependent, vulnerable and confused. We could all understand that and Christopher Hampton’s translation, like James Macdonald’s production, was a model of precision about mental slippage. Read the full review

5. The Skriker
Royal Exchange, Manchester

Maxine Peake in The Skriker by Caryl Churchill.
Maxine Peake in The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

First time round, in 1994, Caryl Churchill’s play had me baffled. Now I felt I had got a handle on it thanks to Sarah Frankcom’s richly environmental production and Maxine Peake’s magnetic central performance. Peake played a skriker – or ancient, shape-shifting fairy – who craves to be part of the human cycle while haunting two young girls. What emerged unforgettably was Churchill’s appalled horror at climate change and the eroding of our assumption that we could always rely on nature and the fact that “spring will return even if it’s without me.” I still hear the cadence in Peake’s voice as she said those terrifying words in a play that, like so many of Churchill’s, was way ahead of its time. Read the full review

6. Tree
Old Vic, London

Daniel Kitson.
Daniel Kitson. Photograph: Keith Morris/Alamy

Another play that stays with me, after nearly a year. Daniel Kitson made his mark as a cult theatrical storyteller. Here, he came up with something that was definably a play in that it had characters, a plot and a surprise twist. Kitson was a man living in a tree, like a suburban Tarzan, as a form a of protest against the council’s policy of pollarding, while down below Tim Key was a daft git waiting for a date with a girl who, after a 10-year gap, had identified him as “you pillock”. I loved the piece for its oddity, humour and gift for language, as when Kitson complained of “an insurmountable pestilence of squirrels”. Read the full review

7. Oppenheimer
The Swan, Stratford-on-Avon

John Heffernan as Oppenheimer and Ben Allen as Edward Teller.
John Heffernan as Oppenheimer and Ben Allen as Edward Teller. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Tom Morton-Smith’s play came as a bolt from the blue: a big, panoramic piece about Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, leader of America’s Manhattan project and tragic hero haunted by the implication of his discoveries. “I feel,” he says, “like I’ve dropped a loaded gun in a playground”. What was strongly conveyed, however, by Morton-Smith’s play, Angus Jackson’s production and John Heffernan’s compelling central performance was the excitement of working on the initial atomic experiments in wartime Berkeley. A fine addition to the growing catalogue of scientific drama. Read the full review

8. Man and Superman
Lyttelton, London

Indira Varma woos Ralph Fiennes’s Jack Tanner in Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw.
Indira Varma woos Ralph Fiennes’s Jack Tanner in Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Shaw is always being rediscovered. What was stimulating was to sit with a National audience and feel them delighting in Shaw’s musicality, wit and dancing ideas. Even the most devoted Shavian usually finds the long Don Juan in Hell sequence hard going. That too was a pleasure here thanks to some sensible cutting and nifty staging by Simon Godwin and a choice performance from Tim McMullan as a suavely ironic, drinks-dispensing Devil. The central sex-comedy was also in good hands with Ralph Fiennes exuding impotent despair in the face of Indira Varma’s sumptuous charisma. Read the full review

9. For Services Rendered
Minerva, Chichester

Anthony Calf, Sam Callis and Yolanda Kettle in For Services Rendered.
Anthony Calf, Sam Callis and Yolanda Kettle in For Services Rendered. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

A terrific revival by Howard Davies of a little-known Somerset Maugham play from 1932 that cast a bilious eye on the ruinous legacy of the first world war and our creation of a society unfit for heroes. It all takes place in the home of a Kentish country solicitor whose son is a sightless, embittered wreck and whose daughters are despairing, damaged casualties of the late conflict. Outside Chekhov, there wasn’t much better ensemble acting to be seen all year, especially from Justine Mitchell, Jo Herbert and Yolanda Kettle as the three shattered sisters. Read the full review

10. Oresteia
Almeida, London

Luke Thompson, Lia Williams, Annie Fairbank and Jessica Brown Findlay in Oresteia by Aeschylus at the Almeida.
Luke Thompson, Lia Williams, Annie Fairbank and Jessica Brown Findlay in Oresteia by Aeschylus at the Almeida. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Robert Icke’s bold rewrite of Aeschylus’s great trilogy had its duff moments (why on earth was Orestes reliving his past actions to a therapist?), but it began and ended superbly. Lia Williams was all rage and power as a Klytemnestra horrified by the decision of Angus Wright’s anguished Agamemnon to sacrifice their daughter to prosecute a war. The climax with Orestes judicially absolved of matricide but morally guilty was equally memorable. Tension occasionally sagged over three hours 40 minutes but, in a year packed with Greek tragedy, this was the most adventurous of all raids on the Attic. Read the full review


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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