(Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/6.)

  1. The Flick
    National Theatre, London

Peter Brook once argued that the acid test of any play was the image it leaves behind. No question about the abiding memory of Annie Baker’s astonishing play: a run-down movie auditorium, rows of empty seats, a projection booth. But this was simply the setting for a play about the quiet desperation of three lonely people intoxicated by film. Sam (Matthew Maher) was a burly cleaner aching with unexpressed love for Rose (Louisa Krause), the wraith-like projectionist. She, in turn, was besotted with Avery (Jaygann Ayeh), a 20-year-old African American on a break from college.

For some, since it ran three-and-a-quarter hours, the triangle seemed eternal, but I loved everything about the play. The long silences. The way passion, as in the work of Racine, was constantly beating against the restraints of a decorous framework: at one point, Sam registered his sexual jealousy by quietly emptying a bag of popcorn for Avery to clean up. Above all, this was a play about work, about the fact that running an old-style movie house is as much concerned with sweeping away the debris as resisting the trend towards digitisation.

As one of the few theatre critics to have worked as a cinema usher, I could even vouch for the accuracy of a time-honoured scam concerning the resale of old ticket stubs. Sam Gold’s unhurried production, imported from New York, was a miracle and the acting was marvellous. But the main credit belongs to Baker, for making moving drama out of a trio of lost souls and for creating the year’s most unforgettable theatrical image. Read the full review

  1. Oil
    Almeida, London

Ambitious and bold … Oil. Photograph: Richard H Smith

In a breakthrough year for female dramatists – and a modest one for men – Ella Hickson’s play stands out. It spanned 150 years and covered a vast range of subjects: the exploitation and exhaustion of the world’s oil resources, the links between the energy industry and imperialism, the social progress made by women and the unresolved problems of parenting. It was a lot to cram in, but I was awed by the boldness of the conception. Anne-Marie Duff as the time-transcending May also caught brilliantly the pain that accompanied a pathfinding woman’s gain. Read the full review

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