2020 in Berkshire
It’s been a really difficult time for theatre in Berkshire with most venues closed. However, the ever-enterprising Watermill Mill theatre managed to produce two open-air productions in their beautiful gardens with the audience suitably socially distanced sitting at tables.
The first was a new adaption of The Hound of the Baskervilles devised by the talented company—Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey and James Mack—and was a huge comedy caper and tremendous fun. There were some wonderful tongue-in-cheek moments. The whole experience was like a delicious summer pudding.
Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot in a concert version was a true musical treat with a large band, performed with style, that lifted the spirits on a summer’s day.
It was wonderful to be able to get back inside the auditorium for Douglas Post’s psychological thriller, Bloodshot. The number of seats had been significantly reduced with red bows tastefully tied around the seats that were not to be used. Simon Slater gave a tour-de-force performance as the ex- police photographer Derek Everleigh who tries to solve a murder single-handedly. He played all the characters as well as a mean saxophone solo.
Ade Morris’s play The Lone Flyer—The Last Flight of Amy Johnson retells Johnson's remarkable courageous story. Hannah Edwards was inspiring as the heroic, intrepid aviator whose winning smile and gritty determination won the audience’s hearts. Benedict Slater impressively played all the other roles in the play. It was a slice of history, beautifully performed by a superb company.
Following the second lockdown, the Watermill brought a touch of magic to the stage with its seasonal production of A Christmas Carol performed by two multi-talented actor-musicians. Pete Ashmore gave an outstanding powerful performance as the bitter, bad-tempered Scrooge whose life is about to change forever, while Tilly-Mae Millbrook was the Narrator as well as playing all the other characters in this captivating production that finally had to close early owing to the government’s restrictions.
The Corn Exchange did manage to bring Aladdin to the stage in a refreshing modern and wittily written panto by Plested and Brown. With a bright, sparkling set and glittering costumes, the exceedingly hard-working cast filled the stage with festive cheer. It was bang up to date with loads of local references and groan-making jokes. A spectacular show with something for all the family. An absolute Christmas tonic. Unfortunately, it had to close before the run could be completed, which was such a great pity.
Here’s looking forward to a safe New Year when we can enjoy going to theatre once more.
Best Dozen Dance Shows of 2020
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” How on earth does one follow Dickens? Maybe with a deliberate misquote from Alan Bennett: you don't ask a man who has crossed the desert if he wants Perrier or Pellegrino. This is the situation we find in the arts right now: I for one am very grateful for anything the creative industries can produce during these odd times.
Out of the three months before the first lockdown, Crystal Pite’s Revisor (in March) stands out (it is available on BBC iPlayer for the next four months). In February, maliphantworks3 at the tiny atmospheric Coronet was moving, as was Richard Alston’s farewell Final Edition production at Sadler’s Wells in March.
February also saw Acosta Danza and Alina at Sadler’s Wells, both of which delighted me. Pina Bausch’s intriguing Bluebeard was a February crowd-puller, though not her best. And in March, the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake hit the heights with the dream casting of Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov, a partnership that sends tingles down my spine.
And it was the classical ballet companies, Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, that shone before and during lockdown. The year opened with two live galas and closed with two streamed, and never have I been so glad to sit through critic-proof entertainment.
As companies tried to find their feet during lockdown and come up with alternative ways of working, so did critics scramble for quality shows to review. In July, I found NDT’s double bill, Standby / She Remembers, which gave me heart. It was outstanding. You can’t lock down creativity—it will out.
And finally, the two Royal Ballet Galas (The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage and The Royal Ballet: Live—Within the Golden Hour) in October and November simply dazzled with the company’s collective talents. You can still see a pick and mix of the two on BBC iPlayer.
2020 started off as a bumper year of theatregoing with three shows in the space of two days whilst holidaying in Berlin. Indeed, by 13 March, I'd seen 14 productions including the Menier Chocolate Factory's charmingly eccentric The Boy Friend and Janice Okoh's humorous, yet provocative The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. I'd even reviewed my first panto of the year—Red Riding Hood—at Balham Bowls Club.
Days before the first lockdown came, I was at the National Theatre for The Visit, a show I'd studied and performed in German whilst at University. The auditorium was a quarter full at best with the production's eeriness matched by the Industry's fear of what was to come.
Months of watching online streams came to an end over the summer when I was to review my first piece of outdoor live performance: Pirates of the Pavilion at the Nothe Fort in Weymouth. After much anticipation, it was almost rained off, but a change in restrictions the day before now meant theatres could reopen with a socially distant audience making that show one of the first to play indoors since March.
Whilst my usual panto tour has been cut short this year, I feel incredibly lucky to have visited the Theatre Royal Windsor, Theatre Royal Winchester and Turbine Theatre for their festive shows. I hadn't been to Windsor for a decade and it was my first reviewing visit to Winchester. Battersea's Turbine Theatre was also a first for me and the first time they had presented pantomime. The show was one of the best I've seen and will hopefully kickstart a tradition at the venue.
An abundance of online pantomimes this year has enabled many show to be seen from the comfort of the sofa. Topping my list to so far are Evolution Productions' Nurse Nellie Saves Panto followed by the National Theatre's Dick Whittington. Both productions embrace their theatrical setting, acknowledge the pandemic and the production's limitations, yet successfully capture the essence of the genre for all to enjoy. As I wrote in my review, "Perhaps the National can be persuaded to consider panto every year? After all, it is our national theatre, just like the venue."
2020—The World Turned Upside Down
What can I say about 2020 without going off on one? Well, I have promised not to rant so perhaps the best that can be said is that I have found it a year for realising how much I take certain things for granted and appreciating them much more as a result.
Theatre is of course high on the list.
Things got off to a good start with the Almeida's The Duchess of Malfi, Jamie Lloyd Company's Cyrano de Bergerac and the Young Vic's Nora: A Doll's House making up for the disappointment of the overrated Uncle Vanya from Ian Rickson and new musical &Juliet, and the underwhelming City of Angels at the Garrick Theatre where the downhill charge was led so ably by Theo James that not even Hadley Fraser could lift it back up.
Whilst here I have to single out The Tempest at Jermyn Street Theatre not just because of how much I liked it but because it was the last show I saw before lockdown and it sustained me for many a month, not an easy task.
I haven’t enjoyed watching theatre online nearly as much as watching it live, but there have been some standouts. Chichester Festival Theatre's Flowers for Mrs Harris, Wise Children's The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk and Wales Millennium Centre's Only the Brave are amongst them.
Online consumption also gave me the chance to see things again and I enjoyed The Tailor-Made Man significantly more in this production from Eastlake Productions than I remember from its first viewing in 2013, and Bristol Old Vic's The Grinning Man was every bit as good.
But it is well known fact that you can't live by musicals alone and the Royal Court's Cypress Avenue and the Nottingham Playhouse production of The Madness of George the Third are standard bearers for quality.
Aside from far-reaching and in some cases irreversible personal, creative and commercial damage, COVID's impact on theatre will be remembered for birthing made-for-streaming theatre. Still in its infancy, its maturity promises great things if Jermyn Street Theatre's 15 Heroines series is anything to go by.
That said, for me, there is nothing like the real thing and I dashed out the door, mask in hand, as soon as I was able.
Mark Farrelly's Howerd's End which I had hoped to see previously was totally worth the wait, and scurrilous adult panto Frostbite: Who Pinched My Muff? was totally worth dressing up in thermals for given its Garden Theatre staging.
These two shows couldn't have been more different, but, if the joy of experiencing live performance is a flame, they re-ignited a blaze.
Without wanting to be maudlin, I would like to roll-call shows not seen. It is not to my loss that I want to divert your attention, dear reader, but by way of inadequate tribute to all those on stage, backstage and front-of-house, who have been denied their right to work:
- Dorian: the musical – The Other Palace
- Iolanthe – The King's Head
- Something Rotten – Birmingham Rep
- Hedda Gabler – Greenwich Theatre
- You and I: A New Musical – The Other Palace
- Hello, Dolly! – Adelphi Theatre
- The Comeback – Nöel Coward Theatre
- Jena Friedman – Soho Theatre
- Aïda – The King's Head
- Buyer & Cellar – Above The Stag Theatre
- Sunday In The Park With George – Savoy Theatre
- Julian Clary: Born to Mince – Bloomsbury Theatre
- A Little Night Music – Opera North / Leeds Playhouse
- Undermined: The Fatberg Musical – The Other Palace
- An Evening with Flanders & Swan – Jermyn Street Theatre
- Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Charing Cross Theatre
- Dick Whittington – A New Dick in Town! – Above The Stag Theatre
Best live plays of 2020 (i.e. the only ones that I can remember nine months on)
Best broadcast plays
Best Lockdown Play
Best opera production
A flick back through my diary from early 2020 (or 'old normal') reveals between January and March, my live theatre experiences related exclusively to the children’s genre.
Late January, I travelled to Northampton for the Royal and Derngate and The Children’s Theatre Partnership co-production of Louis Sachar’s Holes. Sachar’s novel is a firm fixture on secondary school reading lists and I was keen to see how Sachar had translated his rather bleak, quirky story to the stage.
With more of a focus on humour and playing for laughs, this no doubt widened the appeal but it didn’t quite work for me. That said, Prema Mehta’s stunning lighting design has stayed in my mind with beautiful evocations of desert and night skies. And a note to myself after seeing this production—don’t go to a performance too laden with preconceptions.
Next, mid-February and the Spark Arts for Children’s annual Spark Festival. This Leicestershire-based organisation has for many years now showcased a wide variety of inclusive, imaginative and high-quality productions.
Akin Theatre’s Nest is a sensory-rich and beautifully written piece and it was a joy and a privilege to witness babies’ reactions to performance.
For older children, and all ages beyond, Grensgeval’s Plock! spoke to our inner creator (and mess-maker) with a playful foray into Jackson Pollack-style art.
With all that’s happened since March, I will try and keep the focus on the positive for 2021. It has been an 'up and down' experience to revisit these 2020 performances again in my head: a reaffirmation of my views on the importance of theatre, arts and culture, and a reignition of optimism for its future.
Creative as ever, organisations continue to adapt and find ways to perform and reach their audiences—and good news to learn that The Spark Festival has released its programme for 2021.
The Time Is Out of Joint
Shakespeare gives Hamlet this line as he soliloquises about the appearance of his father’s ghost—but it could be a phrase to sum up 2020 for all of us.
With the live entertainment industry hit the hardest by the pandemic, was there anything to celebrate in a year that saw theatres shut, productions cancelled and theatre practitioners laid off in their scores?
In East Anglia, all the main theatres were forced to close their doors, including Theatre Royal Norwich, which shut an hour before it were due to stage a touring production of Les Misérables. And many have found it almost impossible to find a way to open again. There have been attempts at some Christmas offerings including Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal's production of A Christmas Carol outside on Angel Hill (inclement weather put a stop to this one) and The New Wolsey in Ipswich producing a cut-down version of its rock 'n' roll panto with only five in the cast and just a week of performances.
But one venue has managed to keep going in spite of everything, due in part to being small with minimal overheads and a workforce of mainly volunteers. Two Sisters Arts Centre on the Suffolk coast is located in a redundant church and was opened in April 2019. After a successful first nine months, it was closed during the coldest months of January and February but had a full programme of events planned for the spring and summer. It opened at the beginning of March and closed again in the middle of March after just three events.
At first, this was as devastating as for any other venue, but as soon as things eased, the management decided to explore new ways of bringing live events to an audience. In July, a fabulous musical production of The Story of Doo-Wop was live streamed from the empty venue. Three guys (two brothers and their cousin) created the sound of the fifties to tell the story of the birth of rock 'n' roll through media and music. In August, a young jazz band and an a cappella group were live-streamed and in September, the venue opened with socially distanced COVID measures in place for a two-week run of The Few, a tribute to the Battle of Britain Pilots produced and performed by local Theatre Company Black & White Productions.
October saw an incredible production by award winning actor James Hyland of his one man show Fagin’s Last Hour, an intense, mesmerising retelling of Dickens’s Oliver Twist and after another closure in November, December saw another production by James Hyland of A Christmas Carol as told from the viewpoint of Marley’s Ghost, and a screening of It's A Wonderful Life finished off the season.
While the world has been through the bleakest of times, this little jewel on the Suffolk Coast has shone a light at the end of a very long tunnel. Sitting in this cosy, pocket-sized venue or picking up the live-stream was to be transported once again to other times and places that only live theatre can do. 2021 will hopefully see an easing of restrictions, but it may be up to smaller venues to keep theatre alive until the larger ones can start functioning to full capacity again.