2021 was a year in which theatregoing was less about socialising and seeking entertainment and more about making a practical demonstration of support for the arts or a refusal to be cowed by COVID. It was a case of caring less about the quality of the shows and more about being grateful they were being staged. Producers anxious to persuade audiences to venture out-of-doors took a cautious approach and offered shows which had proved popular in the past. The most obvious casualty of this situation was new drama—which makes compiling a ‘best of’ list a bit tricky.
Under the circumstances, I have been drawn to those shows which best demonstrated the unique nature of theatre and so proved why its absence had been so hard to endure. Both Anna X and The War of the Worlds were shows that made great use of the theatre environment. The staging of Anna X—a multimedia background of screens and images rushing past the audience at speed—created a feeling of being overwhelmed and confused by events which, as the play concerned a confidence trickster, may have been the point. The show is to be screened on Sky Arts so it will be fascinating to see how well it translates to the screen. The War of the Worlds showed techniques which are commonplace in theatre—a small cast taking on multiple roles and chopping and changing time zones and locations—which audiences for other forms of entertainment might find hard to accept but which made for a highly engaging show.
Musicals such as Everybody's Talking About Jamie and Bedknobs and Broomsticks were a welcome return of the glitz and glamour of showbiz but then one would expect major productions to have that effect. Probably the most powerful musical was Hope Mill’s staging of Rent which despite a crowded storyline had real impact.
The Fringe brought some welcome new drama and proved playwrights are still capable of devising a plot rather than relying on their own life experiences. Richard Vergette’s Leaving Vietnam was as subtle examination of how an apparently decent character could become what many would see as an extremist while Brian Coyle’s Timeless was a fascinating assessment of the impact of a medical condition which inhibits the making of new memories and featured an excellent performance from John Rayment. The Fringe is always at its best when punching above its weight and Rising Moon Productions confounded expectations with a highly successful version of Beckett’s Krapp's Last Tape.
London / Dance Reviewer
Streaming January–June 2021
- A big thank you to the Met Opera for streaming an opera per day for free, which kept me, and many others I should imagine, sane during lockdown. I lost count as to how many I watched (should have kept a record), certainly in double figures. It was quite an intensive education—I particularly remember Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecień and Piotr Beczała in Eugene Onegin. Kwiecień and Matthew Polenzani also touched the sentimental button in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in that famous "Au fond du temple saint" duet.
- Anna Karenina from Vakhtangov Theatre, Moscow.
- Circus Days and Nights—Philip Glass new circus opera from Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera, Sweden.
Live July–December 2021
- Spring Awakening, Almeida—brilliant production and performances.
- Giselle, ROH—for Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov’s partnership.
- Satyagraha, ENO, London Coliseum.
- Coppelia—Kevan Allen for proving no space is too small.
- Message in a Bottle—for its energy.
- A Christmas Carol, Old Vic—for wonderful ensemble and Stephen Mangan.
- Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!—for its saucy wit.
Like many, I try to focus on the moment as a way to get through the relentless slog we are still experiencing. So, my personal reflections on the theatrical year of 2021 are more about moments, and what I really appreciated in a performance.
There was a heady period in October when I saw four productions over an eight-day period, all at Leicester’s Curve theatre. This much theatre is a luxury at any time, but particularly now. And Curve’s café did quite well out of me too.
Hairspray is a musical I have seen many times and always enjoy its humour and bite. On this occasion in early October, I found myself drawn to the ensemble—their joy at performing again leapt off the stage.
Less than 24 hours later, it was Rambert 2’s Home/Killer Pig. The precision and physicality of each production was hugely impressive. I relished how both performances really made me think and focus on the dancers' storytelling.
The following week, The Midnight Bell thrilled with its engrossing storytelling and moody atmosphere. Another instant classic from New Adventures, and with their trademark attention to all details. Then, the following night, Tell Me On a Sunday with Jodie Prenger and an emotional hour well spent; I really admire the craft in the lyrics of this musical.
A breathtaking moment came earlier this month with Howard Hudson’s lighting design in Curve’s production of A Chorus Line—blindingly good.
It felt such a privilege to be back in the theatre again; more than ever, I appreciate live performance and all that goes into its creation.
Moments lost or still to come
A moment that passed me by was seeing Ralph Fiennes in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in June. Maybe I’ll get to see him on stage another time.
And in a perfect world, I’d love to see the production of Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre. A moment to come in 2022, hopefully.
Panto Season 2021: 5 Aspects of Evolutionary Change
Pantomime’s willingness to evolve is the reason for its continued survival as it embraces the new. Historically, we’ve seen Comics and Principal Boys merge, female Principal Boys become almost extinct, the creation of Drag Villains, Dame Fairies and Male Benevolent Agents, new titles inspired by Disney and an ever-changing array of celebrity casting. Here are five observations from Panto Season 2021:
This year, we’ve seen a significant reduction in pantomime’s father figures, from Kings to Emperors and Barons. This is partly due to a reduction in cast sizes on account of COVID-19 and a streamlining of narratives, but also a wider reflection of moving away from class narratives whereby dissenting father figures want their daughters to marry for money, not love. Historically, this role was sometimes referred to as the Second Comic. Most frequently, Comics now graduate to Dames, leaving the role bereft of humour with many productions also dispensing with secondary romance narratives between the Father Figure and Pantomime Dame.
Romance is playing an ever-decreasing role in many pantomimes as they focus on adventure, quest and community. Mantras of believing in yourself, working together and doing things for each other now overtake the desire for a relationship or marriage. Independence, confidence and opportunity have replaced historical pantomime’s focus on settling down and outdated gender stereotypes. I believe there is also a positive correlation here with the field of Superheroes, which has also resulted in a decrease in the role magic plays in many pantomimes as Principal Boys and Girls believe in themselves and embark on adventure for the greater good of society. The word “superhero” has been used a lot during the pandemic, encouraging us all to be superheroes and be grateful for the heroes in society, such as NHS, and emergency and front line workers. Indeed, some pantomimes now have no romance narrative at all, whilst others ensure that having time to get to know each other before deciding to get engaged or marriaged is at the forefront of the show’s plot.
Pantomimes are embracing the LGBTQI+ community in their productions, from the use of the Pride Flag to openly gay, queer and gender-fluid characters. The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury made history when it staged the first commercial pantomime to include a coming out scene. In writer, director and producer Paul Hendy of Evolution Productions’ Jack and the Beanstalk script, Jack came out to his mother in the final scene of the show. Theatres that produce their pantomimes in-house, including the Tron Theatre, Glasgow and Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, have already led the charge here, previously including gay and lesbian relationships in their shows. Evolution Productions also cast gender-fluid performer Lucas Rush as a gender-fluid Carabosse in Sheffield’s Sleeping Beauty.
More and more creatives are addressing pantomime’s problematic past and coming up with innovative approaches. 2021 has seen a number ofAladdins that dispense with its usual Chinese setting, yet stay faithful to the narrative, such as the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith’s production written by Vikki Stone. We’re also seeing a strong re-addressing of pantomime’s gender imbalance with an explosion of female Villains from Fabra Cadabra (Leonie Spilsbury) in Colchester to Aunty Banazar (Liz Carney) in Oldham and Nicola Faraday in the role of Abanazar in Redhill. In addition, more female Comics are now gracing the stage including Horsham’s Frankie Twanky (Emma Ralston) and Hammersmith’s Wishy (Gracie McGonigal). Another big shake up in the usual stock characters seen each Christmas, particularly in this year’s Aladdins, is the increase in Animal Comics, from Dale Superville’s Humphrey the Camel in Colchester to Connor Bryson’s Lemmy the Lemur in Doncaster and Olivia Stockdale as Marmaduke the Monkey in Loughborough.
Pantomime is slowly waking up to its lack of inclusivity, but still has a very long way to go. For example, most of the UK’s largest pantomime producer Crossroads’ posters do now feature a performer from the global majority, and unlike previous seasons, they are most likely to be in the role of Principal Boy or Girl rather than Villain. However, there are still companies with entirely white casts, others with only one female in their principal cast and those who have yet to ever employ a disabled performer, creative or crew member. Pantomimes, both on and offstage, must be more representative of their communities if the genre is to survive and evolve in a positive, progressive way.
If the most over-used word of 2020 was "unprecedented", then in 2021, I got fed up with the word "hybrid", although I remain truly grateful that theatre companies have been able to offer work in a manner of ways that kept me sane and entertained during what has been another challenging year.
Top picks online are several and varied but I will limit myself to just these: I loved Jack Holden's stunning writing debut, the 1980s-set Cruise (which I watched on stream.theatre). There were many reasons including the dynamic way it took every advantage in filming the solo show originally written for the stage.
In contrast is pick 2, the charming chamber musical Daddy Longlegs from Ireland's Boulevard Theatre, starring the equally charming Róisín Sullivan, who I remember seeing at the Union Theatre's A Man Of No Importance before it deservedly transferred to the West End.
Last of the top three is solo piece All On Her Own starring the incomparable Janie Dee as Rattigan's guiltily grieving widow in this moving mono-duologue, originally written for television and here produced for streaming but having the intimacy of live performance.
In a league of its own is Arrows & Traps' Talking Gods. I watched these five modern interpretations from Greek mythology as they were released over the course of a week and found myself engaged with the series in a way that hasn’t happened with any television serial for a very long time.
Any could be picked out and watched as a standalone event and if I had to choose a favourite it would probably be Aphrodite, though to be fair it benefitted from being seen in the shadow of its predecessors. All five stories are still available to watch and could be binge-watched (preferably in order) although spreading them out over a few days probably does better service to writer Ross McGregor's lightly intertwined texts.
Before leaving the online category, a nod to podcast drama this year and the highlight of silliness which has come from comedy specialists New Old Friends.
And so to live theatre. I have to confess that I am truly disappointed to end my theatre-going year on a shockingly low low—Patrick Marber's ill-conceived revival of Habeas Corpus. This was my second visit to The Menier Theatre and I went thinking and hoping it couldn't possibly be as dire as the first (the Marmite-flavoured Brian and Roger) but my optimism couldn't have been more misplaced. Enough said.
As a result, I am still hoping to gather some family together for a second last show of the year and I have my sights set on another visit to the delightfully funny and clever Pride and Prejudice (sort of).
Some shows just deserve a second viewing and as well as seeing Mark Thomas's new show twice, another such has been the Southwark Playhouse hit Operation Mincemeat. All things being equal, a third visit is booked with another crowd for 2022. Enough said there too, I think.
By the same token, some shows I eschewed over the years, amongst them Carousel, but with its refined treatment at Regents Park Open Air Theatre, I once again enjoyed this difficult classic. For its spirit-lifting exuberance, a second musical theatre classic also makes this year's list, Anything Goes.
Another, more meaningful, walk down memory lane for me was The Normal Heart. Seeing the original London production at the Royal Court as an impressionable 20-something-year-old was a game changer for me and, before leaving the house to see this revival at the National Theatre, I felt compelled to dig out the T-shirt just to look at it, knowing full well that after 35 sedentary years it was no longer going to fit me.
Friend (The One With Gunther) took me by surprise. Not a fan of the long-running sitcom, I enjoyed it much more than I ever thought I would, and I take my hat off to writer and performer Brendan Murphy who dealt so comically and good-naturedly with an inebriated, madly-behaved family the night I saw it at Wilton's Music Hall.
Other standouts for 2021 include Godot Is A Woman at London's Pleasance for the inventiveness of its delivery, and the sheer filthy joy that is the panto at Above the Stag, this year Dick Whittington—a New Dick in Town.
Finally, I would like to give a special mention to my community-serving local venue The Jack. I do this for the pleasure this year's programme has collectively given me and especially for their current Christmas show, Kindred Spirits (written by the previously mentioned Ross McGregor), but also as proxy for all the fringe venues that have struggled through another year of existence-threatening neglect by government. I thank you and salute you all.
Editor / North West Editor
It was another year of a mixture of online and in-person theatre viewing for me, so I'm going to choose a selection from each.
First, what I saw in theatres:
- The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was a stunning piece of theatre at The Lowry for any time of year, not just for Christmas.
- Bloody Elle was a one-person show that was certainly at home on the main stage of the Royal Exchange from talented writer-composer-performer Lauryn Redding.
- Home, I'm Darling at the Octagon, in a co-production with Theatre by the Lake and Stephen Joseph Theatre, I think was funnier than the original National Theatre production.
- The Lemon Table was a chance to see a great actor, Ian McDiarmid, in an intimate piece playing two very different characters at HOME.
- Rent finally got a full run at Hope Mill, and was a joyous way to return to theatre.
My online picks are all outside my usual region and mostly from the Edinburgh Fringe:
- Charlie's a Clepto by Clare Monnelly on Assembly Showcatcher had a lot more substance to it than the title suggested to me, and in fact was a riveting hour and a quarter.
- Possible from Shôn Dale-Jones on Pleasance Online was another fascinating trip into the world of this charismatic writer-performer.
- An Evening With An Immigrant from Inua Ellams was given an online run by Traverse Theatre, giving those of us who had yet to see it a chance to catch up.
- Saved from Graeme Leak on ZOOTV was just one man in a room full of stuff making music from it with a Keatonesque deadpan delivery, but the performance has stayed with me ever since.
- Angela by Mark Ravenhill was an audio play about the writer's mother (played by Pam Ferris) from Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh that worked perfectly in this form.
Back in the closing months of 2020, there were good reasons to think theatre in 2021 was going to be more politically engaged with the world. Theatre workers were angry at the way they had been treated during the COVID emergency. Many people were angry that year and, despite lockdown, that anger sometimes became publicly political. The police murder of George Floyd provoked thousands in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to march on the American Embassy.
The Royal Court Theatre tuned into the discontent with its Living Newspaper inspired by the Federal Theatre Project of the Roosevelt administration. They employed 312 freelancers including 92 writers to create seven impressive editions between December 2020 and May 2021. Each show consisted of more than a dozen performances whose subjects ranged from BLM to the murder of women by police. Some were sung, others were tight, short monologues. Most had a deadly seriousness that took us across the world from Peru to Palestine, but there was also occasional humour as in the satiric takes on politicians. It raised expectations for 2021, but COVID and another three-month lockdown made theatre very difficult.
My favourite play of the year is Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at the National Theatre. First performed in New York1985, it helped to publicise the horrors of the AIDS crisis and the callous passivity of the institutional response. It follows the four-year campaign in the early 1980s of the fictional activist Ned Weeks (loosely based on Larry Kramer) having to challenge prejudice against the gay community and also convince other gay men to change their sexual behaviour, despite having so recently won legality and a precarious acceptance of their sexuality. Ben Daniels gave a passionate riveting performance as Weeks in Dominic Cooke’s sensitive, often witty 2021 production.
If anyone is under the illusion that the institutions now behave more responsibly, they should have seen Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry edited by Richard Norton-Taylor and directed by Nicolas Kent, Performed initially at the Tabernacle Theatre near Grenfell and then later at the Birmingham Rep, it was probably the most important play of the year. Focusing on the institutional cause of the blazing inferno that killed 72 people, this powerful courtroom drama held your attention even as those speaking on behalf of business organisations shocked you with what they had done. Michael Mansfield QC (David Robb) speaking in court for the Bereaved Survivors and Residents group says, “what emerged from the Inquiry was an extraordinary catalogue of greed, fraud, cheating, lying incompetence, fatal cost-cutting, casual indifference, unaccountable private companies and public officials, buck-passing.”
An impressively ambitious show that tapped into a bit of theatrical history was Paula Vogel’s Indecent at the Menier Chocolate Factory. It gave us the history with occasional linking music of another play The God of Vengeance by the Polish writer Sholem Asch, following its journey across the first half of the 20th century, two continents and an obscenity trial for the company for allowing the first two women to be shown kissing in a Broadway play. If that wasn't enough, it also includes the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee.
Among the play’s many striking images is the opening dance of a troupe of performers wearing clothes of the mid-20th century in which ash pours from their arms. And I defy anyone not to be moved by the joyful dance in the rain of the two women characters Manke and Rifkele that completes the performance.
2021 repeated the pattern of recent years in which plays about the struggle for women’s rights had more political clarity and dramatic impact than those dealing with other issues. Beatrice Hyde’s uplifting Emmeline, imaginatively directed by Anastasia Revi, gave us an exciting view of the public and private fight of those involved in the campaign for women’s right to vote in the UK. The show switched fluently between the obstacle of arrogant politicians determined to keep things the way they were and the women who in public meetings, marches and the direct action that sometimes included setting fire to politicians houses were insisting change must come. Although centring on Emmeline Pankhurst (Georgie Rhys) and her daughter Sylvia (Charlie Hansen), the play lets us glimpse other women and men who fought for a woman’s right to vote. It was an inspiring performance that had many of us ready to join them on stage. Hopefully, there will be many more shows like this in 2022.
It’s one of those phrases you wouldn’t necessarily expect a theatre reviewer to write: one of the biggest thrills of the year was seeing Joe Pasquale on stage.
It’s not that the squeaky-voiced comedian can’t act. It was just that when he portrayed Al in John Godber’s April in Paris at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, it was the first day that theatres had been allowed to reopen after lockdown. In fact, as producer-director Richard Lewis told the audience, they were watching the “only professional touring company anywhere in the country outside London”.
I followed that by seeing six productions at five different theatres over the next four weeks. The only venue I visited twice was Nottingham’s Theatre Royal which was staging its annual Classic Thriller Season.
The highlight of the year has to be Ralph Fiennes’s one-man show, T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which I saw at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and features “one of our greatest actors at the top of his game”.
Nottingham Playhouse’s artistic director Adam Penford then persuaded Jenna Russell to come to the provinces to play Edith Piaf in Pam Gems’s play Piaf. Russell gave a stunning performance, as did her old friend Sally Ann Triplett as Toine, Piaf’s confidante, and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Marlene Dietrich.
Birmingham REP’s reputation as one of the top regional theatres in the country was enhanced with the arrival of Sean Foley as artistic director. COVID meant he had to wait to programme his first season—but he scored a winner with his first show, a revival of Ayub Khan Din’s comedy drama East Is East.
The REP then found it wasn’t unusual to send audiences home happy when it staged Joe DiPietro’s new musical What’s New Pussycat? Twenty-one of Welsh warbler Sir Tom Jones’s songs were stitched together with the plot of Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. The jukebox musical has a reasonable plot along with highs and lows of emotion before everyone lives happily ever after.
However, I found that Foley’s homage to Morecambe and Wise, The Play What I Wrote, which he penned with Hamish McColl “and of course Eddie Braben”, wasn’t as funny as I was expecting. Yet on the night I saw it, the audience applauded enthusiastically.
Which leads me on to panto. Two productions stood out, Little Wolf’s Sleeping Beauty at Derby Arena, with Morgan Brind demonstrating why he’s one of the best dames in the business, and Nottingham Theatre Royal’s Robin Hood which definitely scored a bullseye. It ended with the Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne song “Rather Be”. Let’s hope that in 2022 theatres serve up such thrilling entertainment that there’s no place we’d rather be.