Rather than shedding tears over another disastrous year, Philip Fisher travels in time this week with a fantasy look back on the year to come.
New Year’s Eve seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the events of what, in retrospect, we will all recognise was an epic year for the London stage. Readers will readily understand why there seemed little point in writing any kind of round-up of theatre in 2020 and 2021.
Indeed, at the end of 2021, many might have feared the worst, wondering whether the discipline that we love would ever manage to emerge from the doldrums into which it had been plunged by a post-biblical pandemic.
The early months of 2022 threatened to be just as bad, as the industry almost literally paid for a political decision in England to ignore the Omicron variant through Christmas and New Year. Where other countries quickly recovered both in terms of health and economic performance having kept citizens as safe as reasonably possible, ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson rode the herd immunity wheel of death with terrible consequences.
There is little doubt that Rishi Sunak will claim the credit, but most level-headed voters are more likely to believe that the arrival of a miracle cure for the pandemic (thanks to the world-beating scientists of China) on that chilly April day when he replaced a sadly chastened Johnson was either coincidental or shrewdly engineered.
By that point, after a further three months of closure, following on from a period when venues were opening and closing almost daily due to illness, most theatregoers had become too fearful to spend hard-earned money on tickets, things looked terminally desperate for many.
Pleasingly, new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves, who benefited from Mr Sunak’s decision to collaborate with the opposition as a means of speeding up the return to normality, launched the kind of bailout package that had seemed the stuff of dreams only weeks before. By putting a squeeze on tax avoidance and chasing down furlough and loan fraud, she was able to remind older theatre folk of the heady days when high quality art was subsidised and talented artistes could make a decent living.
Many readers will have enjoyed the highlights of a year in which mask wearing, vaccines and social distancing became a thing of the past, even in packed auditoria at theatres large and small. Everyone will have his or her own favourites, but here are a few of this critic’s highlights from his return to the West End after over two years of enforced abstinence.
The media hype when Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice announced that they were to be reunited was overwhelming. While few could imagine that they would manage to create a work comparable with their finest, Bournvita has played to sold-out audiences from its opening night and the word on the street is that no tickets are available until 2024.
James Graham’s Boris and Dominic was a sad testimony to the grimmest days of the pandemic. By looking at government misbehaviour through the eyes of the mistresses, he presents a unique but telling portrait of a disaster that was exacerbated by government failure and indecision.
The other big musical of the year has not yet reached London, although advance sales on Broadway are apparently already reaching into the next decade. Nobody thought that Lin-Manuel Miranda could ever managed to top Hamilton, but his multiracial, gender-neutral hip-hop / rap musical JFK in which he triumphantly took the title role opposite Jay-Z as Jackie, with Lady Gaga an unexpected hit in the role of RFK, seems set to become the best-selling musical in history with a London transfer set for later in the year.
Richard Bean delivered a rather different but equally wry take on politics in Trump, Sex and Subversion. Whether Sir Nicholas Hytner was wise to cast the comedy in which Stormy Daniels, Ivanka Trump and Rudy Giuliani were all played by British actors using their own accents is open to debate. Nobody will deny that Bean had audiences rolling around in the aisles thanks to his trademark humour and ability to debunk the ultimate populist.
On smaller stages up and down the country, artistic directors are revelling in financial stability, able to programme large cast productions of the kind not seen for generations, while ticket prices which exploded during the darkest days of the pandemic have returned to levels of affordability almost forgotten.
It was also a delight to be back in Edinburgh, where both Festival and Fringe were back at full tilt and capacity and the sun shone throughout August.
Perhaps the finest government contribution to date has been from the new culture secretary Jeremy Corbyn, whose demand that 10% of all tickets be offered free of charge to disadvantaged youngsters has offered hope for the sort of rich, diverse cultural future that seemed unimaginable even one year ago.