Two Shows of the Year I hear regular readers (both of them) ask? Well, I traditionally start these round-ups with the new writing of the year, but if we're going to go chronologically through 2021 there's one thing that stands out to start with.
When lockdown first took out live theatre in spring 2020, a lot of venues and independent creatives were quick off the mark to offer an at-home alternative. Once it started to look like we might need to get used to this for a while, streaming theatre started to get a bit more sophisticated, so by the start of 2021 we were seeing a lot of major attempts to recreate the theatre experience at home (as well as keep the money coming in, and the audiences remembering that theatres would be there to go back to soon.) The big hitter is of course the National Theatre's NTatHome, which handily had the recordings from over a decade of NTLive to draw from - I revisited a 2009 Phèdre. Other theatres reimagined the shows they'd meant to stage in front of live audiences for the screen, like the Almeida still playing Hymn on its stage live every night, to an empty auditorium but many viewers at home.
The Orange Tree did the same with specially-commissioned, lockdown-themed shows INSIDE and OUTSIDE, while streaming platform stream.theatre also filmed in an empty theatre, Eurobeat being silly enough that the lack of audience atmosphere didn't hamper it too much. Later in the year when theatres started to reopen, a kind of hybrid production model stuck around, with a few plays offering both live and home viewing. I largely stuck to the live ones, but until I got my second Covid jab I was wary of theatres too far away with a long tube journey involved, so I chose the home option for the Almeida's and breathe... and the Lyric Hammersmith's portmanteau Out West.
I'm leaving out straight-up film adaptations of the sort that could have been released any other year (things like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Everybody's Talking About Jamie) and looking more at attempts to recreate something genuinely theatrical on screen: Things like Good Grief, which went for an anti-naturalistic style you don't usually associate with film, and a loosely-adapted Picture of Dorian Gray that showed the brand-new medium of storytelling via Zoom starting to mature. The Finborough went all-in on Zoom to provide rehearsed readings of A Brief List of Everyone Who Died, and Masks and Faces, which had no right to work as well as it did with the entire cast in different rooms, when Restoration comedy can struggle badly live. And getting two completely separate productions was actor Jack Holden's monologue Cruise: It became one of the first shows to reopen live, but I'd already booked to watch it at home, making it one of the year's online highlights.
And it probably goes without saying: Philip Ridley wasn't going to be caught napping, with Cactus, Rosewater and Tarantula making their online debuts.
2021: FAR FROM HOME
The BBC's contribution to online theatre was an iPlayer festival they called Lights Up, of which I watched all but one show - that's because the last one, J'Ouvert, I caught live at the Pinter Theatre along with Walden and Anna X: Yes, live theatre started to tentatively return, and I tentatively returned to it. Under Milk Wood was the National's big comeback but it wasn't really for me - as far as I'm concerned the main event was smaller but with a much bigger impact, in the gentle, sad, and yes, Luke Thallon-starring, which doesn't hurt, After Life.
For a while I think theatres remembered we might like some lighter fare after the year we'd had - knowingly cheesy comedy The Comeback, weird World War II musical Operation Mincemeat (which everyone on earth seems to be a bigger fan of than I was,) broad comedy with The Windsors: Endgame, movie nostalgia with The Shark is Broken, and 2:22 A Ghost Story was, well, you can probably guess the genre on that one. On the more bittersweet side of things Tom Wells made a welcome return with Big Big Sky.
Somewhere around this point everyone seems to have decided to ditch the "sweet" part and concentrate on the "bitter" - not without some absolute triumphs, like Caryl Churchill further distilling how short a time it takes to contain multitudes in What If If Only. But Love and Other Acts of Violence went very bleak, White Noise was frustrating, and Camp Siegfried was good but mismatched with its venue. Old Bridge took us to a dark and often-forgotten chapter of recent history, but it also took us back to an award I didn't give out last year, but which I tend to think sums this blog up better than most things:
PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2021 FOR BEST NIPPLES:
Dino Kelly in Old Bridge
Though technically fitting in with the theme of dealing with bleak issues, Yellowfin did it in eccentric and entertaining style, and the often horrific stories of Ovid's Metamorphoses got the black comedy treatment at the Swanamaker. Things started to get properly raucous again as the Wife of Bath became The Wife of Willesden, spectacle came back with Life of Pi, and if I was largely left cold by Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike there are some things even I can't argue with:
THE CAPTAIN TIGHTPANTS AWARD 2021:
Charlie Maher in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
yeah, there weren't any good arse shots in the publicity photos,
you'll just somehow have to make do with this
And of course autumn tends to take us into musicals season, and a couple of big new ones as Frozen, Back to the Future and Moulin Rouge! made their delayed West End debuts; none of them revolutionary, but none of them a waste of time either. And while neither of the next two plays were highlights of the year, they prove that low expectations don't hurt: Both Rare Earth Mettle and Manor came with such stinking reputations that they almost couldn't help but be better than expected. Rounding off the year's new plays a bit earlier than hoped for (thanks to the Omicron variant closing everything else I had booked) was a writer whose past work made it very hard to lower my expectations. Fortunately Best of Enemies saw James Graham firing on all cylinders.
2021: NO WAY HOME
It's no surprise that theatres coming back from a financially catastrophic year embraced familiar work to revive and get the audiences back in. Cush Jumbo and Greg Hersov's reinterpretation of Hamlet as a toxic masculinity story was technically clever, but failed to take into account that 3+ hours in the mind of a deeply unpleasant character is more or less unwatchable. Speaking of unwatchable, the Almeida's take on Macbeth didn't quite go as badly as I might have feared, but still felt like a missed opportunity in some ways. Apart from that it was down to the Globe to offer most of this year's Shakespeare: Most productions of Measure for Measure I've seen tend to either cut huge amounts of the play or fall flat on their arses, so kudos to Blanche McIntyre's version for managing to do neither; but I'm always going to be most impressed if you make Romeo & Juliet bearable, and bonus points if you somehow make its overall message "fuck the Tories," so:
PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2021 FOR BEST SHAKESPEARE PRODUCTION:
Romeo & Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe
More recent revivals did well for the National, with East Is East getting another new production but one that felt fresh and justified; but their biggest critical hit was with a much less frequently-seen play, as The Normal Heart broke hearts as much as it galvanised the audience. More recently Trouble in Mind was a play so modern I still can't believe it dates from the 1950s (though having heard, since seeing it, that it wasn't originally staged entirely as written is much less of a surprise.) A new version of Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm showed again how surprisingly versatile a play it is, while the Lyric Hammersmith's The Beauty Queen of Leenane proved it was a show whose general tone I'd remembered very well, while misremembering pretty much all the relevant plot details. As far as musicals go this year was largely about new ones, although Rebecca Frecknall's reinvention of Cabaret was one of the big draws at the end of the year - I found it both very good, and so full of baggage and controversy it nearly broke my brain trying to review it. And it probably got beaten in the "implausibly sexy cast" stakes by Charing Cross Theatre's Pippin anyway. Which, looks aside, was Pippin and therefore basically a crack dream.
I've mentioned a couple of productions that made me look at a familiar play from a different angle, but one of the most memorable events of the year was Michael Longhurst's 2012 production of Constellations coming back and offering four new perspectives in the same staging: Nick Payne's play was performed by rotating casts of Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd. And as I ended up seeing two of the configurations live and two online, it also feels very much on-theme for 2021.
PARTIALLY OBSTRUCTED AWARD 2021 FOR THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR:
Constellations - Donmar Warehouse at the Vaudeville Theatre and online
2021: NO WAY JOSÉ
A theatrical event of the year of a very different kind was another one seen by more people online than in person - Diana the Musical became a phenomenon on Netflix in ways the creatives probably hadn't originally planned, before attempting a Broadway run then retreating faster than a topless James Hewitt on a pommel horse.
London's live theatre didn't provide badness in quite the same way - which is a shame, as it would have been more entertaining than some of the actual low points we got. I did hold out some hope that Indecent Proposal might cover some of that so-bad-it's good territory, but in the end I just ended up as baffled as to why anyone would want to turn that into a musical as I was before going in. Meanwhile, when something's trying to be funny and falls flat there can be nothing quite as excruciatiing - the RSC's latest Comedy of Errors scored points by showing how inclusive casting can provide the best gags of the night, but was otherwise more errors than comedy; I don't even have any such disclaimers for Habeas Corpus, which was just plain painful. Not in the same offensively bad ballpark but still disappointingly failing to capture any atmosphere was The Child in the Snow. But it was a show that was theoretically aiming to break the audience's hearts that seemed most deliberately to be trying our patience instead:
FRAM OF THE YEAR 2021 FOR MOST AGGRESSIVE
COMMITMENT TO CAUSING AUDIENCE TEDIUM:
'night Mother at Hampstead Theatre
So, not the extensive catalogue of disasters we've seen in some years, but the bad was really bad. I'd been tempted to give 'night Mother the double whammy and single it out as the worst show of the year. But I think the fact that my last four trips of the year got cancelled, meaning this particular stinker ended up being my last live show of the year, left a particularly bitter taste. But honestly, how good a taste could it have left at the best of times?
STINKER OF THE YEAR 2021:
Habeas Corpus at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Which brings me right back to happier things as it's time to pick the highlights. And as I said earlier, I'm doubling up on them as I'll be reflecting the fact that 2021 has been a theatrical game of two halves, one mostly live, one mostly on screen. So with that in mind, I'm having two Shows of the Year, starting with a streamed show that shone through as a powerful monologue in its own right, but also felt like a creative use of the medium it was using.
(ONLINE) SHOW OF THE YEAR 2021:
Cruise on stream.theatre and at the Duchess Theatre
Much like the bottom end of the scale, the top end almost saw a last-minute upset as Best of Enemies made a very strong late showing. But timing really can be everything, and a show based on a film showed how exhilarating, moving and absorbing the purely theatrical can be - and it did it shortly after we got let back into live theatre again, when we'd really missed it the most.
(LIVE) SHOW OF THE YEAR 2021:
After Life at the National Theatre's Dorfman
And there we have 2021; it once again leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger into 2022, and how long it'll be before things get fully up and running again (theoretically my first rescheduled show will be on New Year's Day, but it wouldn't be the first time I had something get cancelled on me twice.) I'm not foolhardy enough to make any predictions so instead I'll once again say take care, stay safe, and Happy New Year.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner, Jack Hextall, Johan Persson, Robert Day, Wasi Daniju, Edward Johnson, Evan Zimmerman, Matthew Murphy, Manuel Harlan,