Saturday, 31 December 2022

2022: Nick's Theatre Review of the Year

Here we are then, for the last two years I haven't wanted to call my annual roundup a "Theatre Review of the Year" because for most of 2020 and half of 2021 live theatre wasn't really a thing. 2022 hasn't felt quite back to normal in that respect, and I continued to have a number of shows cancelled because of illness or injury, Covid-related or otherwise - the Donmar and Almeida seemed to have been particularly unlucky on that front. And that's before we get to the week or so of shows I had to reschedule or miss entirely because I had Covid. Where shows did go ahead, swings and understudies continued to be more important than ever, so seeing someone other than the star name step up to the plate, usually with impressive results, became another recurring theme of the year. But overall things were sufficiently back on track for me to present, once again: A confusing and bloated roundup of shows I saw, loved, hated or forgot instantly, followed by a bit of light perving over actors who were just trying to do their job, bless'em.

The Arts have been under attack from the Government, but that's been true every year I've been doing this blog; the last big blow in 2022 came to new writing, when Hampstead, one of the London venues to lose all its funding, had to give up its 50-plus year commitment to nurturing and staging new plays. But, for as long as it's possible for a playwright to get a play staged in That London without having been dead for a couple of centuries first, I'll continue opening with a roundup of new writing:


And if it's something new you want there's a good chance Alistair McDowell will be the one to provide it: The Glow started as a Victorian ghost story, but turned out to be a much wider, world-building story that created a whole new national myth. It was the year's first big, talked-about show, popular with everyone except those who would like to easily summarise a show for the purposes of an end-of-year review.

In March the Young Vic continued a run of hits with the contrived but interesting The Collaboration, at the Finborough Bacon took a story that could have fit into a whole tradition of self-loathing gay plays and gave it a 2022 twist, and the Bridge Theatre's generally disastrous track record on new writing got a slightly better showing out of Straight Line Crazy, whose story was fascinating even if I wasn't sold on the execution. But the month's highlight came from a big hitter - Alecky Blythe is always worth a look but she was right back on top form with Our Generation, despite a whopping running time and a production more troubled than most by Covid-related absences. Then Mike Bartlett pulled double duty with two simultaneous premieres: The 47th took the premise of Shakespearean future history and applied it to American politics, almost if not quite as successfully as its predecessor King Charles III.

At the same time he added Restoration Comedy to his list of pastiches - Scandaltown was designed as disposable silliness and worked admirably on that front, but I also thought it shed some light on why the genre, still very popular, so easily falls flat on its face for me (short answer: Comedies consisting of 90% topical gags have an expiration date, and it's not measured in centuries.) But one of the Spring's most-hyped shows came not from a home-grown star writer but from America with "Daddy" A Melodrama, a kind of surreal gay horror soap that played around with some of the more twisted neuroses associated with race and sexuality.

In another themed week of theatregoing House of Ife dealt with heavy subjects in a consistently interesting way, while there was another house at the Almeida:

The House of Shades at the Almeida

If I described a lot of plays as a mixed bag around this time the trend continued with The Breach; then The Father and the Assassin came along to buck the trend with something truly memorable, cleverly making the Olivier stage both epic and intimate, and I'm pleased to hear it was a big enough hit to return in 2023. Also I'm going to keep suggesting Indhu Rubasingham as the next Artistic Director of the National until I manifest it.

Can I even mention That Is Not Who I Am? After all, That Is Not What The Play Was. Wow, talk about a (gimmicky, but in my view in keeping with the show) publicity stunt that backfired. Mad House went for the much more tried and tested selling point of star casting, setting up a summer of solid premieres like The Southbury Child, A Doll's House, Part 2, Patriots and Chasing Hares. As Autumn arrived things got pretty intense, although generally in pretty strong work like The P Word and Who Killed My Father, while there was a sudden influx of plays celebrating trans characters - The Prince, I, Joan and Clutch - none of these shows were bleak or predictable, but the backlash they got was. To make the news of Hampstead's troubles sadder, the Downstairs space there came up with some of the best new work I've seen there, starting with Ravenscourt.

It was followed by Blackout Songs, while the main space continued to be more hit-and-miss - Rona Munro's James Plays spin-off Mary was an interesting story that's not often focused on by history, but the playwright might have given herself a few too many restrictions to really make it take off. The venue closed off the year with Sons of the Prophet, which I really enjoyed, but suspected the production was significantly helping cover up the play's shortcomings.

Finally, playwright beware! The big comic setpiece you write might not only be the only thing anyone remembers about your play, it might also completely upstage the big-name cast you've assembled.

Eureka Day at the Old Vic


Most of these categories are probably going to start with something I was meant to see in 2021 and got bumped into 2022: Revivals and adaptations start with Nicholas Hytner returning to Philip Pullman's worlds, this time with Bryony Lavery on writing honours for a spectacular The Book of Dust - La Belle Sauvage at the Bridge. Among the sad losses this year was Marcello Magni, who died in the summer, but he got a memorable swansong with wife Kathryn Hunter in February, when the pair showcased the physical skills that remained at the top of their game to the end in Ionesco's The Chairs.

Looking back at my reviews from this year, March absolutely stands out as the biggest month. It'll feature in the worst shows of the year but it'll dominate the Top Ten as well - I'll come back to Cock (don't I always etc etc) but I was also absolutely absorbed by Dennis Kelly's After the End.

The last decade or so has seen some huge attitude shifts in terms of who should be telling which stories and how; Clybourne Park probably wouldn't exist, at least in the form it does, if Bruce Norris got the idea for it today, but while elements of it have already dated, its shock-comedy moments certainly still work.

The Corn is Green provided a great showcase for Future Dame Nicola Walker's return to the stage, its old-fashioned drama contrasting with Ivo van Hove telling the Oresteia story through Doom Metal in Age of Rage. One of the year's biggest sell-out hits was technically a revival, but was actually the same production as when the play premiered over a decade ago, including much of the cast: Mark Rylance in Jerusalem continued to be as barnstorming as ever. Britannicus at the Lyric Hammersmith was more badly hit than most shows by illness - it hadn't quite recovered by the time I saw it which is a shame, as there was clearly an interesting production there. Jitney got me to my personal halfway point of August Wilson's Century, while the year's second Ionesco play used the increasingly common technique of integrating captions into the general storytelling of The Lesson.

Sheridan's The Rivals got successfully reinvented as Jack Absolute Flies Again, but flying less high was another reivention when Jamie Lloyd stripped down The Seagull so much he took out the narrative. Going in the opposite direction, Inua Ellams spoon-fed a bit too much of his new context for Antigone to the audience, with the show really coming to life once he got to the heart of the story, and Blues for an Alabama Sky was impressive despite becoming, for me, yet another show where the big name star got taken ill and couldn't appear. For a second time I went to Stratford East to catch a play I'd previously missed by a writer I like, and Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia was reliably audacious in any number of ways.

If Dissocia was a twisted Wonderland, another children's favourite came to the stage in a much more faithful way, while still expanding its horizons and providing a huge amount of pure theatrical joy: Bringing My Neighbour Totoro to life was always a guaranteed money-spinner, but it had to be done right - the RSC's new production hit all the right notes.

David Tennant finally got to star in the twice-postponed Good, Paul Miller departed the Orange Tree in low-key fashion with Shaw's Arms and the Man, the theatre world's new exploration of gender went mainstream with a new adaptation of Orlando, and the Swanamaker's new adaptation of the 1001 Nights zoomed in on one of the aspects of the stories that the kids' books tend to underplay.

Hakawatis: Women of the Arabian Nights at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Almeida ended the year very much on-theme with another show being delayed by injury. The end result was an unplanned reunion between Rebecca Frecknall, Tennessee Williams and Patsy Ferran, and A Streetcar Named Desire so confident it was hard to imagine it had had a troubled genesis.


For the Almeida that was just a case of the year ending as it started: As I move on to the musical/comedy section, my first show of 2022 was another one held over from 2021, as the theatre needed to recruit and rehearse a whole host of swings to cover Covid absences. It was worth the wait - Spring Awakening isn't a very old musical but Rupert Goold's production still felt like it was dragging it bang up to date.

That was a theme for musicals this year: A New York production transferred to the Young Vic to make the subtext of Oklahoma! text by having the entire cast hump each other's legs for three hours; another American show got a very British reinvention at the Open Air Theatre's stridently inclusive Legally Blonde. Bonnie & Clyde had the common musical problem of great songs hampered by the book, while Yeast Nation... yeah there was nothing common about Yeast Nation. A true Marmite show, most people seemed to hate it with a fiery intensity but a few of us were weirdly charmed by its relentless insanity. Regular readers of these annual reviews will both be unsurprised that this award is back this year:

Yeast Nation at Southwark Playhouse

Meanwhile it's hard to even know if Sister Act is any good, so inappropriate was its venue. The Band's Visit served as a gentle distraction from the insanity of the world although I'm not convinced it did much else, The Canterville Ghost was an alternative Halloween show offering music hall variety and comedy, and December offered up a couple of musical Christmas Carols: Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol was a surprisingly faithful take on the story, while A Christmas Carol-ish... by Mr Swallow went out of its way to ignore Dickens completely.

I'll go right back to the first show to pick the meme of the year, and no I won't be going for the accurate but downbeat theme of illness and injury keeping swings in work, or shows off the stage entirely, but for Miriam Buether's Spring Awakening set being mirrored over the year by the likes of Henry V, Baghdaddy and Othello:

Sets consisting entirely of huge staircases


I've stopped buying extra tickets for Shakespeare productions; my friends have seen so many they're not interested unless there's a great hook. I continue to go alone because sure, these plays can feel like the same thing rehashed over the decades I've been watching them, but so often they can still surprise and refocus that I still find them endlessly rewarding. And 2022 really delivered on that front, particularly from the London theatre almost entirely dedicated to Shakespeare, beginning with the production I am inevitably calling Wolverhamlet. It threw everything it could think of at the stage, and while not all of it stuck it was a hell of a ride. And the candlelight of the Swanamaker continued to be used in new and interesting ways, making it a perennial contender for this award:

The candles being lowered into a pool and plunging
the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse into darkness in Hamlet

The Merchant of Venice doesn't tend to rate highly among my favourite Shakespeares but you wouldn't know it from Abigail Graham's production and Adrian Schiller's Shylock, and when the venue reopened its main outdoor space in the summer, Lucy Bailey's take on Much Ado About Nothing got added to the list of times the Globe has really proved the best place to see one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies. They've also got a good track record with casting a #SexyBenedick, and this year Ralph Davis fulfilled the brief.

Over at the other major home of Shakespeare, I was scuppered more than once by storms and rail strikes from getting to Stratford-upon-Avon, but I was glad to make the specific three trips I did: Having snuck arguably the least beloved play in the canon, Henry VI Part 1, out as a digital release, the RSC then rebranded the rest of the second tet as a trilogy, renaming the next plays Rebellion and Wars of the Roses. It's rare enough being able to see these plays on stage with largely the same cast continuing throughout, and by the time we got to Richard III the company's casting of Arthur Hughes as the first-ever disabled actor to play the role there made history, while also consigning the fact of the character's disability to something almost incidental.

The National Theatre's own, starrier Much Ado About Nothing joined the ranks of the year's most omnipresent Shakespeare play, in a great production that for me was still overshadowed by the Globe's one. Back at the Globe was perhaps the worst-hit production by illness and bad luck, and King Lear never quite lived up to expectations - understandably when its director was incapacitated by a car crash mid-rehearsals, and it was later revealed that lead actor Kathryn Hunter's husband had been dying of cancer at the time.

The venue was back on surer ground with The Tempest, using an unconventional theme to make for one of the funniest versions I've seen of a play that can go either way for me. Then back indoors, and a play that's usually plugged as getting a fresh and contemporary reading, that then turns out to be the same crowd of soldiers in camo gear running around the stage as in 90% of productions. Not so in Headlong's production of Henry V, which felt like a genuinely fresh take, with Oliver Johnstone reinterpreting the heroic king to suit the more problematic way he's viewed today.

The Lyttelton took two stabs at the Bard this year, closing the year with Giles Terrera as Othello in a production that Clint Dyer laser-focused on its race issues. But for the standout Shakespeare you have to go back to the year's MVP venue, the Swanamaker, and regular readers of the blog will both know that if you take a Shakespeare play I'm not a huge fan of and make me love it, you're in with a good chance at this award:

The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

WHO'S YOUR 100%?

My penultimate category is a sort of "any other business," which in practice mostly involves listing who I fancied this year. Well, we know who everyone fancied this year, and thanks to being this year's male Bridgerton lead it was Jonathan Bailey. Despite being excellent in the lead he wasn't the only reason Cock was in the news: I saw the play with Bailey's original equal-billing co-star Taron Egerton, but I was in a minority as he ended up missing most of the run for a variety of reasons, and it became the year's most high-profile case of an understudy, Joel Harper-Jackson, stepping up to the plate. In what probably wasn't too flattering for Egerton, the show only continued to become a hotter property, and made the news again when the notorious "airline pricing" saw the producers gouging audiences for the final weeks of the run. Refreshingly, and unlike last year's Cabaret, the exorbitant prices actually got a backlash and the producers had to backtrack. Oh, and Marianne Elliott's production was also very good, if anyone still cared about that.

Jonny Bailey's Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre

Despite the title that play was fully-clothed, but some actors did start throwing their inhibitions, and indeed pants off again. Not that many mind, almost as if they thought some weirdo on the internet might start judging and comparing them at the end of the year. Longstanding theatrical crush Mark Quartley might have been a shoo-in for his naked run offstage in Wars of the Roses if the sightlines had been different; it had a double full frontal scene but "Daddy" A Melodrama had so much more going on it was barely among the top ten most notable things about it. No, I think it's only fair this award goes to the first brave soul to bare all on stage after the Covid drought. Also it's just about the only way I'll have anything positive to say about Tom Fool.

Jonah Rzeskiewicz in Tom Fool at the Orange Tree Theatre

2021 was a year so neatly split between live and online theatre that I gave two separate Show of the Year awards. So if you're wondering why an excellent, successful West End gay-themed show with a good-looking writer-performer in it hasn't been mentioned yet, it's because it technically counts as a repeat visit for me so I don't count it eligible for this year's awards. But it was still great to be able to make that repeat visit, in person this time, to Jack Holden's vibrant and moving Cruise. Meanwhile I might not have thought that the National's Much Ado was quite up there with the Globe's, but that doesn't mean it wasn't memorable. I mean, Brandon Grace definitely knew what he was doing.

Among those new faces who kept at least some of their clothes on but I wouldn't complain if they failed to do so in future were Sebastian Orozco in A Fight Against..., Matthew Broome in Scandaltown, Achraf Koutet in Age of Rage, Jack Greenlees in The Southbury Child, Matteo Johnson in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, half the cast of From Here To Eternity, Freddie Gaminara and Miles Molan in A Single Man and Billy Ashcroft in Jews. In Their Own Words.

I wasn't really a fan of this year's Papatango winner Here, nor of the fact that the publicity photos omitted what I would have thought was the biggest selling point, namely Sam Baker-Jones using the interval to really get in the sit-ups before his shirtless scene. Honestly the lengths I had to go to to find this for your viewing pleasure. (Instagram, that's the lengths I had to go to.)

But I'm someone who keeps his promises, especially when they're nipple-related and involve zero effort, and when another show at Southwark Playhouse also left some of its leading man's best assets out of the publicity, I said the lack of illustration was all that was keeping me from dishing out this blog's most on-brand award. Lo and/or behold, another photo materialised, and since Lazarus' Doctor Faustus kept up its end of the deal with the Devil, the Devil's happy to pay his dues:

Jamie O'Neill in Doctor Faustus at Southwark Playhouse


March might have been when some of the best shows of the year kicked off but it was also when the real duds started turning up as well. I assume I must have at some point enjoyed a David Mamet play because I've kept going to them but The Woods was certainly a reminder that I've found little to justify his reputation in recent years. Ivo van Hove on the other hand is the definiton of hit and miss, so the highly-anticipated The Human Voice could have really lived up to the hype. Instead the spectacular disconnect between text and staging was only one of the many factors that made it a dreary slog.

Hampstead Theatre absolutely loves That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional and stages it at least once a year, but I don't know how even they thought actual American playwrights hadn't written it enough times, and got a British one to write The Fever Syndrome. Meanwhile an actual American theatrical legend didn't always get it right, and a production that tried its best couldn't salvage Sondheim's early flop Anyone Can Whistle.

Also trying their best to save a beloved writer's notorious dud was the Globe, who despite major rewrites couldn't really make the case for Henry VIII, but while Jeremy Herrin's West End Glass Menagerie had much better material to play with it delivered the worst production I've seen of one of my favourite plays. I'd been looking forward to seeing Kate Fleetwood play Cruella de Vil, but the Open Air Theatre's adaptation of 101 Dalmatians responded to not being able to use anything from the Disney version by sucking everything that was camp and fun out of the character and the story in general.

101 Dalmatians at the Open Air Theatre

If The Glass Menagerie fudged one of Tennessee Williams' best, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore proved why it's considered one of his worst. In November Ian asked me about this very review, and whether I'd got a Fram of the Year yet. And as if by magic, he manifested it in front of us, as A Single Man arrived on stage in a production that can't honestly have been making any conscious attempt to entertain anyone.

A Single Man at the Park Theatre

A close second for the title was when this year's Papatango winner Here used the format of a Kitchen Sink Drama and failed to update it in any way, while the usually reliable April De Angelis delivered the disappointingly messy Kerry Jackson. Which means for the first time since 2019, it's time to name and shame a full five shows I could have happily skipped if I'd known what I was getting into:


5 - Tom Fool at the Orange Tree

4 - The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at Charing Cross Theatre

3 - The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York's Theatre

2 - The Woods at Southwark Playhouse Borough

This was one of the years where it was hard to put the Bottom 5 in order, but this just stood out as the perfect storm of disappointing, dull, irritating and misconceived:

The Human Voice at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Rest assured, Future Dame Ruth Wilson was not the main reason for this poor showing, but it was a one-woman show so she gets to be the one illustrating it.

But it's not all bad news, and if we've had the first full Bottom Five of the decade there's also room for a full Top Ten, and this was another one with a lot of close-run contenders. If part of my instinct for picking a Top Ten is whether I'd happily see a show again, After the End, The Corn is Green, Jack Absolute Flies Again and A Streetcar Named Desire were all contenders, but...


10 - Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre

9 - Henry V at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

8 - Spring Awakening at the Almeida Theatre

7 - The Glow at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

6 - The Wonderful World of Dissocia at Theatre Royal Stratford East

5 - Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare's Globe

4 - My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

3 - The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre's Olivier

2 - The Merchant of Venice at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Picking my Number 1 was easier than ranking the rest, it stuck in my head as a possibility back in March and nothing has seriously competed with it since. Another of the most-affected shows by Covid absences, I'd originally scheduled this for February but the performance got cancelled, and over the course of its run different audiences will have seen a different combination of cast members pulling double duty, or writer and director covering the roles whose actors were incapacitated, but I'm sure every iteration retained something special. And I'm not one for overly long plays, so if Alecky Blythe can convince me without question that almost four hours is what the story needed, she and the cast and creatives know they deserve this.

Our Generation at the National Theatre's Dorfman

So that's the Dorfman topping the leaderboard for the second year running, but with two shows in the Top Ten and absolutely dominating the rest of the awards on this page THEATRE OF THE YEAR 2022 goes to The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Thanks for sticking with me another year, if indeed you have; after the last few years only a fool would try to predict what'll happen to theatre in 2023 and whether I'll be able to go to it, but the plan is to be back in about a week's time with a whole new start. So let's give that a go and play it by ear from there.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Marc Brenner, Helen Murray, Robert Day, The Other Richard, Mark Douet, RSC/Nippon TV, Ellie Kurttz, Claire Bilyard, Johan Persson, Brinkhoff/Moegenburg, Sam Baker-Jones, Danny Kaan, Mitzi de Margary, Charles Flint.