It was very tempting to start this post with something like “What a year it’s been!” – indeed that was one contemplated title (swiftly rejected). Are there words that can even begin to encompass the miseries that have been endured over the last 9⅔ months since the restrictions started to curtail activity? It even seems a bit frivolous to be writing about theatre at a time when there are more serious events to contemplate. Even so for this particular individual the discovery of theatre online has proved a sanity saver and given me a focus which possibly belies that last claim – I’ve now reviewed 338 productions on 276 consecutive days since 1 April 2020.
Anyway, as a resumé of the year is sort of traditional amongst reviewers/critics, let’s to it… I’ve selected 20 of the things that inspired, moved, amused and delighted, which have pushed the boundaries of what it possible and continued to fly the flag for theatre in the UK. They are in alphabetical order subdivided into two groups of ten. The first set are individual productions which are worthy of celebration; the second group are individuals, companies, etc. at least some of whom might well have slipped under my radar had online theatre not taken off in the way that it has
Specific online shows
The Boss Of It All: Josie Lawrence led in this deliciously funny satire on office politics particularly as played out on everybody’s favourite meeting space – Zoom. Based on a Lars van Trier film it was first live streamed but is currently still available through the Soho Theatre website. It was adapted/written/directed by Jack McNamara of East Midlands group New Perspectives. Their 10-part David Rukin audio series Place Prints wasn’t half bad either.
Cyprus Avenue: Strong material, strong messages and strong performances all combined in this this early entry to the world of online theatre from the Royal Court which hopefully will be shown again at some point. An absolutely blistering performance from Stephen Rea took us into one man’s personal hell while author David Ireland supplied the words and the political message. This one wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
The Encounter: Complicité (in the solo form of Simon McBurney) went for total immersion using soundscapes to structure and enhance the narrative. The wearing of headphones was obligatory to get the full effect which may actually have worked better at home than in the Barbican where it was filmed. It was quite unlike anything else I had ever seen – although “heard” would be a better word to use and if it comes round again, I advise getting in quick.
The Persians: I’ve included this, the oldest known play still in existence, for the sense of occasion it engendered. Aeschylus’ drama was performed at the ancient site of Epidaurus on a midsummer evening which weaved its own magic alongside that of the play. To watch the sun going down as the tragedy played out was a one-off opportunity not to be missed
The Poltergeist: This Philip Ridley one-man play was nothing short of phenomenal especially in the hands of Joseph Potter who undoubtedly gave the break out performance of the year. It crowned an artistically successful season for the Southwark Playhouse who dared to do things differently and who will be live streaming this play again in late January – miss it at your peril. The company, Tramp, also produced another Ridley winner with the monologue series The Beast Will Rise
Rose (full review here) Maureen Lipman, for whom Martin Sherman originally wrote this extended monologue some time ago, finally got to deliver another of the performances of the year as the titular Jewish matron looking back over her life and linking the personal to the universal. It was produced by another regional company who made sure the flag kept flying, Manchester’s Hope Mill. Another plus is that I got to interview the author.
Sea Wall (full review here) Monologues were big in 2020 and they didn’t come much bigger than this as delivered by Andrew Scott. Written by Simon Stephens it’s a bleak tale about fatherhood delivered by a master craftsman at the top of his game. Technically a film, it was shot in one continuous take giving it the power and impetus of a theatrical performance. It is still available to rent
Sherlock In Homes (full review here) There were any number of puzzle solving interactive pieces which came online this year and invited the audience to participate in the action. This was the best of them, based round solving a Victorian circus murder mystery. It came from Bristol company Sharp Teeth who worked in collaboration with the city’s Old Vic Theatre and has extended its run several times (currently until January 23rd). The show also has the “distinction” of being the most read review on this blog.
Staged (full review here) While this is strictly speaking a TV show, is there anything that more successfully captured life under lockdown for actors and others? David Tennant and Michael Sheen (or is it Michael Sheen and David Tennant?) delivering a zeitgeist script by Simon Evans played heightened and hilarious versions of themselves. A second series is hitting screens within days of 2021 starting
What A Carve Up! (full review here) A wondrous production from Henry Filloux Bennett (based on Jonathan Coe’s novel) from the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield – another venue which kicked Covid into the long grass with its refusal to roll over and die. Here they worked in collaboration with The New Wolsey in Ipswich and The Barn in Cirencester to produce what amounted to a brand new performance form, high on invention and quality. They deserved all the plaudits they universally got.
Group 2: General plaudits
Alan Ayckbourn For his two audio plays Anno Domino (review here) and Haunting Julia (review here) which showed that the writer’s restless spirit to embrace opportunity is undiminished…. and simply for continuing to be personally inspiring
Daniel Bye His quietly subversive way of presenting challenging ideas and turning them into an enjoyable learning experience in pieces such as Going Viral (review here), The Price of Everything (review here) and How To Occupy An Oil Rig (review here) has been a revelation
Tim Crouch Quality material for young people and adults alike which push the boundaries of what drama is and can be … and for being the very first online play that I reviewed – I, Malvolio (review here) and one of the best live online experiences during lockdown – I, Cinna (review here)
National Theatre Thursday nights became NT nights as the company raided its considerable archive to bring us 16 weeks of quality productions all at no cost. For an overview of the season (with links to all the individual productions) click here. Their new paid for streaming service should help to see us through the next tricky period
Northern Comedy Theatre For sheer productivity its hard to beat this young company who produced no less than seven lockdown plays written by David Spicer, all first performed live over Zoom and then released as videos. The Doing … series was full of humour about how the British kept their hobbies going online
The Old Vic The venerable institution pioneered livestreamed performance from their stage to an audience sitting at home which still manged some theatrical magic in shows like The Faith Healer (review here), Lungs (review here) and Three Kings (review here). There was also streamed archive material too
Scenesaver A new kid on the block which acts as a platform for (mainly) short form video captures of performances and brings them to a wider audience. All material is free (though donations are requested) and covers possibly the most eclectic range of online theatre material on the internet (click here)
The Show Must Go Online A piece of theatrical madness, as each week a new full Shakespeare play was rehearsed, performed live and then put up as a recording. The intended readings soon developed a life and a following of their own – and are still online to view. I took part in one – for my account click here
The Shows Must Go On Not to be confused with the above. The Andrew Lloyd Webber inspired site that put up a new musical every week for just 48 hours to bring a bit of joy into the Covid gloom…. Also, to ALW himself for doing all he could to get and keep theatres open