The shows that met my return from chemo-then-lockdown in 2020 represented an enfeebled theatrical year. Today a longer list and reflection pays tribute to 2021, and tributes are deserved. In the months from May to December 2021, it was, once again, possible to see live shows and review them in London and across the country: for me Birmingham, Sonning, Lowestoft, Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester, Northampton and elsewhere.
Audiences came back, often surprising wary producers with their enthusiasm. Some were, and still are, nervous of the illness itself, and certainly of the danger of a pinged isolation. The Omicron variant, easy to catch and often slight, has closed a lot of shows and suspended others, which is economically a disaster.
But theatre has rolled on, brave and risky and loyal to itself and its people. And despite repeatedly joining masked, unmasked and half-masked audiences and travelling by train and tube and bus, I have to say I didn’t catch it. Ventilation and care kept us safe. What felled me, in the end, was just a social yacht club dinner in Essex, with its accompanying stand-and-shout cocktail bit in a lousy acoustic.
On the whole, I was safest in theatres… So here are the figures. I saw 60 shows during the year, two of them twice. Paid for own ticket for 26 of them rather than accept press seats, given the financial peril they face. 19 were revivals in fresh productions; nine were ongoing “returners” from before the pandemic like Come from Away and Six. But a stonking 30 – half the total – were brand new! To them goes a particular congratulation.
Revivals in new productions – A glorious Peggy For You at Hampstead is the most recent, welcome back after years with Tamsin Greig note-perfect. Shakespeare was served well, terrifyingly well, in the Almeida’s Macbeth; and on a tinier scale the Jermyn’s Tempest was fascinating, sparking new thoughts about the play despite its apparent classicism. Also there, it was a revelation to see Ayckbourn’s familiar Relatively Speaking at cosy close-quarters, as if you were in their front garden.
Oleanna at the Arts was as startling as ever in a year of cancellations and MeToo scandals; Straight White Men was an intriguing oddity at the Southwark, new to the UK; also new imports were Indecent, a remarkable evening at the Menier, and the very peculiar, but gripping, White Noise at the Bridge.
To see Private Lives on tour, performed cheekily by two septuagenarians gave the bickering a surprisingly new feeling. As the NT, finally creaked back to life, the Normal Heart was a period-piece of interest, and Under Milk Wood was movingly – and topically – set in a care home.
Other revival memories cluster around the big musicals: Anything Goes, now streaming on BBCiPlayer, with the unbelievable Sutton Foster tapping like a fiend and singing like an angel. Top Hat at the Mill at Sonning was my introduction to that unusual and glorious building. And the return of Singing in the Rain had a particular poignancy, unintended, when we heard that that remarkable Adam Cooper had, during lockdowns, actually been reduced to Universal Credit and trying to get van driving jobs.
and so to the new ones….new shows, born in adversity
What can I say, beyond expressing awe? That new work flourished and was put out there, always at risk of sudden closure in pingdemic or government diktat, is a tribute to the art and the people who practise it, onstage and off and crossing their fingers and praying in the back office.
We have rounded the year with James Graham’s Best of Enemies (about to start streaming from the 22nd, well worth it if you didn’t get in). There was the pubby, riotous Wife of Willesden reaching out to Kilburn through Chaucer; among the big shows there was Lloyd-Webber’s long awaited and impressively rotating Cinderella, and Frozen for the kids, howing “Let it go!” in extraordinary icescapes. There was a lovely, touching, funny Bach and Sons at the Bridge, out of which we drifted dreamily on opening night to find ourselves in the middle of a raucous festival of football in the park outside. I immediately bought tickets to go back again, with my husband; whereon it closed; so I went later still with a friend.
The third part of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell epic, The Mirror and the Light, opened for less time than it should have; nor was it quite as good as the first two Mike Poulton adaptations, which shows you can’t always trust a novelist to make theatre come to life. Manor, at the NT, got monstered good and proper by all the critics except me because to be honest I rather enjoyed the quite broad acting, the scenery, and the sense of a gallant attempt to squash together a number of fashionable issues and not quite getting there. It was genuinely not as bad as a lot of critics joyfully said….
Whereas Rockets and Blue Lights, in the Dorfman, was really awful, and pretentious with it. But I bought a ticket and gave it a chance. And refrained from writing about it because I don’t drown kittens.
I never got to Yorkshire this year, but some new plays demand urgently to be seen if you can get there at all, and Northampton has weighed in brilliantly with Gin Craze: depicting an 18c rather different to the Jacob Rees-Mogg ideal. The brand new musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks flew round the country, and was unpretentious, ingenious fun. Down at Greenwich Into Battle was a debut play, a labour of love throwing fascinating light on the WW1 generation of posh wasters who finally gave their all in the trenches. At the Bridge, the doughty atheist Pullman had his Book of Dust and the Herodish pursuit of a sacred baby brought to life by Nicholas Hytner and the best ever projections creating rivers at our feet. Ralph Fiennes pinned us to our seats with philosophical, spiritual intensity in his rendering of the Four Quartets.
Tiny houses sprouted demotic, quirky small plays: Ipswich taxi-drivers were depicted in Our White Skoda Octavia, Bobby and Amy recreated an earlier terrible epidemic in Lowestoft community theatre; a ridiculous but gripping OPeration Mincemeat hit the dear Southwark (which later opened, and had to close, Rhythmics, a mini musical which will definitely be back.) The Park Theatre offered a first rough showing of the rock musical Tony Blair, courtesy of Harry Hill. And downstairs at Hampstead there was Raya, a remarkable tight little play, and Tom Wells back with Big Big Sky, as moving and real an evocation of his (and my) east coast than ever.
Pride and Prejudice sort-of was more than a sort-of delight, and kept its tickets reasonable, unlike many West End houses. The absence of the horrible crass racist Book of Mormon left space open for the gloriously cheeky Windsors, with Harry Enfield and the wittiest curtain-call ever (we had to stand and bow to the cast instead, while they just waved). Arthur Smith roamed the land remembering his Dad in Syd, and we found him in Colchester; the Grenfell Inquiry and the shocking shortcomings of “Value engineering” came to the stage under the aegis of Nicholas Kent, master of important verbatim.
So there was old and new, reinterpreting and inventing, playing and creating and believing and hoping and watching and moving hearts. Theatre rose again. As I write, it is in danger still. Support it, celebrate it, let it shine.
Looking back on the last two plague years: Part 2, The Repeat
Part 2, The Repeat: As live shows became possible from May to December 2021, @lib_thinks reviewed 60 at venues in London & across the country, 30 of them brand-new. Theatre rose again, but it’s still in danger. Support & celebrate it, she urges. #YearInReview #londontheatre