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Top shows of 2020 from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

Chris Omaweng

1. A Night at the Musicals with Christina Modestou – Southwark Playhouse – 19 October
There was something for (very nearly) everyone in this broad range, with a set long enough to genuinely justify having an interval: the originally advertised 100-minute running time was underestimated by 45 minutes or so. […] Three special guests all gave excellent contributions to the evening […] One can only hope the future burns bright for everyone involved in this concert. A magical experience from beginning to end.

A Night At The Musicals with Christina Modestou
A Night At The Musicals with Christina Modestou

2. Tom Brown’s School Days – Union Theatre – 7 January
Things may have been riotous and uncomfortable at times, but the messiness and the whole gamut of emotions throughout the play make for a riveting experience.

3. Sunset Boulevard in Concert at Home – Curve Theatre – 22 December
The cast are singing to the camera rather than projecting to the back row of the upper circle, and they have adapted well to the fresh challenges a production of this nature presents […] A magnificent achievement, showcasing how British theatre can continue to shine even in a global pandemic.

4. Delivery – Chiswick Playhouse – 12 March
There aren’t many plays like Delivery, which successfully navigates through some very serious subjects whilst eliciting laugh out loud laughter from the audience – and without leaving theatregoers feeling even slightly guilty about chortling away at something they’ve just witnessed.

5. Asò – Streatham Space Centre – 12 December
Overall, the show was challenging as much as it was entertaining, as thought-provoking as much as it was hilarious. Full marks, then, for a production that demonstrates the two faces of theatre, sorrow and joy, with confidence and charm.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald

6. The Seth Concert Series with Audra McDonald (streamed) – 13 July
For all the evident pain (there are, McDonald asserted, two pandemics going on in America, Covid and systemic racism), the concert ended with a message of hope and positivity in ‘Climb Every Mountain’ from The Sound of Music. An enriching and enjoyable experience.

7. Shaken – The Actors Centre (streamed) – 17 November
The closing scene is one of defiance and hope, and this complete and compassionate story has it all – covering the story from different angles, and palpably coming from the heart, this is a poignant and passionate production.

8. Les Misérables: The Staged Concert – CD and DVD release – November
As ever, it’s heavy-going stuff, but these are musical numbers that soar to the sky […] the CD and DVD are worthy additions to your musical theatre recording collections.

9. Misfits – Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch (streamed) – 14 November
Steadily paced, the production flits between the various stories, which both individually and collectively become grittier with every layer of detail piled on. These are all working class stories given centre stage, the theatrical equivalent of an LS Lowry (1887-1976) painting in its depiction of the world of ordinary people who one might encounter on the train or in the supermarket.

10. After the Tempest – University of West London (streamed) – 17 June
There’s a decent amount of food for thought in this production, as contemporary for our times as The Tempest was for Shakespeare’s. Bucking the trend for new plays to be one-act, no-interval affairs, this is a confident and assured piece of theatre in such an uncertain and fearful world.

Terry Eastham
Well, what a year it has been,  Like many people, there is a part of my mind that just wants to forget 2020 and pretend this year hasn’t happened. But, I started looking at my theatrical reviews of the year and realised if we cancelled the year, then we would miss some absolute corkers. So here, is my top 5 for 2020:

Candy by Tim Fraser
Candy by Tim Fraser

No 5 – Candy at King’s Head Theatre
Tim Fraser’s show about Will (Michael Waller), a man who falls in love with the wrong person was an amazing start to the year. Presented as a monologue, we followed Will’s story the opening, where he discusses the reality or not of ‘love at first sight’ through to the reality of waking from a dream. A combination of excellent writing and a superb delivery really made this a show to watch.

No 4 -Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp at Jack Studio Theatre
A visit to one of my favourite fringe theatres for this detailed look at the early life of ‘the little tramp’.  Ross McGregor is an obvious Chaplin aficionado, and the play was a real labour of love in its portrayal of Charlie’s youth. The young Chaplin was played by Lucy Ioannou, who in a nod to the genius of the real man, was silent throughout conveying everything Charlie experienced and felt by movement and expression alone. A fascinating show that sent me off to YouTube to research the son of Southwark for myself.

No 3 – Moment of Grace written by Bren Gosling
As theatre moved online during the lockdown and beyond, creatives had to be more – well creative – in getting their stories out to audiences, and this production was my favourite of the online shows I saw. Ben Gosling’s story of the visit of Princess Diana to an AIDS ward.  Told as a series of intermingled monologues, the production pulled no punches on the devastating destruction of people and ideals that the AIDS crisis caused. The online element added to the story as we, the audience, were able to really get close to the performer in a way that is rarely achieved in a conventional theatre. In my review, I mention Luke Dayhill’s eyes which added such believability to his portrayal of AIDS sufferer Andrew.  Such a wonderful example of using technology to convey a story.

No 2 -Opera Undone: Tosca and La Boheme at Trafalgar Studios 2
I love opera. In fact, I would like to review more of it if I could. However, I am no opera aficionado, and I am not really able to delve too heavily in the technical aspects of an operatic performance.  One of my pet hates about opera is the elitist aura that often surrounds it. I have friends that will happily go and see a musical but would never go to an opera, as it ‘isn’t for people like them’. However, Adam Spreadbury-Maher and David Eaton have really kicked this idea into touch with this production. Each opera is condensed to one hour and sung in English, making it very accessible and highly enjoyable. I would heartily recommend the Opera undone shows for both opera virgins and seasoned opera-goers alike.

Dad's Army Radio ShowNo 1 – Dad’s Army Radio Show at The British Library
The last day in January saw me taking my first trip to the British Library for this absolutely awesome show. Two astoundingly talented actors – David Benson and Jack Lane – have taken Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s writing and adapted it to make a wonderful two-hander with every character that we know and love from the TV series on the stage bringing the stories to life in wonderful style.  But, and this is the important point, not only were the voices there but the characteristics of Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Pike, Fraser et al were all there as well. This was performance at its absolute best and both David and Jack need to be applauded for giving me my stand-out theatrical memory of 2020.

Amanda Reynolds

l-r. Doug Colling (Conor Murphy), Sam Tutty (Evan Hansen) photo by Matthew Murphy.
l-r. Doug Colling (Conor Murphy), Sam Tutty (Evan Hansen) photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dear Evan Hansen at Noel Coward Theatre – such emotional storytelling. The songs are beautiful and the story is something which is so meaningful to so many people. Issues with self-confidence, grief, anxiety and social media pressures affect so many people and this musical highlights the importance of being yourself and honest with yourself. Of course, the cast are also phenomenal too!

Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Theatre – from the very opening notes to the cast entering stage with masks this socially distanced version of the hit musical was outstanding. It truly showed that musicals and the theatre are so viable and important. Tears aplenty from cast and audience members alike. A sign that the theatre industry can work together and come back from this year of uncertainty.

The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse – always a gorgeous story but the clever use of a revolve and in the round seating really engaged the audience. But more importantly, this was one of the first indoor theatre shows to manage to safely open again in September. In-person and streamed online the show really captured the journey of the two characters, so in love and yet so apart at times.

Joseph Winer
Fairview at the Young Vic – Critics struggled to write about Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play because it’s practically impossible to do so without giving it away. This really is one I will never forget, taking content-meets-form to the extreme in a radical deconstruction of power and the structures of racism

WORK.txt at Vault Festival – A show performed entirely by the audience, exploring and criticising the relationship between art, work and capitalism, then innovatively adapted as work_from_home becoming still to-date the most exciting piece of online performance I’ve seen

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse – A gripping edge-of-your-seat sound instillation, Juliet Stevenson’s vocal performance of Simon Stephens thrilling text, married with binaural sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, managed to capture all the tensions of an “unimaginable” global pandemic with nail-biting storytelling and immersion

Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre – Tinuke Craig’s powerful staging of Sarah Kane’s tragic play was a thing of despair and hope, the characters of Kane’s text unable to touch, escape or take a pause from their isolated travelators, brutally capturing the global moment

You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse – Sam Steiner has a real knack for creating high-stake worlds where the context is fleshed out without ever need for much explanation; one of the finest pieces of writing I’d seen in ages, played out with heaps of gentle intimacy and humour in a production directed by Jamies Grieve.

Karen Pond
I’ve only seen one production live this year, Sleepless at the Troubadour, Wembley Park. I thought it was a well-written production with a great score which was well performed by all the cast.

Peter Yates
1. MUSIK by Jonathan Harvey and Pet Shop Boys @ Leicester Square Theatre
Irreverent, raucous, belligerent Frances Barber blows the audience away with her astonishing one-person tour de force.

2. The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne @ New Diorama Theatre.
Intensely gripping police drama about the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper – given added piquancy with Sutcliffe’s death this year. Brilliantly performed.

3. The Spine by Nathan Powell Camden People’s Theatre.
A vibrant, kinetic, pulsating and uber-energetic show blowing the lid off the life of football apprentices.

Mary Beer

1. Leopoldstadt – Wyndham’s Theatre
2. Endgame – Old Vic
3. Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (online) Knee High & Bristol Old Vic
4. (tied) On Blueberry Hill – Trafalgar Studios and Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre
5. Faustus that Damned Woman – Lyric Hammersmith
6. Pippin – Garden Theatre at the Eagle Pub
7. Merry Wives of Windsor – outdoor at the Maltings Festival, St Albans
8. Rage of Narcissus – Pleasance Courtyard
9. Frostbite: Who Pinched My Muff – Garden Theatre at the Eagle Pub
10. Up, Up, Up and Away – Creation Theatre Via Zoom

A year of surprises, setbacks and sheer determination leading to some impressive innovation; if you told me a year ago that 20% of my top picks would be delivered via digital platforms, I’d have said you were mad. I was lucky enough in 2020 to have seen more than 10 live (in-person) theatrical performances but, well this year has been one that has forced changes to my perspective in multiple ways – resulting in some, but not all, of my opinions to shift. Am I revealing myself as a traditionalist that my top two shows of 2020 are plays by Stoppard and Beckett delivered on proscenium stages in big-name theatres with superstars at the helm or in the footlights? Well, maybe or perhaps I’m just a sucker for super-saturation by talent and let’s face it, the play’s the thing. But I was also shaken out of anti-streaming resentments and prejudices by the glorious staging by Emma Rice of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk as well as charmed and impressed by the canny innovation in interactive children’s theatre by Creation Theatre’s Up, Up, Up and Away. When a new platform felt supplemental rather than substitutional, my sad heart of viral solitude beat just a little happier with not just hope for the other side, but gratitude for the present.

Going big outdoors with social distancing at the Matings Festival, was a delight and more than making-do. Lambco productions expertise in taking big shows like Pippin or their own adult Panto, Frostbite, and putting them on as an intimate chamber experience in Vauxhall’s Eagle Pub’s Garden Theatre actually gave me experiences I wanted to repeat – pandemic or not.

End-of-year reflections can also mean re-evaluation, and even though I had many fine pre-pandemic professional productions to consider, Rage of Narcissus at the Pleasance Courtyard has grown on me and remains memorable. If it were running again, I’d return to see it a second time.

Without realising it, half my top shows of 2020 are pre-pandemic stagings and half were mounted with social distancing and other obstacles in mind. With the exception of Patrick Marber’s staging of Leopoldstadt, I noticed that nearly all the pre-pandemic productions featured small enough casts that perhaps they could return adapted for whatever safety restrictions we face next year. (Although my prayers are for rapid vaccination and packed houses for the prosperity of players, producers and the wider theatrical economy.)

I’ve cheated my ‘top ten’ by sneaking in 11 winners by awarding a joint 4th place to both Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill and David Hare’s Covid-memoir Beat the Devil. The Irish two-hander set in detention and the searing, topical one-man return to live theatre made pitch-perfect by Ralph Fiennes’ performance and Nicholas Hytner’s direction rather bookend my experience of the year: the last show I saw and the first (indoor) one to which I returned. But it’s not just about me getting out and about: both gave me ideas, laughs and great admiration for the generations of talent and craft that fought so hard to profit and please us this year. Thank you!

Author

  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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