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Top shows of 2021 from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

To say that life has been difficult for those working in the performing arts during 2021, would be an understatement of the highest order. That said, those working in the industry have risen to the challenge – it hasn’t always been easy, but credit to all of those that have ensured that ‘the show must go on’. Very best wishes to everyone involved in the world of theatre – and many thanks to our team of reviewers who have attended many performances this year (over 400). Things can (surely) only be better in 2022!

Top shows from our reviewers during 2021.

Chris Omaweng
1. Anything Goes – Barbican Theatre (4 August)

Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes - Photographer credit: Tristram Kenton.
Robert Lindsay and Sutton Foster in Anything Goes – Photographer Tristram Kenton.

Okay, it’s hammy. But it’s a good kind of hammy, the kind that allows the comedy value to be maximised. This is all-out, all-American fun with a capital F… A fifteen-strong orchestra is ably conducted by Stephen Ridley, and with costumes, staging, lighting and sound quality all utterly flawless, this is musical theatre at its finest. (Anything Goes is at The Barbican in 2022.)

2. Rent – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester (7 August)
There’s nothing quite like seeing a committed cast giving it their all, both individually and collectively… It’s perfectly cast, with no weak links to report… it’s a production that deserves a London transfer or a UK tour, or even both. A season of love is just the tonic in these still challenging times.

3. A Chorus Line – Curve Theatre, Leicester (7 December)
There’s a vibrancy in the choreography (Ellen Kane) that befits the youthful vigour of the characters. The attention to detail is impressive – far from an overly competitive atmosphere, the dancers applaud one another’s performances, and yet, the keen ones, the chatty ones, the nervous wrecks (and so on) all stay in character throughout. It’s business as usual at the Curve Theatre, in another blockbuster production of a blockbuster musical.

4. Cabaret – Kit Kat Club (10 December)
This production is probably subtler than most versions of Cabaret, though if anything it is all the more powerful for not having cranked up the volume throughout to provide such a thrilling experience. This fresh take on such a well-known show is a thoughtful and welcome revival.

5. The Seth Concert Series – Brian Stokes Mitchell (28 February)
With alternative arrangements that even the erudite and skilled musical director Seth Rudetsky found challenging, this was a concert that won’t be forgotten by those in attendance for quite some time.

6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Troubador Theatre, Wembley Park (1 December)
Gripping and warmly intense from start to finish, this blockbuster hit is safe in the hands of its newest cast. It’s worth hanging around after the curtain call for the show’s postscript for yet more from Christopher’s intelligent and inquisitive mind. A heartfelt and absorbing production.

7. The Best of the West End – Royal Albert Hall (21 July)
This was, to be fair, mostly a set of utter showstoppers – and some arrangements, particularly in the medleys, weren’t the same ones that get dusted off and reprised year after year… All things considered, an enthusiastic and uplifting and vibrant night out.

8. Top Hat – The Mill at Sonning (22 October)
It’s an appealing and entertaining show that’s been revived at the right time, providing musical escapism at its finest at a time when there are concerns about economic recovery and even food and fuel. No shortages of joy and delight to report here.

9. The Seth Concert Series – Wayne Brady (11 January)
Presumably at least partly thanks to his extensive television experience, Brady performs to camera with the right sort of poise and confidence, thoroughly engaging but never hammy or overdoing it. A masterclass in both singing and storytelling.

10. Lit – Nottingham Playhouse (1 June)
Character development is brilliantly executed, and it is also pleasing to report that the play tells its story in forward chronological order, rather than being one of those contemporary works that flits between decades to the point of disorientation. Scenes are often short, which in live performance would mean a lot of scene changes: here, the filmed performance format allows for as many scene changes as there would be in a motion picture.

Peter Yates
1. Farewell Leicester Square @ The Talking Horse Venue, The Place, Bedford
It’s the story of Joseph Clough – the first back bus driver in the UK – and if you want someone to tease out a story, if you want someone to winkle out the good bits, and the sad bits, the emotional bits and – crucially – the funny bits then Neil Gore is your go-to guy. And Townsend Productions, led by the indomitable Louise Townsend, would surely be your vehicle of choice to chauffeur the narrative around, perfectly conveying it to an audience.

2. Back To The Future – The Musical @ The Adelphi Theatre.
The show is a sensory delight from start to finish. There’s special effects galore, there’s enough lighting to power a small city, there’s a sound system turned up to way above eleven and there’s memorable music, stylish choreography and gigawatt-level performances. (Book tickets for Back to the Future The Musical)

3. Romeo and Juliet @ Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
You know what they say: Location. Location. Location. After months and months of internal darkness what better place to re-discover the light than at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: it’s as if the world has just been created and then – let there be theatre! – in all its wonder, in all its glory. Coming to this beautiful alfresco space is like entering – to borrow a phrase from Richard II – “another Eden, demi-paradise”. The location is perfect, and this show does it more than justice.

Alan Fitter
1. “Indecent” (Menier) – Best production I saw this year. A wonderful and moving story, superbly told.
2. “A Christmas Carol” (Old Vic) It’s been on before and has become a hardy perennial at the Old Viv.
3. “Back To The Future” (Adelphi) Didn’t expect much but was pleasantly surprised – terrific special effects.
4. “The Pleasure Gardens – A Vauxhall Musical” (Above The Stag) Very funny tongue in cheek camp romp around the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
5. “South Pacific” (Chichester Festival Theatre) Always wanted to see this as I grew up with the film and the music and wasn’t disappointed.
6. The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Lyric Hammersmith) Not the most fun time I’ve had at the theatre but some superb acting drew you into the story.
7. “A Place For We” (Park 200) Well told and well-acted play about a building in Brixton over a period of time.
8. “John & Jen” (Southwark Playhouse) Very clever two-hander musical which was both funny and poignant.
9. “Magic Goes Wrong” (Apollo) Does just what it says on the tin very well – hilarious at times.
10. “The Shark Is Broken” (Ambassadors) A clever story about behind the scenes look at the making of “Jaws”.

Amanda Reynolds
Back to the Future – the lighting, set design and special effects are excellent. Such a fun show and cleverly brought to life. For fans of the film, this is a must-see.

Six – a joyous theatre cult hit. Every performance is different and it has now levelled up following improvements to the lighting and costume. You can’t help but grid throughout this show!

Come From Away – with Covid and the last two years we have had Come From Away hits a slightly different note. Beautiful storytelling and such an extremely talented cast, this is a show that everyone must see!

John Groves
Top of my list is Janie Dee’s cabaret evening which I was lucky enough to catch at The Pheasantry at the end of July. This evening was truly memorable because Ms Dee was able very quickly to convince the audience that the intimate performance was just for them: relaxing, witty, spiced with anecdotes and hugely enjoyable. It came to an end far too soon.

Nine to Five, which I saw at the start of its tour at New Wimbledon Theatre, was also superb – a heart-warming, if corny and perhaps dated musical that was just the ticket post what we hoped was the end of all lockdowns! Louise Redknapp had that very rare thing: charisma, making it all look so easy.

I also very much enjoyed Tim Firth’s play Neville’s Island at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, which I had not seen for many years, yet it came up witty and relevant as well as being perfectly acted and directed.

Of the several touring productions I encountered at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, The Play That Goes Wrong was just as hilariously funny as when I saw the original production, because of the energy and ensemble work of the cast, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie proved that “LIVE” theatre is, certainly in this case, better than any film, even if the film ‘starred’ Richard E Grant. It was also a pleasure, on nearly every visit to Brighton this autumn, to see the theatre almost full on a Monday or Tuesday night.

Tom Carter
Best shows of 2021
It’s been a funny old year for shows, much testing the water, tentatively seeing what people are ready to consume in the theatre and realising that we have changed an awful lot in the last two years. I have sat through an unfortunate amount of performances that were still in the early stages of acclimatisation back to live theatre. Still, there has been theatre of the highest standard, and I was lucky enough to see some of it.

1. The Language of Kindness
This tender and beautiful testimony of the daily brutality of nursing is deeply touching. Wayward Productions continues to make intriguing work that is intimate, spectacular and profound, leading the industry in so many ways.

2. Value Engineering Scenes from the Prosecution
A verbatim performance of extracts from the Grenfell Enquiry. This show was straightforward, but it could only ever have been; any narrativisation would have romanticised. In this shows simple brutality, this show casts a deeply troubling shadow of this country.

3. The Body Remembers
Meditative and powerful, this exploration of intergenerational bodily trauma amongst women was, again, very simple. A movement piece with testimonies played over the top is a simple but moving performance of how we relate to trauma.

4. Abigail’s Party
A classic piece of theatre with enormous theatrical influence. Although revivals of this are notoriously terrible, this one manages to find some of the casual, suburban depression that this comedy of manners was so renowned for.

5. Indecent
This beautiful love letter to Yiddish theatre opened before the pandemic but didn’t make it to press night with the West End going dark a day before. Nonetheless, opening up in September, this play stories the origins of ‘God of Vengeance’ by the great polish Jewish writer Sholem Asch. It explores antisemitism, homophobia and division within communities.

Joseph Winer
1. Yellowfin at Southwark Playhouse – One of the most exciting pieces of new writing I’ve seen in years. Marek Horn’s thrilling new play about all the fish disappearing swallows you up and doesn’t let you out until that gorgeous, final act of desperation. A must-see if it (hopefully) returns!

2. The Poltergeist at Southwark Playhouse – Phillip Ridley’s haunting play about art and life was a tour de force from Joseph Potter, viewed digitally earlier this year; with Wiebke Green’s direction creating a totally exhilarating online theatre experience.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth at Almeida Theatre – Yaël Farber’s production of Shakespeare’s supernatural thriller managed to make a lot of sceptics realise the cursed Scottish play can actually be done well! Fiercely led by James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan, with Soutra Gilmour’s glorious set design, flooding the Almeida with water and mirrors, and a proper jaw-dropping climax.

4. Séayonce: Res-erection at Soho Theatre – Dan Wye’s drag persona Séayonce delivered a riotous, spectacularly spooky Halloween special, accompanied with onstage music by the marvellously talented Robyn Herfellow. It was a real treat, and a much-needed dose of humour in Soho’s gloriously queer cabaret bar.

5. A Chorus Line at Leicester Curve – Leicester Curve produced an absolute treat in this revival, with a particular shout out to lighting designer Howard Hudson who made a finale I’ve seen several dozen times on YouTube feel totally spectacular. For any other Londoners, would definitely recommend a day trip to Leicester – I’ll be back next year for Billy Elliott!

Mary Beer

Mythosphere
Mythosphere – Credit and copyright: Helen Murray.

My first opportunity to take in a live (albeit socially-distanced) theatrical performance this year was on 20th May after more than a third of the year cloistered away from the darkened theatres – their own creatives and casts removed from view but by no means at rest. I remember the exuberance I felt walking along Shaftsbury Avenue that late spring day, reborn and jolly – even possibly a little smug compared to the citizens of other capital cities still awaiting their cultural existence’s bloom. The lovely folks at the Jermyn Street Theatre offered me a glass of prosecco with my programme and I was giddy from a sense of homecoming rather than a tipple. It was thrilling. I didn’t stop: I gorged myself on over 35 performances in the 30 weeks remaining until Christmas. (No wonder I feel so tired!)

Little did I know that again in December we’d all be bracing for impact again – one year older but feeling aged by far more than 365 days. In 2021 I developed a sort of PTSD-FOMO and forgot the art of saying no – so intense was the urge to gather my rosebuds before an unpredictable frost. I stand by that decision. Throughout the course of this calendar year – of which only seven months of live theatre were permitted in London – I noticed some trends. Unsurprisingly, many producers looked to revivals. But even amongst them, I saw examples of brilliant innovation and courage. The quality that most impressed me was the retention of ambition.

The wonderful thing about reflection is that you can change your mind. My Top Ten of 2021 does not directly correlate to the highest number of stars I awarded as a reviewer. The bravery and uniqueness that reveals the power of theatre to connect at its most fundamental purpose is what sticks with me. I applaud every performer, creative, backer and punter who contributed to keeping the show on the road this year but here are my Top Ten.

  1. Mythosphere. This semi-bonkers epic by Inna Dulerayn was a masterpiece of ambition in a time when everyone was playing it safe. It is unforgettable and continues to inform my notion of what is possible, no matter what.
  2. Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me). Ben Dukes dance-focused performance revival combined a sense of knowing topicality with pure artistry. Also, it didn’t lose sight of either ambition nor humour.
  3. The Invisible Hand. The Kiln’s artistic director Indhu Rubasingham re-opened her theatre with a solid revival that, unlike some other revivals, has stayed current – even gaining new resonance for the current times. Ayad Akhtar’s play packed a powerful punch delivered with Rubasingham’s skill and force.
  4. Raya. Whilst The Hampstead Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary upstairs on the main stage with a series of revivals packaged as its ‘Originals’ season, downstairs I was treated to exciting new writing by Deborah Bruce. This play was far from perfect but it was dramatic and stimulating. Raya is mostly a naturalistic drama/melodrama but I give it points for its normalisation of discourse about menopause and experiments with ghostly and allegorical staging.
  5. Constellations. Michael Longhurst’s revival – with four different casts – of Nick Payne’s two-handed love story/comic tragedy also impressed me with its ambition but it was the specific cast pairing of Sheila Atim (Marianne) and Ivanno Jeremiah (Roland) that blew me away. In 2021 I craved quality and novelty and being treated to my first live performance by these two stars was a high point of the year.
  6. The Wife of Willesden. At the risk of exposing myself as a fan-girl of Indhu Rubasingham, the Kiln’s Artistic Director once again wowed with total world-building and pure theatricality. Zadie Smith’s commission for the Brent Borough of Culture is less of a play than performance art but it’s incredibly well done as well as both satisfying and celebratory — offering much-needed escape whilst delivering quality.
  7. Get Up, Stand Up: The Bob Marley Musical. This jukebox musical illuminates the legendary life of reggae’s most famous figure with grace and joy thanks to astoundingly charismatic performances and musicality along with top production values.
  8. ‘Night Mother. I am somewhat alone in my unreserved praise for Roxana Silbert’s revival of Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer-Prize-winning drama. Encountering Stockard Channing on the London stage remains a highlight for me as does the challenging content of this play which I maintain reflects a different but equally important and provocative social gaze than it did during its debut.
  9. Peggy For You. Two hours in the company of Tamsin Greig in the dark days of winter is a joy even if Alan Plater’s play isn’t terribly important. For anyone fascinated by the world of theatre, this workplace comedy is a giggle.
  10. Potted Panto. This Christmas season was especially stellar and the Lyric Hammersmith’s Aladdin along with Mark Gattis’ A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story were strong contenders but as the political outrages multiply as fast as omicron, the winter solstice of my soul was most cheered by the deep grown-up belly laughs of commune this witty two-handed meta-panto offered.
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