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Top shows of 2022 from reviewers at LondonTheatre1.com

While the pandemic has left its mark on the world of theatre, during 2022 productions across the country have for the best part returned to some level of normality. Although many production companies and the arts have been hit not just by the pandemic but also now by forthcoming cuts to their funding. Tough times are ahead for the arts and theatregoers that is for sure. While transport hasn’t always been an easy hurdle to deal with, our team of reviewers have ventured out, with more than 500 productions being reviewed in London, Brighton, Leicester, Reading and elsewhere. Here are some of their favourite shows.

Reviews by Chris Omaweng

1. Only An Octave Apart – Wilton’s Music Hall, 4 October

Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Photo Ellie Kurttz
Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Photo Ellie Kurttz

It is always a delight to see people enjoying themselves whilst performing, and this pair are living proof that opposites attract: the cabaret singer and opera countertenor paradoxically and simultaneously contrast and complement one another, producing something that on paper probably isn’t supposed to work. It does, however, with a ‘something for everyone’ approach which is bold and maybe a bit bizarre in places, but it’s always gritty, always engaging and always charming.

2. Paddy Goes To Petra – Jack Studio Theatre, 3 November
Paddy (Brendan Dunlea) didn’t just go to Petra – he came back. The amount of time spent discussing what happened after Paddy returned to his native Ireland is substantial. This, however, is magnificent, with a clear follow-up storyline that doesn’t leave the audience wondering what went on afterwards. The play is as amusing as it is poignant, deftly tackling some difficult issues with relatable tenacity and stoicism.

3. Operation Mincemeat – Riverside Studios, 13 June
There are some subtle nods to the current political climate – the idea that people in power believe they can behave as they choose is asserted with a knowing wink. The old-style telephones that line the rear of the stage are used to great effect, though the miscellaneous long cords that eventually tangle the characters are far from a metaphor for the show: this complex operation is easy to follow throughout. It helps, too, that the sound design (Mike Walker) allows every line to be heard with crystal clarity. An utter triumph, this is a delightful and engaging production.

4. Lorna Dallas: Glamorous Nights and Rainy Days – Crazy Coqs, 3 April
There were nineteen songs in a seventy-five-minute show, with stories to tell on top, and remarkably the performance never felt hurried. Dallas’ soprano voice was in fine form, with the biggest number being ‘By Strauss’, written by George and Ira Gershwin, with playful scorns on Broadway and musical theatre… Dallas’ sheer sincerity means only those with a heart of stone would fail to be moved by this masterclass in musical performance. A deserved standing ovation.

5. Divas: From Stage to Screen – Rose Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 17 August
There were no introductions, no context supplied to any of the songs, and no rambling backstories about, for instance, somebody’s relative, no longer with us, loving the title song from the motion picture The Rose and what it meant to others within a singer’s circle of friends and acquaintances.

Some may wish there was a bit of audience interaction. Not me. This show worked perfectly just as it was, with some movement and choreography here and there but never overdone. Stripped-back versions of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is A Place on Earth’ and Cher’s ‘Life After Love’ brought a more chilled atmosphere, which balanced out the power ballads like ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and Jim Steinman’s ‘It’s All Coming Back To Me Now’.

Crazy For You -Photographer Johan Persson.
Crazy For You -Photographer Johan Persson.

6. Crazy For You – Chichester Festival Theatre, 16 July
London audiences will be able to see Chichester’s Crazy For You during a six-month run starting on 24 July 2023. With political upheaval and a cost of living crisis, it’s an opportunity to indulge in some escapism and enjoy a fine musical comedy. There’s humour, great costumes, and fabulous song and dance: as one of the lyrics puts it, “Who could ask for anything more?

7. Roles We’ll Never Play – Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, 7 March
it takes a lot of work to re-orchestrate songs from their original keys to the ones in which the Roles We’ll Never Play cast sing showtunes in, and much credit, therefore, goes to musical director Flynn Sturgeon and his team for their efforts. Nothing came across as placing undue strain on anyone’s voices, and all things considered, this was a great evening for anyone open-minded enough to consider a so-called Malephaba or a woman ‘King of the World’. An opportunity to sit back and enjoy alternative narratives, this is an admirable and worthy project, and long may it continue.

8. Joe Stilgoe & The BBC Concert Orchestra – Barbican Hall, 2 May
There was a palpable feeling of nostalgia with a tribute to Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who had designed over ninety theatres across Britain in his lifetime, including the Hackney Empire, London Coliseum and Victoria Palace Theatre. Whether through his own songs, or through reworkings of established showtunes, Stilgoe stamped his sparkling authority through an album that shines whilst retaining sincerity and modesty throughout. Let’s just say I didn’t leave the Barbican without having bought a copy of the album for myself.

9. Julia Masli: Choosh! – Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 22 August
It’s disarmingly silly, particularly when Julia Masli’s legs, with googly eyes stuck onto her thighs, assume the role of bride and bridegroom, and their first night of passion. Our clown settles down very traditionally, with marriage, then sex, then a child – in that order. Rightly, Masli acknowledges at curtain call the efforts of various audience members, including one that impersonated a dolphin (don’t ask) and another who played the role of the clown’s mother, and even had to come up with an encouraging word of advice, duly repeated by Masli at a particularly dark moment. Delightful from beginning to end, this is clowning of the highest order.

10. Red Pitch – Bush Theatre, 22 February
The pace is rapid and fluid, a reflection, I suppose, of vibrant youth. With an actual football in play on stage, in an in-the-round – or, to be precise, in-the-rectangle – audience seating arrangement – the production does well to portray football as a force for good. It remains unclear whether the trio will stay as closely knit into the future as they were in the timeline of the play. Engrossing and uncompromising, this show highlights some very pertinent socio-economic issues affecting Londoners, without ever being preachy or indulging in party politics.

Top shows of 2022 – Terry Eastham

Cruise 2022 - Pamela Raith Photography.
Cruise 2022 – Pamela Raith Photography.

2022 has been a quiet year for me theatre-wise. I’ve only managed to see and review forty shows all year. But, as they say it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters and this year I’ve seen some absolute crackers. From West End shows like Book of Mormon and Dear Evan Hansen to one-person performances at above pub theatres, it’s been a great year. Picking a top five has been very hard work, but here are mine:

No 5 – Starcrossed at Wilton’s Music Hall
An epic tale of the relationship between Mercutio and Tybalt from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Brilliantly written by Rachel Garnet, this story really takes R&J to another level. Not only explaining some of the inconsistencies with the original story but also adding a totally believable element of humanity to two of its male protagonists. This was one of those shows where everything was just right.

No 4 – Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing at Waterloo East Theatre
This was one of the shows that completely blindsided me. In fact, in my review, I describe it as “an absolute zinger of a show pops up out of nowhere and absolutely blows my mind.” A production about three generations of women that is centred around a spelling Bee competition, may not sound that exciting but this production was something special with amazing character development and narration. The audience, including yours truly, was spellbound throughout. My final summation of the show reads as follows “A wonderful text, with three truly superb actors and a story that touches the heart. This is a play that can do no wrong,” and that sums it up perfectly.

No 3 – The Convert at the Above The Stag Theatre
Before its closure, Above the Stag was known as the LGBT+ theatre. Most of its shows were froth with cute boys, daft plots, and a lot of gay-orientated fun to be had. However, the Convert was definitely not the average ATS production. Ben Kavanagh’s story of a young gay lad going through state-sanctioned and sponsored conversion therapy in some not-too distant dystopian future is harrowing and shocking. As a reviewer and theatregoer, I really appreciated all of the work that had gone in to make the production as authentic feeling as possible. However, as an LGBT+ person, I found myself emotionally connected to the story in a way I was not expecting. There were moments of pure horror – when I found myself thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’

No 2 – Hidden Figures WW2
2022 was a good year for immersive theatre for me and it was difficult to pick out my best show of the year. I’ve gone for Hidden Figures as it is one of those immersive experiences that are not only fun but have the added bonus of realism included. When you go in, you are assigned a character, and throughout the show, everyone you meet was a genuine person from history. So much work had been put into the production that you really felt you were stepping back in time to the bleak days of WWII. Writing this now, I’m instantly taken back to the final ‘scene’ where my team and I were making real-time decisions that forced us to decide who we were willing to sacrifice in the battle against the Nazis. Believe me, not an easy decision. A superb bit of immersive theatre.

No – 1 Cruise at the Apollo Theatre
A play about gay men and AIDS, oh great! It’s almost a rule that all gay plays, set after the 1970s, must at some point mention the AIDS crises. I’ve seen so many that it’s very easy to become jaded and a bit disinterested when yet another comes along. Cruise¸ however is that play that takes the genre to a whole new height. Jack Holden, who wrote and starred in the production, has crafted a high-energy story of a young lad learning the truth about Soho and the AIDS epidemic from Michael, someone that had not only lived through it, but had expected to die on a certain date after being diagnosed. It’s a story of love and life and Jack, who plays all the characters really throws himself into the performance, filling the stage with a wealth of characters all of whom feel genuine, as he tells Michael’s story from the day he arrived in London until the day he spoke to a young Jack via the Switchboard Phone Line.

The final lines of my review sum up this play perfectly, “I honestly cannot state how much Cruise blew me away and I don’t think there are enough superlatives to express my thoughts on it.

Reviews by John Groves

MOTHER GOOSE. Ian McKellen as Mother Goose and John Bishop as Vic Goose. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.
MOTHER GOOSE. Ian McKellen as Mother Goose and John Bishop as Vic Goose. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

Even though it was the most recent, Ian Mckellen’s Mother Goose must take the top spot, if only for the “well-being” feeling it generates. One wonders how he has the energy at 83 to do one performance a day, let alone two!

Then there is 12:37, a wonderfully funny yet moving play at Finborough Theatre, superbly acted, quickly followed by David Ireland’s Not Now at the same theatre.

I also enjoyed the touring revival of Jim Cartwright’s Rise and Fall of Little Voice which seemed surprisingly relevant, as did Opera dell’ Luna’s premiere of Three Decembers at Wilton’s Music Hall – a very fine modern opera, well-sung, acted and directed.

Lucy Roslyn’s new play Pennyroyal, again at the Finborough, was not only beautifully written, it was also superbly acted, dealing with a difficult subject with style and sympathy to make a wonderfully moving piece of theatre.

Then, of course there was Singin’ in the Rain at Wimbledon, Top Hat at Sonning and The Osmonds, which I was lucky enough to see twice at different theatres and enjoyed both times!

In tenth place is yet another play seen at Finborough: Distinguished Villa by Kate O’Brien, not seen since its first production in 1926, but more than deserving of a revival. If only the Finborough would get the pub on the ground floor open again!!

My favourite theatre of the year must be the ever-friendly and helpful Theatre Royal Brighton – always a pleasure to visit!

Top 10 Shows from Mary Beer

2022 was the year of the new ‘restoration’ theatre: the first time since 2020 when we could return to theatre settings without pandemic restrictions. Several new plays’ development had either stalled or continued to stew longer than anticipated (or needed) with their premieres delayed some two years. In some cases, new writing that was forced to wait came out stronger for its extra gestation, whereas other work showed the damaging effects of lack of creative oxygen when it finally emerged. Nonetheless, it was an era of transition – with fewer revivals of previously staged productions and more arrivals of newly developed scripts. In addition to creativity and problem-solving, as virus variants and other threats abounded – expectations were high and economic circumstances challenging – we saw a strong showing of one-person author-driven performances; some classic seasonal crowd-pleasers; and culturally-urgent tellings – many of which had become even more vital since the darkening of our stages. The vital launchpad of the Vault Festival didn’t proceed in early 2022 and its talent had to pivot once again – although Edinburgh stormed ahead. Likewise, the death of the Queen in September created another backdrop of a permanently ‘never normal’ with Cultural Recovery Grants having been spent (and in some cases splurged) earlier in the year followed by Arts Council England dishing out some real surprises and disappointments for many just before Christmas. There were several very strong productions at the Hampstead Theatre that deserve a mention and if I were only looking at new writing would certainly make this list. It’s a sign of the strength of our theatre that I’ve had to leave some strong contenders out of the top 10 – an embarrassment of riches that I hope no one takes for granted.

David Walmsley (Agamemnon). by Peter Searle.
David Walmsley (Agamemnon). by Peter Searle.

1. Girl on an Altar
The Kiln Theatre had a killer year, presenting a raft of sensitive and stellar work – but none was more powerful than Marina Carr’s re-telling of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Daring to improve on Aeschylus, writer Carr and director Annabelle Comyn together with an outstanding cast succeeded.

2. Mad House
A limited-run star vehicle with two US heavy-weights, playwright Theresa Rebeck wasn’t afraid to elbow her way into the 20th-century American literary canon with her family drama. David Harbour’s range and sensitivity stole the show

3. The Bedwetter at the Atlantic Theatre (New York)
Sarah Silverman’s musical was originally slated for 2020 but not only did the pandemic shutter the show, it killed the musical director. Not just a theatrical feat of more than resilience, Silverman’s story is the ultimate coming-of-age and acceptance tale that does not let the surrounding systemic bias of her childhood, and so many others’, off the hook.

4. Black the Clown
Multi-lingual and universal, Paula Paz’s first-ever UK staging of Pablo Sorozabal’s Zarzuela (Spanish Operetta) got every emotional detail right to create one of the most immersive (but fourth wall) productions I’ve ever seen. Haunting, delicious and allegorical, this production entertained first without serving its edification with a trowel – but provoked both thought and emotion as only the best theatre can.

5. Scandaltown
It’s been a good year for Mike Bartlett, even if his Scandaltown received less glowing reviews than his other work. Although this almost panto-esque screwball ‘new restoration’ comedy was ultra-topical, as I contemplate the last 12 months I still savour silliness – with sweetness and optimism – that hit the spot in a chaotic and dark year.

6. Attenborough and his Animals
Children’s theatre came back in varying degrees in 2022. In some cases, overly wrought productions tried too hard or the ‘safety’ of a bankable hit was palpable and cloying. But Clownfish’s physical theatre extravaganza was pure, beautiful and utterly hilarious. Four months later, my daughter is still re-enacting the sloth – 120 days of enduring smiles is about as good as it gets for value for money. I can’t wait to see what Jess Clough-MacRae does next!

7. The Darkest Part of the Night
Although Zodwa Nyoni’s script that premiered at the Kiln was just a little too brimming with ideas, she is indisputably a dramatic force to be reckoned with. With Lee Philips starring as Dwight, her family drama served an emotionally-devasting gut punch and shows the foundations of a mighty literary career to which we should all pay attention.

8. JPG Fashion Freak Show
A spectacle of you-had-to-be-there fun for super-fans. I only regret the heat wave meant I didn’t get to meet the maestro himself. An uplifting creative treat that reminds us what ‘high production value’ really means.

9. Gabriel Byrne Walking with Ghosts
Amongst this year’s authored one-person shows, Byrne’s story stood out in not only the catharsis and resolution it offered but because of his unique and masterful storytelling (of any story but especially his own). I’m saddened that its Broadway run, which followed the limited London engagement, was cut short as the play had resonance well beyond the West End.

10. (tied) Reasons You Should (n’t) Love Me.
10. (tied ) Mugabwe My Dad and Me
These two one-person shows are ambitious, funny, affecting and fully “real plays” despite being told by a single author/actor on stage. Amy Trigg’s production at the Kiln is a revival from 2020 but felt fresh and timeless so I’ve included it in the 2022 list. Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad and Me does feature the significant musical contribution and stage presence of mbira player Millicent Chapanda, but is a one-man-play written and enacted by Mynyevu – who brings to life the three characters of the title and then some. A new work at the new theatre space of Brixton House, Mugabe, My Dad and Me found the intersections of humour, compassion, coming of age and some fresh takes that enlightened and enraged but also inspired and entertained.

Reviews by Peter Yates

Madison Clare and Lucy Roslyn in Pennyroyal - credit Helen Murray
Madison Clare and Lucy Roslyn in Pennyroyal – credit Helen Murray

Penny Royal by Lucy Roslyn at The Finborough.
1. It’s as if Roslyn is performing a dance of the seven veils as each layer of the relationship is pulled and poked and nudged and scratched at until the first layer is torn away and, as we breathe a little sigh of relief, she starts tugging at the next layer, and the next, until we get down to the body, the flesh, the naked truth. And we are gripped. And we are involved. And we care.

2. Jarman by Mark Farrelly at The King’s Head Theatre.
Whilst giving us the facts and staging posts of Jarman’s life Farrelly never lets up on the passion of the man, the artistic integrity, the quirkiness, and the sheer bloody-minded refusal to bow to the societal norms of commerciality, conformity and conventionality. Above all, Farrelly shows us, was Jarman’s passionate advocacy of Gay Rights.

3. Idolatry by Paul Bridger at The Union Theatre.
This is a powerful piece of writing by Bridger, a solo show in which he performs with intimate intensity, with knowing perception, and with articulate recognition. The character he plays is former footballer Glenn Richards and
Bridger convinces us that he’s been there, that he understands, and he gets us to feel the pain, to know the loneliness and, ultimately, to understand and experience the shame.

4. Crackers: A Festive Family Farce by Charles Way at Polka Theatre.
Writer Charles Way has a long pedigree of creating shows for children and he does Christmas shows as well as anyone. And in Crackers, Way provides us with a real treat.

5. The Light Trail Lydia Sabatini at The Hope Theatre.
The Hope has reputation for excellent cutting-edge drama and Sabatini’s script powerfully continues this tradition. As a starting point for discussion about what is still pretty much the taboo subject of psychosis, The Light Trail should be seen, and should be rightfully recognised as an important and perceptive documentation of that condition of the mind.

Reviews by Alan Fitter

An Evening Without Kate Bush – Soho Theatre
Alice In Wonderland – Brixton House
Thrill Me – The Leopold & Loeb Story – Jermyn Street Theatre
Mugabe, My Dad & Me – Brixton House
Tomorrow Maybe My Last – Old Red Lion

Reviews by Marian Kennedy

1. Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells
2. The Gunpowder Plot at Tower Vaults
3. Casanova by Northern Ballet at Sadler’s Wells
4. Tomatito in Concert as part of the Flamenco Festival London at Sadler’s Wells

Reviews by John O’Brien

Alex Waldmann and Kemi Awoderu in Arms and the Man - photo by Ellie Kurttz.
Alex Waldmann and Kemi Awoderu in Arms and the Man – photo by Ellie Kurttz.

The top show of 2022 is Arms & the Man by George Bernard Shaw at the Orange Tree Theatre.
Everything about this Shaw show screams top draw. The casting is so strong (Sarah Murray clearly has a perfect eye ) that there isn’t a weak player in the team. All seven actors are spellbinding. They are ridiculously good. The chemistry between them is palpable.

Reviews by Joseph Winer

Oklahoma at the Young Vic
Ministry of Lesbian Affairs at the Soho Theatre
Billy Elliot at Leicester Curve
Frankie Thompson’s Catts at the Soho Theatre
Rob Madge’s My Son’s a Queer at Underbelly, Edinburgh

Reviews by Ben Ross

Immersive theatre legends Punchdrunk are back with The Burnt City, a swirling feast-for-the-senses merging Greek legends of Troy with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I’ve seen it six times already, discovering new secrets each time, and will be back for more in 2023.

Reviews by Loretta Monaco

Summer Showcase at the Etcetera Theatre and presented by The Working Actors Studio.
Four Exceptional Pieces of New Writing
Swings and Roundabouts by Matthew Kay
Tomorrow by Jimin Suh
Days of Halcyon by Demi Leigh
Buddy by Miranda Langley
Juliet Stevenson delivers Power Performance in The Doctor by Robert Icke

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  • 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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