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Top 5 Shows of 2021 (according to me)

2021. The year that tried to one-up 2020. Truly.

(I think being a neurotic, worrisome person slightly prepared me for it)

An extraordinary year for British theatre. Anyway, for my final blog of the last rollercoaster 12 months, I present my Top 5 shows of the year: 

1) Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club- Playhouse, London 

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club made every moment ring with significance and was brimming with menace and threat. Rebecca Frecknall’s starry and immersive production of the Kander and Ebb classic was, in short, theatre heaven. 

Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club / Marc Brenner

The in-the-round reconfiguration of London’s Playhouse theatre was kind of amazing. Eddie Redmayne as Emcee pulled the audience into a hedonistic milieu. 

Jessie Buckley’s vulnerable, edgy take reinvented Sally Bowles as a frightened and angry child. Then things got dark. 

A rising talent, Omari Douglas, shone. There’s also a wonderful performance from a pair of older actors as the ill-starred lovebirds Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

Alas, this was an unbelievable and electric occasion, only overshadowed by the sky-high £300 top-price tickets

Cabaret is at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October 2022

2) Anything Goes – The Barbican, London 

Broadway star Sutton Foster starring as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s classic musical at the Barbican was just what the doctor ordered. 

Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney / Tristram Kenton

Gorgeous songs and dance and feisty performances from a brilliant cast made the screwball plot into an enchanting musical escape. 

Anything Goes was of the most entertaining shows I have ever seen and going by standing ovations (plural), it was for everyone else around me, too.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who won a Tony for her 2011 Broadway staging, this new London production was a flat-out triumph. 

A lavish, joyful, and memorable piece of musical theatre, with solid turns from Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal and Gary Wilmot. 

Anything Goes is playing on BBC Two on Boxing Day at 6.40pm. 

3) South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre 

This was a glittering, intelligent and radical reappraisal of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Daniel Evans’s production burst with energy as it foreground an anti-racist message, it marked the return of theatre in superb style. 

The company of South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre / Johan Persson

A strong cast was led by Julian Ovenden as the plantation owner Emile de Becque, and a pregnant Gina Beck. Rarely had the drama of the score sounded more immediate or more moving.

Evans directed an enchanted, threatening evening.

South Pacific will embark on a UK tour in 2022. 

4) The Play What I Wrote – Bimingham Rep 

Tom Hiddleston at Birmingham Rep was one of the most compelling events of my theatre year.

The A-lister provided palpable shock on opening night of this madcap revival. In the play, tensions arise between double act Dennis and Thom, as their aspirations start to diverge. During act 2 a surprise guest star arrives to be roasted by the pair. 

Thom Tuck as Thom, Tom Hiddleston as himself, and Dennis Herdman as Dennis

In this case, Hiddleston proved to be an extremely good sport, (“You might have seen my Coriolanus?”) and putting on a pink and blue dress with bows and a hoop skirt, along with a baroque style wig as he danced across the stage. 

A heartwarming tribute to Morecambe and Wise – the play was co-written 20 years ago by Sean Foley – the show generated the kind of hysterical laughter of which our theatre has lately been starved. 

At Birmingham Rep until 1 January.

5) Our Ladies of Blundellsands – Liverpool Everyman

Jonathan Harvey’s deliciously dark play featured an impeccably excellent Josie Lawrence as an agoraphobic Merseyside Norma Desmond. Nick Bagnall’s production was fast-paced and very funny without losing the pathos of guilty family secrets. 

Tonally, Our Ladies of Blundellsands cut an elegant path between humour and pathos. 

Josie Lawrence in Our Ladies of Blundellsands

In a strong ensemble, it was fascinating to realise that it is Harvey’s sublime dark wit that sheds more light on human desperation than anything else – it also emerges as Liverpool’s most entertaining and moving play for years– you could feel how much the creative team loved the material.

Frankly, I felt the same way. 

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THERE were, however, three shows I wish I’d taken a hand grenade to: Frozen the Musical (Theme Park theatre), Carousel at Regents Park Open Air Theatre (Skiffle band), and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella (Creatively bankrupt). 

For me, this year has been many things, but as we say goodbye to 2021 let’s just choose to remember it as a load of shit with some decent theatre. 

Have a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year. 

Let’s see how 2022 pans out, shall we? Cue violins.

Carl x 

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Cabaret, review: the show of a lifetime


Stunningly designed by Tom Scutt, London’s Playhouse Theatre is transformed into the Kit Kat Club – and Eddie Redmayne is its emcee – for this jaw dropping – expensive (the lowest price in the top two ticket price bands is £120)- production.

Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in ‘Cabaret’
(Marc Brenner)

In this grand, in the round space, these Kander and Ebb songs recall, rather strangely, the toughest emotional moments of opera, and powerfully re-render them.

The devil is in the detail.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more demented Emcee. I fell headfirst into Redmayne’s shape-shifting approach here. There was a strange menace to his otherworldly appearance, standing alone, facial features altered by extraordinary makeup.

In his party hat and Bowie attire, Redmayne resembles some kind of pale, alien clown being. Staking the stalls and swinging from the circle – you can’t take your eyes off the Oscar winner. His crumpled physicality is a marvel. 

Like a first-rate evil clown, he twists his impish body and tongue around the slippery role. He also has a beautiful singing voice.

Eddie Redmayne as Emcee / Marc Brenner

This A list casting might have triggered a frenzy, but make no mistake, this is director Rebecca Frecknall’s production — and it’s a radical reinvention with real political intent. Each possibility is laid out with complete clarity and assessed.

Her Cabaret is one of the most visually and atmospherically expressionistic productions I’ve ever seen, of anything, ever. The creative team’s theatrical ambitions are astute and dense.

Mind you, supporting cast (including an outstanding Anna Jane Casey as Fraulein Kost) may have big names to lean on but they make it look effortless; everyone is on magisterial form.

With Liza Minnelli erased from memory and Fosse’s iconic choreography stripped from this production, the audience are forced to confront the dark heart of the material. Julia Cheng’s twitchy choreography sweeps over the stage in waves. The gender-fluid ensemble frequently make you gasp. 

Omari Douglas and Jessie Buckley / Marc Brenner

Sardonic, seductive, uniquely done. This Cabaret is an distinctive, shattering, deeply humane evening. It is also genuinely cathartic, in the great, transcendent tradition of classic tragedy.

In a superb piece of acting, Jessie Buckley plays an anti-Sally Bowles; her subdued rock star approach to ‘Maybe This Time’ reduces the audience to hushed awe. But her voice rings out clear and she in total command.

Buckley gives her character a bewitching vulnerable finish that makes Sally both more life-size and broken than she’s ever been before. Her nervous breakdown performance of title song ‘Cabaret’ is distressing to watch.

Her voice is full of charm and hurt, an elemental howl that appears to affect the fabric of time. Towards the end, she roars with unruly splendour. 

Omari Douglas plays Cliff / Marc Brenner

But Omari Douglas! Holy smoke, what an actor! It would be easy to forget he is up on stage amidst the pandemonium and moments of rising fascism. But keep looking up, because occasionally there will be a scene he is in, and Douglas will be up there on the stage, apparently doing not much more than speak. Douglas gently presents the bisexual American novelist, Clifford Bradshaw.

As it is, the fact this triumphant production has been achieved 20 months into an ongoing medical emergency is nothing short of miraculous. 

Kind of amazing, I came out stunned into submission, admiring the musical more than ever: the accustomed world had shifted.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October 2022.