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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