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The first full year of theatre going since 2019 and I saw 129 shows in the 42 weeks I was in the UK (my travels resumed too!). A good indication of its quality was that a third made my long list.

BEST NEW PLAY – PATRIOTS at the Almeida Theatre & MIDDLE at the NT’s Dorfman Theatre

It was a particularly good year for new plays, perhaps because playwrights had more time during lockdown to craft and perfect their work. There were twenty contenders and after much deliberation 7 rose above the rest. Nell Leyshon’s Folk at Hampstead, about the song collecting of Cecil Sharp, proved a real treat, as did Marvellous, the life-affirming inaugural offering @sohoplace about the extraordinary Neil Baldwin. At the National, an adaptation of Sheriden’s restoration comedy The Rivals, Jack Absolute Flies Again, was by far the funniest new play, whilst down the road at the Young Vic The Collaboration was a fascinating examination of an unlikely relationship between two artistsWarhol & Basquiat. Prima Facie was a great play exposing the broken legal system of trials for sexual offences, but it was really all about the sensational star performance from Jodie Comer. It was two plays about relationships – Peter Morgan’s Patriots, about Berezovsky, the kingmaker of both Putin & Abramovitch and David Eldridge’s Middle about the divergence of a couple in mid-life, that stood out most.

BEST REVIVAL – The Crucible & The Corn Is Green at the NT and Handbagged at The Kiln Theatre

I couldn’t choose between the three, and there were six other very good contenders too. I’ve seen quite a few productions of The Crucible, but few had the intensity of the NT’s revival in the Olivier. Next door in the Lyttelton, what made The Corn is Green was the addition of singing by the miners, fully anchoring the play in Wales. I was surprised how much Handbagged, about the relationship between Thatcher and the Queen, resonated twelve years on and how clever and funny it still was.

The six ‘bubbling under’ were the return of Jerusalem after 13 years as good if not better than before, two Shakespeare’s at the NT – Much Ado About Nothing and Othello, Age of Rage – a Greek Tragedy ‘mash up’ from Amsterdam, a timely revival of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads in Chichester and To Kill A Mockingbird, transferred from Broadway to The West End.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – TAMMY FAYE at The Almeida

Every year is a lean year for new musicals these days, but this new musical had it all – great book, lyrics and music, given an audacious production with as fine a set of performances as you could hope for.

The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band lost in Israel, was a joy, understated and full of hope, which could have won in any other year. I loved Newsies too, but more as a dance showcase than a musical. The others on the long list were Mandela at the Young Vic, Local Hero in Chichester, Bonnie & Clyde in the West End and The Lion, though I was late to that party.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – Spring Awakening at The Almeida, Crazy for You in Chichester and Billy Elliott at Curve Leicester.

A leaner than usual year for musical revivals; covid related costs and delays I suspect, but these three matched (Billy) or bettered (Crazy For You and Spring Awakening) all previous productions. Four of the seven contenders were in the regions (the other two being a terrific revival of Gypsy in Buxton and Terry Gilliam’s Into the Woods exiled to Bath). As much as I enjoyed Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club and Oklahoma at the Young Vic, they didn’t match these three.

So that’s it for another year. Here’s to as much, if not more, in 2023.

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Eight years ago I spent a day in the NT’s Olivier Theatre immersing myself in 15th Century Scottish history. It was thrilling. Three plays – The James Plays – with an epic sweep that took your breath away, a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Playwright Rona Munro has this year returned to Scottish history, with a fourth instalment – James 4th, Queen of the fight – touring Scotland, and this here in London. There’s at least one more, with the 5th already written for production in 2023, but this one, No. 6, comes first, with an unwritten 7th promised.

If you’ve seen the trilogy, you have to accept that this is its own thing. It’s so different, focusing on just a few months in 1567, in one location, with just three main characters. Mary’s husband, the King of France, has died and she returns to Scotland. She soon marries again and has a male heir before her new husband is murdered. Some think she’s complicit; her catholicism means there is much mistrust, which leads to rebellion. After an attempt to escape, she surrenders and abdicates. This all happens offstage.

On the stage there is a debate between Sir James Melville, hitherto loyal to Mary, and two surprisingly lowly retainers, gate-keeper Thompson, who appears to become an important messenger for Mary’s new husband Bothwell, and Agnes, a servant who also seems to be a key figure in the protestant rebellion. They discuss what really happened – how much was Mary’s free will? was she coerced or even assaulted?

Once I’d put the trilogy behind me, I found the debate fascinating, a tribute to the lead actors – Douglas Henshall, Brian Vernel & Rona Morison – who bring it alive on a relatively bare stage, with a brilliant moment towards the end where a chorus of women have their say.

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Snail House

Seventy-nine is rather late to be debuting your first original play. Mind you, there have been adaptations and screenplays and this is Richard Eyre, director of some of the greatest theatrical productions of the last fifty years. Perhaps directing this as well as writing it was a mistake, though.

The play takes place before and after a dinner / party to celebrate Neil’s birthday and recent knighthood. The dinner is for 18 family and close friends, to be followed by a party with an additional 42. It’s in a posh school, an uber realistic design by Tim Hatley, and as we begin the caterers are laying tables with Neil, his wife, son and daughter arriving. Neil is an eminent paediatrician, his profile having risen during the pandemic. His son Hugo is a researcher for a government minister, moulding policy. Eighteen-year-old daughter Sarah is a climate activist who has left home to live in a squat, but she comes to the party.

On one level, the play conveys a generational divide typical of those that have proliferated for the last six years, a family split by Brexit, climate change, me too and black lives matter, amongst other things. It also presents a class divide between the family and the three catering staff. It transpires that Neil has history with one of them, Florence, and this provides the focus of the play’s most powerful debate.

Yet, despite its timeliness and topicality, it doesn’t really take off, though there are fine performances all round. I do think the independent view of another director might have sharpened it. It felt like there was a much better play trying to break out. It also didn’t help that there was no atmosphere at the sparsely attended performance last night, which was of course the evening of the state funeral.

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One of the great pleasures of being an avid theatre-goer in the last quarter-century has been watching the emergence and development of an outstanding new generation of British playwrights, including James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood, Mike Bartlett, Jez Butterworth, Richard Bean and of course Roy Williams. This is the 20th play of his I’ve seen, and amongst his most ambitious. Seventy-five years of the Black British experience told through the personal story of one family. I found it captivating.

Sisters Dawn and Marcia are very close, but they’ve taken very different paths. Marcia is a successful QC whilst Dawn is looking after their mother, one of the Windrush generation, her partner Tony (when he isn’t touring with a band) and son Jermaine, in his late teens. Williams skilfully introduces important plot strands such as Dawn’s first son and Marcia’s relationships. There are a lot of skeletons in a lot of cupboards and they come out seamlessly. The characters represent three generations, from Windrush (the offstage mother) to the present, but also diverse perspectives and attitudes, which Williams’ presents with admirable even-handedness. He’s a master storyteller and here he blends the personal and the political to great effect. It’s a touch melodramatic occasionally, but it’s a meaty, deeply satisfying drama.

Cherrelle Skeete has taken over the lead role of Dawn at short notice following the withdrawal of Lucy Vandi through illness. She sometimes has to use the script but its handled deftly and doesn’t detract from what is a passionate performance, well matched by Suzette Llewellyn’s more restrained Marcia. Their sisterly chemistry is excellent. In a fine supporting cast, there’s an auspicious stage debut by Ethan Hazard as Jermaine. Paulette Randall’s staging brings great pace and energy.

A fine new play and a theatrical treat.

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This is another of those occasions when you gasp as you walk into Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium. Lizzie Clachan has built an extraordinary three-story house on the stage, the interior of a New York City brownstone. Characters even make trips up and down to two other (invisible) floors. The new play within, Alexis Zegerman’s The Fever Syndrome, is a meaty drama and uses the space well in Roxana Silbert’s production.

Professor Richard Myers is one of the founding fathers of the scientific community that gave us IVF, and a lot more. His illustrious career is about to be recognised with a lifetime achievement award and his family have gathered to celebrate with him. He’s been married three times. Dorothea is his eldest child, by his first wife. She’s the one very much in control in her marriage to Nate. They have a daughter, Lily, who has Fever Syndrome, a genetic condition. Twins Thomas, a gay artist, and Anthony, a West Coast entrepreneur, are by his second wife. He has no children by his third and current wife Megan, his carer too, as he has Parkinson’s Disease. They are joined by Thomas’ partner Philip, ex-military, ex-drug user.

In the evening before and morning of their departure for the ceremony, relationships unravel. Dorothea sees Megan as some sort of fortune hunter and is anxious to secure her daughter’s future, and pay her medical bills, setting up a trust fund with her father’s money. Philip’s marriage proposal catches Thomas unawares and threatens their hitherto stable relationship. Richard has trusted Anthony with his investments, which may not have been a wise idea, and his wife’s relationship with him looks more than a touch unhealthy. Richard seems to be haunted by Dorothea’s childhood, seeing and hearing her younger self taunt him. Megan just wants everyone to get on, and to look after Richard as best she can.

It’s a family saga in the American style we were used to seeing in the late 20th Century, with the science that Richard spent his life in woven through. It leaves a bit too much to be revealed too late, and becomes overly melodramatic for my taste. That said, it’s the sort of substantial drama we see too rarely these days and I much admired the ambition and staging.

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French playwright Florian Zeller has had the most meteoric rise. This is his seventh play to be produced in London in eight years, and that includes almost two years where virtually nothing new was produced. They’ve had many awards and transfers and the first we saw, The Father, became on Oscar winning film. I loved this, plus The Mother, The Son (soon to be a film too) and The Truth. I was less enamoured with The Lie, which along with The Mother didn’t get a West End transfer, and Height of the Storm, which went straight to the West End, but you can’t expect the standard of his best work to be sustained forever.

I occasionally felt he was in danger of being too clever and glib, in a Stoppardian way, notably in The Lie. I now feel he’s following more of a Pinter / Churchill trajectory, writing for himself more than his audience, perhaps becoming obtuse to cover up his lack of fresh ideas. Anyway, I really took against this latest one. A lot of talent wasted on an eighty minute jigsaw puzzle you have little chance of completing, with an old fashioned feel to it, very much to the detriment of the female characters. Gina McKee had such a meaty leading role in The Mother, here she’s wasted on a totally underwritten role as The Wife.

Toby Stevens is Man 1, a successful surgeon. His wife is there to welcome him home and look after him. Their daughter has split up with her partner at a time when they were trying for a baby. Man 2, played by Paul McCann, is having an affair with a singer who wants to be more than just the mistress. We also meet a male friend and female friend, a couple, who don’t really serve much purpose. There’s a young man, who may be the daughter’s estranged partner, or maybe not. Then there’s a mysterious man with white make-up, the ‘Man in Black’, another character whose point or purpose were lost on me. The singer appears to die, scenes are repeated with changes, Man 1 and 2 may be the same character (they are both called Pierre). Even the title is a puzzle.

After seeing it, I heard a radio interview with Zeller where he repeated something he says in the programme about wanting the audience to piece it together. He went on to give us a spoiler, that it’s about a man wracked with guilt and mental health issues because of his fidelity. So much for unravelling it for yourself. For me, it was a huge disappointment from a playwright I had hitherto admired. I hope it doesn’t herald the beginning of Zeller’s decline, but my intuition tells me it probably is. He’s given us four gems, which is more than many playwrights, but one might have expected more from a prolific 42-year-old. C’est la vie.

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I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Mill at Sonning continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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This revival of Alan Plater’s 1999 play is the final offering in Hampstead Theatre’s look back over 60 years of new plays, a season sadly blighted by closures, at a theatre with a track record of new plays to be proud of. Plater’s play is particularly appropriate, being about plays and playwrights, though its central character is an agent. I saw the original production here, with Maureen Lipman as Peggy, and this is a great revival. Though set in the sixties, and first staged at the turn of the millennium, it feels as fresh as if it was written today.

Its protagonist is legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsey, a force of nature, who represented some 400 playwrights, a list that reads like a who’s-who of writers of the second half of the 20th Century, including Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Caryl Churchill, J B Priestly, Stephen Poliakoff, Joe Orton (she appears in his biopic played by Vanessa Redgrave) and Plater himself. Here, her writers are represented by fictional archetypes – the new kid on the block, the current golden boy and the mature one who’s now struggling. She clearly loved nurturing new talent, she revelled in the glory of her successful clients, but she appeared to lose interest after that, at least in their eyes.

It all takes place on one day in her office, and that of her secretary Tessa, in Dickensian Godwin’s Court in theatre-land. In the morning she’s teaching, and playing with, 21-year-old Simon, who’s submitted a modern spin on Romeo & Juliet. She lunches with Philip, the toast of both the West End and Broadway with his somewhat superficial fare. In the afternoon, she is confronted by gritty northerner Henry, when it turns more serious, darker and edgier, without losing the sharp witty dialogue we’ve become used to by then. Plater very cleverly takes someone he knows well and sends us home feeling like we know her well too. His affection and admiration for her comes through, but he shows us her flaws as well.

When he wrote it he wondered who it was for, so he sent it to his friend Alan Ayckbourn who felt very much the same. Well, it’s certainly for me, an avid theatre-goer, but I can see how many of the references and in jokes might be lost on someone who isn’t, or someone younger. However, anyone can admire such outstanding writing, great characterisation (fictional or otherwise) and sparkling dialogue. Director Richard Wilson, and his designer James Cotterill (who’s excellent set is littered with play-scripts and posters) bring it alive two decades on, and the performances are terrific.

It must be hard for an actor to play against such a larger-than-life character as Peggy, but these four do it brilliantly. Josh Finan is great as young Simon, who proves wiser than his years and not as naive as he first seems. The great Trevor Cooper plays Henry, the jaded, cynical but empathetic older playwright desperate to be staged again, who provides the moral anchor of the piece. Danusia Samal’s Tessa, the latest in a seemingly long line of long suffering assistants who’s names Peggy often gets wrong, is resigned to being put upon, with a fondness for the clients Peggy cannot display. Jos Vantyler plays Philip, riding the crest of a wave, yet respectful to his colleagues. It’s Tamsin Greig’s evening, though. She commands the stage and inhabits the role with brilliant comic timing, switching to show another more thoughtful side of Peggy in the second half. It’s a stunning performance.

Four more weeks to catch this great revival.

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Sometimes however good the production and performances, and however much you relate to or empathise with the issues raised, you fail to engage with the play, and so it was with this. I’ve been struggling to understand why ever since it ended – too American? Dated treatment of the subject(s)? The writing itself? The fact it followed a much more successful revival of another, very different, mother-daughter story the evening before?

In Marsha Norman’s 1982 play about isolation, loneliness and depression, the relationship between mother Thelma and daughter Jessie is one of mutual dependence, with Jessie ostensibly looking after Thelma, who is effectively a companion for her troubled daughter. There’s an ordinariness about their lives, until Jessie gives her mother notice that she will shortly be killing herself and spends the rest of their time together ensuring Thelma knows where everything is and how things are done, in a very calm matter-of-fact way.

It doesn’t inform, enlighten or illuminate its themes, so it becomes a relatively emotionless tale of a woman who’s tired of living her problematic life – failed marriage, criminal son, epilepsy, loss of her beloved dad, much misunderstood – and how her mother has been hitherto somewhat oblivious to much of this. I couldn’t relate or empathise with it, and learnt little from it.

Stockard Channing (who I haven’t seen since her London stage debut in Six Degrees of Separation twenty years ago) and Rebecca Night were both excellent and director Roxana Sibert and designer Ti Green did their best with the somewhat static one room, continuous timeline material. I can think of a lot of better examples of Hampstead premieres of American plays to celebrate their 60 years, I’m afraid.

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I’ve always wondered why the late plays of Beckett, Pinter and Churchill are revered as experimental and innovative, whilst those of Tennessee Williams were greeted with contempt. This particular late play was the only TW play to have its world premiere outside the US, at this very theatre in fact (well, the previous building), in 1967. I’ve waited over a year to see this revival but it was certainly worth the wait.

Felice and Clare, brother and sister, are on tour with their theatre company, though the rest of the actors have deserted them and only half of the sets have arrived. This means The Two Character Play is the only one in their repertoire that they can perform, with stage management lighting and sound by Felice and cuts insisted upon by Clare. From here, we move between the play and the play-within-a-play in Pirandellian fashion, both as autobiographical as we’re used to from TW. It isn’t that accessible, but it is absolutely fascinating.

Sam Yates’ masterly staging benefits from a first class design from a team led by Rosanna Vise, with projections, music, sound and lighting all playing an equal part in creating this surreal theatrical world. It moves slickly between on-stage and backstage, like Noises Off with fewer characters and without the laughs! There are virtuoso performances from Zubin Varla and Kate O’Flynn, including song, dance and mime, with Varla playing piano and guitar too.

It probably means more to fans of TW like me, for whom it’s a terrific production of one of the most substantial and fascinating of the late plays. The excellent Hampstead programme was an indispensable companion too, and you don’t get to credit a programme that often these days! Thank you, Hampstead Theatre.

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