It has been another complicated year for theatres with venues unable to welcome in-person audiences for more than five months of 2021 and the tail end of the year returning to enforced closure and performance cancellations as Covid once again affects lead cast members, their understudies and backstage crew. In spite of a returning familiar dread, there is, however, cause for hope as we end the year in a more interesting position than we started it with greater representation of all kinds of voices and experiences on our biggest stages, the effects of hybrid theatre continuing to expand audience accessibility and the transformation of the musical with several major works receiving a ground-breaking twenty-first century rethink.
New Voices and New Work
The long closure of theatre buildings has had far reaching consequences, and while the 2020 lockdowns and birth of hybrid forms gave regional theatres a national platform that transformed engagement with their work, promising much for future audience reach, in 2021 the eventual reopening of auditoria from May meant that any fears producers would only bet on safe, cash-generating productions with established performers in well-known plays were partially allayed.
In fact, one of the most inspiring trends this year was the refreshing arrival of fringe productions at major West End venues, a charge led by producer Katy Lipson through her Aria Entertainment company who brought Public Domain and then the brilliant Cruise to temporarily abandoned playhouses usually taken up with long-running shows. Cruise, which began as an online monologue, is one of the shows of the year, an outstanding one-man piece by Jack Holden about living through the Aids epidemic in 1980s Soho – a story that entirely deserved its West End platform representing as it did an essential period of modern British history. Lipson also oversaw the hugely acclaimed transfer of The Last Five Years from Southwark Playhouse to the Garrick where its stellar central performances from Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson played to packed houses. Shows that would almost certainly have been denied a transfer in the pre-Covid West End proved to be a shot of adrenaline, demonstrating a need to keep thinking differently about the shows that can attract audience and critical respect if given this wider platform.
Concerns that new plays and voices opening directly in major venues may be overlooked were quickly stamped out by super-producer Sonia Friedman who was among the first to promote new writing at the reopened Harold Pinter Theatre with the Re:Emerge season, a triple bill of plays from playwrights debuting in the West End – Waldren (though the weakest) was later filmed for a cinema release, the lively J’Ouvert set at the Notting Hill Carnival had a digital pre-life in the BBC’s Lights Up series and the superb Anna X was also filmed for Sky Arts and screened over Christmas. The latter in particular used innovative video design to underscore its central premise about the fluid nature of contemporary identity and image creation.
Established writers also offered plenty of challenging new work including Bess Wohl’s Camp Siegfried which simultaneously proved to be a fascinating political piece about the thoughtless extremism of youth while providing one of the biggest treats of the year by uniting two of theatres most luminous rising stars Luke Thallon and Patsy Ferran in a memorable theatre moment. Likewise, James Graham’s Best of Enemies was an absorbing exploration of current political debate, tracking back to the late 1960s to chart the origins of celebrity-focused and sensationalist news media in the entertaining but deeply thoughtful style that has become Graham’s trademark
Dramatic Revivals and Hybrid Approaches
But new work was not the only place where theatremakers applied novel interpretations, and several impressive productions offered fresh insight into well-known plays. The National Theatre’s revival of The Normal Heart became a companion piece for Cruise in its first production for more than 30 years. This significant staging was notable for its strong performances including an emotional central character for Ben Daniels, another increasingly fascinating choice for Daniel Monks and an accomplished role for Luke Norris, collectively finding meaningful dimension in a play that not only reasserted its position as a modern classic but also its credentials as activist theatre.
Similarly, Lyndsey Turner’s reworking of Under Milk Wood also at the National proved extremely meaningful in a frame by Sian Owen uniting father and son to overcome memory loss with beautifully pitched performances from Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen. Antony Almeida made an equally distinct impression with his English Touring Theatre production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opening at Curve Leicester that proved a fiery and gripping portrayal of self-destruction that relished Tennessee Williams’s heat-oppressed classic.
And while the reopening of theatres in May has reduced the availability of streamed content, playmakers have continued to respond creatively to the possibilities that digital theatre offers. A major highlight was Athena Stevens’s binge-worthy drama Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels, a fascinating multi-part duologue released in daily 5-8 minute doses in February that used exquisite visual design to enhance its story of coercive relationships, toxic masculinity and female culpability in a memorable and genre enhancing collaboration with the Finborough Theatre – notable that smaller venues are still making big leaps in helping the industry to broaden its creative approach to storytelling and engagement.
Likewise, the National Theatre’s productions of Romeo and Juliet as well as the latest instalment of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England series Face to Face, took advantage of the empty Lyttleton to rethink the presentation of theatre stories. Working in partnership with Sky Arts and making these works available for free on the channel to a worldwide audience as well as selective cinema releases, they were filmed in usually unseen backstage areas, blurring the boundaries between stage and screen. These works continue to experiment with alternative staging models, thinking differently about theatre buildings, as well as how and where playing spaces can and should exist – a train of thought that should continue to evolve as the balance between audience engagement in specific rooms and wider forms of international engagement continues to expand.
A New Golden Age of Musicals
Throughout the pandemic, musical theatre responded best to the hybrid opportunities presented by theatre closure and, throughout 2020, it was notable how rapidly the industry reacted with new work, concert sessions and anthology shows like The Theatre Channel taking advantage of sophisticated filming techniques long before their drama counterparts. In 2021 two key themes dominated the year – promising new work performed in streamed concert try-outs and the rethinking and reimagining of classic musicals for a twenty-first century audience, picking up on a thread from 2019-20, by setting aside performance history and returning to the original text and songs.
Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’s Gatsby: A Musical was a digital highlight of the 2021 lockdown, performed as a streamed concert from Cadogan Hall in February, focused on Daisy Buchanan in the years after Fitzgerald’s story. This elegiac and smart reimagining became a full staging at Southwark Playhouse that runs into next year. In the same month, Ricky Allan premiered an early working-version of Treason: The Musical, also streamed from Cadogan Hall, which promises much as the creators continue to work on their potentially explosive Gunpowder Plot story, even releasing a selection of teaser songs on 5 November. The development of this show is one to watch in 2022.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has led the way with fresh takes on classic shows in recent years with reworked version of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jamie Lloyd’s production of Evita. This year, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was given a contemporary shakeup, tackling the issue of domestic abuse head-on by allowing barker Billy Bigelow to feel regret but denying him the happy and heavenly redemption arc his creators intended. This darker vision of the story set in a Lawrencian working class community proved a welcome counterpoint to the bubbly Hollywood version that had dulled these themes, helping audiences to engage with the show’s troubling underbelly and behaviours.
Equally revelatory, Chichester Festival Theatre produced a thrilling retelling of another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece, South Pacific directed by Daniel Evans that addressed the story’s racial stereotyping while excising the romanticism from the arguably coercive and exploitative relationships between American soldiers and young native women. Choreographer Ann Yee found meaningful ways to express the concept of occupation and invasion – of which the American forces were equally guilty – to create a more forbidding adaptation that allowed South Pacific to confront its demons. The show will be streamed for £15 on New Year’s Eve, followed by a UK tour and residency at Sadler’s Wells in 2022 ensuring this significant restaging will reach a much wider audience.
But this astonishing year for musical theatre was not quite done with two late additions cementing a new direction for the genre. The Almeida’s Spring Awakening, opening in mid-December, has an extraordinary youthful vigour generated by its enormously talented early career cast who have found a deep maturity in this coming-of-age tale of doomed romance and disaffection. As fresh and purposeful as theatre can be, choreographer Lynne Page created some of the finest work of the year in a powerful and definingly simple version of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s show that is testament to everything musical theatre can be.
And defining is precisely the word for Rebecca Frecknall’s breath-taking reworking of Cabaret, one of the greatest shows of any year. If a single production can exemplify the combined advances and visionary approaches applied to theatre in 2021, then Cabaret has distilled them all by entirely reconsidering its source material and offering a more representative cast particularly within its two dance crews. Frecknall – notably a drama director – has brought an incredible new resonance to the story, exploring the shadowy tones of Isherwood’s original novella to bring an added emotional and social depth to Kander and Ebb’s version of Cabaret. This innovative interpretation will certainly affect future engagement with this piece which is everything you want a successful revival to do.
So what does this mean for theatre in 2022? There are positive signs that if venues can remain open then the variety of work we are seeing, how it is cast and, crucially, the platform it is given continues to change while engagement with hybrid styles have a significant role to play as venues commit to streaming some evenings across the run, while looking to innovative television and film partnerships to make work more widely available. The work itself is likely to continue the pre-pandemic trend for simplified staging which will help classic play and musical revivals to mine their original text for greater emotional, political and social resonance.
With big productions of The Glass Menagerie staring Amy Adams, Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the resumption of Jamie Lloyd’s season including a return for Cyrano and The Seagull, as well as Kit Harington in Henry V for the Donmar, Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in Cock directed by Marianne Elliot at the Ambassadors, and a further collaboration between Ruth Wilson and Ivo van Hove (The Human Voice) at the Harold Pinter, there are plenty of major shows lined up all with the capacity to rethink approaches to these plays for contemporary viewers. This year has demonstrated that West End audiences are more open to a broader selection of shows, voices, experiences and performers representing different communities and identities. So the message for 2022 is a simple one – just keep making room.