Each year we look back at theatre moments that thrilled us. Paul T Davies surveyed the year that was 2021 and came up with his Critic’s Choice 2021.
It’s still the toughest of times for theatre and the creative arts. Whilst restrictions were eased, we all know the pandemic hasn’t gone away, and we live in the shadow of cancelled performances and illness, and worse could be on its way. But when performances have taken place, theatre has come storming back, so I’d like to take some time to applaud my personal pick of the year.
SIX – Vaudeville Theatre London
I admit I’m late to this party, but within seconds I got why Six is one of the most popular new musicals of recent years. Turns out that what I needed to forget my worries for a while was a 90-minute concert performed by the six wives of Henry VIII. Sassy and energetic, the lyrics are sensational, the company sublime and the music roof-raising! I awarded it a rare six stars, it’s the perfect escape! Read the review of Six.
Constellations – Vaudeville Theatre London and Online
The genius of the Donmar Warehouse production was to have four casts that provided different aspects and depths to Nick Payne’s clever, multi-universe play. I didn’t review it for this site, and saw the same-sex pairing of Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas, which, without changing the text, threw new light and wonder on the script. Brilliantly acted, this was my Revival of the Year.
The Normal Heart – National Theatre
There are some plays, rare as they are, that change your life. The first London production of The Normal Heart in 1986 did just that, for many reasons, and The National presented the first London revival since that time. And the years served the play well. Although a little strident in places, the angry message, and the dark humour, is clearer, and a terrific ensemble, headed by the excellent Ben Daniels, brought Kramer’s hear breaking play to urgent life. Daniels gets my nod as Actor of the Year. Read the review of The Normal Heart
After Life – National Theatre
A play about death and the afterlife should not have been attractive after 2020. But Jack Thorne’s exquisite, sensitive and beautiful adaptation of the 1998 film captured pivotal moments of life, all recounted and recorded before souls can pass onwards. Deeply moving, I hope for a revival, so then I could have a chance to review it! Best new play of the year- in a year of great new plays.
Cruise – Duchess Theatre
The first production I saw when restrictions were lifted, Jack Holden’s brilliant journey through the Soho of the 1980s updated the themes of The Normal Heart by telling a personal story of pandemic, community, and, ultimately, hope. Along with Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, it taught a younger generation exactly what the AIDS epidemic was like. Outstanding writing and performing, and funnier than its subject matter suggests this is an excellent addition to the LGBTQ+ canon. Read the review of Cruise
Sirens – Mercury Theatre Colchester
The Mercury Theatre finally opened after a major refurbishment and the building is stunning and full of life. But it was Kenny Emson’s new play, staged in the smaller Studio theatre, that captured my heart. Rooted in working-class Essex life, the play, like all his work, was authentic and poetic and beautifully performed. Time shifts of seventeen years were handled with skill, and Tanya-Loretta Dee gets my nod as Actress of the Year for her role as a grieving mother who keeps going forward. Beautiful. Read the review of Sirens.
Leopoldstadt – Wyndham’s Theatre
Again, a heavy play and subject matter, but Tom Stoppard’s (possibly) final play sees him deal with his family history and the devastation of the Holocaust. A huge cast take us through the heart- breaking history, with an unforgettable and moving final act. Check out the BBC’s Imagine documentary about him. Superb.
Under Milk Wood – National Theatre
Another triumph for the National, with an inventive production of the “national play of Wales.” Set in a care home, the framing is a bit of a jolt at first, but Michael Sheen, (superb), skilfully led a company of older actors into the magical world of Llarergub. Read the review of under Milk Wood
First Time – Mercury Theatre
The HIV pandemic and its legacy provided many parallels with our current situation, even in plays written before 2020. Nathaniel Hall’s deeply personal account of his status came to the Mercury Theatre on tour. Poignant, moving and with a wry sense of humour, it was every bit as good as I expected it to be. Catch it if you can. Read the review of First Time.
Come From Away, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Aladdin at the Mercury Theatre and every production that has taken to the stage and entertained audiences.
We can’t thank you enough. Stay safe, keep being creative, and here’s every hope for better times.