Remember when the definition of a weird and bad year was a few much-loved celebrities dying? Remember when packing into an airless basement was the hallmark of a great night out, not a superspreading event? Remember when masks were reserved for dodgy fringe visual theatre shows? Ah, good times, simpler times, we all miss them. Alas, 2021 has not been a year to adorn with felt-tipped hearts in life’s great jotter. But in amongst the anxious times, there has been theatre and live performance in every form, bursting through red tape and firing party poppers in the face of adversity. Here are Exeunt writers with their personal favourites: the shows that broke through the weirdness of pandemic-era theatre going to offer something special that lingered, long after the audience left or the screen flickered to darkness.
Ben Kulvichit: The show that gave me that first real neuron-firing shock of excitement after a wobbly return to live performance was Seke Chimutengwende and Steph McMann’s dance piece, Detective Work. It was a puzzle-like performance; bracingly opaque, offering up just enough clues as to what might be going on for us to feel intuitively that it must all fit together somehow. The most surprising piece of theatre I saw didn’t call itself a piece of theatre: Max Syedtollan’s Four Assignments was on the line-up of an impromptu free gig at Bristol’s Strange Brew I went to on a whim. It was the last thing I was expected: an academic lecture on contemporary archaeology which devolved into an absurdist travel journal, sung to an operatically hyperactive jazz/punk/prog backing track and accompanying Powerpoint. Hilarious, weird, completely out of the blue.
Maddy Costa: Pretty much every Monday of 2021 I’ve received an email from performance maker Josh Coates listing work that can be seen online. Called etude, his newsletter is a delight, radiant with Josh’s enthusiasm for and profound belief in the possibilities of theatre in whatever form it takes. I wish I’d clicked on more of the links, because what I have seen when I did is some brilliant work I would have too easily missed. Family of the Year by cmd+c was gorgeous and quietly radical in its campaign for nuclear family disarmament (an excellent phrase picked up from another much-loved newsletter, Salome Wagaine’s end of year review Critmas), the roles, labels and stifling frustrations of family life prodded by 10-year-old narrator Anja like so many ants beneath a magnifying glass. Wunderbaum’s Stop Acting Now sliced to the heart of a common (to me, anyway) dilemma: the desire to feel some kind of usefulness in theatre in the face of social and environmental collapse. And Civilisation by Antler – which I stupidly missed when it was programmed in the UK, so I’m particularly grateful to Josh for the link to a screening from Dresden – recalibrated the relationships between storytelling, choreography, emotion and the numb motions of banal existence in ways that held me rapt in wide-eyed wonder.
Alice Saville: This year I saw shows sitting on treestumps, on zoom, on park benches, over telephones, and in packed full house theatres. How to compare them? I’m not gonna try but I would like to put in a good word for some things which made me remember how to laugh as well as mourn the state of the world: Josh Azouz’s Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Tunisia, which brought this welcome boost of weirdness and deep irreverence to fraught political questions, and to Sex Education Xplorers by Mamoru Iriguchi – I still think about its idea of a post-gender ‘sex paradise’ all the time, and its triumphant silliness felt so courageous in a grey and challenging year.
Tracey Sinclair: Perhaps it’s because it’s become increasingly apparent just how the older generation (and, whelp, that now includes me) has screwed over those left to deal with the fallout of their carelessness that my favourite shows of 2021 have been about younger voices, or at least youthful experiences. At Live Theatre, Olivia Hannah’s Braids (shown in a double bill with the equally well-written Cheer Up, Slug (by Tamsin Daisy Rees) was about the isolation of being Black in the rural North East, while both Hannah Sowerby’s 10 Things to Do in a Small Cumbrian Town and Laura Lindow’s Pause (both Alphabetti) took a lighter approach to examining just how difficult it is to explore your nascent sexuality when your potential dating pool is in single figures. But perhaps most eloquent of all were actual children: the almost plot-free but theme-rich Northern Stage re-opener Free School Meals, whose comprehensive school cast – with all their realness, ambitions and fragile hopes – powerfully brought home exactly the scale of our failings.
Farah Najib: Two shows that stuck with me: Animal Farm at NYT. I was in a ‘I’ve seen too many shows this week and it’s 33 degrees outside’ exhausted, clammy stupor, and animal farm was like a bucket of cold water over the head – in the best way. The young performers left me totally gobsmacked with their passion, energy and talent. Tatty Hennessy’s adaption so brilliantly made links to today’s political climate too – just excellent. Similarly, I dragged myself out this time in the cold and wet and covid panic, to catch Little Scratch as I’m a big fan of Miriam Battye’s writing. One of those theatre trips where you count your lucky stars you managed to get in because you know you’ve borne witness to something really special. Katie Mitchell’s direction takes an incredibly precise look at how trauma seeps insidiously into the crevices of every day life.
Hailey Bachrach: I’ve been struggling to get back into the theatregoing mood, partly because my day job demanded caution that made it hard to justify popping out to everything I wanted to see. I knew in my heart of hearts, though, that it would be a musical that would make me feel excited to be in a theatre again—and so it was. As the first show that brought back that feeling, I have to go with Operation Mincemeat. It’s clever, imperfect, and such, such fun—plus, you’ll have another chance to catch it in January.
Mert Dilek: Looking back on my on-and-off experience with theatre this year feels both disorienting and rewarding. Among several striking productions, a few have haunted me with uncanny force. Lisa Dwan’s incandescent performance in Beckett’s Happy Days cast such a spell on me that I ended up seeing Trevor Nunn’s staging at the Riverside Studios three times. Similarly unforgettable was my second encounter with Robert Icke’s chilling adaptation of Oedipus, streamed live from Internationaal Theater Amsterdam in March. His watertight direction pinned me to my couch and, once again, took my breath away. More recently, Rebecca Frecknall’s sublime Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club did much the same: Eddie Redmayne’s grotesque, bejeweled rendering of ‘Money’ and Jessie Buckley’s blood-and-guts take on the titular number still vibrate in my bones. May they linger longer.
Hannah Greenstreet: I finally got to see Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at the Royal Court, having missed it in 2019. I don’t think I’ve previously seen a piece of theatre that captures the way that the internet and, particularly, Twitter, has become so enmeshed in our lives so well. Rajha Shakiry’s design, trailing messy tendrils that light up, is like a brain on the dopamine hit of a notification. Cleo and Kara slip effortlessly into performing memes, then snap back out to offer incisive and dry political critiques of the appropriation of Black culture. Lee-Jones’ writing is formally ambitious, high energy and political.
Miriam Sallon: In most every show this year, it’s been near impossible not to consider the character of ‘the pandemic’. Where some productions have excelled in spite of, others have been entirely lacklustre because of, the limitations covid imposed. Either way, there it lurks.
With that in mind, the show that affected me most was hardly my usual pick. Reunion at Sadler’s Wells was a showcase of five short works by the English National Ballet. To be honest, I felt entirely unqualified to review this, knowing only a crumb of a crumb about ballet. But I couldn’t have been more excited to leave the house, during a rain storm no less, because it was Monday 18th May, the first night that theatres were allowed to open again. When the director took centre stage, the Sadler’s crowd, usually very restrained and proper, stomped their feet, whooped, and cheered. And despite being at less than half-capacity (they had only sold every third seat in line with the new regulations) the audience’s elation filled the auditorium, and I cried a tiny bit.
The show seemed absolutely perfect to me, with beautiful, poetic choreography as well as a lot of humour and humanity. But it might just as easily have been absolutely pants. I didn’t care. I think I’d’ve watched a dog lick its privates and marked it five stars that night.
Given where we’re currently at, I consider this a very warped silver lining. Because at least there will be another first show back, and I’ve no doubt I will be just as ecstatic to see it.
Emily Davis: Two of my favourite shows this year were musicals, which is only a little bit of a surprise!
Carousel at Regents’ Park Open Air Theatre was described by certain critics as bleak and bare-bones. But to me it felt rich and visceral, every element of the production surprising me in some way, from the brass band orchestration to the ethereal choreography, to the gargantuan wooden set which up-ended the entire world of the play. It was what modernising properly means- drawing out the best parts of the original script and score, making it thoughtful and genuinely experimental, taking a blow torch to what no longer serves.
On the other end of the spectrum, Operation Mincemeat was a brand new musical from fringe company Spitlip, made on a genuine shoestring but with an extraordinary amount of brains and humour. (Southwark Playhouse really smashed it out of the park with their programming this year, from Mincemeat to The Last 5 Years to to my favourite ‘straight play’ of the year, Yellowfin) I saw the previous run of Operation Mincemeat at New Diorama in 2019 (2019!). It was a longer, more luxurious and slightly less commercial piece- I really admire how the creative team committed to ripping up a lot of their previous material and making something tighter than a ship’s hull- but what I wouldn’t give for access to that cutting room floor!
Louise Dunn: I was really struck by Institut Francais d’Ecosse’s production of Mary Stuart (Edinburgh Fringe online, August), which has been one of my favourite pieces of online theatre. Performers Pauline Prevost and Marie Colombe Lobrichon collaborated on an expansion of the existing Schiller script, taking a leaf from the 2016 Almeida production’s book and running gleefully with a play where either role could be assumed by each actor. In this version, there’s a fly on the wall feel to the actresses’ meeting beforehand, creating a culture clash between a prima donna French actor and an American ingenue who can only say “ingenue” due to learning the French script phonetically. The potential for tonal whiplash is huge, but this piece moved fluidly between comedy and drama, ramping the tension and teetering on thriller territory by the end.
Honourable mention also has to go to Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights (Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal, Oct-Nov). I’m biased in my existing love of the Kate Bush song/hate of the original book, but Rice’s production proved once again that Wuthering Heights is one of the best stories to adapt for a new medium. Wilderness ekes through the music, choreography and spectacularly sympathetic portrayal of Cathy by Lucy McCormick. Gone is Nancy’s unreliable narrator for a far more spirited guide in the form of the Yorkshire Moors herself (Nandi Bhebhe). Ian Ross’ soundtrack is so wonderful, I’m considering a petition to get it published to Spotify (I’ve already tweeted them, so if enough of us keep asking-!)
Andy Edwards: As a result of WFH and different levels of restrictions, I’ve spent a lot of this year walking around outside. Often, I’ve traced the same routes – and grown a little tired of them. Amongst this, Neil John Gibson’s With You In The Distance, was a breath of fresh air – and perspective. This gently told, one-to-one storytelling piece, took me on a circulatory route of Glasgow Green which fundamentally changed my relationship to a collection of paths I have walked hundreds of times. Whereas it used to be a chore, walking along the banks of the Clyde is now an invitation to be transported back into Gibson’s story, into late 1800s Glasgow. I return often, and think of the story I was told, of two men struggling to negotiate their traumas, desires and love for each other. It was a great piece of work that has stayed with me long after we concluded our walk around the park.