2020 is over in a few days - the year that seemed to go on forever and changed the world will go do down in history. But can we really celebrate what it did to theatre this year? After all, this is the same year which forced theatres up and down the country to close their doors not once, not twice bit three heartbreaking times.
While it has been incredibly tough, the arts have picked themselves up time and time again, testing the limits of creativity and ensuring one key message - The Show Must Go On!
With that in mind, here are 10 stagey highlights from the last 12 months. While usually it would solely be based on shows, this is no normal year and so this post is celebrating all things remotely stagey:
The new world brought with it new ways to enjoy our favourite things. It was no longer possible to go to a concert so the shows went online, with a thankfully endless supply of live and pre-recorded concerts from so many of your stagey favourites.
From the Leave A Light On series to several concert series at The Theatre Cafe, QuickFantastic's brillaint Kings of Broadway concert, Tonight At The London Coliseum to performers live-streaming concerts from their living room. These regular concerts gave us a chance to immerse ourselves in the talent of many West End legends and gave them the chance to do what they were born to do - perform.
Broadway had their fair share of online concerts too with the incredible Stephen Sondheim celebration Take Me To The World and Seth Rudetsky gathering some of the greatest names on the other side of the Atlantic for his weekly concert series.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
The go-to show in this new social distanced world was Jason Robert Brown's classic The Last Five Years. Several iterations have been performed this year including a sold out season at the stunning Minack Theatre in Cornwall and a virtual production from Lauren Samuels and Danny Becker.
For me, the definitive production has to be this years version at Southwark Playhouse, Enjoying two runs at the off-West End venue this year - one before theatres had to close in March and one inbetween lockdowns, the production breathed new life into the show with inventive staging and flawless performances from its stars Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch. Luckily for us, this amazing production has been filmed and streamed for many more to enjoy. If you missed it, there are more chances to catch it in the New Year on stream.theatre
THE SHOWS MUST GO ONLINE
It's fair to say that theatres being forced to close their doors could not be seen as a positive in any shape or form. However, one silver lining was discovering a whole host of filmed theatre online. Services like BroadwayHD thrived while new websites were launched to cope with the changing demand including thespie.com and https://stream.theatre.
One series that appealed to the masses was The Shows Must Go On which began as a celebration of Andrew Lloyd Webber, showing one of his shows every week before moving on to different titles such as the live NBC musicals. Still going to this day, more recent titles have included Kinky Boots and 42nd Street.So many of us got into the routine of waiting for 7pm each Friday to watch the premiere of that weeks title "live" - for me, it made up for the fact I couldn't sit in a theatre. I was still able to discover new shows I may not have ordinarily given the time of day to. It even did the impossible by making me not completely hate a production of Cats.
It wasn't just The Shows Must Go On. National Theatre provided some incredible content with their At Home series with titles such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Small Island and A Midsummer Nights Dream. This month many of us have enjoyed Curve Leicester's phenomenal and groundbreaking production of Sunset Boulevard, and who could forget the biggest online stream of the year in the shape of Hamilton which launched on Disney+ 15 months earlier than its planned cinema release. Proof that something good could come from this terrible year!
OPEN AIR THEATRE
The first of 2020's Lockdown trilogy came to an end and with it came the news that performances could resume albeit outdoors. Regent's Park Open Air Theatre had already postponed their entire 2020 schedule to next yeat biut wasted no time in coming up with a last minute brilliant alternative in the shape of a concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar. With a cast including Tyrone Huntley and Declan Bennett returning to the roles of Judas and Jesus, this was a must-see production which sold out its entire run in no time at all and proved there was still a massive appetite for live theatre - as if we didn't know.
Other creatives up and down the country followed suit, whether they had a suitable space or not. The Minack Theatre in Cornwall announced a summer season, The Barn Theatre in Cirencester moved outside for their amazing BarnFest, a new festival fittingly titled The New Normal took place in London while a venue in Vauxhall made use of its exterior to create the brilliant Garden Theatre, playing host to shows including Fanny & Stella and Pippin.
Where this was the only option for theatre at the time, theatre took place in whatever way it could and gave so many of us a much needed dose of escapism.
To say this year was pretty miserable would be a serious understatement. It's fair to say we all needed a laugh - so thank God for social media. Unable to perform to a live audience, several brilliant performers took to Twitter and other platforms to make their audience laugh and give them some light in a serious dark time.
One name that immediately comes to mind is Rob Madge. His Twitter is full of hilarious little videos that brought joy to so many throughout the year. Another is David Breeds - the Dear Evan Hansen cast member entertained many with his wacky sense of humour while we were all going to a little crazy during the first lockdown. Fellow David, David Hunter has naturally funny bones - from challenging Waitress co-star Lucie Jones in Waitrose to hilariously editing an advert for their joint concert, give him his own one-man show.
As many will attest, one of, if not THE funniest stagey person of the year has to be the brilliant Oscar Conlon-Morrey. The man quite simply oozes funny (He should probably get that seen to). From stealing scenes in the online stream of First Date to, erm, stealing scenes in Cinderella at the Turbine Theatre, he also kept us all going from increasingly hilarious online videos. His pièce de résistance is surely his brilliant message of
'"We'll Be Back". Have a look for yourself:
The first indoor theatre to re-open after lockdown was the new Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park. Opening with a delayed production of Sleepless: A New Musical based on the classic movie Sleepless In Seattle, the show starred Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuinness and took me, and many others, by surprise for what a brilliant piece of theatre it was. Maybe it was the fact we had all been starved if theatre for so long that even the not so good shows seemed incredible in comparison. Either way, I took myself back for a repeat visit immediately.
The venue had made it clear it was operating at loss but was re-opening to prove a point in how safe theatres could be. And boy did they. The safety measures in place were second to none with social distancing, compulsory mask wearing and temperature checks setting what would be the norm for other theatreds when they re-opened in weeks and months to come.
A lot has happened since Sleepless opened and closed a few months ago, but it was an important milestone in this turbulent year and deserves to be acknowledged for the positive mssaage it brought out there. It might have fallen on deaf ears when it comes to the Government who still see the arts as inferior to sports but at least it shouted about the importance of theatre to those with common sense.
Millions of us being trapped indoors gave new talent the chance to break out to a new audience. In The Wings gave us two series crammed with 10 different brand new musicals that were unable to have their premieres due to theatres closing. Shows like Millennials, Plan Bea and The Wicker Husband were showcased to an audience of people who might not have otherwise been aware of it. All 10 episodes are still available to view here.
The Barn Theatre also showcased British talent in their The Barn Presents series. Dominic Powell, Gus Gowland, Dan & Laura Curtis, Elliot Davis and Annabel Mutale Reed were some of the names who showcased their musical talents with a cast of West End performers. The full series is available to view on their Youtube Channel.
A new musical was premiered in concert form with Catfish from Willy Mukendi and Joseph Purdue. With a sell-out concert at the Turbine Theatre and two online streams, this is one to watch for the future.
West End star David Hunter teamed up with songwriter Caroline Kay to give us one of the theatre highlights of the year in the form of musical short The Space Between. Generating thousands of views and streams for the cast recording, this is a show I would love to see expanded.
LAMBERT JACKSON PRODUCTIONS
One name that has become prominent in theatre this year is Lambert Jackson Productions. Run by Collabro star Jamie Lambert alongside Elizabeth Jackson, the pair have come up with a series of programming online and on stage that has kept many of us sane through the year.
Kicking off with their phenomenal Leave A Light On series which ran for 10 weeks and featured 72 artists all of an amazing calibre. From there they created a host of online streams such as The Last Five Years, First Date, [title of show] and concerts from David Hunter & Lucie Jones, Nicole Raquel Dennis & Sam Tutty and Collabro.
Their biggest moment came from the triumph that was Songs For A New World. Premiering as an online stream, the incredible show took on a life of its own, moving to the London Palladium for two performances and is due to play a season at the Vaudeville Theatre from February 2021.
Few things have gotten me as excited this year than another show announcement from LJProds. Their shows are varied in theme but are always consistently incredible - with brilliant production values and a stellar cast. I can't wait to see what they bring to the table in 2021.
COMMUNITY AND CHARITY
The pandemic has cost many people this year their livelihoods. Having to face digs about how viable they are and re-training in Cyber, the sense of community this year grew stronger than ever. Performers, creatives, crew and fans bounded together to support each other through this crisis and help out in any way we could.
Charities such as Acting For Others garneered a lot more attention as well and endeavoured to support in whichever small way would help. Theatre Support Fund's 'The Show Must Go On' merchandise was a massive success raising hundreds of thousands of pounds, and did anybody else feel a sense of joy when they came across a stranger wearing any of the merchandise in public? Suddenly, stranger became friends due to common interests this year with a simple line such as "I love your t-shirt". Seeing somebody wear one out always brought a smile to my face.
Theatre legends such as Andrew Lloyd Webber put their money where their mouth was, investing in ways to keep theatres going with pilot schemes at the Palladium and even volunteering for a vaccine trial. Meanwhile Cameron Mackintosh continued to exist.
The theatre community also came together to protest the awful way the arts have been neglected from the Government - but there was more than just the pandemic to get behind this year. Nicole Raquel Dennis and Ryan Carter created a concert in support of the Black Lives Matter movement called Turn Up! Incredibly moving, the show was full of stunning and emotional performances which not only raised a lot of money for charity, it also raised awareness of such an important subject. Another highlight was the Hello Harry concert - an unlikely event in aid of Harry Gabriel who runs the stage door at the Shaftesbury Theatre - a rare bit of positivity and joy this year.
THE LIGHTS RETURNING TO THE WEST END
It was a long time coming but the lights returned to Shaftesbury Avenue and the West End as more and more theatres announced re-opening plans. Nimax Theatres announced shows at all six of their West End venues with The Play That Goes Wrong and Everybody's Talking About Jamie returning to socially distanced audiences and Six transferring to the Lyric Theatre.
The annual panto at the Palladium was allowed to go ahead as Pantoland celebrated the best in the season with an all star cast. Most excitingly of all, Les Miserables returned to the West End after 9 long months for a socially distanced encore season of its all star concert. Announced with an incredible performance alongside Mary Poppins and The Phantom of the Opera on Britain's Got Talent, the song ended with a lyric change of "One show more" which gave goosebumps to every single theatre fan in the country. It truly was a special moment.
We all know what happened next. All of the progress and hope we all had, all of the joy we felt at seeing theatres bursting with life again all vanished in the click of a fingers as the Government placed areas of the country including London in Tier 3 and later Tier 4. These shows shut their doors again, for the third time this year - some after just one day of performances. Truly heartbreaking and yet another devastating blow for theatre in what has been such a tough year.
Regular readers of this website will know I don't like to dwell on the negative (Lord knows if I did this would be a much lomger post) and instead focus on the positive aspects, as few and far between as they may be. Seeing theatres close yet again truly was soul destroying but let's not forget for one brief, joyful moment theatres were open yet again. We got through it once and we'll get through it again. This time at least all of the safety measures are in place so as soon as the Government give it the go ahead, theatres will be back faster than you can say "Boris Johnson is a..."
The biggest highlight of the year for theatre is its resilience. Faced with hardship after hardship, challenge after challenge, shambles after shambles, it is still standing. Theatre has adapted and, to quote a long-running musical has "been changed for good".
Theatres were told to close back in March so they did... and the show moved online. Streams, concerts, Cameos, you name it, they did it. Anything to keep theatre alive.
Theatres were told they could resume performances... oudoors so they did. If they didnt have an outfoor space, they came up with a way to make it work even if it was in the garden of a pub!
Theatres were told indoor performances could resume with safety measures - they did it and ensured you felt safer than you would if you were at a supermarket,
Lockdowns and Tiers changed constantly - they adapted.
A show due to take place with an audience was told they couldn't have one... so they fimed an online stream instead.
Big indoor theatres days away from re-opening were told had to reduce capacity - they did, reluctantly and to the annoyance of those who had tickets cancelled, but they adapted.
What I'm trying to say is nothing phased theatres this year. While it seemed impossible at times and like there was no light at the end of the tunnel, in some shape or form creatives ensured the show will go on, testing the very limits of creativity in new and unexpected ways nobody could ever have predicted. There was always some form of theatre though to keep us going through the year.
I won't sugarcoat it - it has been an awful year. Shows have had to close without a chance to say goodbye, performers have struggled to pay the rent - all the while facing digs from an uncaring government on how little their industry means to them. Even through all of this, we have come through it. This latest knockback may be hard for many of us to get through but we will get through it - and if this year has proved anything, we will get through it stronger than ever before.
I want to take the opportunity to thank every single person that has contributed anything to theatre and the Arts this year, Whether you have performed in a show, written a show, filmed it, organised it, found a venue for it, posted on your social media, done PR for it, managed the sound or lighting while a show was filmed, did the choreography created a new streaming website, posted on YouTube - literally anything. If you are in some small part responsible for all of the amazing content we have all feasted on this year, you have my eternal thanks. Thank you for in some small way helping me and so many others survive this unprecedented year. You are the reason the community and industry are so incredible and, indeed, so viable - and you are the reason we will get through this and move on to bigger and better things in the years to come.
If you are still reading - congratulations for getting to the end of the post and to the end of the year. Thank you everyone who has interacted with me on social media or read any of these posts through the first year of All That Dazzles.
Let's hope 2021 is a much Happier New Year for us all.