2021 Review: The Year In Theatre

There's just one week left of 2021 and what a year it's been. Following the uncertainty and madness of 2020, we seemed to have a slightly more stable year for theatre, with them finally reopening after 5 long months in May this year and miraculously managing to stay open without any further lockdowns or restrictions happening. However, we all know what is happening at the moment with many theatres closing their doors again. The next few weeks look equally uncertain, so now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the last 12 months in theatre, and thankfully there are far more highs than lows this year.


THEATRE CAME BACK WITH A BANG



It had been far too long since theatres had been able to put on shows properly. While some had opened for outdoor shows and socially distanced performances in summer 2020 and again in November, it was all short lived. Theatres were forced to shut again in December and they didn't reopen until May this year, but when they did, they came back stronger than ever.


First with socially distanced performances before being able to play to full audiences for the first time in 17 months, there was no shortage of incredible shows to entertain us. As well as all the old favourites opening gradually (the last of which wasn't until November), we had a wealth of brand new shows that had been biding their time waiting for the day they got to play to West End audiences. After delaying their start dates multiple times, we finally got the arrival of Frozen, Back To The Future, The Drifters Girl, Moulin Rouge and Cinderella.


A series of concerts from West End Musical Celebration to The Show Must Go On really drove home how much it had all been missed, while the BBC's spectacular Musicals: The Greatest Show as well as All Star Musicals on ITV proved that it can cater to a mainstream primetime audience.


Maybe it was just me or maybe it was the fact we had gone without theatre for so long but the quality of the shows when everything re-opened seemed to be better than ever. I had never seen anything as brilliant as Anything Goes, and just when I thought I'd seen it all, something else came along to blow my tiny little mind. Maybe I'm easily pleased but I found myself appreciating everything a whole lot more this year. I discovered my tastes did change during the theatre drought and found myself liking a major long running West End show I'd never cared for before, while one of my favourites fell a bit flat for me when I went to its reopening. I vowed to never take the experience of sitting in a theatre for granted, and 7 months and over 100 trips later I'm pleased to say I never did.


THEATRE SHOWED ITS RESILIENCE



It was another tough year for theatre. The guidelines changing constantly may have been infuriating, especially when other industries seemed to get prioritised in terms of when they were able to reopen, but nothing ever stopped theatres reacting and changing plans to ensure that the show always went on.


Some major shows like The Prince of Egypt and Hairspray reopened/opened their runs with social distanced audiences until the magic date where they were allowed to play to full audiences again. When this date got pushed back, they again showed their resilience by ensuring plans were adapted sometimes at a moments notice.


Not that they should have had to do this, of course. When theatres first reopened, I felt completely safe. They were enforcing more safety measures at both socially distanced and full capacity shows than you would find on public transport and supermarkets, yet they always seemed to get the rough end of everything thanks to our wonderful Government. At least when the terrible Oliver Dowden was replaced, we knew things couldn't get any worse. Step forward Nadine Dorries who is more concerned with hedgehogs than the security and wellbeing of all that work in theatre. Perhaps if some shows adapted their content, she'd be interested? Look out for 2022 shows including Hedgers, Dear Evan Hogson and Pretty Hedgehog.


UNSUNG HEROES WERE CELEBRATED



It takes an army to put on a production and this year, a lot of the unsung heroes received recognition - though admittedly not as much as they should.


Front of House and Box Office staff deserve so much more than they receive. More people seem to be waking up to how difficult their jobs can be at the best of times, but especially in this current climate. Having to deal with angry customers all the while trying their best to fix things that are way beyond their control, it's an unenviable job and often can be thankless so it has been nice to see the work they do celebrated on social media lately, though this can never be said enough. Please always remember to be kind as you are speaking to a human being not a robot and a show being rescheduled or cancelled is as frustrating and heartbreaking for them as it is for you.


In a year where Track and Trace notifications and self-isolation rules led to the Pingdemic and recent weeks have seen around half the shows close in the West End, around the UK and on Broadway, the importance of swings and understudies has finally started to be seen for how vital they are. You will always still get people tweet their disappointment at cast members for them missing the show, but another thing this year has proved is that the world is full of arseholes (I fully believe these are the same people that wear face masks on their chin). With so many shows doing whatever they can to keep their doors open, without these swings and understudies, theatre would be impossible.


It amazes me how swings have to learn multiple tracks to perform them at the drop of a hat whenever it is needed, sometimes having to perform more than one on the same show. Their brains must be made of the most remarkable stuff. Meanwhile, I struggle to remember what I've even walked into a room for. This year has seen swings and covers perform roles they hadn't even rehearsed just to ensure the show goes on. Charlotte Jaconelli returned to Heathers for one performance on their tour last month, while John Owen-Jones returned to Les Miserables just this week to ensure the show didn't get cancelled.


If you really support theatre, you need to appreciate every single person involved in a theatre production - those on stage, those behind the scenes, the Front of House staff, those cast members whose names you know and those who you may not have expected to see. This year it has taken so much to keep shows going through the most challenging of times and I for one am thankful for every single person who has had a part in that.


NEW VOICES WERE HEARD



If the pandemic did one good thing for theatre, it's that it allowed new voices to shine through the darkness. As West End theatres sat empty while they waited for their main shows to return, it allowed the stages to be used for shows that wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to play in the West End.


Nimax theatres brought their Rising Stars festival which showcased the work of 23 producers making their West End debuts. This included the much deserved West End debut for Katy Lipsons Aria Entertainment for Cruise with Lambert Jackson and the West End debut for writer and star (and what a star he is) Jack Holden. Katy also followed this with her first West End musical and one of my favourite shows of the year - The Last Five Years. Ameena Hamid, Jamie Chapman Dixon and John-Webb Carter made their West End producing debut with Death Drop, Adam Lenson for Public Domain as well as Alex Conder and Liam Gartland for I Could Use A Drink to name but a few. A lot of these shows were absolute revelations to watch and deserving of longer runs on the stages they borrowed.


New talent continued to shine both on stage and behind the scenes with Ryan Carter upping the ante with exciting work both digitally and in person, culminating with excellent work on The Wiz, while Paul Taylor-Mills continued showcasing new work at the Turbine Theatre - the highlight of which for me was Rob Madge's phenomenal show My Son's A Queer... But What Can You Do? Two years worth of graduates got to make professional debuts in shows both in the West End and around the UK as well as Moulin Rouge casting a brand new talent to lead the show as Christian in Jamie Bogyo.


While a lot of time can seem like the same old people dominating the theatre seen, this year proved the future looks bright with some fresh, exciting new people at the helm.


THE STREAMING REVOLUTION CONTINUED



As we spent most of 2020 without physical theatre, we saw a rise in streaming productions. This continued to dominate our theatre habits for the first few months of the year, ensuring we kept up our stagey fix.


Streaming highlights this year included the brilliant In Pieces and Cruise - both of which got to transfer to a stage when theatres re-opened while Curve Leicester followed my favourite stream of 2020 Sunset Boulevard with The Color Purple. Lambert Jackson continued to bring us phenomenal online productions with BKLYN giving them a new peak in brilliance (so far).


Innovation in these streaming productions continued with the genius interactive The Secret Society of Leading Ladies and the completely live Now or Never proved what can be achieved online has no limits. The Theatre Channel continued to provide us with a brilliant new way to consume theatre with their episodic series while the barn Theatre gave us no end with their online productions this year.


Sadly, new content seemed to dry up when theatres reopened in May. This was to be expected but I hope there is still continued life for streamed productions, as there is clearly a demand for it and there is no reason it can't co-exist alongside in person theatre. The warm reception of the Broadway proshot of Come From Away this year is a testament to that as it continues to wow audiences in person around the world, while the decision to show a proshot of Diana ahead of its Broadway debut was an unexpected risk that ensures the musical can live forever now that it has closed. One of my favourite productions of the year - South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, ensured more people saw the show with streams throughout the year. If anything, that only created more excitement in the project which will be seen in London next year.


While it's true you can't beat the excitement and atmosphere of being in the room where it happens, I hope there is a place for streaming theatre to continue in the theatre and hope to see more brilliant titles in 2022.


IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS WERE HAD



Discussions of representation, inclusion and diversity in theatre have been going on for some time. While there is still a long way to go, it has been heartening to see productions actively trying to better themselves with casting.


With National Theatre announcing it was seeking neurodivergent actors for the new tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Wicked promising to have a more representative cast on their next cast change (which, true to their word, they have done) things seem to be moving in the right direction.


Don't get me wrong - it's by no means perfect and just this week conversations have been made about a certain announcement, but I can see things are moving forward so these mistakes aren't repeated as often as they have been in recent years.


THE RISE OF THE MOVIE MUSICAL



2021 was full of big budget movie musicals. it felt like we were never more than a few weeks away from the next one - mainly due to two years worth of delayed titles being crammed together.


Highlights this year including the long awaited remake of West Side Story, released just weeks after the death of Stephen Sondheim. Theatre fans seemed to be in agreement about how incredible it was. One of the films stars, Ariana DeBose, was in another movie musical this year - the amazing In The Heights which wowed audiences around the world.


We finally got the filmed version of Everybody's Talking About Jamie which allowed the whole world to fall in love with this beautiful story, and discover what a star Max Harwood is. Tick, Tick... Boom! became one of the most unexpected standouts of the year and was my personal favourite.


Overall the quality of movie musicals was incredibly high this year with most of them not taking a step wrong... and then there was Dear Evan Hansen.


THE COMMUNITY BONDED TOGETHER



While it's not always rosy and there can often be more drama off stage than there is, there is nothing like the theatre community. This year it seemed like we all came together in solidarity to appreciate how much we love the art form and how much it needs protecting. While others fail to understand the significance of theatre and why it means so much to so many of us, it's always felt reassuring to know there are others out there who feel the same.


It's been lovely to meet so many likeminded people this year both on Twitter and in person. If you've been at the receiving end of one of my excitable conversations at a show this year, I can only apologise. But it's so lovely to feel a part of a community. Thank God for Theatre Twitter... apart from when they're coming for me for my views on etiquette or Diana, of course.


IN SUMMARY



2021 has been a tough year. Just when we thought we were getting through everything, something else has come to knock us back down again.

Still, we remain.


The show must go on and the show has found a way of going on all year.

It has been 7 months since theatres first re-opened, five months since they dropped social distancing in theatres and over a month since the last West End show returned after a long closure of 20 months. There have been some incredible shows this year opening and 2022 looks equally exciting. There's been a renewed energy and purpose in some shows that have re-opened and a mutual appreciation for everybody who puts on a show and the audience.


The last couple of weeks have been pretty worrying for all of us, and with new restrictions announced in Wales and Scotland, it looks like we might be facing another setback in the next few weeks - with one major West End show already announcing it won't reopen until February.


What we know for sure is we will get through this. Even without a supportive Government, we have each other and we really can't be stopped. Theatre is everything and life without it just doesn't even worth thinking about.


While we may have some tough times again, we will get through it and the show will continue to go on.

Remember even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.


If you have put on theatre or contributed to it in some small way this year, thank you.

If you have set foot in a theatre or just watched a stream online this year, thank you as well.

Theatre needs our continued love and support to ensure it is there to thrive for generations to come.


If you got through this essay that makes Les Mis look like a speedy one act show, you're a legend. Thank you all for reading anything I've had to say this year - review or rant. Thank you for your interactions online and in person, your time and your support.

Let's hope we all have a better and more stable 2022.


Merry Christmas to you all and a Happy New Year