Written by Daz Gale
We've come to the end of another year and what a year it’s been for theatre. There were some good aspects and some bad but one thing was for sure - it was never boring. With sometimes as much drama off stage as there was on, here's a recap of the year in theatre:
BACK TO NORMAL?
2022 was the first year since 2019 where theatres stayed open for a solid 12 months. After the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 forced them to close, we got a full year of theatre for the first time in 3 years.
With theatres operating at full capacity and face masks no longer mandatory, it was easy to feel like things were returning back to normal. However, Covid was still lurking around though and it still impacted shows with cast sickness and even the odd outbreak at productions forcing shows to cancel performances - sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week. Through all the difficulties, they always came out through the other side though and proved their resilience by hiring more swings (in some cases) to cover all eventualities.
The phrase “The show must go on” continued to prove accurate throughout the year though in some cases, you did worry that was at the expense of people in the industry with performers and creatives having so much expected thrown at them in this ever-changing climate. Final performances from cast members were taken with a pinch of salt as actors returned to their previous shows at a moments notice, proving another aspect of their talent by effortlessly remembering the entire role months later. This seemed to be an issue in Victoria more than anywhere else with cast members at Hamilton, Heathers and Wicked all returning after leaving.
The theatre fans calendar was also busier than ever with the return of West End Flea Market and the first ever West End Musical Con joining events like the Olivier Awards and West End LIVE in a year that was full of fun activities in London.
THE WEST END WAS CHANGING
As happens every year, some old favourites closed their doors in the West End. This year we lost The Prince of Egypt, Cinderella (more on that later) and Dear Evan Hansen while we barely get one week into 2023 without 3 major players closing their doors for the last time (Come From Away, Mary Poppins and Get Up, Stand Up). That is the nature of the industry though with Broadway experiencing even more massive closures.
When one door closes, another opens and that did lead to some great new shows opening this year. In most cases though, these were limited runs – a trend we are seeing a lot more of, with quite a few theatres next year choosing to go for strictly limited runs as opposed to open-ended ones. This can be attributed to the uncertainty of the climate and the cost of living crisis but it does mean a lot of shows who may not have had the opportunity to play such a large space get a West End run, even if it is only or a limited time.
This was one aspect of the pandemic I hoped would continue. Nimax had their Rising Stars festival which allowed new works to play in the West End and to an extent this did continue throughout the year. One of 2021’s theatrical highlights Cruise returned for a bigger West End run, Bonnie & Clyde got its first West End outing ahead of another limited run next year as did Rob Madge with their amazing show My Son’s A Queer (But What Can You Do?). The long running shows like Phantom and Les Mis are still there, joined by newer West End staples like Back To The Future and Pretty Woman but seeing Shaftesbury Avenue change multiple times throughout the year did feel a bit more exciting in terms of the opportunity it offers more shows.
The West End also got bigger with the arrival of a brand new theatre in @sohoplace. Beautiful inside and out, completely accessible with flawless sightlines from every seat, this was a welcome arrival for the first new build West End theatre in 50 years.
THE RISE OF REGIONAL
Regional theatre can sometimes get an unfair name when compared to what is happening in the West End. Many have known for some time that regional theatre can be among the best in the country, and this year more people seemed to discover that thanks to the incredible programming at many of these theatres.
I personally made it my mission to visit as many different theatres as possible around the country this year to see what they had to offer and I’m glad I did as this led to some of my favourite days this year seeing some of the very best shows.
Curve Leicester are known as one of the very best for a reason and their programming this year was no exception with Billy Elliot and The Wizard Of Oz blowing me away thanks to their high production value. Chichester Festival Theatre have a great track record when it comes to West End transfers and they struck gold again this year with the revival of Crazy For You led by Charlie Stemp. Winning rave reviews (including one from me), London audiences will get to experience this wonderful show for themselves next year. Meanwhile, I’m excited to see what Chichester have to offer up themselves next year. Another highlight came from the consistently brilliant Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester who this year treated audiences to Sondheim’s Passion as well as a well received production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
There were some big tours of the UK and Ireland this year as well, giving audiences up and down the country the opportunity to see some top class theatre. This includes UK premieres and world premieres with The Cher Show and The Osmonds wowing and surprising through 100s of performances this year. The Color Purple had an all too brief trip around the UK in a truly mesmerising production, while Sister Act followed a West End run with an extensive tour, continuing into 2023.
London also proved it’s not just the major West End theatres that can put on the best shows with Southwark Playhouse in particular having a storming year with a versatile variety of shows. Other London theatres such as Bush Hall, The Hope Theatre Wilton’s Music hall proved you can go to any corner of London and be greeted with some of the very best theatre this vibrant city has to offer. While there are comments about new work not being used on the main space of The Other Palace, the studio space was home to some exciting new works as was The Turbine Theatre with shows like Millennials and But I’m A Cheerleader giving us reason to be excited for the future.
ONE NIGHT ONLY
2022 saw a rise in one off concerts (that were so popular, a second night was regularly added). This summer saw the fantastic season of concerts from the London Musical Theatre Orchestra reviving Chess and Kinky Boots as well as admirably giving new musical Treason its West End premiere. Lambert Jackson productions continued to bring some fantastic concerts to the Palladium with The Secret Garden and Camelot a tease of what they are bringing there next year.
While some may question the value of these one night concerts, the success of January’s Bonnie & Clyde concert led to the West End run being announced. I for one am hoping to see more of these next year – can we get Memphis among the next run of them?
Of course, concerts also give an opportunity for the very best performers from the West End and Broadway to bless audiences with their God given talents and we had some treats this year. Fourth Wall Live continued to change the game, putting on phenomenal shows from Jeremy Jordan (who graced British audiences with his presence 3 times this year), Keala Settle, Jessica Vosk and a truly legendary concert from Audra McDonald.
Perhaps, the greatest concert of the year and the most special for so many was the Stephen Sondheim tribute concert 'Old Friends' that saw icons from the West End and Broadway gather to pay tribute to the legend in an emotional night none of us are likely to ever forget.
THE PROBLEMS WERE STILL THERE
There were still issues surrounding theatre this year, particularly with the lack of respect the industry gets. This wasn’t helped with the fact our culture secretary was Nadine Dorries – the most uncultured person there is. Her lack of knowledge or care for the Arts was clear to see and her support was pretty much non-existent. So much so, the one time she removed her head from Boris Johnsons’ arse to go to the theatre (a trip to Cabaret) she ended up blocking the cast on Twitter immediately after. It just gets worse with these Culture secretaries, doesn’t it?
One particular sore point this year was the announcement of the Arts Council funding which battered and threatened many theatres who lost most, or in some cases ALL, of their funding. Seeing these incredible theatres who work tirelessly to bring joy to so many people have their future at risk after managing to come out of the other side of a pandemic was just one kick in the teeth too many and a real dark day for theatre – one whose repercussions are still being felt months later, and leading to an uncertain 2023 for some theatres and organisations.
Sadly, the problems came from inside the industry too with a lack of respect shown to colleagues and employees. The best example of this was of course Bad Lord Lloyd Webber who continued his torment of the talented cast who remarkably made Cinderella almost watchable (when you take away every other element obviously) by telling them the show was closing mere minutes before the press ran with it and then to add insult to it by referring to the show as a "costly mistake" in a speech on the closing night he didn't turn up to. In any industry, people deserve to be treated with respect. Unleashing Cats on the world is no excuse not to afford people that same courtesy.
It’s not just billionaire Lords who caused problems this year. This post is a general review of theatre in 2022 and not my personal account, but it would be remiss of me not to comment on some of the in-fighting I have seen (and been at the receiving end of) from other people in the industry. I say time and time again, the stagey community is absolutely wonderful and I adore being a part of it. We should be lifting each other up, not attempting to get one up on each other or tearing the other down. Sadly, that has not been the case throughout the year – I am not naming names, but it isn’t down to just one person either. This is a change I would love to see in 2023.
THERE IS STILL WORK TO BE DONE
The cost of living crisis sometimes led to some questionable and out of touch pricing strategies when it came to shows with many people being priced out of seeing them. There are always bargains to be had and offers on various sites, but some shows charging multiple hundreds of pounds for a show felt extortionate. This isn't always the case though and a special mention should go to producer David Pugh for his commitment for affordable and accessible shows in every production he does.
The conversations around inclusivity and diversity continued to be had with positive changes being made to prevent these mistakes from happening over and over again. There is still a long way to go, as proved by the recent panto of Aladdin, but the conversations are still being had and people are rightly being vocal when they are seeing this isn’t being done correctly.
My message to those who do continue to speak out about this as and when it continues to happen, keep fighting the good fight – we are all with you!
One thing that has been fantastic to see is the increase in accessible and relaxed performances - while some shows have been resistant to incorporate these for multiple reasons, more and more are doing this now. I hope to see more of this in 2023 so theatre becomes a safe and welcome place for everyone.
Theatre is nothing if not resilient. 2020 was hard, near on impossible. 2021 was incredibly difficult. 2022 was challenging in multiple respects, but we came through it – by the skin of our teeth sometimes, but we made it.
Theatre in itself is a vital commodity and the people who work in it are absolute stars. From the performers on the stage, to the creatives who are responsible for creating the show, to the theatre staff who keep everything ticking smoothly, to the PRs who tirelessly promote the shows through difficult circumstances to the audiences who champion theatre and love consuming it as much as they can. Everybody plays a part and if you have made theatre, been to the theatre or just loved theatre this year, you have contributed to that survival and should be commended for that.
To quote Wicked “we have been through a frightening time, and there will be other times, and other things that frighten us”. That feels apt for 2022 and the last few years in general. It has been full of uncertainty, heartache and disappointment but also joy. New writers and new works have been able to be seen, the general quality of theatre has been outstanding and the future is looking incredibly bright and exciting. My hope is that we can leave some of the more troubling and less than ideal circumstances behind this year and go on to enjoy a happy, healthy and thriving 2023 in ourselves and this gorgeous world that is the theatre.
I hope everybody has a very Happy New Year, and I’ll see you all in 2023.