The best theater of 2021, from Cabaret to small scratch



fter a desperately difficult period of closure, the theater is making a comeback in the capital. From fully sung and fully danced musicals to clever adaptations, we’ve picked our best shows of 2021 …

Cabaret at Kit Kat Club, Playhouse

Cabaret … just wow

/ Marc Brenner

Wow. Rebecca Frecknall’s astonishing cover of Kander and Ebb’s musical portrait of interwar Berlin is a breathtaking theatrical happening. The Playhouse Theater is transformed by designer Tom Scutt into a feverish Weimar-era nightclub dream, where Jessie Buckley sings her heart out as convict Sally Bowles, and Eddie Redmayne is an emcee. tortured and twisted. The flowing dance troupe and female-led orchestra are impeccable, and the show is somehow true to its 1929 setting and 1968 design, as well as an exciting modernity. Keeping a nice balance between spectacle and grain, decadence and despair, Frecknall turns out to be one of our best directors. Just wow. Nick curtis

Best of Enemies, Young Vic

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best of Enemies

/ Handout

Here, the incomparable James Graham traces the origin of our current cultural wars in the live televised debates between the patrician, liberal Gore Vidal and Archconservative William F Buckley Jr at the Republican and Democratic conferences of 1968. In the dynamic production and wildly ambitious Jeremy Herrin, charismatic black actor David Harewood plays the all-white Buckley as if he’s wrestling with a python, while Charles Edwards is silky-smooth as Vidal. The show explores notions of empathy, artifice, and identity with the fluidity we expect from Graham. If the parallels between yesterday and today sometimes seem obvious, it is probably contemporary reality that is in question. NC

Anything goes, Barbican

Sutton Foster shone in Anything Goes

/ Pennsylvania

As vibrant as helium, this elegant Cole Porter musical ensemble on a 1930s ocean liner was the first full-scale London production to open without social distancing – and drew some 1,100 people to applaud on opening night. . Despite rock-solid turns from Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal, Gary Wilmot and a trio of young leaders, the show was completely stolen by Sutton Foster as morally flexible nightclub singer Reno Sweeney. After winning a Tony in the role ten years ago, Foster traveled to London to replace injured Megan Mullally and gave us a powerful demonstration of Broadway show and tap dancing. Delicious. NC

2.22 A Ghost Story, Noel Coward (now at Gielgud with a new cast)

Lily Allen’s stage debut was a triumph

/ Helene murray

Would it be terrible? Lily Allen’s casting in her debut on stage created a media buzz and public interest in this chill, not to mention the prospect of glorious disaster. In the end, the Smile singer proved to be a capricious, magnetic, and theatrical presence, and Danny Robins’ script turned out to be just as surprising. Set in a decidedly modern London of mobile phones, echoes of Amazon and relentless gentrification, it has breathed new life into the near-dead genre of theatrical ghost story. Sharp gags and real scares sprinkled a play with clever points to make about society and beliefs. The final twist was superlatively well done. NC

Constellations, Vaudeville

Sheila Atim was a star in Constellations

/ Marc Brenner

A smart man, Michael Longhurst. With the Donmar closed for renovation and London audiences potentially nervous about long plays and toilet lines, he edited a West End series of Nick Payne’s 70-minute drama about multiple futures with four actors different headlines appealing to different demographics. Various permutations (young / old, straight / gay, black / white, funny / serious) brought out different nuances in the storyline. To compare the performances would be odious: I will simply say that Sheila Atim has once again proved to be a real star. Where you can see other actors playing, she is always brilliantly “is.” NC

The tragedy of Macbeth, Almeida

James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan as the Macbeths

/ Marc Brenner

Only Yaël Farber, whose productions are full of Sturm and Drang, could make Shakespeare’s liveliest play last more than three hours. Still, the minutes flew by, thanks to a pressing and pressing sense of fate and the luminous performance of Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth. During her London debut and second stage role, the four-time Oscar nominee stood out as a woman with strong and subtle agency in a gruff, masculine world. Clever script edits made it a tragedy that happened to a couple, not just James McArdle’s muscular Macbeth. The lighting and scenography were perfectly suited to Farber’s vision. NC

Arise, Arise, Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue

Quite dazzling: Arinzé Kene as Bob Marley

/ Craig sugden

Raw, ready, and an imperfect mix of jukebox and biographical musical, this celebration of Bob Marley’s life and music shouldn’t work: but it does triumphantly, corusingly. Part of the reason is the unrivaled earworm songs, which give Marley’s short life romantic and political form. And that’s in part thanks to Arinzé Kene, utterly dazzling as Marley (as well as great publicity for the wig glue he uses) and Gabrielle Brooks, his vocal and emotional equal as a woman who Rita has been suffering for a long time. Clint Dyer’s production is simply staged, letting the music and the extraordinary story speak: absolutely right. NC

Hamlet, Royal Windsor Theater

Ian McKellen played Hamlet in a blind production

/ Getty Images

You don’t expect a revolution in Windsor; but this colorblind production of age, gender and color starring Ian McKellen, 82, in a role he last played 50 years before, was groundbreaking. A sensation in every way, it was a conscious exercise of the star’s power to revive live theater, as well as a fascinating exploration of age, artifice, and theatrical suspension of disbelief. Above all, he allowed the audience to see and hear our best classical actor in a vigorous, sonorous and spiritual form. Unforgettable. NC

small scratch, Hampstead Theater

Rebecca Watson’s novel has become a mesmerizing performance piece

/ Robert day

This theatrical adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s debut novel was the most mesmerizing thing I’ve seen all year. Taking us through 24 hours in the mind of a young woman doing a mundane office job, also trying to cope with the aftermath of a sexual assault, it was performed by a perfectly timed cast of four. Adapted by Miriam Battye and directed by Katie Mitchell, the production made the whirlwind of her thoughts almost sound like a symphony. Everyone I spoke to who saw it was left spellbound in the same way. Jessie thompson

Oleanna, Theater of the Arts

Lucy Bailey’s production of Oleanna was exceptional

/ Photograph by Nobby Clark

Handle with care, I thought: David Mamet’s notoriously controversial 1992 play about a college student accusing a teacher of sexual assault had the potential to feel a bit trolled in a post-MeToo landscape. But Lucy Bailey’s clever, deliciously gnarled revival leaned confidently into every complicated crevice in the storyline, delivering an exhilarating night of theater that I could have debated and dissected for hours. As teacher John and student Carol, Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy gave masterclass performances, lobbing the balance of power between them as if they were a hand grenade. JT

The shark is broken, Theater of the ambassadors

You didn’t have to be a super Jaws fan to love The Shark is Broken

/ Getty Images

I didn’t expect to fall for Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s play about the making of the classic blockbuster Jaws, a movie I’ve never even seen in full, but I fell for it. This three-handed movie, in which Shaw plays his own father Robert (Quint in the film), is an impeccably constructed 90-minute film that takes us behind the scenes of the film’s troubled set. Full of brilliant lines, it’s incredibly funny but also deceptively powerful. It’s catnip for moviegoers, but at its heart is a touching tribute to fathers and sons. Shaw’s performance is both weird and inescapable – and the show has been extended until February, so there’s still a chance to catch it (no pun intended). JT

The Normal Heart, National Theater

The normal heart was a reminder of the power of the theater

/ Helene maybanks

Nothing like a huge auditorium filled with sobbing people to remind you of the power of the theater. This beautifully performed and sensitively staged cover of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play on how the LGBTQ community coped with the HIV / AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York City felt good in every way. view. Dominic Cooke’s production, performed under a flame that flickered above the cast throughout the show, had a superb lead performance from Ben Daniels as activist Ned Weeks (a stand-in for the shameless combative Kramer him -same). But it was the company as a whole that made it special, giving a sense of the importance of telling this story – and making us all feel like we are part of it too.. JT

Old Bridge, Bush Theater

Old Bridge announced Igor Memic as a talent to watch

/ Marc Brenner

Epic in scope, romantic in sensitivity and emotionally charged, Igor Memic’s first play marked him as a serious talent to watch. Staged at the Bush Theater after winning the Papatango Prize, it follows a group of young and beautiful friends whose futures are torn by the Bosnian war of the 1990s. Directed with subtle naturalism by Selma Dimitrijevic, it offered a a living reminder of a forgotten European conflict, told in a way that seemed sincere and human. JT

J’Ouvert, Harold Pinter Theater

J’Ouvert by Yasmin Joseph was a night of transcendent theater

/ Helene murray

In June, I didn’t think it would be much fun to be in a masked theater in the socially remote West End. Boy, did J’Overt prove me wrong. Yasmin Joseph’s play about a group of friends at the Notting Hill Carnival reminded me of how exciting and immediate live theater can be, and totally lifted the clouds. Its script was smart, fresh, and funny, and Rebekah Murrell’s high-energy production was impossible not to love. The brilliant actors were having so much fun that they took us with them. It was my first time going to a theater full of people bound by joy rather than nervousness – a transcendent evening that really marked me. JT


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