Friday 30 December 2022

Top 10 Theatre of 2022

Following two years of disruption due to the pandemic, we seemed to get our theatre-going mojo back in 2022. We finally saw Sara Bareilles’ musical Waitress, a musical which was at ease with putting together the heartfelt and quirky as it was with putting together bacon and blueberry in a pie. Frantic Assembly demonstrated once again why they’re one of the most exciting theatre companies today with their stripped-back, contemporary take on Othello. Jodie Comer had an unstoppable energy in Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie. And there was a brilliant revival of Beautiful –The Carole King Musical at Leicester’s Curve, featuring the late Douglas McGrath’s first-class book, perfectly capturing the New York vibe like a Neil Simon comedy.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s our Top 10 list in alphabetical order:

1. A Strange Loop – Lyceum, New York

Audacious in its form, style and subject matter, A Strange Loop is a mighty meta musical which balances its self-irreverence and emotional intensity superbly. Like Hamilton, it’s the sort of show you want to plonk in front of detractors of musicals to show them the possibility of the form. This is a semi-autobiographical musical by a black, gay man about a black, gay man writing a musical, about a black, gay man writing a musical, and so on. Our leading man is an Usher at a popular Disney Broadway show, and Jackson scatters many gags about audiences, show business and generalised opinions on musical theatre (‘Have you seen Hamilton?’ generates eyerolls from Usher and his parents’ insistence that he ask Scott Rudin to produce A Strange Loop garners titters from a knowing audience). The show pulls no punches, and addresses uncomfortable issues with humour and pathos.

2. Billy Elliot – Curve, Leicester

This summer, Curve created a production which afforded Billy Elliot both the immense spectacle and touching intimacy it deserves. Nikolai Foster’s vision beautifully evoked a sense of community against a delicately balanced backdrop of political and emotional turmoil. The image of Billy dancing alone, dwarfed by the vast metallic tangle of the stage, was unexpectedly moving while the group numbers were rousing yet prophetic in their ominousness. The revival came at a time in history where Britain faces a similar state of economic and political crisis. It admirably demonstrated the capacity of the arts to truthfully reflect the cultural climate while transcending social, physical, and linguistic boundaries to express both individual and collective anger, grief and joy.

3. Cabaret – Kit Kat Klub at the Playhouse, London

This version of Cabaret brought to light new aspects of the musical. Rebecca Frecknall’s vision is relentless: we revel in decadence while being cowed by the undercurrent of menace. The performances were pitch-perfect and I anticipate this production will shape portrayals of these characters for some time to come. In all, one of the greatest pieces of praise I can offer is that I could see this production again and again and always find something new to enjoy or think about.

4.  Jerusalem – Apollo, London

I was 19 when I first saw Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem at the Apollo in 2011. For me, it was the play that sparked a love for going to see plays. I was lucky to get a £10 ticket that day but it didn’t surprise me to hear that people were queuing around the block and camping overnight to get tickets. Jerusalem captured a sense of urgency I hadn’t seen reflected elsewhere and hadn’t been able to articulate myself until that point. It struck a chord for me and a generation of other young audience members hungry to see it. Ian Rickson’s production returned to the Apollo this year with all the vitality and urgency it had first time round. It’s testament to the greatness of the play, so full of cultural and literary allusions, that it brought about other reference points and gained new meanings since it was first produced. By the end, the play has the audience believing in giants too.

5. Kimberly Akimbo – Booth, New York

David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori’s Kimberly Akimbo is a heart-warming, nourishing musical and a first-rate example of book and score complementing each other beautifully. Like with his play Good People (2011), Lindsay-Abaire is interested in the promises and rhetoric of the American Dream not being fully realised; characters with imperfections and major flaws but with hopes, fears and good intentions buried somewhere beneath the surface. And in the centre of the storm is Kimberly, played with such authenticity by Tony Award-winning soprano Victoria Clark. Kimberly is no ordinary teenager. Born with a disease that ages her body abnormally quickly, we hear that most people with her condition only have a life expectancy of about 17 years. We not only believe she’s 16 but her optimistic outlook and bright spark in her eyes is endearing without ever being overly sentimental. It’s destined to be the musical of the season and I’ll be rooting for it at next year’s Tony’s.

6. Life of Pi – Wyndham’s, London

Lolita Chakrabarti adapted Yann Martel’s ‘unadaptable’ novel Life of Pi for Sheffield Theatres which we saw in the West End earlier this year. Telling the story of Piscine Patel who survives a storm which capsizes the ship that his family and their zoo were on, Life of Pi is a remarkable achievement in epic storytelling. Its utter brilliance comes from how it highlights that theatre is a truly collaborative artform: from Tim Hatley’s set design to Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell’s driftwood-style puppets to Andrzej Goulding’s video design to the seven Olivier Award-winning actors who played the tiger, all helmed by Max Webster’s production. Hatley’s design cleverly reconfigures the Wyndham’s stage into more of a thrust similar to Sheffield’s Crucible. The effect is that you find yourself moving in your seat with the motion of the lifeboat. Also clever is how, just like theatre, imagination and reality sit side by side, the sterile walls of the hospital existing in the same moment as the deep blue of the ocean. It may be closing in January but a UK tour and Broadway run start in 2023.

7. Rock/Paper/Scissors – Crucible/Lyceum/Studio, Sheffield

All three plays in Chris Bush’s Rock/Paper/Scissors triptych ran in Sheffield Theatres’ three spaces simultaneously with one cast. The overall piece was a logistical coup-de-théâtre. It was also a perfect coming together of space and place in three funny, achingly profound and heartful plays about a city and its people on the cusp of change. Set in present-day Sheffield across three locations of a former scissor factory, the plays explored the various stakeholders who all have a claim on what they’d like the space to be. From a nightclub or industrial chic making hub, to flats, to carrying on as a working factory, Rock/Paper/Scissors delved into the spaces and lives that make up the past, present and future of Sheffield.

8. Spring Awakening – Almeida, London

Rupert Goold rejected much of the whimsy of the original Broadway and London productions of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical in favour of a starker exploration of the purgatory of adolescence, in which the characters are trapped within a childhood dictated by unfeeling adults. Spring Awakening may seem to be full of despair – and, to be fair, in our current political and social climate it’s difficult not to agree with such nihilistic sentiments – but the musical is not bereft of hope. In one of musical theatre’s most beautiful finales we were reminded that life continues, generations will grow, learn and prosper, and the pains endured in the pursuit of maturity are all threads in the rich tapestry of life. Yes, the plot is hard-hitting and damning, but we can all learn a thing or two about hope, change and empathy by looking to the past in remembrance of the future. This was a stunning production of a timely musical.

9. Tammy Faye – Almeida, London

Theatre lovers have whispered rumours for years about Elton John’s long-awaited Tammy Faye musical. Following the success of the recent Oscar-winning film based on the Televangelist’s life, audiences’ appetites had been well and truly whetted. The world of Tammy Faye Bakker is a marvel, and we’re encouraged to gawp and titter at the bizarre fantasy land on display, but the jokes are never mean and the action is peppered with a pathos that reminds us that these are real people and real events. John and Shears have written some cracking torch songs for their heroine, namely the Act One finale ‘Empty Hands’ and the empowering ballad ‘If You Came to See Me Cry’. Katie Brayben excelled during these moments, pouring her heart out and giving her all in a performance that is bound to garner many nominations come awards season.

10. The Piano Lesson – Ethel Barrymore, New York

One of the classiest revivals we saw this year was LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Piano Lesson (1987). One of Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of ten plays which chart the African American experience throughout the twentieth century, The Piano Lesson is set in 1936. Like in Two Trains Running which we saw in Northampton in 2019, Wilson’s dense text interweaves strands of prosaic gossip, banter, song and urban myth. But this family drama is also haunted by a spectral presence symbolic of America’s past as much as the Charles family’s. Beowulf Boritt’s set fills the stage with the Charles’ house, several floors and wooden beams go up to the roof, and an ornately carved piano dominates the living room. What makes Richardson Jackson’s production rich with texture are the superlative performances. Samuel L. Jackson as former railroad worker Doaker has an earthy quality and jovial bond with the others, but the standout performances belong to John David Washington as Doaker’s nephew Boy Willie and Michael Potts as Doaker’s brother. There’s an ease and authenticity among the cast which really sets the play alight. It concludes its limited run on 29th January, 2023 but there are rumours of a London transfer.

From Left to Right:

Billy Elliot: Jaden Shentall-Lee. Credit: Marc Brenner

A Strange Loop: Jaquel Spivey. Credit: Marc J. Franklin

Jerusalem: Mark Rylance. Credit: Simon Annand

The Piano Lesson: Samuel L. Jackson. Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Life of Pi: The Tiger and Nuwan Hugh Perera. Credit: Ellie Kurttz

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