CORMAC RICHARDS REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2021
After the last couple of years it is difficult to get your head around what has happened and when. This time last year the curtains had suddenly closed again on theatres across the UK and the outlook was rather bleak. A year on theatres are struggling to stay open, having had restrictions lifted in the summer. Strange times indeed.
Having decided not to carry out my yearly review and awards last year, I am reviving them to look at the 21 shows I have reviewed in 2021.
Theatres started opening again in June; some were up and running very quickly, but others took some months before they were in a position to open safely. Social distancing and other Covid-secure measures were in place for the first few weeks/months, presenting theatres with many logistical issues and they are to be commended for doing things as well as they could.
So, what went on in the second half of the year?
Delayed from 2020, Le Navet Bete presented their show ‘400 – A Comedy’ at the Theatre Royal Plymouth – originally planned for 2020 – it was a celebration of 400 years since the Mayflower sailed to America and a celebration of the relationship between the UK and the USA over that time. With their off-the-wall style of comedy the whole didn’t completely gel, lacking a strong narrative line. It was, however, brilliant to be back in the theatre and kudos to the Theatre and the Company for getting the show onstage so quickly. The Covid measures – social distancing and mask wearing – were brilliantly handled by the theatre staff with minimal fuss – a blueprint for its time.
Following the cancellation of the whole Summer Play Festival at the Manor Pavilion in Sidmouth, hopes were high that it would make a return in 2021. Producer, Paul Taylor-Mills, took the plunge, but with some caution – instead of 12 shows over 12 weeks, there were to be 6 shows over the same period, in order to mitigate infection transmission and because of the uncertainty of everything. Hats off to east Devon Council and Theatre Manager Graham Whitlock for getting things up and running in tricky circumstances. So, the season kicked off with a thriller – Alan Ayckbourn, a Sidmouth favourite. This time it was the last part of the Norman Conquests trilogy – ‘Living Together’ – the other parts having been produced in previous years. Director, Claire Evans, knows her Ayckbourn and this was a first-rate production with a tragi/comic gem of a performance from Paul Cleveland as Reg. A great start to the season.
Thence a return to the Theatre Royal Plymouth with the return there of ‘Hairspray’ the joyfully funny and smart musical which appears to be constantly on tour. A slimmed down version in the current climate, but full of high energy and great song and dance routines. Stand out performances from Alex Bourne as Edna, Katie Brace as Tracie and Norman Pace as Wilbur.
Back to Sidmouth for Francis Durbridge’s ‘Murder With Love’. Durbridge is a fixture in the Sidmouth Summer Play Festival and does have his fans, but this was not the writer at his best. The rather one-paced production was performed on a double room set – brilliant design from Andrew Beckett – and though the performances were fine, it was fairly uninspiring fare.
More successful at Sidmouth was ‘Ding Dong’ by Marc Camoletti – a French farce. This was well directed by Sophia Murphy and featured a host of excellent performances not least from Andrew Nash as the central (devious) character and Rachel Fletcher-Hudson as the equally devious wife and not forgetting a performance of great physicality from Jonathan Ray. Great fun.
Plymouth again and the touring version of the highly successful show ‘Six’. My expectations were high. Sad to say it wasn’t for me. Yes, I could appreciate the concept and the musical artifice therein, but I was left cold. I realise I wasn’t the target audience, but I just couldn’t get anything out of it sadly. A real disappointment.
‘Grease’ at Plymouth had an unfortunate start to its week when the leading lady had a small accident just before curtain up – an opportunity for Laura-Jane Fenney. Sadly a lack of chemistry between the leads was a disappointment. Arlene Philips risked re-inventing some of the iconic choreography which wasn’t universally popular. Performances were energetic but everyone on stage was put into the shade by Peter Andre as Vic Fontaine and Teen Angel – his performance was sublime; funny, sassy, cheeky and clever. Not a great production but the stand out performance was so worth seeing.
I am a big fan of Neil Simon, no one writes dialogue quite like him, so it was great to get the chance to see ‘California Suite’ at Sidmouth. What a super production. From the bitter sweet to the farcical elements of this play it was performed with great skill and directed in exemplary manner by Anton Tweedale – he really understands the writer! The production included one of the funniest, most energetic and manic performances I have ever seen – Dan March was utterly sublime – an actor of immense skills. My first 5 stars of the year and a joyful play to sit through.
‘Spiders Web’ is not the best-known Agatha Christie play, but it’s not bad – less known as it isn’t based on any of her own books. Tightly directed by Andrew Beckett, the excellent cast made the most of the slightly creaky lines. A bravura performance from Stephanie Willson in the lead was one of many delights throughout this fun production at Sidmouth.
The finale of the Summer Play Festival at Sidmouth was ‘Sailor Beware!’ – and it was an absolute treat. Rob McWhir took this rather dusty play and spruced it up with a cast that ran at it full tilt. Daniele Coombe blasted everyone’s ears with the loudest performance of the year – it was wonderful. Great work too from James Pellow, Emily Outred, Bridget Lambert and Christopher Lyne – and also from Matthew Hartley who nailed the cheeky chappie role and an unusual highlight was the simply awesome Scottish accent from Gwithian Evans – it had hearts aflutter! WONDERFUL and worth every one of the 5 stars I gave it.
As an addition to the Summer season at Sidmouth, Paul Taylor-Mills added a musical – ‘CLUE’ based on the board game Cluedo. It was a fun production, but rather tricky to fathom the full details of the plot – which the audience were encouraged to try and detect themselves. An ok musical, but not great – the music is very ordinary and unmemorable. Performed with gusto by the cast and directed with attack by Ben Stock. Fun, but only ok.
‘NHS The Musical’ started life in the early 2000’s and has been re-vamped to take in the pandemic crisis – this at Plymouth. What started out as an interesting satirical take on current affairs ended up losing its way as plot (such as it was) was abandoned. The music was jaunty but the show overall wasn’t particularly pleasant. It would have been great if it had lasted 30 minutes at the outside, but it became self-absorbed and ill-conceived.
‘The Dresser’ by Ronald Harwood is one of the best plays about the theatre. It is a treat for performers and audience alike. The left-field casting of Julian Clary worked better than I thought it would. Matthew Kelly was unable to perform at Plymouth and the role of ‘Sir’ was brilliantly taken on by Peter Yapp – a superb performance. It was a very good production from director Terry Johnson – nothing fancy, just good solid work.
‘Romeo & Juliet’ from Birmingham Royal Ballet was also a wonderful treat. Again a very solid production with the choreography of Kenneth MacMillan. Dazzling dancing and the most delightful debut as Juliet from Miki Mizutani – paired with the equally wonderful Yasuo Atsuji as Romeo. It was a visual joy and a moving one too. A treat.
My only non-professional review in the year was at the delightful Rondo Theatre in Bath – tucked away in the City it’s a little gem of a place. Here Playing Up Theatre Company took on the surprisingly tricky adaptation of Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’ by Clive Francis. A spirited attempt which just needed a little more attention to some detail and a tad more projection. Some good work put in by a number of the performers, not least, Tim Carter in the central role.
Matthew Bourne is a master storyteller and the chance to see his version of ‘The Nutcracker’ was not to be missed. This is the most sublimely uplifting entertainment possible. I laughed, I was moved to tears and I cheered. The most perfect confection of dance and visual treats. I loved it so much I went back to see it again and I will do so again in the future. If you want to see theatre at its best, then you would do far worse than see this wondrous production.
‘9 to 5’ the film made an even bigger star of Dolly Parton than she already was. The stage version of the film just feels a bit dated and the misogynistic storyline just isn’t really that funny anymore. Maybe that’s an unpopular opinion – but it didn’t strike me as being anything special. With a cast headed by Louise Redknapp it was well performed – including video clips of Dolly herself – but left me wondering what I had missed.
And suddenly it was December and what better way to kick it off than with the stage version of ‘White Christmas’ at Plymouth – I have a soft spot for the film and wasn’t sure if this was going to be a good transfer or not. I needn’t have worried. I loved it. With some of the best song and dance routines I have seen on stage for a long time, this was funny, joyful and moving – mainly because of what happens at the end of the show. A special mention for Dan Burton who was superb and also for the scene-stealing performance of Kraig Thornber. The perfect way to start Christmas!
My first visit for some time to the Northcott Theatre in Exeter saw the second production in the year by Le Navet Bete. This time, more festive fun with ‘A Christmas Carol’. The Company was back to form with their madcap version of the Dickens’ classic – with due reverence they had the audience in stitches throughout – you just didn’t know what was coming next. Wonderful and amazing – the best show of Le Navet Bete that I have seen.
Another classic given a radically different slant was ‘OZ’ at the Tobacco Factory Theatres in Bristol based on The Wizard of Oz. Full of invention and with a socio-political underbelly, this was always fascinating and entertaining, if a little too long by the curtain. The company of five performers worked like crazy throughout. Great fun.
And to end the year, the only Pantomime I have seen. ‘Aladdin’ at Plymouth had Joe Pasquale as the headline act. Having seen the comic before, I was sure he would be good value and so it proved. With some of the trademark elements of his solo act, Pasquale had people almost literally rolling around in the aisles. A comic genius at work is something to behold. Not the most brilliant script but did the job and the support cast did well, especially Alistair So as an excellent Aladdin and David Robbins as a super dame. All done and dusted in two hours it brought the curtain down on my reviewing year with a sparkle and a lot of laughter.
CORMAC RICHARDS THEATRE AWARDS 2021
Just a bit of fun really, but these are the productions and performances that made an impact on me throughout the year.
COMEDY PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
DAN MARCH in CALIFORNIA SUITE
SET DESIGN OF THE YEAR
ANTHONY WARD – THE NUTCRACKER
DUD OF THE YEAR
NHS THE MUSICAL
THEATRE OF THE YEAR
ALL THEATRES THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
PANTOMIME OF THE YEAR
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR
ANTON TWEEDALE – CALIFORNIA SUITE
GWITHIAN EVANS – SAILOR BEWARE
EVENT OF THE YEAR
BEST NEW WRITING
MATTHEW BOURNE – CHOREOGRAPHER – THE NUTCRACKER
BEST PRODUCTION – NON-MUSICAL /PLAY
ACTRESS IN A PLAY
DANIELE COOMBE in SAILOR BEWARE
ACTOR IN A PLAY
PETER YAPP – THE DRESSER
ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
PETER ANDRE – GREASE
PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
MIKI MIZUTANI – ROMEO & JULIET
HERE’S TO 2022!
2 JANUARY 2022