That was the year that was. William Russell.

2021 was a difficult year for the theatre in London, especially for the long running or new big musicals as the chances of someone in the cast or crew going down with Covid were more than good. The fringe, where if social distancing was not required,fared rather better as casts are almost always small. For me the year ended on a high note with Tamsin Greig in Peggy for You by Alan Plater at the Hampstead Theatre. It isn’t a great play, but Peggy Ramsay was one of the great dragon ladies of the British theatre, an agent who set the careers of the likes of Joe Orton on their way and was – by all accounts – impossible but dedicated. Greig was a delight, a ray of light in the darkness.
Of the big musicals which opened and closed, or shut down temporarily, I enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cinderella which was beautifully staged, and performed, but was bored by Frozen in the renovated Drury Lane, although the sets were lovely. Anything Goes at the Barbican was everything that musical comedy should be with splendid performances from Robert Lindsay on top comic form and the Broadway star Sutton Foster dancing and singing her heart out as the evangelist Reno Sweeney,a send up of the now forgotten Amy Semple McPherson.
Janie Dee delivered a sparkling performance as a film star ever so slightly on the skids in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Charing Cross Theatre and Isobel McArthur’s Pride & Prejudice at the Criterion was a hoot from start to finish. It is still struggling on but times are hard.
Linda Marlow came up with an amazing one woman show at Hoxton Hall. She got herself on the trapeze which for a woman of her years is a bit like climbing Everest. It was a moment not to forget.
Cush Jumbo as a Hamlet for our times at the Young Vic was quite simply stunning and tops my list of performances of the year. Dave Harewood also appeared there in James Graham’s Best of Enemies about the television warfare between W F Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democrat conventions of the year and comes next. It was a case of colour blind casting which worked simply because Harewood is such a fine actor that one forgot this could not possibly be Buckley one was watching. In the woke world casting is becoming an issue and one on which like the angels I fear to tread. But if it works within the context of the play there is no problem – and here it did. The play also had a lot to say about how television has affected the political process – damaged it even.
Of the other big musicals Back to the Future was a perfectly serviceable rendering of the film with a breathtaking flying car which soared over the stalls. It has been done before but this was a particularly good flight. The RSC managed to return to the Barbican with a witty staging of Comedy of Errors and of the Streamed Theatre pieces Ben Brown’s A Splinter of Ice, which also went on tour and came in to town to Jermyn Street, about the meeting between Graham Greene and Kim Philby in Moscow was possibly the best. The battle of wits Oliver Ford Davies as Greene and Stephen Boxer was beautifully done. Also streamed Adrian Lukas delivered a terrific performance in Being Mr Wickham.
Of the fringe theatres the Park and Southwark struggled on, and the tiny Brockley Jack came up with a first rate Christmas treat in Ross McGregor’s Kindred Spirits, while Jermyn Street gave us Sian Philips in Beckett, a perfect staging of Alan Ayckbourne’s Relatively Speaking – which is not all that easy to achieve these days and revived the show that Covid had closed – as a fine Prospero in The Tempest. There was also a staging at The Tabernacle of Richard Norton’s Value Energy about the evidence given to the enquiry into the Grenfell fir. It was memorable theatre, a piece that challenged the audience to dare to applaud at the end. Silence was all that one could offer.
Of the ones the less said about the better – top of the list has to be Ian McKellan as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal , Windsor. It was not all his fault. The supporting cast were pretty frightful too.
But enough of the past – theatre going starts this week with a play at the Old Red Lion in Islington and slowly the invitations are coming in.
Cush Jumbo photograph: Helen Murray.

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